"I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." Galatians 2:21 NASB
Every religious system is, at its core, based on either works or grace. Any system that seeks to blend the two, however orthodox it may seem, is actually a system of works righteousness. Any mixing of the two nullifies the grace and exalts the works. Motives may seem pure, but the implications of mixing truth with error are far-reaching, with eternal consequences.
This verse is the conclusion of a confrontation. Beginning in verse 14 we are given what Paul publicly said to Peter, rebuking him for his hypocrisy in withdrawing fellowship from Gentile Christians whom he had previously accepted (v. 12; Acts 10:24-29). The ramifications of this seemingly-innocuous move were significant. As the most prominent leader in the community of believers, and headquartered in Jerusalem (the recognized center of the movement), Peter's actions were noted and emulated by many. His fear of men (v. 12c) led to the same discriminatory withdrawing by "the rest of the Jews" and "even Barnabas," (v. 13). This especially wounded Paul, since Barnabas had been the first to befriend and accept him, following his encounter with the living Christ on the Damascus road.
But much more was at stake than personal issues: the purity of the gospel of God's grace, and the efficacy of the cross of Christ. Paul understood then what desperately needs to be understood today-- any action, attitude, or lack of same that communicates works righteousness as an acceptable means of God's salvation dilutes the gospel and renders the Lord Jesus' blood atonement superfluous. Why would there be a need for satisfying God's holy wrath by becoming sin for sinners (II Corinthians 5:21), if sinners can be righteous before perfect God through good deeds?
Yet that is exactly what legalism involves. The emphasis is on doing, not being. Although the Judaizers of Paul's day claimed to be Christians, their "gospel" was: receive Christ, PLUS males must be circumcised, and everyone must follow the 613 laws set forth by the Jewish leaders, including all the dietary guidelines and prohibitions. It was works righteousness under the guise of grace terminology.
Today, the Roman Catholic belief system is the most prominent continuation of the Judaizers' perspective. Rather than the Old Testament law, however, it insidiously takes New Testament principles of grace and transforms them into means (works) for salvation. Such a sacramental system decimates the true grace gospel message, deceives millions into believing they are Christians, and renders the cross of Christ needless. The irony is that the crucifix is used so prolifically wherever Roman Catholicism is embraced, yet the system's theology actually negates the needed atonement depicted there.
"Father, thank You for the passion of the apostle Paul, his holy boldness to confront Peter in his error, regardless of the consequences. Thank You, too, for Paul's unwavering commitment to Your truth of grace in its purity, expressed by his flawless declarations. Grant grace that we, too, would speak the truth in love, setting forth Your message of sovereign grace and the absolute necessity of Your Son's blood atonement for salvation.
In His Name,