I do not nullify the grace of God. Galatians 2:21
“What eloquence is able sufficiently to set forth these words: ‘to nullify grace,’ ‘the grace of God,’ also that ‘Christ died for no purpose’? The horribleness of it is such that all the eloquence in the world is not able to express it. It is a small matter to say that any man died for no purpose. But to say that Christ died for no purpose is to take him quite away.”
Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, on Galatians 2:21.
Paul asserted that he did not nullify the grace of God. By implication, Peter was nullifying the grace of God when his conduct was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). How on earth did Peter do that, and is there any chance we could do that again today?
With Paul, Peter believed the gospel at the level of doctrine. Speaking for Peter and himself, Paul writes, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). Peter’s theology was right. He nullified the grace of God by conduct – not doctrine, but conduct – that was not in step with the truth of the gospel.
That is astounding to me. I am instructed and warned. It was possible for no one less than an apostle to nullify the grace of God in Jesus Christ crucified. He did that not by rejecting gospel doctrine but by injuring the relational culture consistent with the gracious doctrine. Gospel doctrine without gospel culture nullifies the grace of God. Gospel doctrine, however pure, cannot stand alone. Faithfulness to the gospel is a matter of both profession and conduct. Paul thought so. He was so certain about it and felt so strongly about it that he rebuked Peter publicly over it.
If nullifying the grace of God was possible for an apostle in the first century, it is also possible for us and our churches and organizations today. Nullifying the grace of God, as Luther points out, is a horrible thing. But it isn’t hard for us to do a horrible thing without even realizing it. It is easy for us, as it was for Peter and these other Christian leaders, to be witnesses against the gospel even as we think we are being witnesses for the gospel. All we have to do, to counteract our own doctrine, is fail to build a culture that embodies that doctrine.
Words, blog posts, tweets, emails, personal encounters, and so forth – these are how we can build a gospel culture with one another every day, and these are how we can tear it down. We are either living proof of the grace of God, or we are a living denial of the grace of God, but we are never neutral. And pointing to our orthodox doctrinal statements, wonderful as they are, is no refuge. Faithfulness is also a matter of pressing the grace revealed in our doctrine into our every relationship all the time. This is not a matter of personal niceness; it is a matter of biblical authority. We have no future without it.
Theological acuity matched by relational obliviousness nullifies the grace of God. But bold theological proclamation embedded in beautiful human relationships makes it obvious that the grace of God is working among us in power.