Gospel Consistency

An Ambition to Keep Our Conduct in Step with the Gospel

Bethlehem 2017 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders | Minneapolis

My assignment is to address the theme of Gospel Consistency: An Ambition to Keep Our Conduct in Step with the Gospel. In his letter of invitation, my brother Jason took his inspiration from Galatians 2:14, which reads:

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?”

When you see that phrase right there in the beginning of verse 14 — “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” — obviously, in the apostle’s mind, the truth of the gospel was meant to walk hand in hand with a certain conduct, a manner of life.

Verse 14 is really the punchline, or conclusion, to this section of his personal history, where, as Mark said, he is defending his apostolic credentials. The question asked is, “What was their conduct and what is the truth of the gospel they abandoned?” What I hope to do in my time is expound Galatians 2:1–14 under that theme of gospel consistency. In particular, with God’s help, I’d like to raise six gospel or gospel-related truths we must understand, hold, and apply if we would keep in step with the gospel. Let’s pray and then we’ll read God’s word.

Paul’s Accepted Apostleship and Confrontation of Peter

Galatians 2:1–14 says:

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in — who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery — to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.

On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

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?”

If we are going to have conduct in step with the gospel, if that’s our ambition, if that’s our driving desire, if that’s the aim and the goal and the purpose of our lives — to so walk hand in hand with the gospel — then we’re going to have to know something about the truths of the gospel.

Six Truths for Keeping in Step with the Gospel

These six truths, I want to give you to move from what Mark was talking about in terms of the apostolic content of the gospel itself outward toward the life that the gospel produces in those who really lay hold to it.

1. The Apostolic Gospel

The first thing we want to be consistent with is the apostolic gospel. To walk with the gospel, we must be consistent with the apostle’s gospel. The apostles of our Lord determine and authenticate the content of our Lord’s gospel. That’s why Paul goes up to Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1–2. He wanted to find out, he says there, whether he had “run in vain.” That’s one way of asking whether the gospel he preached was consistent with the gospel preached by the apostles of the church.

Now, beloved, if this is a question in the apostle Paul’s mind, it had better be a question in our minds too. Whether or not we have the gospel correct can never be taken for granted. Does the gospel we preach match the gospel the apostles preached? That needs to be asked and answered in every minister’s mind. You have to solve that because something extraordinary happened to Paul.

He says in Galatians 2 that he received the gospel by a revelation from Christ. We saw early in Galatians 1:11–12 that he says:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

For three years, Paul held that gospel without confirmation from the apostles. We see that in Galatians 1:15–18. But here’s the remarkable thing. Though he received it by divine revelation and though he had been preaching it for three years, he does not rest his authority on his own personal experience. He does not leave the question of the gospel consistency with his sole experience and judgment. What a remarkable act of humility.

He appeals at the end of chapter one to the churches who knew the same gospel that he had preached, and he goes to Jerusalem in the beginning of chapter two to subject a revelation from God to the authenticating witness of the elders and the apostles in the church in Jerusalem. If Paul’s gospel is another gospel, then by Paul’s own words, as Mark demonstrated from Galatians 1:9, he should be accursed.

The messenger is not greater than the message. The message judges the messenger and the legitimacy of his ministry. In fact, the legitimacy of the churches that he planted depended upon the consistency of his message with that of the apostles. Beloved, if someone tells us that we have the gospel wrong, we should listen. But if they fail to take us to the apostle’s gospel, we should stop listening. We want to preach what was preached from the first days of Christ’s ministry through his apostles and has been preserved for us in his word.

Gospel Stewardship

Notice the response of the churches in Galatians 2:7 and Galatians 2:9, regarding Paul’s visit there. Number one, they recognized Paul’s gospel stewardship in Galatians 2:7, as he says, “When they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised . . .” They heard in Paul’s message the very message that they had received from Jesus himself.

Number two, they recognize the legitimacy of ethnic-specific gospel mission. You see it there in Galatians 2:7 as well. He was “entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised.” There is a gospel division of labor according to ethnic targets, if you will.

Yet, third, they recognize that the same God is at work in all of their ministries. Look at Galatians 2:8. It says:

For he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles . . .

And that includes a fourth recognition. They recognize Paul’s apostolic ministry, don’t they? He refers to his own apostolic calling to the uncircumcised.

Fifth, they recognized their mutual fellowship in this same gospel. Galatians 2:9 says:

When James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

Now these five recognitions not only authenticate Paul’s gospel and ministry, but they also provide a good test for ministers today, don’t they? We can turn these into a set of questions for ourselves. We might ask:

  • Do other gospel preachers confirm that we preach the apostolic gospel?
  • Is there a gospel church or a denomination affirming our mission to a particular church or people?
  • Do other gospel preachers and churches discern God’s work in our lives?
  • Has a gospel church or denomination ordained us to gospel ministry, or are we lone ranger ministers set out because we have a calling that we refuse, unlike Paul, to subject to anyone else?
  • Do other gospel preachers and churches receive us into fellowship with themselves?

Beloved, we are not merely preachers, period. We are, if we are consistent, preachers of the apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ.

Him We Proclaim

We proclaim him crucified on the cross as an atonement for sins, substituting himself lovingly and willingly in the place of the sinners to endure the holy and righteous wrath of God against the world because of our sins, satisfying God’s anger toward all those who turn to him, the crucified and resurrected Lord, and acknowledge him as Lord, as God, and as Savior, and who take upon them his yolk and follow him in the obedience that comes from faith, repenting of sin and serving him.

The promise of the gospel is that all who repent of their sins and trust in Christ as Lord, who receive him as he offers himself in the gospel, are forgiven of sins, adopted into God’s family, made new creations, promised an eternal home in heaven with God, which will be their highest happiness to see his glory and sing his glory, being transformed to share in and delight in his glory. They have the promise of a home beyond this one, more permanent than this world, whose pleasures and joys in God are unshakable and untakeable. This is what the apostles preached in summary, and this is what we must be consistent with, this same proclamation of good news.

Beloved, if you’re here today and you’re not yet a Christian, perhaps you came with your family and you’re quietly in a Christian home, not necessarily rebelling against the gospel, or maybe quietly in your heart gritting your teeth every time you hear the gospel you, but you know that you’re not yet a Christian, God calls you this day to come out of the pretensions and hiding and to receive the free offer of his love in Christ the Lord. Or maybe, as Mark said earlier, you are working here and you’re hearing this word gospel over and over again. Beloved, it just means good news.

The good news is this. Though God is angry with you because of your sin, God has purposed to save you from himself, from his judgment against sin by the sacrifice of his Son and the resurrection of his Son, so that he has purposed to make you new in his Son Jesus Christ, that you might come away from his wrath into his love and grace and glory, and might have a share in it forevermore. He offers that to you freely. Receive it, believe it, and trust in Christ. If we want to have an ambition to keep in step with the gospel we have to begin with the gospel itself.

2. The Sufficiency of the Cross

Secondly, we have to be consistent with the sufficiency of the cross, not just the apostolic content of the gospel, but also the sufficiency of the cross work of Christ himself.

Notice what Paul says in Galatians 2:3:

But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.

That just seems like so much background or throwaway information, but there’s an important theological debate raging beneath this sentence. The question was this: “Must gentiles keep the law, particularly circumcision, in order to be a part of the new covenant community?” Or to put it another way, “Can Gentiles be saved?” It’s a very question that’s raised in Acts 15:1, and Acts 15:5 has this peculiar phrase there. It says there were some believers there in the church who were of the Pharisees party. Did you know some Pharisees were saved and in the church? And they’re in your church too.

They were adding circumcision to the gospel, and there are some corollary questions that go together with this big, important theological question. How Jewish must the Gentiles become in order to be in the New Covenant community, or should Jews continue to socially separate themselves from Gentiles who profess faith in Christ? Should churches then be segregated along ethnic lines? I trust you see the relevance of this ancient debate for our own day and our own churches.

Don’t miss this. This debate is also very personal. How do you think Titus felt about this debate? Titus labors with Paul. He commits himself to the gospel and the Christian faith. He risked his life along with Paul and they are going back to Jerusalem and back to the temple. Wherever they were having these debates, he was risking himself even in going to Jerusalem as an uncircumcised Gentile. And they’re debating in front of him whether or not he can be saved and whether or not he can be a part of the worshiping community. For Titus, this is not a procedural debate about church membership practices; it’s about his person.

The debate determines whether his personhood will be fully acknowledged and the value of his soul confirmed by others. Titus stands there representing not only himself but all of the Greek people of the world. Indeed, Titus stands there as an exemplar of all Gentiles. I don’t know if you know what it’s like to be the only one.

Titus is the only one. Titus is standing there no doubt feeling that the prejudices that are attaching themselves to this question of the sufficiency of the cross are not abstract, but personally felt. That prejudice has a face, and it’s his; that prejudice is played out in the real lives of actual persons adding to the gospel motivated by cultural exclusivity and pride. It is not, beloved, a victimless crime; it impacts people. How the early church answers the question of Titus’s inclusion determines whether they would be a true church consistent with God’s work in Jesus Christ or whether they would be a false church denying the gospel of our Lord.

The Gospel for All People

So, when Paul writes here, “even Titus was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (Galatians 2:3), it means the church decided to add nothing to the finished work of Jesus Christ. They decided that Jesus in his mediatorial offices of prophet, priest, and king was sufficient for Titus’s salvation and inclusion. They decided that Christ’s active and passive obedience were enough for the Greek man’s righteousness before God. They decided that Jesus paid it all when he died on the cross as a substitute for Titus’s sin and rose from the grave for his justification. Because Jesus paid it all, Gentiles owe nothing. They decided that to add anything to the cross was to lose everything purchased by the cross. That’s Paul’s argument in Galatians 5:2–6.

Flip over there with me as we read those verses. Paul is continuing to beseech the Galatians not the turn away from the gospel. He says:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision (these are devastating words), Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law (more devastating words). You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Gospel consistency requires adding nothing to the cross, but finding the cross work of Christ sufficient for the salvation and the inclusion of the nations in the New Covenant church. It requires only repentance and faith.

We must recognize, beloved, that the evangelical church begins at its birth by arriving in part at the opposite conclusion to the question that the apostles considered. It did not do it by adding circumcision to the cross; they did it by subtracting from the cross inclusion of the nations in common fellowship in the gospel. You can read, for example, the raging debates in Virginia. I say raging, but there wasn’t really much of a debate.

It’s a great book called The Baptism of Early Virginia, which looks at the question of the development of racial attitudes and racism in Virginia, particularly the church’s part in it. Look at how the church reasoned that those African slaves who professed faith in Christ and were baptized in profession of their Christ, though they were Christians they were not to be free. They were not to be brothers and sisters who enjoyed full communion fellowship in the church. It’s right at the birth of the institution, right at the birth at the start.

So, we must confess that too many people are ignorant of this original evangelical sin, that too many know it but do not wish to face it. Too many have sound enough doctoral statements but a shallow practice of the implications. Too many even offered defenses of this error. As a consequence, too many are not in step with the gospel. They in fact deny the gospel at this point. It’s questionable whether they are even apostolic churches since they add to the apostolic gospel or refuse to accept what the apostles accepted. If we would keep in step with the gospel and have conduct in keeping with the gospel, we must embrace this sufficiency of the cross work of Christ for including all nations in his body and his church.

3. The Freedom We Have in Christ

This brings us to a third thing. We must be consistent then with that freedom in Christ, that Christ purchases for us. We see that in Galatians 2:4–5:

Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in — who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery . . .

Paul has an interesting perspective on humanity before and after Christ running through the Book of Galatians. Before people are brought to Christ, Paul teaches us here, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we were all slaves. Look over at Galatians 4:3. Paul says there, “When we were children” — and this is a metaphor for not yet coming to Christ and being grown up in Christ — “we were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” That’s a phrase Paul uses in Colossians 2:8 to refer to the basic building blocks of the world, the ABCs of the world’s system, if you will. It enslaved us.

Not only that, but before Christ, we were slaves to idolatry. Look at Galatians 4:8, which says:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.

There’s only one true and living God, the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the maker of heaven and earth, the fashioner of humanity, the one who breathes out life into us. He is the only God, and all other gods are false gods. And according to 1 Corinthians 8:4, they are animated by Satan. They are not by nature gods made of wood and stone and so on, and yet they enslave. But in Christ, we find freedom. Galatians 4:9 says:

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God (I wish we could camp out on that), how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

Do you see, beloved? We are known by God, we were foreknown by God and predestined by God and chosen by God, and we have been loved by God in Christ, and God in his infinite love in Christ has set us free from all the enslavement of the world and of false gods. This may seem a small thing to you if you know nothing about slavery. This may seem quaint if you think slavery was kind of bad but basically okay. But to be set free and to know genuine liberty is a tremendous and precious thing. God has freed us.

I know the enslaving grip of idolatry as a former Muslim. I know the capturing iron shackles of living for pleasures in this world, seeing that the pleasures fail you and yet unable to deny the pursuit of those pleasures. We were slaves to the world. Yet Christ, by the gospel, accepted us and broke into our lives and changed our minds and gave us new hearts and raised us from the slavery of death in sin and made us alive together in Christ, and we awoke to this liberty. It comes from Christ. We were set free from our captors, emancipated from sin, able to rule in God’s creation rightly, as subjects of Christ. But the freedom of the gospel, which is implied in Galatians 2:4 can be taken away. These false brothers apparently do not like the freedom that they see in the church.

Opposing Freedom

Do you notice there are Christians who don’t like freedom? They’re suspicious of it. They don’t trust you with it. They think, “You might hurt yourself; let me give you a little law.” They give themselves, not to the articulation of a more robust understanding of the freedom that Christ creates for us and liberates us into, nor to a more careful articulation of how to enjoy it rightly before God, but rather these false brethren give themselves to taking it away.

I don’t know how many of you saw the movie 12 Years of Slave or read the book by Solomon Northup, this freeborn African American living in Philadelphia or someplace north was lured under false pretenses to an event where he was to play the violin. He was an accomplished musician. And instead, he was caught and shackled and put in a hole and sold into slavery down South, where for 12 years though he was free, he was now enslaved.

This is what these false teachers do. They take people captive, and they do it by doing the opposite of the apostles by adding to the gospel. The rhetorical question of Galatians 4:9 teaches us that turning back to the elementary principles of the world is crazy when you have tasted the freedom that is in Christ. So, let me say this, gospel preaching aims to liberate men and women, boys and girls from their slavery to the world and to idols. Gospel preaching must aim not only to liberate but to keep the Christian free.

I love the story of Harriet Tubman, a great conductor of the Underground Railroad, who made so many trips back down South to free African Americans from bondage. It’s often said that she would sometimes have a group of folks following her on the railroad and some slave or two might get nervous or afraid and say, “I’m going back.” It’s no different than Israel spiritually wanting to go back to Egypt. The story is told that Harriet Tubman, Bible in one hand and pistol in the other, put the gun to his head and said, “Fool, you will be free tonight or dead.” Not sure I can sanctify that entirely, but the gospel preacher is doing something like that.

You are keeping people free in the repeated proclamation of the gospel, in the explication of the gospel, not the truncation of it, but the unpacking and the unfurling and the fuller display of the riches of Christ. You are liberating people. So, freedom then is a gospel-produced condition and blessing that must be maintained and guarded. This is why Paul says in Galatians 2:5, “To them we did not yield in submission for even a moment.” Because failure to defend Christian liberty only results in our personal re-enslavement.

Preservation of the Truth

Also, look at the end of Galatians 2:5. It’s a loss of the gospel itself. Why did they not yield? He says, “So that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” The furtherance of the gospel and the freedom it produces depends on a stout defense of both the gospel itself and the freedom that comes along with him. This is what makes Mark’s point about being courageous and stout-hearted in the face of controversy all the more important. I wish we had time, but I’ll just give these to you as a reference. Paul uses that same phrase, “the elementary principles of the world,” over in Colossians 2:8. He says:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

He enjoins the church to defend their freedom, and then he explains that there are two ways in which that freedom may be given up or taken. It may be given up if you submit to religious judgmentalism, independent of the gospel, or if you submit to an aestheticism which is powerless to subdue the flesh.

He talks about that judgmentalism in Colossians 2:16–19, and he talks about the weakness of aestheticism in verses Colossians 2:20–23. Consider those later if you will, but that’s part of the blueprint for preserving this freedom. We want a growth that comes from God in the gospel, but we don’t want to shackle one another and start to limp with the gospel.

4. The Need for Impartiality

A fourth thing we need to be consistent with the gospel is to live in impartiality. Look with me at Galatians 2:6:

And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.

It’s funny. We may find ourselves reading this verse and assuming a certain snarky, uppity attitude from Paul — “those who seem to be influential (what they are makes no difference to me) . . .” But I think a better way to understand Paul’s attitude here might be that Paul is simply stating that he does not fear man. He is not exalting man. He’s assuming that there really is level ground at the foot of the cross. He’s expressing a genuine, gospel-produced equality. The apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly preached and applied, requires that we regard one another without partiality.

To support that, turn with me to James 2:1–9. James writes:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

Showing partiality, beloved, is sin. Partiality makes distinctions between the brethren and judges, James says here (James 2:4), with evil thoughts. James uses the example of dividing the rich and the poor and showing preference for the rich. Partiality is a sin precisely because it breaks what James calls “the royal law” of love for neighbor (James 2:8–9). So, when we come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, we receive the calling to treat each person as equal in love. That’s James’s argument. That’s the Bible’s argument.

Someone once said that the defect with equality is that no one wants to be equal with their inferiors. In other words, we’re all sinfully partial to our superiors. We only want to move up. We’re all singing like the Jeffersons, “Moving on up.” We don’t want to move down when it comes to establishing equality. We don’t want others to pass us by.

Our Preference for Status

We prefer status, whether that’s wealth in James 2, or whether that’s the office in the church in Galatians 2. That preference for superiority is why Paul may sound snarky to us back in Galatians 2:6. That’s why he may sound to us as if he’s dissing the other apostles. We implicitly think that there are bosses and ballers and shot callers, even in the church. We all tend to view equality as a matter of going up in the world. We all tend to think of becoming something as the answer to our inequality, but Paul recognizes that the gospel brings us all down. The gospel has no concern for the promotion of men and their reputations. The gospel is not concerned with hierarchy and social status.

Why? Paul tells us there by saying, “God shows no partiality.” God is no respecter of persons. That’s the glorious truth about our God. He does not play favorites. He does not share any of our prejudices. God the Father has an impeccable indifference toward men and their egos, and the plain inference of the apostle is that we should be like God: impartial in our dealings with each other. The gospel of the kingdom pushes us down before it lifts us up in Christ.

Beloved, this makes self-emptying the quickest and shortest way to Christian equality. A person who’s full of himself will be partial to himself. If we will keep in step with the truth of the gospel it requires we remember that God is impartial, that Christ is humble, and remember that man is nothing before God and Christ. The Christian who remembers these three things will make the church a society of people who feel and experience a humble equality and impartiality and love before God.

Beloved, are you that person? Are you that pastor who refuses to draw distinctions between your people but rather insists on loving them one and all by the grace of God? Beloved, let us be suspicious of unexamined support for the rich and the powerful as if they were a status different or higher than other men. Let us be careful to treat the poor and the rich the same way and to be diligent to care for the poor.

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
     but he who is generous to the needy honors him.

Let us count partiality a sin and treat it as such. There’s no biblical grounds for saying, as I sometimes hear, “I just prefer people like me.” That’s self-love and pride and partiality contrary to the new humanity God creates in Christ through the gospel. This truth that the gospel commands impartiality opens up into the next truth.

5. The Fruit of Mercy

Number five: the gospel produces mercy. See it there in Galatians 2:10:

Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

I loved our meditation on mercy in the songs last night. Did you pick that up? Here are some lines from His Mercy Is More:

What love could remember no wrongs we have done? Omniscient, all-knowing, he counts not their sum. Thrown into a sea without bottom or shore, Our sins they are many, his mercy is more!

Praise the Lord! His mercy is more! Stronger than darkness, new every mourn, Our sins, they are many, his mercy is more.

Mercy flows from God in the gospel of Jesus Christ to us and is meant to flow out from us to others. So we read in Luke 6:36, “Be merciful, even as your father is merciful,” or Matthew 5:7 says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew 25:31–40 is that parable where Jesus talks about serving the least of these. Do you remember what he says in Matthew 25:40?

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

Our mercy shown to others is in some sense a service to Christ himself. The apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ produces an impartiality in love that lays the foundation for the display of mercy.

A Selective Show of Mercy

It’s interesting to note that when the apostles speak of being impartial, they then come pretty quickly to empathy and mercy to the poor. James did that in the example that he used. Paul does that here in recounting the conversation in Jerusalem.

One of the clearest demonstrations, beloved, of the sin of partiality is the selective show of mercy. We arrogate the words of God to ourselves and we seem to say, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” If we do that, we usurp the Lord’s place and pretend an ability to discern the “deserving poor”. And when we do, we sin. When we withhold mercy, we disobey God’s word and it’s not easy to get this correct, beloved. It’s not easy for us to get this right.

The Christian is like the person on those old V8 commercials who are walking through life leaning, like he says, “I should have had a V8.” We walk through life with that lean until we realize, “I should have more gospel. I should press more deeply into the treasures of Christ.” We walk with that lean and we show preference and mercy to one side or the other.

We may have, for example, an immense mercy toward citizens killed in interactions with the police and we may have hard hearts toward officers in uniform, or we may lean the other way. We may have an instinctive and a deep mercy and empathy for officers who have the hardest job in the country, and we may be hard in our expressions of heart toward those who were killed no matter the circumstances.

A couple of years ago, I sat down for a two or three-hour conversation with a former California sheriff. We lovingly discussed our perspectives and our biases in the strings of officer-involved shootings that we had witnessed along with the rest of the country online. We each had a leaning, or to put it another way, we each were partial. We each began to see in our conversation with each other our leanings more clearly and we can see that the leanings were tempting us to deny or refuse mercy to the others.

Questioning Our Instincts

We were discovering something that’s described quite wonderfully by Michael Bird in his commentary on Romans. It’s a long quote but it’s worth it. Let me read it to you. Track with me:

It is sobering to consider how much of our values and habits already are conformed to worldly culture rather than to a kingdom culture and we just don’t know it. We can happily resist the political left and the political right depending on our own political disposition, but what if we are wrong and we’re blind and we can’t see it? What if the conservatism that we so prize is really a cultural construct and our faith has been manipulated to provide religious capital to neoconservatives, big corporations, and libertarian tendencies just because we like them?

What if the progressivism we champion is because we want to avoid the shame of secular elites who want to dismantle the enduring structures of society like family so that they can create a vacuum in which their own social ideology may flourish? What if Jesus really does want us to give free healthcare to poor people? What if God really is angered by the killing of the unborn? We have to wonder if many of our cozy, middle-class values like security and mobility really matter all that much to God or whether they have been imposed on us by our culture and we’ve not only accepted them, but we’ve baptized them.

Whether you are in your political philosophy, conservative or progressive, you have to keep asking whether your faith and practice are really conformed to a kingdom culture or whether you are being played for a pawn in someone else’s game of ideological chess. Be wary of the ideologues to the left or the right who have complete confidence that God is on their side all the time.

My experience is that when we fall prey to that ideological way of thinking — not suspecting we may have some things right and other things wrong, and baptizing it as Christians, when we see through a glass darkly — we very often end up showing that partiality and failing to show that mercy that is consistent with the gospel.

It may be that the entirety of our problem lies in this unexamined view of our own prejudices and our unexamined view of other people as others and our unquestioned assumption that we are right if for no other reason than we believe we are right. When that happens, we will not likely keep in step with the truth of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ should create in us the impartiality that helps mercy to flourish among us all, which brings us to the final point.

6. The Call for Ethnic Harmony

We want to be consistent with the ethnic inclusion and acceptance and harmony that the gospel produces. The gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to transform our identities and to make us, as we were talking about last night in the panel, one new man in Christ, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:15.

That’s implied in Galatians 2:9, where the apostles articulated an ethnic-specific mission strategy. Do you see that? Peter goes as an apostle to the circumcision, or the Jews, and Paul goes as an apostle to the Gentiles. That decision indicates a missiological inclusion of all nations or ethnic groups, but it also includes an ecclesial inclusion of all nations. Notice there when they perceive the grace that was given to Paul, they gave the right hand a fellowship to Barnabas and him. Though the apostles make a missiological distinction in their division of labor, they do not make any ecclesiological distinction. They remain in fellowship.

They understand the gospel to produce social interaction and union in Christ where they had once only been separatism between Jew and Gentile and hostility on top of that. That’s why we get that stunning confrontation in Galatians 2:11–14. Look there with me:

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?”

Notice Peter’s hypocrisy. His hypocrisy stemmed from the fear of man in relation to the circumcision party, mentioned there in Galatians 2:12. Or we could use the word we’ve been using throughout: it was partiality. That’s why he stopped kicking it with the Gentiles. He used to be over at their house eating leftover ham sandwiches after Thanksgiving. Then his boys from Judea rode through town and hit him up on the DM. And he was like, “I need to get out of y’alls house real quick. I don’t want my boys to see me over here.”

So, he dissed the Gentiles. Notice how Peter’s hypocrisy results in schism. The church split, or at least there was the potential for it. He drew back (Galatians 2:12), and separated himself. Beloved, there’s no way for partiality and favoritism not to split the church and to break the fellowship. There’s no way for it to happen. Peter’s hypocrisy spreads in the body. It’s a cancer. See the reference in Galatians 2:13. The rest of the Jews and even Barnabas, Paul’s boy, go along with Peter. This is a contagious sin. It’s the little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough. Beloved, we must not think we are stronger than Barnabas and immune to prejudice and hypocrisy.

I interact with far too many people who self-confidently declare, "I’m not a racist." Now mind you, I never called them that. But I wonder and I sometimes want to say, “Well, you might be. Have you considered it? Have you given thought to it? Have you allowed impartial people to mercifully tell you the truth about what they see coming from you, or are those people your enemies because they tell you the truth? (Galatians 4:16).

Requisite Confrontation

Beloved, hypocrisy is catchy. It spreads. Notice Peter’s hypocrisy requires confrontation. So, Paul says in Galatians 2:11, “I opposed him to his face . . .” and he says again in Galatians 2:14, “I said to Cephas before them all . . .” See, Paul’s confrontation of Peter’s church splitting hypocrisy was both personal to his face and public before them all. He needs to correct his fellow apostle and he needs to stop the spread of the gangrene.

Listen, beloved, if we do not have conviction enough and courage enough to openly oppose church leaders for ethnic prejudice, schism, and hypocrisy, and church members for the same, then not only are those leaders not in step with the gospel, neither are we. If we do not have confrontation in our toolkit of ministry tools, then we are unprepared to defend the gospel, as Mark so wonderfully talked about, when it’s profaned in the church. Many ministers are roaring lions against a sinful culture out there, but they’re little chirping chicks when sin is in the house of the Lord.

It’s easy to talk about faceless, nameless people — the culture who we know to be in rebellion against God — but it takes courage and faith and the filling of the Spirit to play the role of the Apostle Paul here and say to another brother or sister to their face, and if necessary publicly, “You are wrong in light of the gospel.” It takes courage.

Questioning Our Gospel Faithfulness

I’m longing for the day when I no longer receive emails like the one I received just a couple weeks ago. They come semi-regularly. A man wrote to me and said:

Good morning, Brother Thabiti. I am a member in a large church here, where the word of God is preached faithfully and what I think is accurately. However, on more than one occasion, it has been made very clear to me that application of the word in race relations is not a priority.

He went on to ask if I have any church recommendations for his area. He went on to say he’s leaving this larger multi-ethnic church to find one made up predominantly of his own ethnic group. It’s Galatians 2:11–14 all over again. Only this time there’s no one there confronting the cowardly, schismatic leader who divorces the gospel and the word of God from the conduct that’s becoming of the gospel. I would say to this person that, actually, his church does not faithfully and accurately preach the word of God. Indeed, in failing to apply the Scriptures in precisely the way the Bible itself applies the Scriptures, we are not in step with the truths of the gospel.

Last night in the elevator after our session I bumped into my brother Zane Pratt and four other brothers, including a Danish brother, if he’s here today, going to the elevator. They overheard us debriefing about the panel and all five of them agreed and said two things. First, you should have had a white guy on the panel. Second, they said that’s because they feel like white evangelical leaders are better positioned perhaps than us to say to the white evangelical church, “This is on our watch and the charge to lead the work of reconciliation, or to use a label of this talk, to teach and to model what it means to keep in step with the gospel, falls upon us because of our complicitness in so much of the sin.” So I’m relaying that to you on behalf of my brothers, and I’m going to jump on a little bit here.

An Appeal to Evangelicals

I want to say to you, my evangelical brothers, this error of calling ourselves faithful to the gospel and the word while neglecting what the gospel requires in impartiality, mercy, and inclusion — and I’m just referring to the kinds of things that are in Galatians 2 — is the besetting sin of your churches. I know I’m speaking in a generalization there, but I think I’m basically speaking accurately. From the time evangelical churches made their peace with slavery and segregation and so-called anti-miscegenation laws, and from the time that some evangelical churches gave voice to white supremacist ideology, those churches have been preaching a false and incomplete gospel. Those churches, like Peter, stood condemned.

Beloved brothers, many of you have inherited those churches and its theology without inheriting a massive act of confession and repentance from the historical indifference and hostility to the truths of the gospel. Since your churches are the largest number of so-called Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches, then your churches are the biggest problem with the biggest responsibility and opportunity by God’s grace for fixing the out-of-step limp that the Christian church has as it tries to walk with the gospel. I hope you can receive that from me as a fellow struggler. I hope you can hear that. I don’t mean that for your harm. I mean that for our collective faithfulness and witness to Christ.

I often feel like Paul does in Galatians 4:19 whenever I’m asked to address these issues and speak the best truth I know imperfectly and receive what is the hostility from many professing brothers in the Lord. I have a question: “Have I become your enemies because I tell you the truth?” Beloved, any time someone speaks to us a word of gospel correction that we might keep in step with the gospel, I think we should understand them to be showing us that best kind of love, the kind of love that would correct us when we begin to walk away from the truths of our crucified and resurrected Lord. So, let me sum up this way. If you want to get this sermon in one sentence, here it is at the end.

The apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ emphasizes the sufficiency of the cross of Christ, which produces freedom in Christ in such a way as to require and produce impartial treatment of persons, mercy to our neighbors, and the inclusion of all peoples into the mission and the fellowship of the church.

The gospel message without these attending truths is like the sun without flames, like roses without petals or fragrance, like hearts without blood, like beaches with no ocean. If we preach a gospel that adds to the cross, takes away Christian freedom, treats partiality as respectable, doesn’t show mercy to others, and/or withdraws from ethnic harmony, then we are not preaching the biblical, apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ. We are out of step with the truth of the gospel and we would need to repent of it and correct it, or we may find that we need to confront others before they further hurt, mislead, and split the church. I love the song that we sang this morning. I forget the title, but you may remember this line:

May rivers of hatred and oceans of shame be dried up in Jesus’ name.