“We Did Not Give in to Them:” Why Unity Must be Based on Truth
May 20, 2001
I want to begin by calling your attention to the most important verse in our passage—verse 5, which reads, “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” If you didn’t know anything else about the background of that statement, two things would be apparent even without further information:
1) Paul had backbone. He was in a battle with someone over the gospel, and he would not give in to them under any circumstances. Just for the moment, we don’t need to know whom Paul was fighting in this verse. The major fact is, he would not give in, not an inch, not even for a moment.
2) Where the gospel was concerned, Paul would not compromise. It wasn’t a personal issue with him, not a matter of personal honor. And not a matter of purely personal opinion. For Paul, the gospel was the most important thing in the world. He knew that if he gave in to the false teachers, it would hurt the new believers in Galatia.
A Hill to Die On
Many years ago I made the acquaintance of a man named Dennis Baker. I met him during the period when I lived in Texas and was considering what God wanted me to do next. Through a series of events, God led me to meet Dennis Baker who was then living in California. For some reason he befriended me and gave me some excellent advice. He knew pastors and churches all over America and was often called to help churches in their pastoral search process. During the time I was talking to the pulpit committee at Calvary (and with other churches as well), he and I had several very helpful phone conversations. One day he mentioned a pastor in Southern California who was having trouble in his church. Dennis discussed the situation and then made an astute comment that applies to all of life: “Not every hill is worth dying on. Sometimes pastors decide to fight for a hill that isn’t worth defending.” Then he added something like this: “One of the keys to a successful ministry is knowing which hills really matter. You can give up a lot of territory and still win if you know which hills to fight for.”
That’s good military strategy and it’s also good advice for every part of life. Not all hills are equal, some are larger and more strategic. Make sure you pick the right hill to fight on. And when you find the right hill, stand and fight with all you’ve got.
If you want the meaning of my text, here it is: For Paul, the gospel was a hill to fight for and die on. He would gladly give ground on lesser matters, but on the gospel itself, he would not give an inch. The background of the text is very simple: Paul had established churches in the Gentile region of Galatia in modern-day Turkey. After he left, some “false brothers” who claimed to be from Jerusalem came to Galatia and began undermining all that Paul had worked for. They confused these new Gentile Christians by attacking Paul’s apostleship and also by telling the Galatians that they needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. When Paul heard that the Galatians were being swayed by these “false brothers,” he sat down and wrote a short, passionate, emergency letter called the Epistle to the Galatians. In his mind, this was a hill to die on.
Summit Meeting in Jerusalem
Our text tells of a visit Paul, Barnabas and Titus made to Jerusalem to meet privately with James and Peter and John—the top three apostles. After discussion, the Jerusalem apostles affirmed that Paul was indeed preaching the gospel, and that Titus, who was a Greek convert, did not need to be circumcised (see verse 3). This was a huge victory for the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone apart from the works of the law. In verse 4 Paul says the problem was caused by certain false brothers who had infiltrated the church with the goal of destroying Christian liberty and leading the church back into the slavery of living by the rules of the law. These are the people Paul was referring to when he said, “We did not give in to them for a moment.”
The whole debate came down to this: Do you have to be circumcised to be saved? Part of our problem with this passage is that this isn’t a hot controversy today. In the first century, this was the Number One issue the church faced as it expanded out of Judaism into the Gentile world. We have a hard time understanding the issue because we simply don’t think about circumcision in the same terms. I’ve been a pastor for nearly 25 years, and in that time, I’ve been asked thousands of questions, but no one has ever asked me, “Pastor Ray, is circumcision necessary for salvation?”
Why the Fuss About Circumcision?
Here are a series of statements that may help us understand why this issue was so controversial in the first century:
1) Circumcision was commanded by God in the Old Testament.
2) It was a mark of holiness that set Jewish males apart as holy unto the Lord.
3) It was the mark of the covenant.
4) It was the doorway to the whole law.
5) Circumcision was a physical sign that a man belonged to God—body, soul and spirit.
6) It was meant to remind him in his most personal and intimate moments that he was not his own, he was bought with a price, and that he must glorify God with every part of his body.
7) With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why the Jewish believers thought the Gentile converts ought to be circumcised. Surely this would be a good thing to do.
8) Paul’s attitude is stated clearly in Galatians 6:14-15, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” For Paul, the only thing that mattered was preaching the cross so that sinners could be saved through Christ. If you want to be circumcised, fine. If not, that’s fine, too.
9) To make matters even more confusing, in Acts 16:3 Paul even had Timothy circumcised.
So why does Paul make such a big deal about circumcision among the Galatian believers if in the end, it doesn’t matter one way or the other? Answer: Because these false teachers were adding circumcision to the gospel and making it necessary for salvation. That’s heresy, it’s a perversion of the gospel of grace. And Paul says, “This is a hill I will fight for and die on.”
The Rest of the Passage
The rest of the passage is really quite simple. In verse 6 Paul says of his meeting with Peter, James and John, “We stand on the same ground.” In verses 7-8, he says, “We preach the same message.” Peter is an apostle to the Jews, Paul to the Gentiles, but the gospel they preach is precisely the same. In verse 9 he says, “We share the same fellowship.” It is based on a recognition of the grace of God at work in and through Paul. At the conclusion of their meeting, the apostles at Jerusalem gave him the “right hand of fellowship,” which basically means, “Don’t let those false teachers bother you too much. Just keep on preaching the gospel and winning the lost. That’s the main thing.” In verse 10 he said, “We have the same compassion for the poor in Jerusalem.”
That’s the whole passage in a nutshell. John Stott wryly observes that many people might read these verses and find them to be ancient religious rigmarole. After all, very few of us worry about circumcision as a condition of salvation. It all seems very old-fashioned and outdated.
The Pope Prays in a Mosque
But underneath this ancient controversy is a truth we need to ponder. This is really a passage about the importance of unity in the body of Christ. In this case Paul is saying that unity must be based on the truth, especially the truth of the gospel. Where the gospel is at stake, we cannot give in to anyone. We must stand for the gospel, we must preach the gospel, and if necessary, we must fight against those who pervert the gospel in the church.
This week someone asked me what I thought about the Pope praying in a Muslim mosque during his recent trip to Syria. I confess that while I had read about his trip, I hadn’t studied the details. Context makes a huge difference in discussing a question like this. On the one hand, if they went to a mosque and the Pope prayed his prayer and the Muslim cleric prayed his prayer, and they both went their separate ways, it probably doesn’t amount to much one way or the other. But if the intent was to say, “There really isn’t much difference between Christianity and Islam, and after all, we’re praying to the same God, and if you think about it, our religions are a lot alike, and these are just two paths that lead up the mountain into God’s presence,” if that was the purpose, then it was wrong. Context matters a great deal. Without knowing all the details, I would imagine that the Pope did what he did simply as a gesture of goodwill in the hope of defusing tensions in the Middle East. Certainly defusing tension is a noble cause and I join in praying for an end to violence in that troubled region of the world. But the larger question remains unanswered. Why would a Christian leader and a Muslim cleric join together in a prayer service?
These issues are important because we live in a touchy-feely age that values emotion above reason and tolerance above truth. Our generation is very uncomfortable with the notion that there is a God who has spoken, and that what He has said is the absolute truth. And we certainly don’t like it when anyone dares proclaim the words of Jesus in John 14;6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s far too narrow-minded and exclusive for our taste. The only problem is, that’s in the Bible. We have to tell the truth.
Sandy Rios and the “Jewish Atheist”
On Thursday afternoon I did a radio interview with Sandy Rios on WYLL. To set up our discussion, she played a snippet from an interview from the day before where she interviewed a certain renowned psychologist who calls himself a “Jewish atheist.” When he heard that Sandy was an evangelical Christian, he wanted to know if she believed he was going to hell. Sandy replied along the lines of, “It’s not my opinion that counts; it’s what God says.” But he wouldn’t let her off the hook. He went on the attack, asking her if she believed that in spite of his good works, he was going to hell because he didn’t believe in Jesus. That’s when Sandy quoted John 14:6. “This is what Jesus said.” But, he asked, is that what you believe? I know what the Bible says. But do you believe it is true? “Yes, I do,” she replied. He actually sounded relieved. “Good, at least you’re owning up to what you really believe, which is the fact that despite my good works, I am going to hell.” And they went on and had a decent interview on another topic.
As I pondered that later, two thoughts came to my mind: 1) Obviously, that man had heard the gospel many times before, and he understood the truth, even though he rejected it. 2) He wanted Sandy as a Christian to own up to her beliefs. Once she did, they had a good conversation.
The Unvarnished Truth
I find that very instructive for us to consider. We might as well tell people the unvarnished truth. The gospel is Good News, but it is not Good News for those who reject it. If you choose not to believe in Jesus, the same gospel that would have saved you will damn you. We don’t do lost people any favors by papering over the hard truth about sin, righteousness and judgment. The gospel is much more than a feel-good message about God’s love. It is also a solemn message that Jesus is the only way to God and apart from him there is no salvation.
This is a hill to die on. We must not give in to those who would change or water down or amend the gospel of God’s free grace in any way whatsoever. In my first message in this series, I commented that no doctrine is more difficult to accept than the doctrine of the free grace of God. It tells us that we are in terrible trouble because of our sin. It declares that we are so sinful that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. It announces that God has done something about our helpless condition. He came to the earth in the Person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who perfectly kept the law, lived a sinless life, was convicted of crimes he did not commit, died a bloody death on the cross, taking our sin, dying in our place, bearing our load, standing in our stead, the just dying for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. On the third day he rose from the dead. Later he ascended into heaven where he now sits at the right hand of God the Father. One day he will return to the earth to set up his kingdom. God’s grace is centered in the objective historical reality of what Jesus accomplished when he came to earth on our behalf.
Grace forces us to humble ourselves and admit that there is no amount of moral reformation that can save us, no baptism however administered that can wash away our sins, no good works of any kind that can add anything at all to the value of the finished work of Jesus Christ.
The question comes down to this: Are we saved by what we do or by what Jesus has done for us? It’s very hard for any of us to admit that we’re in such bad shape that only God can rescue us. But that’s what grace is all about.
Two Important Conclusions
Let me expand on what I said earlier about unity. Unity is based on the truth of the gospel of God’s free grace. Where that truth is denied, there can be no unity. When the Pope prayed with the Muslim cleric, there were two religious leaders in that mosque but by definition there was no unity. Can two walk together unless they be agreed?
I draw two important conclusions from all that I have said:
1) Unity matters, and because it matters, we must stand for the truth of the gospel. This comes from verses 1-5 of our text. Paul would not give in to the Judaizers, not even for a moment, in order that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for the Gentile believers. I’m glad he didn’t compromise because I’m a Gentile, too. Thank you, Paul, for having the courage to stand for the truth. Thank you for finding the right hill to fight on.
2) Where the gospel is preached, we have the basis for true Christian unity even though we may differ on lesser issues. This comes from verses 6-10 where Paul keeps repeating the basic unity that exists between him and the Jerusalem apostles even though Peter preached to the Jews and he preached to the Gentiles. Certainly we need this emphasis today. Our doctrine ought to be as narrow as the New Testament, and our fellowship ought to be as wide as the whole body of Christ. It has been my joy over the last 12 years to see God expand my own horizons in this area. I have discovered to my delight that God has his people scattered in some very unusual places. And I have learned that there are many different ways to worship God in spirit and in truth. I learned to do a little worship dance at the YWAM base in Belize. I stood with John Sergey and observed a Greek Orthodox liturgy in St. Petersburg, Russia. I clapped and cheered with enthusiastic Haitian believers during an evangelistic campaign. I have preached in an evangelical church on the banks of the Volga River and joined in worship with the King of Kings church, a Messianic, charismatic congregation that meets at the YMCA in Jerusalem.
The Gospel is for Everyone
Romans 1:16 is very helpful in this regard: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (KJV). The last phrase introduces the universal dimension of the gospel. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Although most of the Jews have not become followers of Christ, the gospel still has the power to save them if they will only believe. The “Greeks” were the Gentiles, that is, all non-Jews. No wonder Paul was not ashamed. The gospel has the power to save people without regard to the distinctions that divide us. It has the power to save without regard to:
he Temple of the Gospel
This truth was driven home to me some years ago when Marlene and I attended the dedication services for the Temple of the Gospel in St. Petersburg, Russia. It turned out to be the most ecumenical event (in the good sense) I have ever attended. Pastor Sergei Nikolaev has an amazing ability to attract support from across denominational lines. There were Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Independents and Evangelical Christians, and others whose denominational affiliation was hard to pin down. There were visitors from Korea, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, America, the Baltic republics, the Ukraine, and Belarus. People came from all over Russia, including representatives from the national TV network.
On Sunday morning we dedicated the building in a marathon four-hour service attended by almost 1500 people. I’ll never forget the prayer of dedication. There were 12 of us (plus Pastor Nikolaev) spread out around the sanctuary—three across the front, four on one side of the balcony, four on the other side, and two across the back. When the time came to pray, we stood, stretched out our hands toward heaven, and prayed one by one—in 12 different languages! There was Russian, Belarus, Ukrainian, Korean, Swahili, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, English, and one other language I can’t remember right now. (I had the honor of offering the prayer in English.)
What an amazing moment—to pray together in so many different languages. Although I couldn’t understand any of the other prayers, I knew exactly what was being said. It was a demonstration of the universal power of the gospel to reach across the barriers of race, language, culture and geography. I learned from this when you stand firm in the gospel, it actually gives you a proper foundation for a broad fellowship in the body of Christ. Sometimes we are tempted to “soften” the gospel in order to broaden our fellowship, but the reverse is closer to the truth. When we are firm on the gospel, we can have joyful fellowship with God’s people from many different backgrounds.
“Together With God” in 1929
I close with one final story. This week I received a letter from Betty Grosser. She and her late husband Ed were married at our church in 1938. Back then it was called the Madison Street Church. Ed’s parents were among the founding members of our congregation in 1915. She was cleaning out some drawers and came across some very old missionary pictures and sent them to me. She included a copy of the theme song of the youth group from the 1930s. It’s called the “Madison Street Victory Song.” She also included a church newsletter from August, 1929 called “Together With God.” It says under the title “Rev. R. J. Devine, Pastor” and “E. L. Kinlock, Missionary editor.” I was struck to read the reports from the various missionaries. Myrtle Zaffke wrote about a man and his wife in Africa who had come to Christ and were experiencing great persecution. Fred Stettler writes about great interest among the Jews of Poland in the gospel. Leona Ross writes from Hong Kong and Herbert Peaslee from Honduras. All speak of open doors for the gospel amid great opposition and difficulty. I was touched to realize that as far as I know, every one of those faithful missionaries is now in heaven. It was a powerful reminder of the heritage God has given us. Betty ended her letter with these words: “It’s a real blessing to see Calvary still growing, still reaching out to the unsaved, still sending missionaries, and still trusting God to lead and use his people.”
I am encouraged when I think of the great heritage that has been passed down to us. Our church was founded by people who believed in the gospel of the grace of God. With God’s help, we intend to pass the torch along to the next generation, with the flame of the gospel burning brighter than ever. May our unity be built on truth, may we never be ashamed of the gospel, and may our love for all of God’s blood-bought children whoever they are and wherever they are abound more and more in the days ahead. Let God’s truth be our truth. And let our hearts embrace all God’s children in love and Christian fellowship. Amen.