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Galatians 2:15-21 Biblical Commentary:
Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, established churches in Galatia composed primarily of Gentiles who received the Gospel eagerly (4:14-15). He believed that they were “running well” (5:7).
But after he left Galatia, he learned that Judaizers (Greek: Ioudizo—those who live by Jewish practices, 2:14) had persuaded the Galatians to adopt Jewish practices—circumcision in particular. These Judaizers were Christians who believed that it was essential for Christians to adopt particular Jewish practices. They were not trying to persuade Christians to abandon the Christian faith in favor of Judaism.
In this letter to the Galatians, Paul has criticized the Galatians for their fickle turn away from the Gospel which they have been taught—and has pronounced a curse on those who have seduced them to observe Jewish practices (1:6-9).
In the verses immediately prior to our text (2:1-11), Paul talks about false disciples who compelled Titus, a Greek (Gentile), to be circumcised. He accused these false disciples of stealing in “to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” to the Jewish law (2:4).
Paul also tells about rebuking Peter, who ate with Gentiles “before some people came from James…. But when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision” (2:12). Paul labeled Peter’s action as hypocrisy (2:14).
GALATIANS 2:15-16: MAN IS NOT JUSTIFIED BY WORKS
15 “We, being Jews by nature, and not Gentile sinners, 16 yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law, because no flesh will be justified by the works of the law.
“We, being Jews by nature” (v. 15a). The question is, who does Paul mean when he says “we?” He ended verse 14 by quoting his comment to Peter, “If you, being a Jew, live as the Gentiles do, and not as the Jews do, why do you compel the Gentiles to live as the Jews do?”—so it would seem that “we” in verse 15 means that Peter and Paul are “Jews by nature, and not Gentile sinners.” He will use “we” through verse 17, and will thereafter use “I” through verse 21.
When Paul contrasts “Jews by nature” with “Gentile sinners,” he is doing two things. First, he is establishing his Jewish roots to let it be known that counts himself among the people whom God chose as his people beginning with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Second, in labeling Gentiles as sinners, he is showing that he understands the traditional Jewish understanding of Gentiles.
Elsewhere Paul outlined his Jewish credentials. He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly (church); concerning the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). But he concluded by saying, “However, what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ” (Philippians 3:7).
So Paul and Peter, coming from a rich Jewish heritage, understand the Judaizers’ point of view. However, being now a part of an even richer Christian heritage, Paul knows better (and Peter should know better) than to fall for the Judaizers’ appeal to incorporate elements of Jewish law into the Christian faith.
“and not Gentile sinners” (v. 15b). “Sinners” is how Jews traditionally regarded Gentiles. However, the Jewish scriptures spoke repeatedly of the salvation of Gentiles (Genesis 12:3; 22:18; Psalm 72:17; 86:9; Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:9; 49:6b; 60:3; Jeremiah 3:17; Daniel 7:13-14; Joel 2:28-32; Zechariah 2:11; Malachi 1:1).
Also, Jesus commended a Roman centurion (a Gentile) for his faith (Matthew 8:10)—and healed the daughter of a Gentile woman (Mark 7:24-30). Another centurion, at Jesus’ death, confessed his belief that Jesus “was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Peter, after God told him to kill and eat animals that Jews considered to be unclean, told Cornelius, another centurion, “God has shown me that I shouldn’t call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
In other words, both Old and New Testaments reveal that God had both Jews and Gentiles in mind when devising his plan of salvation. This revelation extended back as far as Abraham’s time (Genesis 12:3—”All the families of the earth will be blessed in you”)—but was often overlooked prior to Peter’s vision in Acts 10.
So Paul is speaking tongue-in-cheek when he labels Gentiles as sinners. Elsewhere he says, “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), so there is no distinction between Jews and Jesus’ disciples with regard to guilt. The primary distinction—and it is profound—is that Jews look to the law for their salvation and Christians look to Jesus—to his cross and open tomb.
“yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law, because no flesh will be justified by the works of the law” (v. 16). This is the point. We are justified, not by keeping the law, but by faith in Christ.
Scholars say that the word “justified” can be understood in two ways:
• God, in his grace, forgives the sins of those who have faith in Christ Jesus, cleansing them so that they appear as if they have never sinned.
• By our faith in Christ Jesus, we are reconciled to God and have an intimate relationship with him.
I believe that both are true—but some people dismiss the first option as “legalistic,” which I believe to be demeaning and wrong.
Please allow me to add this note: Scholars debate points such as this endlessly, and often defend their points of view fiercely while putting down opposing views as hopelessly incorrect. In some cases, that is appropriate, but in many cases the truth is to be found somewhere near the middle—where both points have something to offer.
GALATIANS 2:17-19: I DIED TO THE LAW
17 But if, while we sought to be justified in Christ, we ourselves also were found sinners, is Christ a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I build up again those things which I destroyed, I prove myself a law-breaker. 19 For I, through the law, died to the law, that I might live to God.
“But if, while we sought to be justified in Christ, we ourselves also were found sinners” (v. 17). Scholars debate whether “we ourselves also were found sinners” means that (1) we are guilty of having committed sins or (2) in God’s eyes, we are sinners. Again I believe that both are true.
“is Christ a servant of sin? Certainly not!” (v. 17). The Judaizers felt that failure to keep the Jewish law would be a sin—and that a theology that emphasized salvation through Christ apart from the law would erode moral behavior and would therefore make “Christ a servant of sin.”
Paul categorically denies that Jesus’ disciples have no constraints on their moral behavior. In his letter to the Romans, he says that the constraint on immorality for believers is not adherence to the law, but is instead the new persons that they became at their baptism:
“Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
May it never be!
We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?
Or don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death,
that just like Christ was raised from the dead
through the glory of the Father,
so we also might walk in newness of life”
(Romans 6:1-4, see also verses 5-11).
“For if I build up again those things which I destroyed, I prove myself a law-breaker” (Greek: parabates—a transgressor or one who violates the law) (v. 18). Paul isn’t building up those things which he destroyed. The Judaizers are doing that when they try to superimpose a system of merit (the keeping of the law) on a system of grace (salvation by the grace of God through faith). The two are incompatible.
If Paul were to adopt the belief system of the Judaizers, he would prove to be a law-breaker.
“For I, through the law, died to the law, that I might live to God” (v. 19). When Paul speaks of dying to the law, we recall his Damascus road experience where he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul (Paul’s pre-Christian name) asked who was speaking, the Lord answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). Saul, who had lost his sight during his bright vision, regained his sight when Ananias laid hands on him. Saul received the Holy Spirit, and was baptized (Acts 9:17-18). From that time forward, being born again, Saul/Paul became a new person—dead to the law and alive to Christ.
GALATIANS 2:20-21: I HAVE BEEN CRUCIFIED WITH CHRIST
20 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me. That life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me. 21 I don’t make void the grace of God. For if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nothing!”
“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me” (v. 20a). A number of people have commented that Paul used his letter to the Galatians as his starting point when he wrote his letter to the Romans. Perhaps the best commentary on this verse in Galatians, then, is Paul’s expansion of it in Romans 6:3-11:
“Don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death,
that just like Christ was raised from the dead
through the glory of the Father,
so we also might walk in newness of life.
For if we have become united with him
in the likeness of his death,
we will also be part of his resurrection;
knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him,
that the body of sin might be done away with,
so that we would no longer be in bondage to sin.
For he who has died has been freed from sin.
But if we died with Christ,
we believe that we will also live with him;
knowing that Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more.
Death no more has dominion over him!
For the death that he died, he died to sin one time;
but the life that he lives, he lives to God.
Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin,
but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord”
“That life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith (Greek: pistis) in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me” (v. 20b). In the New Testament, pistis (faith) has to do with the person’s response to the kerygma (the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ). In other words, Christian faith is faith in the Lord Jesus—steering the ship of our lives by Jesus’ star. That is the natural direction for the person who understands that Christ loves us, came to live among us “full of grace and truth,” (John 1:14) gave himself for us on the cross, conquered death through his resurrection, and ascended to his home in heaven where he is interceding for us while planning his coming again in glory.
“I don’t make void the grace (Greek: charis) of God” (v. 21a). Grace (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. The use of charis in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
Greeks often used the word charis to speak of patronage (the support of a patron, such as someone who provided financial or political support). To Greeks, the word charis connoted generosity—generosity that demanded loyalty on the part of the recipient.
It is easy, therefore, to understand why Paul would use the word charis. Christian charis is the gift of salvation by God to all who accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. God, therefore, is the patron—the benefactor. Just as we could never fully repay a person who left us an inheritance of unimaginable wealth, so also we can never repay God for the gift of salvation. However, if a patron were to grant us unimaginable wealth, we could be faithful to the patron by using the money in a way that would be consistent with the patron’s wishes or values. So also, we can be faithful to the God who gives us salvation by living in accord with God’s will.
“For if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nothing!” (v. 21b). This half of the verse explains the first half. To continue believing that righteousness is achieved by adherence to the law would be to “make void the grace of God.” It would amount to rejecting God’s free gift of forgiveness and preferring to earn one’s merit by one’s own efforts. Such a stance would echo the little child saying, “I can do it myself!” While there might be merit in the child’s determination to do something him/herself, there is no merit in the mature person’s telling God, “I can do it myself!” The fact is that we cannot atone for our own sins—only Christ could do that. We cannot earn God’s forgiveness, but can only accept the forgiveness that God offers us. We cannot put ourselves in right relation to God, but can only accept God’s invitation to be his children—to abide under his authority—and to enjoy the privileges associated with being members of his household.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES THIS MAKE TODAY?
The issues of this text are: What will put us in a right relationship with God? What will save us? In the early days of the church, the choices were (1) Jewish law (2) faith in Christ or (3) both. However, Christians today largely agree that faith in Christ is the answer, so it would seem that Paul’s letter to the Galatians is largely irrelevant for us.
But that isn’t the case. While we are faced with different choices today than those of those early Christians, we are nevertheless faced with choices. What do we believe can save us today?
• A president of the right party?
• Income equality?
• Ecological awareness?
• Wealth or celebrity?
• A strong military?
• Defending the right to bear arms (or limiting that right)?
• Legalizing recreational drugs (or tougher prosecution)?
• Conservation of energy and natural resources?
• The list goes on and on.
Those are important issues, but the New Testament tells us that our ultimate salvation depends on the grace of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Perhaps the best statement of this is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he says that we have been “justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:24-25a).
That salvation has two dimensions:
• First, if we have faith in Jesus, we will try to live as he taught us to live. The more people who do that, the better our world will be.
• Second, we will enjoy the opportunity to live eternally in the presence of God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1965)
Cousar, Charles, Interpretation: Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fung, Ronald Y.K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)
George, Timothy, New American Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1994)
Hays, Richard B., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Longenecker, Richard N., Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 41 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1987)
Soards, Marion L., and Pursiful, Darrell J., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Galatians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, Inc., 2015)
Williams, Sam K., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Vol. 9 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
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