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Fallible Men


But when Cephas [Peter] 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. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

“We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”

—Galatians 2:11–16

The biblical record is replete with great men making great errors. Here, we have the Apostle Peter, in practice if not intent, compromising the most fundamental doctrine of the gospel, necessitating a public rebuke from Paul.

Peter was no small man. He was part of the inner circle of Christ’s inner circle, taught by the one perfect teacher of teachers. He was the disciple upon whose confession our Lord promised to build his church. If anyone could be trusted to defend the gospel, it should have been Peter. Peter should have been the one rebuking the Judaizers, not capitulating to them in fear. And yet, there we find him, going along to get along. Ryle sees “three great lessons” in this episode. The first:

Great ministers may make great mistakes.


But it is all meant to teach us that even the Apostles them selves, when not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, were at times liable to err. It is meant to teach us that the best men are weak and fallible so long as they are in the body. Unless the grace of God holds them up, any one of them may go astray at any time. It is very humbling, but it is very true. True Christians are converted, justified, and sanctified. They are living members of Christ, beloved children of God, and heirs of eternal life. They are elect, chosen, called, and kept unto salvation. They have the Spirit. But they are not infallible.

. . .

And who does not see, when he reads the history of the church of Christ, repeated proofs that the best of men can err? The early fathers were zealous according to their knowledge, and ready to die for Christ. But many of them countenanced monkery, and nearly all sowed the seeds of many superstitions.—The Reformers were honoured instruments in the hand of God for reviving the cause of truth on earth. Yet hardly one of them can be named who did not make some great mistake. . . .

The lesson is one that we all need. We are all naturally inclined to lean upon man whom we can see, rather than upon God whom we cannot see. We naturally love to lean upon the ministers of the visible church, rather than upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd, and Bishop, and High Priest, who is invisible. We need to be continually warned and set upon our guard.

. . .

We all naturally love to have a Pope of our own. We are far too ready to think, that because some great minister or some learned man says a thing,—or because our own minister, whom we love, says a thing,—it must be right, without examining whether it is in Scripture or not. Most men dislike the trouble of thinking for themselves. They like following a leader. They are like sheep,—when one goes over the gap all the rest follow. Here at Antioch even Barnabas was carried away. We can well fancy that good man saying, ‘An old apostle, like Peter, surely cannot be wrong. Following him, I cannot err.’

—J. C. Ryle, Knots Untied (Banner of Truth, 2016), 408—411.

Posted 2017·07·12 by David Kjos
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