You have no enemies, you say? Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
— Charles Mackay (1814–1889), Scottish poet and journalist
Strange as it may seem, grace has enemies. Its enemies are often silent and subtle, yet dangerously lethal. Marvelous, matchless grace expresses itself boldly as love, patience, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, generosity, and reconciliation. And no greater story of grace has ever been penned than the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When Paul wrote his Letter to the Galatians, he couldn’t stop talking about grace. He opened the letter with a salutation of grace: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). He quickly expressed his shock that some believers in Galatia were “turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ to a different gospel” (1:6). God had saved Paul “by his grace” (1:15). Peter, James, and John—three pillars of the early church—“acknowledged the grace that had been given” to Paul (2:9).
However, an incident that involved Peter (Cephas) reminded Paul that grace has enemies. In 2:11-22, he spoke of three enemies of grace.
Enemy #1: Fear—Paul recalled a situation that occurred while he was still part of the church in Antioch of Syria. A number of Gentiles had been saved and baptized. The church didn’t require them to adopt Jewish rituals such as circumcision. These Gentiles believed the gospel of God’s grace in Christ, received the Holy Spirit, and were accepted wholeheartedly into the church fellowship. Peter came to Antioch at some point and, for a while, joined right in by worshiping and having gracious table fellowship with Gentile believers. But then some Jewish men from Jerusalem showed up. Galatians 2:12 states that Peter “withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party.” Fear drove Peter from basking in the sunlight of grace to hiding in the shadows of legalism.
I’ve often wondered how long it was before Peter recalled his earlier fearful experience in a Jerusalem courtyard on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Fear led him on that night to deny knowing Jesus three times. Now it was fear again that quenched Peter’s overflow of grace toward fellow believers who happened to have different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Enemy #2: Hypocrisy—Fear and hypocrisy often are two sides of one coin. They feed on each other and, like a cancer, try to choke out grace. Peter’s hypocritical actions following the arrival in Antioch of the men from Jerusalem influenced other Jewish believers in the church: “the rest of the Jews joined his hypocrisy” (2:13). Even Barnabas, Paul’s missionary partner on the original Galatian mission, got drawn into the pretentious activity!
Enemy #3: Legalism—Paul recognized legalistic works-righteousness when he saw it. He had lived it, breathed it, preached it, and crusaded for it his entire life—until the day he met the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. That also was the day Paul realized that all of his efforts to attain righteousness through his works were futile. He declared, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). To even flirt with legalism, as Peter and other Jewish believers in Antioch appeared to have done, was for Paul essentially a setting aside—abandonment, in other words—of the grace of God (2:21).
The good news for Paul—the good news for you and me as well—is that although grace has enemies, grace wins every time! Let me repeat: Grace wins every time!
David Briscoe is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.