Sermon: Trinitarian Justification (Peter Leithart)

Peter Leithart

Christ Church – Moscow, ID
A.D. October 31, 2010

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Is the Reformation dead? Leading Protestants have asked the question in recent years, and other leading Protestants have answered the question by converting to Rome or Orthodoxy. We believe the answer is No. On the other hand: Living things grow and change.

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. . . .” (Galatians 2:11-3:14).

In the sermon text, Paul issues two severe rebukes. The first is in his account of his clash with Peter at Antioch, where Paul charges Peter with dissembling about the gospel (2:13-14) and of denying justification by faith (2:15-16). Peter has not been teaching that sinners can earn God’s favor. He undermines justification by faith by refusing to eat with Gentiles (2:12). By his actions, he implies that Gentiles who believe in Jesus still need to keep the Jewish dietary laws if they are going to be part of the Christian community. By refusing to have table fellowship with Gentiles, Peter was treating the Gentile believers as “sinners,” as unjustified people, as covenant breakers. For Paul, justification by faith means not only that I am accepted as a covenant-keeper by faith in Jesus. Paul’s gospel of justification implies that all believers in Jesus share one table. Any “gospel” that says otherwise is no gospel (1:6-10). Reformation Sunday and All Saints celebrate the same thing.

Galatians 2:16 seems to refer to justification by faith in Christ three times in a few lines. Why so repetitive? In fact, the verse is not as repetitive as it looks. The phrase “faith of Christ” (pistis tou christou) can mean either “our faith in Christ” or “Jesus’ own faith,” and in 2:16 it means the latter. We believe in Christ, Paul says, so that we may be justified by the faithful work of Jesus, whose name is “Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11). His is the “faith later to be revealed” and the faith that “has come” (Galatians 3:23-26). Through the faithfulness of incarnate Son, the Father has broken down the barriers that separated Jew and Gentile, so that we may all become “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:26).

Paul’s second rebuke is directed at the Galatians themselves, who received the Spirit by hearing with faith but now want to find completing in the law (Galatians 3:1-5). Paul is still talking about justification (cf. 3:6-13), but justification is intertwined with the gift of the Spirit. Both justification and the Spirit are received by faith (3:2, 6). The Abrahamic promise is righteousness by faith (3:8) and also the Spirit (3:14). The gift of the Spirit and the gift of righteousness are the same gift. Just as Jesus is “justified by the Spirit,” so also are we (1 Timothy 3:16). Justification is not merely the good news that we are restored to fellowship with the Father by the Faithful Son, but also the good news that the Spirit of righteousness has now been unleashed on the world.

Protestantism has largely taught a “binitarian” doctrine of justification. The Reformation will live only if we preach good news about the Father who sent His Faithful Son to realize the Abrahamic promise of the Life-Giving Spirit.



  1. Daniel says:

    Great, great sermon. Thank you.

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