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Galatians 2: 15–21, justified before God

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer (detail), 1885


The Early Epistles—

Galatians 2:15–21

If even Jews became Christians,
answering Judaizers,
a new principle and a new life

Ware Jews by birth rather than lawless pagans. 16 and yet we perceive that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus.  Even we believed in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by faith rather than by works of the law; for by works of the law shall no flesh be justified (a quote from Psalm 143:2).

17 But if seeking to be justified in Christ means we ourselves therefore become sinners, then Christ, in effect, is serving sin.  But God forbid! 18 Imake myself into a transgressor, rather by rebuilding those things I destroyed.

A New Principle
19 Through law I died to law that I might live for God.  20 I have been crucified with Christ.  I no longer live but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.  21 I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness came through law, then Christ died in vain.

Critical Notes

(2:16) justified] Gnomic present — an unusual use of the present tense; the thought seems to be that of stating a principle — no man can be justified by law.  The word itself is used in a legal or forensic sense; to be pronounced just means to be acquitted or to stand approved by God.  (The meaning is much stronger than to pardon, or to forgive since those words imply guilt, but to acquit (to justify) technically means the clearing of the charge itself.  Our forgiveness in Christ is as if we never had sinned.)
works of law . . . faith in Christ] The two methods by which a man stands approved before God — either he never sinned, observing the law perfectly (works of the law), or else he is forgiven through the gospel (faith in Christ).even we believed] The pronoun is emphatic: Jews who became Christians showed threby the hopelessness of being justified by law.  How could they then insist that Gentiles observe the law?

(2:17) become sinners] Literally, “find ourselves to be sinners.”  Apparently, answering an argument put forth by the Judaizers themselves.  If the gospel means no law, then there is no standard of right or wrong, and we are as lawless and as immoral as Gentiles — but this type of thinking misses the point.

God forbid] Optative Mood— literally “may it not be,” but with a feeling of abhorrence or repugnance.

(2:18) I make myself into a transgressor] “There is no sin at all in abandoning the law; it is only converted into a sin by returning to the law again’ (Lightfoot).(2:20) lawless Gentiles] Perfect Participle with emphasis on the resulting state of a past action.  He has been co-crucified with Christ and, therefore, there is no turning back.  The decision has been made.  Compare similar wording in 5:24 and 6:14.

who loved me] “Christ is indeed the personal friend of each man individually” (Lightfoot).

Literary Summary

Answering critics by
explaining law and gospel as opposing principles

(2:1-15—21) This paragraph is most likely a summary of what was said to Peter at Antioch — at least, it is a fuller explanation of the principles involved.  (There is a marked change in pronouns from verse 15 on.)

In becoming a Christian, a Jew showed that he, like every Gentile, needed to be forgiven, and this, in turn, of course, showed that the law could not justify any man— regardless whether he was Jews or not.

The thinking that abandoning the law meant that somehow Christ encouraged sin was completely wrong.  The real sin was in going back to the law (or in the case of Gentiles, forcing them to embrace a legalistic code.)

The gospel may be different from law, but that did not mean it did not have standards.  Paul died to lawy only so that he might live for God.  He has been crucified with Christ, and Christ now lived in him.

Questions for Further Study

  1. If even a Jew could see the need to become a Christian, what did that mean as far as Gentiles were concerned?
  2. What does the word justify mean?
  3. There are only two ways by which a man can stand approved before God.  What are those two ways?
  4. Why did Paul die to the law?
  5. What does Paul mean when he says he has been crucified with Christ?
  6. Paul not only followed God, but he felt close to Christ.  (Emotions by themselves, of course, can be a false standard in religion, but a Christian should feel close to God.)  How close are we and God?

James Sanders

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