Galatians 2.15-21; ESV
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
In the scripture above, taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul tackles the Jews amongst his audience, he himself being a Jew; and so, whilst he clearly rejects their theology, we see his ability to empathise with them and so present his argument that it might be clearly understood from their point of view. This is important to remember, because if it is read as if it were directed at believers in general then almost one half of the argument is lost, that is – the implied objections and rejections of the Jews. That being said, there is much that relates the theology of the Jewish Christians in Galatia with that of many Christians today, for in both cases there is a failure to understand the absoluteness of grace, a grace which boldly declares that no work of man whatsoever merits or contributes to salvation.
The Jews of the day had been raised in the knowledge that they were the chosen people of God: they were circumcised in the flesh, and sought to observe all parts of the law in accordance with the teaching of the Rabbis. This law comprised four parts, the first being the ceremonial law – those ceremonies, rites, and rules of ritual purity that were a peculiar part of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel through the temple, the second being moral law – those edicts and commands of God founded in morality – such as the ten commandments, the third being civil law – the means by which God provided regulatory governance to Israel as they lived in the land, and the fourth the oral tradition – the body of case law and rulings which was formed by the rabbis and teachers of the law over generations to interpret the law and add safeguards against accidentally breaking it.
Paul, a Jew, here groups himself with his audience, so when he says “we ourselves”, that is what he means – those Jews who have come to faith in Christ, himself included. Note carefully his opening argument: first, that they were born Jews and as such born with the law and apart from Gentiles, then that because by the works of the law no one will be justified, so that even they as Jews had put their trust in Christ.
By trying to do the works demanded by the law, to keep the law in all its parts, the Jews had long thought that they would be able to obtain righteousness and so be justified before God. So far, Paul has no quarrel with them, for God did promise righteousness through the perfect keeping of the law; yet, that really is theory rather than practice – for the law is impossible for sinful man to keep, neither for Jew nor for Gentile. It is true to say that man is able to keep some parts of the law, and indeed for periods of time much of the ceremonial law was kept; yet, the moral law in particular demands standards so high no fallen man can ever meet them entirely.
Just consider what Jesus calls the greatest commandment, that in Deuteronomy 6:5, where we read “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”. Whilst what this commandment asks of us it is entirely good and right, yet, what man can say there has never been a moment in which he has not loved God with all his heart, that there has never been a time when his soul took pleasure in sin, and that throughout his life he has always used his entire might in the love of God? Even today, can any man claim that since he woke he has not wavered even slightly in the entirety of his love for God, with the fullness of his soul, and in the completeness of his might?
So, when Paul says that a person is not justified by the works of the law, he does not mean that the promise of God that keeping the law would result in righteousness is false, rather that because no man is able to keep the law, it shall not justify any man. There is no salvation through the law, because there is no keeping of the law; indeed, the law was only kept once, by Christ himself. No man before Christ, contemporary to Christ or after Christ has kept the law, so that there really is none that is righteous. Every man who measures himself against the law – that is to say, the full law of God, as revealed – finds he falls short. Before the law, no man can stand, no man finds himself without sin, and so by the law all mankind dies.
On the other hand, Paul now states the basis of our justification, that we are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. We, of habit and convenience tend to conflate the two; to tie indelibly that we are not saved by works, and that we are saved by faith – but they are not as one point, but rather an ordered progression. It is entirely possible to not be saved by works without being saved by faith; yet it is not possible to be saved by faith without deserting salvation by works. So, the first does not demand the second, yet the second demands the first.
“Because by works of the law no one will be justified” is not just the flip-side of the coin, it is a death sentence to every Jew and everyone who hopes to be justified through works. To Paul’s Jewish audience it is to say that the law in which they were born, raised and to which they have been striving in the hope of life is instead the sure and certain promise of death. That’s a serious matter, a deeply insulting allegation, and an implied condemnation of the whole Jewish community – it is to say that the whole basis of Jewish pietistic and legalistic religion is futile and foolish.
Having given such a statement, the natural thought of the Jewish mind is to the effect of this on the status of a Jew and his existing works of the law. Now, it was taught that the Gentiles were sinful because they were without the law, and that the Jews gained righteousness by being under the law; and so the question becomes whether by ceasing to strive for salvation by works of the law they would become sinners just as the Gentiles. Worse yet, is is because of faith in Christ that they become sinners? If it is the faith in Christ that makes them come to terms with their sin, then they might reason it is Christ bringing sin to them.
Paul answers this with absolute clarity – “Certainly not!” – and he shows the error in this line of thought. As his first argument, he writes that “if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor”, and here we need only think as far as Christ, for it is Christ that tore down the tyranny of sin, and so to suggest that Christ then rebuilds sin through faith in him would make Christ himself a sinner! Next, he presents to us the true and proper basis of faith and our response to faith. This is in two important statements.
The first statement is this – that “through the law I died to the law” – for this what we have seen, that it is the commands of the law which despite being entirely good, demand a holiness impossible for fallen man; and so it is due to the nature of the law itself that any man who honestly measures himself against the law will not find the justification he seeks but rather the condemnation of his own sin. It is not then Christ, or faith in Christ, which causes one to die to the law but rather the law itself. If a man under the law believes he can stand under the law, then surely either he fails to understand the full requirement of the law, or in pride and conceit he estimates his own righteousness far beyond the fact.
The second statement is this – “so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ” Now, there is a verse number in the middle of this sentence, suggesting that the phrase about living to God relates first to dying to sin, and that being crucified with Christ stands all alone. This does not seem to be the sense of the passage, and it would be odd for Paul to make such a statement without connecting it to anything whilst in the midst of a developed argument. Rather, and given that the verse number and punctuation is a later addition, it seems more appropriate to read this statement as one – “so that I might live to God, I have been crucified with Christ. So, the first statement is that “through the law I died to the law”, and the second “so that i might live to God, I have been crucified with Christ” – another form of death, the first death to the law by the condemnation of the law, and the second a death to sin through Christ. One is in essence the death of sin which reveals sinfulness, the other in essence the death to sin which brings life in Christ through faith. The agent of the first is the law, the agent of the second is Christ; and so in no way can the argument that Christ somehow produces sin hold water.
The truth of this underlines the distinction between law and grace, that although both bring about death, and both forms of death may be suffered, yet they differ entirely both in their result and in their actor or agent. This is again emphasised by Paul when he summarises that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”; which is to say that through the death by the law truly comes death (even before he hoped in Jesus Christ Paul was dead under the law) and yet it is through faith in Jesus Christ that he is crucified into Christ so that Christ might live in him. He was already under death, for he was already a transgressor of the law, and now he has life, but yet it is not him that lives, but Christ who lives in him.
For this reason then Paul can boldly state that the life he now lives “in the flesh”, by which he means that life connected to this world and this age, is lived by faith in the Son of God. Yet, faith itself is insufficient. We often hear that faith saves, yet it is more correct to talk of saving faith; for not all faith is faith in the same thing, and so not all faith is equal or indeed saving. Paul states what his faith is, when he writes of Christ “who loved me and gave himself for me”. The first object of faith then is in the love of Christ, which is to say the grace of God – for because it is due to the love of Christ it is not by any merit of man but rather by grace alone; and the second object here listed is that Christ gave himself “for me” – and note well that Paul talks of himself, personally and singularly. This is a personal faith in the personal saving work of a personal God, and that saving work being the death of Christ. The life Paul once sought through the law he now acknowledges correctly seen as being only death, for he now lives by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Thus far we have spoken of Paul and his Jewish audience; yet, by now it should be clear that his teaching is not applicable to Jews alone. We too love to place our trust in the works of the law, to trust in being good people, to feel that God should favour us more because we are more righteous than most. We go to Bible studies, pray long prayers, never miss Church, and bow deeply before the table, ever feeling that we are not like ordinary people, that we are doing okay, and unless God is only planning to take say the top 1% to heaven, we’re likely to be accepted. We love to look at our good works, to think about all the money we donate, all the kind words we say, all the scripture we read, for it gives us hope that we’re not so bad after all, that we can achieve that righteousness that God requires. We are no better than the Jews to whom Paul wrote, for we too love to seek righteousness by works.
To us then, as well as to his audience, Paul stands up for the Gospel, when he says “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” This isn’t just fighting talk, nor is it merely an accusation of the deepest and most serious blasphemy; this is to say that we who fail to trust in Grace alone do not have faith in Christ and are therefore not saved by Christ. If we hold that justification is through the law, then we are, says Paul, denying that Christ died for a purpose – and if we believe Christ died without a purpose, we can profit nothing from his death.
We too, just as Paul and the Jewish Christians in Galatia, are to hold steadfastly to the Gospel of our salvation, which as Paul explains, is necessarily and unavoidably by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.