If no one can perfectly keep the law of God in order to gain justification before God, then what avenue is left to pursue? The only avenue open is the one that is guaranteed to succeed: resting on the grace of God as it is displayed in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accordingly, lines [C]–[Cʹ] state unequivocally that a person is justified before God only “by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Christ, the lamb without spot (1 Peter 1:19), who lived a perfect life in perfect conformity to His Father’s will (Heb. 4:15; 1 John 3:5), has fulfilled the divine requirement of perfect obedience. More than this, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This glorious transaction occurred on the cross where our Lord bore the curse of our sin (Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:13–14). It is only by believing that Christ, the Son of the living God, delivered Himself over to the wrath of God on his behalf (Rom. 3:21–26; Gal. 1:4) that a person can be made right with God. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). This is what Paul did. This is what Peter did. This is what Barnabas and all the other believers did. It is not surprising then that this is the central point of Paul’s chiasm: “We also have believed” (Gal. 3:16).
The authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith understood the enormous significance of this point: “The principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14.2). Faith seeks no other foundation than the foundation that the Father has laid in the cross of His Son. It rests on Christ. Faith understands well that the condition of the human heart precludes any possibility of earning God’s favor through any works man might do. It confesses that “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” Faith accepts and receives Christ as He is graciously offered in the gospel.
The issue in Antioch was table fellowship between Jews and gentiles. What could overcome the cultural or economic bias between those two groups? The answer is the cross of Christ. It is through His once-for-all sacrifice that the dividing wall had been broken down and a new man comprising both Jews and gentiles was born into the world (Eph. 2:11–21). Peter, Barnabas, and Paul well understood that the only way to set the distinctions of this world in their proper place was to live in the light of the cross. They understood that part of the calling that Christ placed on them was a calling to begin to live in the present in terms of those principles and categories that would come to full flower only when Christ returned in glory, and so they did. They enjoyed table fellowship with the gentile members of the church. However, in a moment of weakness, Peter and Barnabas succumbed to the pressures of the moment and lost sight of the cross and what it meant practically for their relationship with gentile believers. Paul was compelled to answer them so that the truth of the gospel would be maintained.
We can be thankful that Paul sensed the gravity of the moment and earnestly reminded Peter and Barnabas of what they knew to be true. We can be thankful that he spoke clearly and boldly on the matter, not least because we too need to be reminded of these glorious truths. Salvation is by grace through faith, and this is not of ourselves—it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).