Epistles: Justified by Faith, Not by Law (Galatians 2:15-21)

Paul explains that Jews are saved by faith, not by keeping the law: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners[8]; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ[9], so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ[10] and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (vv. 15-16).

Paul’s first statement about “justification” is that it does not come through the law. This negative way of introducing the term suggests that it was not Paul’s original way of explaining the gospel. Rather, his opponents were using the word, saying that people could be justified (or declared righteous) only by keeping the law.[11] Paul uses their terminology, but turns it around. Even those who try to keep the law cannot be justified by doing the law, because everyone fails at some point or another.

We cannot claim to be righteous on our own merits — if we are going to be declared righteous, it must be on some other basis. That is why the Jewish believers, like the Gentiles, put their trust in Christ, not in themselves. The implication here is that since Jews and Gentiles are accepted by God on the same basis, for the same reason, then they ought to accept one another. Jews are not required to eat Gentile foods, but they should be willing to sit down at the same table!

A perfect source of righteousness

We are not justified by keeping the law. Does that mean that God doesn’t care whether we sin? No. Paul asks, “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!” (v. 17).[12] We are justified in Christ, by being united with him, so that he shares his righteousness with us. When we trust in Christ rather than ourselves, we admit that we are sinners, and that we cannot be declared righteous on our own merits. God accepts us even though we are sinners, but his pardon should not be interpreted as permission to sin. (The opponents were apparently saying that Paul’s gospel encouraged people to sin.)

Paul’s next statement is puzzling: “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (v. 18). It seems that Paul was accused of being inconsistent, but it isn’t clear what he is referring to.[13] An inconsistency would prove that Paul broke the law either before or after his change.

His point seems to be about sin and the law, for his next statement is: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (v. 19). Elsewhere, Paul explains that people die to the law through Christ (Romans 6:3; 7:4). Christ suffered the worst penalty of the law on our behalf, and it has no further claim on us. Since we died with Christ, the law has exacted its penalty on us. But this does not mean that we are free to live however we please — rather, it means that we are to live for God. Paul will elaborate on that in the last third of his letter.

Paul explains his new outlook on life: “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 [literally, by the faith of the Son of God], who loved me and gave himself for me” (v. 20). Paul no longer views himself as an individual trying his best to keep the laws of God. That old approach was flawed, and it died with Christ. Paul considers all his previous merits as good as dead (see Philippians 3:7), and his life has value now only as it is empowered by Christ, only as it is in union with Christ.

He was united with Christ in his crucifixion, and he is united with Christ in his resurrection. Whatever good he does, even his faith/fulness, is from Christ living in him. The reference point for Paul’s life is not the law, but the fact that the Son of God loved Paul and gave himself to save not just the whole world, but for Paul himself. It became personal for Paul. Christ gave himself to save Paul, and when Paul started to believe that, he abandoned his own agenda for life and began to live for God, letting his life be directed by Christ. This emphasis on Christ does not promote sin — it promotes a radically God-centered life.

Paul concludes: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (v. 21). There is a contrast: Either righteousness is based on the law, or it is based on grace. Either it is earned, or it is given. And Paul figures that if there was any way on earth that people could get righteousness by keeping laws, then Jesus died in vain — and that is simply unthinkable.

Paul had seen proof with his own eyes that Jesus was alive, that God had given him resurrection life ahead of everyone else, which meant that he was the Messiah. And God would not let the Messiah suffer the most ignominious death unless it were absolutely necessary. The fact that God let his own Son be crucified was proof to Paul that righteousness could be attained in no other way. Salvation comes through Christ, not through the law!

Things to think about

  • Why can’t people be declared righteous on the basis of keeping the law? (v. 15).
  • If “I no longer live,” why does it matter how I live? (v. 20)


[8] “The phrase hardly expresses Paul’s own view of Gentiles, and should probably be heard as an echo of what the group from James had said” (James Dunn, Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians [Cambridge, 1993], 74).

[9] The Greek says “the faith of Jesus Christ,” and some scholars take this literally — that people are saved by the faith/fulness that Jesus himself had (the Greek word can mean either faith or faithfulness). See Hays, 239-240. This would be similar to saying that his righteousness is imputed to us. We are saved by what he has done, not by something we do (see the last half of Romans 5:19). We need faith, but our faith is always imperfect — it cannot save us, so we must trust in Christ. Our faith and his faithfulness go together.

[10] Again, the Greek says “faith of Christ.” If the meaning is our faith in Christ, the verse is repetitious. If the meaning is his faithfulness, then the verse says that we trust in Christ with the result that we are accepted on account of his faithfulness, not on account of our works. Paul may be playing on the two meanings of the word.

[11] “Before mentioning the positive basis on which a person can be justified, or ‘righteoused’, Paul emphasizes the negative basis on which such justification is not possible. This order may well reflect the fact that the statement is made in a context where Paul is arguing precisely against those who do think that ‘the works of the law’ are necessary for all who would be members of God’s people” (David Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul [2nd ed.; T & T Clark, 2006], 77). Paul apparently had not used the word justification when he was actually in Galatia.

[12] Since the original Greek did not have any quote marks, it is not clear how much of this passage was spoken to Peter in Antioch. The NIV puts the ending quote mark at the end of v. 21, but it is possible that vv. 15-21 are an expansion of the original statement. These verses seem to speak to the Galatian situation better than the one in Antioch. “Paul merges his response to Peter into the opening statement of his appeal to the Galatians…. Galatians is what he should have said to Peter at Antioch had time and sufficient reflection allowed it” (Dunn, 73). On the other hand, Hays thinks that the quotation extends through v. 21 because Paul continues to use first-person pronouns as if he is speaking to a Jewish audience — but he notes that “the desired effect is that the Galatians will hear the speech to Peter as being addressed to their situation as well” (Hays, 230).

Paul never tells us whether Peter agreed with him; most scholars conclude from this that Peter did not agree (Hays, 231). Some Jewish Christians maintained separate churches for several centuries after Christ.

[13] Is he talking about rebuilding a barrier between Jews and Gentiles? Or were opponents saying that Paul would change his teaching on the law? Or is he using a proverb to talk about rebuilding sin, after preaching that Jesus died to destroy it?

Author: Michael Morrison, 2007, 2012

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