Those who know the truth of the gospel may find themselves compelled within the professing Church to become outspoken ‘protestants’, and to give their positive witness to the gospel in order to counter practical abandonment of its truth, and that sometimes on the part of acknowledged leaders or so called ‘pillars’ of the Church.
Since the need for such protest occasionally recurs, it may well be profitable for us to learn from the New Testament its adequate cause and its essential content. Such a situation is brought before us in Galatians 2:11-21, where Paul indicates how he had publicly to withstand even Peter to the face.
Its cause: departure from the gospel. Paul says that Peter’s conduct was at fault in several ways. It was inconsistent; he knew better, and had for long been publicly acting better; so he stood self-condemned. It was determined by the fear of men, by pressure from an aggressive party out to impose as necessary things not essential to acceptance with God. It was superficial and insincere, a ‘dissimulation’ calculated to produce a misleading impression. It actually misled the charitable and well-meaning Barnabas. It involved practice in open contradiction of gospel truth. Because of the weight of Peter’s influence as a leader, his unworthy example was likely to ‘compel’ or put an improper pressure on others to do likewise. Paul surely had reason enough for speaking. But the chief compelling cause of his protest was evangelical. He saw that such conduct was a departure from gospel truth. This is still an adequate, and ought to be an irresistible, cause for protest—no matter whom we may have publicly to withstand.
Its content: (i) positive affirmation of the truth. Surely, Paul asserted, we all know by now that not even those who enjoy the privilege of Jewish descent, and have never been irreligious and lawless Gentile ‘sinners’, can win acceptance with God by their own works, but only by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. Do not Scripture and experience make plain that no flesh will be justified by the works of the law?
Its content: (ii) careful exposure of possible misunderstanding. Nor do this abandonment of law-keeping as a way of righteousness and this acknowledgment that we all are sinners mean that Christ encourages men to be sinners, in contrast to the law which exhorts them to be righteous. True Christians cannot go back to live again in sin. For our deliverance as sinners from the condemnation of the law depends upon Christ’s death in our stead, and demands of us that, reckoning ourselves dead in him both to law and to sin, we should begin by his life un us to live an entirely new life of obedience to God.
Its content: (iii) personal testimony concerning the life of faith. Paul supports his doctrinal assertions with the testimony of personal conviction and experience. The life that he now lives as a Christian is, he says, something entirely new, something completely different from his pre-conversion experience. Christ’s death in his place has radically and permanently altered his very existence. The old sinful Saul is seen to be, and reckoned as, crucified with Christ. The life he is now called to enjoy is the manifestation of Christ’s risen life in his body, an experience realised simply by faith in the person and work of Christ as the incarnate Son of God who loved him and gave himself up to death on his behalf.
Its content: (iv) uncompromising condemnation of other ‘gospels’. Finally, evangelical protest cannot but be absolutely intolerant in its uncompromising exclusiveness. For there is no other way of salvation. Paul had already declared in Galatians 1:8-9, no matter who offers men some other ‘gospel’, let him be anathema. Here his outspoken assertions (v. 21) plainly indicate that to try to win acceptance with God by our own works would involve us in the two greatest sins of rejecting grace of God and despising the atoning death of Christ.
Only such personal evangelical experience and such positive evangelical conviction can thus cause a man to withstand an aggressive party, an official lead, and a temporarily prevailing fashion; and there is still sometimes need for such ‘protestants’.
This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 21 July 1960. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.