In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul was addressing a problem - a problem that had much to do with his fellow missionary, Simon Peter. In Galatians 2:11, Paul said he withstood Peter to his face in Antioch because he was to be blamed. What was his offense? Jewish law forbade eating with the uncircumcised Gentiles, but Peter regularly ate with the Gentile Christians - except when there were other Jews around. When the Jews came around, not only Peter but also Barnabas "played the hypocrite with them" (see verse 13).
Now this may seem like it is of no consequence in our society, since most of us as Christians would have no problem breaking bread with a Jew. However, as we will see, it is of major consequence: even though the symptoms differ today, the problem remains. In the continuing discussion, Paul addresses the fact that we are justified by faith and not by works of the law. He calls trying to be justified by law a matter of "(building) again those things which I destroyed, thereby making myself a transgressor" (verse 18).
This problem is bigger than we think. Imagine yourself a Gentile in that day. You have heard that "we are all one in Christ Jesus," as Paul wrote to the Ephesians: "Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh - who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands - that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself ONE new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity" (Ephesians 2:11-16). There are many other Scriptures that say essentially the same thing.
A simplistic view
We would be too simplistic if we merely took these Scriptures to mean that we as Christians must accept Christian Jews as equals and treat them as such. Certainly it means that, but there is so much more. Paul is by no means through with his discussion on the topic. You see, the Jewish converts had a long-held view that they were better than other people and races in the world. They scornfully referred to the Gentiles as "the uncircumcised" in their conversations. Certainly the Gentiles were aware of this attitude of superiority on the part of the Jews. But when the Gentiles became Christians, they thought the attitudes would change, and they didn’t. They were talking the talk but not walking it out in practice.
Therefore Paul calls them hypocrites. Hypocrites see themselves as superior to others for one reason or another. It may be color of skin, or country of origin, or family prestige and pedigree, or the kind of car we drive, or the house we live in, or the cleanliness of our house, etc. All these examples, however, have one thing in common. It is all based on self-righteousness, which when you think about it, is no righteousness at all.
Sometimes I fear that we misuse this cherished verse. We use it to prove that we were crucified with Christ, and now "not I but Christ lives in me" - true. But the context is that Paul is dealing with the Galatian error described above and is dealing with self-righteousness.
How is self-righteousness accrued? It is accrued by meeting people’s expectations better than others we know, by living a more acceptable life style, by conforming to the norms of our society, our church, our home etc. Thus, when we ask ourselves whether or not we are good Christians, the common response is to look at performance - thoughts, choices, emotions, actions, and speech - and make a decision as to whether or not they qualify us as "good." We in effect judge ourselves by whether we have measured up to our internal and external standards - our law system. After all, this is what we have been working on all our life.
To this kind of system, which we use to judge ourselves and/or others, Paul says, "I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain" (Galatians 2:21).
Now we might think he is through with his discourse on the subject with what is already written here. But he has only finished the warm-up exercises. He is ready to blast the Galatians in the next chapter.
"O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?" I think we could paraphrase this to say, "Where are you getting your information? Have you gone to see a witch?"
"This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" In other words, "How did you become a Christian? Did you have to work at it? Clean up your thinking, choices, emotions, speech and action? Or did you accept the free gift of Christ Jesus Himself?" Of course the answer is implied.
"Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain - if indeed it was in vain?" This is asking the Galatians, "Once you become a Christian, do you think that you can become a better Christian by being circumcised? By not eating with the uncircumcised?"
In our day and age, do we now believe, or have we ever believed, that we could become better Christians, or even superior Christians, by reading our Bible more? Praying more? Witnessing more? Cleaning up our thought life? Cleaning up our speech on the golf course? Loving more? Could we become closer to God just by thinking of Him more? Attending church more often? Lying less? To all this Paul asks, "Who taught you these things? A witch? Where are you getting your information? Don’t be foolish. If you think that you are saved by faith and made perfect by works, you are stupid."
Only by faith
Faith does not mean here that if we have enough faith in God, we will become better Christians. Rather, it means that we have to accept by faith something God tells us in His word. Why? Because He has told us something is true about us in the invisible part of us, i.e. in our spirit. He has told us that, when we accepted Christ, He deposited in our spirit as a gift the righteousness of God. (See Romans 5:17, Philippians 3:9, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 2:21). Now do you notice that, although in Galatians 2:21 God uses the word "righteousness," in 3:3 He uses the word "perfect"? You see, the righteousness of God is the perfection of God. God deposited in us His own perfection for our perfection!
But you say, "I’m not sinlessly perfect." That is true. Your perfection does not come through perfect behavior. But that, my friend, is the difference between law and grace. If you had not died with Christ, you would still be under a law system; you could work on your behavior for the rest of your life to become perfect - but you would never succeed. But under grace, perfection is not earned! It was given to you as a gift. That is what evens the playing field. Being a good Christian no longer depends on what you do, it depends on what you have! Therefore there is no longer a debate about who is a better Christian—one who prays before he eats, or one who prays before he puts gas in his car. We are one in Christ. His righteousness in me is equal to His righteousness in you, and vice versa, regardless of our respective behavior. There is no room for pride except in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:31). When He gave you His righteousness, He gave you His perfection, and now you are the righteousness (perfection) of God in Christ Jesus.
Are you familiar with Hebrews 10:14? No? Well, you will be now. "He has perfected forever those who are sanctified." You are perfect for all time. Now please don’t say that this is only true in God’s sight! It better also be true in yours, or you will be committing the Galatian error for the rest of your earthly life!