The Rise of the Judaizers
A problem arose in the early church when the apostles took the gospel of Jesus to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. When Gentiles responded to the gospel, a conflict arose that threatened to divide the church. A group called the Judaizers opposed Paul and Barnabas at the Council of Jerusalem (AD 50) in Acts 15. They were uncertain that the benefits of the covenant people of God were to be extended to the Gentiles, thus doubting their conversion by the gospel. Paul’s response assures them that the Gentiles had indeed been made partakers in the blessings of the covenant, namely, the Holy Spirit: “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9).
The Judaizers’ View of Salvation
The Judaizers were teaching that God still required everyone to observe certain rituals and statutes in order to be accepted by him as Father. Paul, in recounting his confrontation of Peter before the Judaizers, gives us an insight into the teaching of this group (Gal. 2:14). Apparently, the Judaizers were attempting to force Gentile Christians to live under the regulations of the Mosaic Law. They are also called the “circumcision party” (Gal. 2:12), because one of the specific elements of the Law that the Judaizers were forcing the Gentile Christians to live by was the practice of circumcision. Peter had withdrawn himself from eating with Gentile Christians, fearing the opposition that would come from the Judaizers who would never do such a thing out of fear of acidentally eating unclean food. However, Paul said Peter’s conduct was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).
The Orthodox Response
Paul’s response is given in Galatians 2:16: “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.” Paul’s other response is found in Galatians 5:12: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” He suggests self-castration for those who require circumcision for others. Paul made his point clearly. According to Paul and the response drafted at the Council of Jerusalem, the Gentiles were not obligated to follow the restrictions of the Law. They were free in Christ, who had fulfilled the demands of the Law. Paul exhorted the Gentiles to abstain from practices associated with pagan idol worship, not to earn their salvation, but as a response to the life-changing message of the gospel and in gratitude for God’s gift of salvation.
Why Does All This Matter?
While the heresy of the Judaizers was put to rest by the Apostle Paul, the idea behind their erroneous belief still permeates the church today. The issues are no longer circumcision or ceremonial uncleanness, but the question of how the law relates to salvation—or how works relate to righteousness—is still something that many Christians remain confused about today. Paul’s exhortation to the Judaizers remains as important as ever. It is not by works that we are saved, but solely by the grace of Christ. In fact, to add anything to the work of Christ for salvation actually negates God’s grace. Paul says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).