But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
For some time prior to this event, one of the splinter groups running around the church was a bunch colloquially called “The Circumcision Party,” though they were kind of like today’s Tea Party, a loose coalition who believe a set of things rather than a specific sect, strictly speaking. This particular group taught that you had to follow the Law as well as Christ, and that Gentiles would have to become practicing Jews first before they could become Christians.
But Peter’s (Cephas's) vision, reported in Acts 10:1-18 made it clear that the gospel was indeed to go in an unrestricted way into all the world. The Circumcision Party represented in germ form the worst of what Christianity became soon after 312 AD, traditionally the year Constantine converted to Christianity. What exactly it was that Constantine converted to is in question, but one thing is sure, it wasn’t Christ. The fact is that the faith as Jesus communicated it and as the Apostolic generation lived was is pretty much sunk the moment we began to call it ChristianITY.
In his excitingly dangerous book Mere Discipleship (Brazos Press, 2008), Lee C. Camp writes that there are “two different ways of construing ‘Christianity’: the Christendom reflex, in which Christianity is a ‘religion’; or an emphasis upon discipleship, in which Christianity is ‘the Way’ to be taken with deadly seriousness.”
Generations of Evangelical believers have intoned that “salvation is not because of our works,” and this is true. But the great failure of the Evangelical Movement has been precisely that we defined what it means to be a Christian via tightly prescribed doctrine, and therefore, very much by works. Oh, we told people that all they had to do to be saved was say the Sinner’s Prayer. But then we went on to insist that, “by their doctrine shall ye know them,” rather than “by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16, say Amen) And so the movement devolved into an internal war over doctrine rather than over whether Jesus really intended us to DO what he said and did. Your salvation does not depend on your works. But it very much depends on JESUS’ work. And if the life of the average believer does not look very much like the life of the one he or she claims as Master, the question has to be asked whether that person has experienced conversion in the smallest degree.
In saying this I do not in any way mean to apply some moral or character test to those who claim to believe. If I did, we’d all fail. But the “basics” of the Christian life turn out to be more about the agape love of God, about compassion, about faithfulness, about the poor, about meekness and gentleness, than about whether you had a quiet time today or went to Bible study last Thursday. Those globals, what Galatians goes on to call the Fruit of the Spirit, are the test of what you will never arrive at unless you know Christ and honor him in your heart and with your life.
What Peter and many of his contemporaries ran afoul of was the “hypocrisy” of a Christianity where discipleship separated being from doing. That kind of religion always ends in the Law, because it is so much easier to define what you are by rules and regulations, by making the most important thing what you know, or think you know about God, rather than making the most important thing the God you know.
And so, for the Circumcision Party, discipleship ended at the point of the mohel’s knife. For the church of the middle-ages discipleship ended when we compelled people to repent or face execution. For the church of the late 20th century, discipleship ended in a classroom the moment we took discipleship out of the streets and began to teach it from books. If you really want to be true to Galatians 2:20, if Christ is to live in you, he must live through you. Do you want to be crucified with Christ, or simply make sure your circumcision was done properly?