Galatians 2:15-21 is the last argument that Paul gave to support his claim that he was a slave of Christ in Galatians 1:10. This section also serves as a transitional passage from Paul’s defense of his apostolic authority to his defense of the gospel.
Paul’s primary contention here is that even though justification is by faith alone apart from the works of the law, Christ did not suddenly become a minister of sin, because those who died to the law will live to God. This in turn, will in essence also support his claim that he’s a slave of Christ because he no longer lives for himself. That is, by the very definition and effects of his gospel message, he can’t be a man pleaser. He couldn’t have invented this just to please the gentile sinners because the gospel have a transformative effect to those who believe. They will live to God
15 We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, [therefore] even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
We can construe this section as part of Paul’s response to Peter’s hypocrisy in verses 11-14. Paul not only told Peter what was wrong with his actions but also reminded him of what the gospel is and what virtually he’s rebuilding by withdrawing fellowship with the gentiles, namely a return to the Law.
So Paul begins in verse 15 with the recognition of their privileged status as Jews. He said “We are Jews by nature and not Gentile sinners.” Jew by nature only means a Jew by birth. But when he said that they are not Gentile sinners, he’s not saying that they are not sinners in the absolute sense of the word but rather he’s just borrowing the phraseology of the Judaizers. Jews think of Gentiles as unclean and sinful. So he’s drawing the attention of the Judaizers in Galatia. Now Paul said in verse 16 that even though they are Jews by birth, they know that the way to be justified is the same for both. Man is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus. The last clause of verse 16 makes the denial crystal clear. He said “since by works of the Law no flesh will be justified”.
But are we justified by Christ’s faithfulness or our faith in Christ? The word “faith” appears twice in verse 16 as the head noun of the genitives Jesus and Christ, and once in verse 20 as the head noun of the genitive phrase Son of God. Scholars are divided on whether to treat the genitives “Jesus”, “Christ”, and “Son of God” as subjective or objective. Meaning is it Christ’s(subjective genitive) faithfulness or our faith in Christ(objective genitive)?
To answer this question, we must ask first what’s being contrasted with the word faith? In verse 16 it is contrasted with works of the law in both instances. Now we can also see the verb form of the word faith here and it is being modified by the prepositional phrase “in Christ Jesus”, which is the same as saying that the object of the act of believing is Christ. It says “we have come to believe in Christ Jesus.” Not only that, it is somewhat contrasted to the works of the law too because the reason he gave for believing in Christ was that by works of the law no one will be justified. Therefore it is not a stretch to say that the genitives are objective. Verse 16 talks about our faith in Christ Jesus.
In verse 20, the grammatical construction literally is “in/by faith I live of the Son of God”. If Paul wanted to refer to the faithfulness of Christ he would have use a different word order. He would have stated “I live by faith of the Son of God.” So what’s in view here really is our faith in what Christ did on the cross as we will see in the following participles; “who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Therefore both instance talks about our faith in Christ Jesus.
17 But if while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found to be sinners, is Christ then one who encourages sin? Absolutely not! 18 Because if I rebuild those things I once destroyed, [Then] I prove myself to be a transgressor.
Now Paul anticipates an objection from the Judaizers in verse 17. He says “But if while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found to be sinners, is Christ then one who encourages sin?” Then Paul’s reponse was “Absolutely not!” But what is the meaning of “seeking to be justified” and “found to be sinners”?
There are two possible interpretations as to what they mean.
First, it could be interpreted as a reflection of what happened in their conversion, namely that at that moment, Paul, Peter and the other Jewish Christians found themselves to be sinners—that is, they understood that they were truly as sinful as the Gentiles, and in need of Christ alone for justification.
Second, it could be that what’s in view here is a post-conversion situation where they are seeking to be justified in the sense of being proven righteous in Chirst but it would still be apart from works of the law, they therefore “find themselves” to be in the same category as the Gentiles(verse 15): “sinners” who do not live by God’s law.
I’m leaning towards option two because of how Paul defended his strong negative response in verse 17 where he denies the conclusion that Christ promotes sin and not obedience to God. That is, instead of asserting in verse 18 the necessity of works of the law in order to show that Christ doesn’t condone sin, he did just the opposite of it. He asserts that by erecting the law, we prove ourselves to be transgressors. Paul says “because if I rebuild those things I once destroyed(referring to the law), then I prove myself to be a transgressor.” Notice the words “rebuild” and “once destroyed”. Unbelievers cannot rebuild what they yet to destroy. The word for destroy here means to do away with. Therefore it is clear from these words that Paul is talking about a post-conversion situation in verse 17. But, how does verse 18 gives support to verse 17? Why is rebuilding the law a transgression? And why can’t we infer from the abandonment of the works of the law in this side of conversion that Christ would become one who encourages sin? Or to be more precise; how can we maintain the grace of God without making Christ looks like a promoter of sin? Sandwiched between verse 18 and verse 21 is the answer. Verses 19-20 supports both the preceding verse and what follows.
19 Because through the law I died to the law in order that I may live to God. 20 [That is] I have been crucified with Christ, and [as a result] it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, [therefore] the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and [as a result] gave Himself up for me.
First, if I build up again the law, I prove myself to be a transgressor because through the law I died to the law. Death frees us from the law(ie. 1 Corinthians 7:39). So if we try to use the law as the norm for how to conduct our lives, we prove ourselves to be sinners because we’re condemning ourselves by it. For there is now no more condemnation in Christ according to Romans 8:1-4.
Second it will not lead to the conclusion of the Judaizers in verse 17 that Christ would become a servant of sin, because the very purpose of dying to the Law is so that we might live to God. Verse 19 says; “through the law I died to the law in order that I may live to God.” Dying to the law is not an end in itself. It’s meant to lead us to live to God. Therefore rather than being a means to that end, the law becomes a hindrance to it.
According to Douglas Moo: ‘“I” would be a transgressor if “I” rebuilt the authority of the law because (γάρ, gar) “I” am in a totally new relationship to the law. “I” have experienced a reorientation of values so radical that it can only be compared to death and new life: “I have died to the law,” and “I live for God.” This extraordinary transformation comes through identification with Christ’s own death: “I have been crucified with Christ.”’
But when did we through the law died to the law and what does live to God means? Verse 19-20 gives us the answer.
Paul says in the last clause of verse 19 that he was crucified with Christ. We died to the law bacause of our union with Christ. Romans 8:2-4 says that God condemned sin in Christ’s flesh in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us. Or Galatians 3:13, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. Romans 7:4 have the same idea therefore in Romans 7:6 Paul can assert that we are freed from the Law.
So Douglas Moo asserts that “When Paul therefore claims that he has “died to the law,” he means that he has been released from the binding authority of the law of Moses. How foolish, then, for Peter, or any other Jewish Christian, to “rebuild” that authority again (v. 18)! “The question of transgressing the law does not arise for one who has died in relation to the law””
Then verse 20 gives us the answer as to how we live to God. As a result of being crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me. Therefore the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. In other words, abandoning the law in this side of conversion will not lead to licentiousness because those who died to the law no longer live for themselves.
According to John MacArthur ; “The life I received by faith I now also live by faith. The Greek verb behind live is in the perfect tense, indicating a past completed action that has continuing results. When a believer trusts in Christ for salvation he spiritually participates with the Lord in His crucifixion and in His victory over sin and death. That is why, the apostle continues, the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”
Again Romans 6 and Romans 7:4 speaks of the same thing; “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ in order that you may belong to another, to Him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.”
Therefore in verse 21 we can still maintain that we do not nullify the grace of God because if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.
There are two ways to dishonor Christ or nullify grace. One is by going back to the law not only for our acceptance with God but also for using it as the norm by which we live our Christian lives. Second, by living as if Christ is not living in us.
Many of us fall or might have fallen already on one of the two and sometimes both if we are inconsistent.
In the first instance, we thought of being dead to the law as means only to justification but after that, we would use that very same law to regulate our lives. Or to put it in the language of Galatians 3:2-6, “having begun by the Spirit, are we now being perfected by the flesh?” Now let me make this perfectly clear, first, what I meant by works of the law was the observance of the Mosaic law as a unit. I don’t just mean the dietary laws. Second, what I meant by works was working apart from the power of the Spirit. I say that because “work” in itself is not wrong, the law in of itself is not evil. After all we are under the law of Christ. But we must obey God not because of the sway of the demands of the law but because of the sway of the Spirit. So no matter what theological persuasion you’re in with regards to the law(NCT,CT), the real issue is the means by which we obey God. Do we still rely on our own flesh or are we relying now on the power of the Spirit?
The other pitfall is licentiousness. I mentioned already that even though we are no longer under the Mosaic law, we are under the law of Christ. We don’t belong to ourselves. We’re bought by the blood of Christ and He is now living in us. So don’t act as if Christ is not living in you! Christ set us free not only from the law but from sin. That’s why there’s Galatians 5 and Galatians 6!
The lawless think that they glorify the grace of God when they live in a lifestyle of sin, and the legalists think that they glorify the grace of God by strict compliance to the law. No! Both reliance on works of the law and lawlessness will nullify the grace of God. Grace is magnified not only because it brought us freedom but also because it brought us transformed lives.