Overcoming the Fear of Man by Living in Line with the Truth of the Gospel
To whom will I give the power to define me as righteousness or unrighteous?
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THE BALANCE BEAM
I am in awe of gymnasts. The combination of flexibility, strength, and balance performed in a variety of elements make gymnastics one of the sports requiring the greatest degree of all-around skill for those who participate. If you doubt this, go to a gym and give an apparatus or two a shot. Try out the rings, uneven bars, or maybe the pommel horse. If you really want a challenge, hop on the balance beam, a non-padded sixteen foot long, four-inch wide piece of wood that is raised four feet off the ground.
Now, run along the beam, do a cartwheel, and land in the splits. For fun, add in a couple of backflips with a corkscrew dismount.
Olympic greats like Simone Biles, Shawn Johnson, and Shannon Miller make it look easy. But they will tell you, there is nothing easy about it. Walking, jumping, and flipping on a four-inch beam is difficult because it is unnatural. We are not used to maneuvering on such a narrow surface, much less performing acrobatics within those dimensions.
Professionals will tell you that it takes years and years of practice to execute skills on the balance beam. And with years of practice and competitive experience, even the very best fall off.
Just like the Apostle Peter.
While Peter wasn’t a gymnast, in Galatians 2:11-21, Paul describes a moment when Peter failed to act in line with the truth of the gospel and, like a gymnast on the balance beam, lost his gospel balance. If it can happen to an apostle, it can happen to you and me.
Essentially, to act or walk in line with the gospel is to live by grace. It is keeping my eyes of faith on the True North of the cross that keeps us balanced on the beam, enabling us to live a supernatural, God-empowered life of repentance, faith, and gospel-confidence, humility, and love. The degree to which I refuse to let the implications of the gospel affect my mind and heart is the degree to which I will fail to live in line with—consistently with—the truth of the gospel.
To boil it down (with a statement made popular by Tim Keller), we can say that the truth of the gospel says that I am more sinful and deserving of condemnation than I would ever be able to adequately admit, but that through the redemptive work of Jesus on my behalf, I am more forgiven, accepted, and loved than I could ever dare to dream. While my sinful condition is far worse than I think it is, the gospel is far better than I think it is. This is the balance that the cross provides.
Peter’s fall teaches us that living as recipients of gift-righteousness as our total identity is totally unnatural. Like we are not used to balancing on a 4-inch wooden beam, neither are we used to living by grace. The default of the flesh is to live by merit, where I earn my own righteousness, whether through morality, academic achievement, financial success, social media popularity, political victory, peer approval, or a thousand other ways we seek to feel righteous in ourselves. For Peter, the fear of losing peer approval caused him to take his eye off the cross, lose his gospel balance, and fall off the beam.
Because living by grace is unnatural, it takes practice. Just like gymnastics, it requires humility and teachability. Thankfully, it is not our balance that saves us but Jesus’ sacrifice for every fall we’ve ever made or will make. This gives us the freedom to confess our lack of balance, get back on the beam, and live by grace.
Before we turn to the text where Paul describes his awkward confrontation with Peter in Galatians 2, it will be helpful for us to review the context of the passage. The location of the conflict is the city of Antioch in Syria, about three hundred miles north of Jerusalem. While we are not sure why Peter was in Antioch, his presence as an apostle was a big deal.
If you remember, Peter was a Jew by ethnicity, which means he formerly had practiced Judaism according to the ceremonial and dietary laws prescribed in the Old Testament. Being Jewish had been Peter’s identity, keeping certain external religious observances was an important aspect of maintaining his reputation as “a good Jew.”
At some point, a delegation from Jerusalem sent by the Apostle James arrives in Antioch. This was a group was of Jews who, like Peter, had a background in Judaism but, also like Peter, had believed in Jesus as the Christ prophesied in the Old Testament. While the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem looked to Jesus as the Christ, they were having a hard time letting go of their Jewishness as a core part of their identity.
Paul calls this group from Jerusalem “the circumcision party,” because they believed that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be truly saved. For them, Jesus was supremely important. But at the same time, Jesus alone was not enough.
Before the Jerusalem delegation arrived, Peter had been enjoying fellowship with the Gentile believers in Antioch, affirming by his actions that salvation is through faith in Jesus alone, whether someone was a Jew or a non-Jewish Gentile. In so doing, he reveals what it looks like to walk in line with the truth of the gospel—the message that says we are saved through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. Then, this group from Jerusalem shows up causing Peter to lose his gospel balance.
Understanding what happened to Peter and how to learn from his experience will prove helpful for us. So, let’s take a look at Galatians 2:11-21 and learn what it will mean for us to live in line with the truth of the gospel.
11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not actingin line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
THE FEAR OF MAN
Christian counselor and author, Ed Welch, wrote a book called When People are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. This book was written for folks who encounter the kind of gospel challenge Peter faced. Would the opinion of God define his identity or would the opinions of his peers?
When the group from Jerusalem arrived, Peter had a decision to make. Would God be the judge of his righteousness or would a group of bearded legalists who probably hadn’t showered in a week? Verse 12 provides the answer, saying, “[Peter] was afraid of those in the circumcision group.”
The fear of man caused Peter to lose his gospel balance and fail to walk in line with the truth of the gospel. We can all relate to the fear of man, can’t we? It is that fear that turns us into chameleons who alter our behavior depending on the environment. Rather than live according to the truth of the gospel, we adapt to expectations placed upon us by others and make decisions based on what they will think of us. How we dress. What we order at a restaurant. To whom we talk to or avoid in the school cafeteria. What we say or don’t say on social media. How much of what we do and say is influenced by our fear of what others will say about or think of us?
What is the fix to living in fear? How can we learn to live with the freedom that walking in line with the truth of the gospel provides? We find our answer in verses 15-21, which is a mini-clinic of gospel coaching on how to overcome the fear of man and live by grace.
In Antioch, instead of finding his identity in Christ as a righteous son, Peter voluntarily gave other people the power to define his identity. Consequently, rather than a righteous son, Peter viewed himself as an unrighteous orphan who was willing to diss his Gentile friends in order to be accepted by the men from Jerusalem.
The root of Peter’s problem wasn’t primarily psychological. It was theological. To provide the fix Peter needs, Paul doesn’t appeal to a law for Peter to obey but to a doctrine for Peter to believe, saying in verse 16, “A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.”
The word justification is a legal, courtroom term describing someone who is found to be not guilty of the crime with which they were charged. Theologically, we say that when I am declared justified by God I am seen “just if I’d” kept the law perfectly, never having sinned.
Justification is not something we earn or deserve. It is a gift declaration of God that serves as the foundation for everything else in the Christian life. So important is this doctrine, Paul repeats it with emphasis, insisting, “by the works of the law no one will be justified.” No amount of ceremonial observances, religious practices, or moral obediences are able to offset the sinful offenses each human carries on our personal records before the law of God.
Augustus Toplady’s hymn, Rock of Ages, puts this truth in rhyme:
Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law's commands;
could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
Toplady’s hymn dovetails nicely with verses 19-21, which reveal practical steps for living a life of grace, where Paul speaks about dying to the law and being crucified with Christ.
For Paul, dying to the law is a way to say, “I’ve given up trying to save myself.” Being crucified with Christ is a way to say, “I believe my sins have been nailed to the cross.” In combination, these two phrases act like a white flag of personal surrender to grace. In verse 20, Paul expresses autobiographically what a life of surrender looks like: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
To live by faith is to trust that God counts me as a forgiven, accepted, beloved son or daughter, not because of my works for God, but because of Jesus’ works for me. In the gospel, my righteousness before God is not my righteousness. It is the righteousness of Jesus gifted to me that I have received through faith.
Therefore, faith is not primarily something emotional we feel. Faith is the objective lens through which we look and behold the truth of Jesus as my substitute in life and death. He is my Redeemer who bears the penalty for my sin and is my Righteousness who gives me my identity.
Faith grasps the substance of these theological realities and makes them personal. It is the connection of faith to truth that sparks emotion and satisfies the deep desires for acceptance for which every human longs. To this end, I want to suggest a few simple takeaways that I think will help you live in line with the truth of the gospel.
Be ruthless about finding your identity before God and the world in Jesus’ imputed gift-righteousness.
Give no one power to judge your righteousness other than God the Father.
Memorize and repeat Galatians 3:20 often.
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Will you believe that with me? Will you personalize the dying love of Jesus, who gave himself for you? If you will, let me encourage you to download this free resource that will help you grow in understanding and savoring God’s grace to you in Jesus.
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