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Justification by Faith Alone in Jesus Christ in Galatians 2:15–21

As Providence would have it, I’ll be preaching through Galatians 2:16–21 for a couple of Sundays this month on the doorstep of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. So, to the glory of God, and in honor of the Reformation, I’ll do my best to work through this passage for a couple of weeks and uphold the great gospel doctrine that we are justified by faith alone.

In leading up to this passage, Paul has given an introduction (1:1–5) and a strong rebuke to the Galatians for so quickly running to a false gospel (1:6–10), namely, that one’s righteousness before God depends upon one’s adherence to the Mosaic law, or more generally, what one himself does rather than what Christ has done for him. In responding to this problem, Paul explained that his gospel came from Christ (Gal 1:11–17) and not from Peter, the apostles, or anyone in Jerusalem or Judea (Gal 1:18–2:14). This explanation builds up to Gal 2:15–21, which seems to be the rest of what Paul said to Peter in Antioch in Gal 2:14 (cf. Gal 2:11–14) and rehearsed here for the sake of upholding the gospel to the Galatians.

Here, then, in 2:15–21 is more or less the heart of the letter to the Galatians. Many important concepts are introduced or brought to a head in such a way that Paul can develop them further in the rest of his letter. And if Paul said nothing else to the Galatians, he could have left them with Galatians 2:16 to solve their doctrinal dilemma: “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.”

But rather than just leaving that tremendous statement as it is, let’s look at the whole passage and see it for all its glory.

The Heart of the Message: Justification by Faith in Christ (2:15–16)

Our passage comes off the heels of Paul telling Peter he was wrong to withdraw from eating with the Gentiles (Gal 2:11–14). Peter’s problem was to imply through his behavior that the Gentiles needed to add obedience to the Mosaic law to their faith in Christ in order to be seen as righteous before God. In clarifying the matter further, Paul pointed out to Peter that even their privileged ethnicity as Jews in receiving the law did not make the law effective in bringing about their justification: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know 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.”

To be justified is to be declared by God as righteous, and the works of the law are not works produced by the law but works done in obedience to the law. And while we know that Jesus was perfectly faithful in His obedience to the law, “faith in Jesus Christ” is just that—the believer’s faith in Him and should not be translated as “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” The difference between the two options would be that our own faith is left unmentioned in the matter of justification if we speak only of the righteousness of Christ, not to mention we would be speaking of Christ in way that would be altogether unique in the NT.

Our faith in Jesus Christ is to have faith in who He is and what He has done for us. Not only did He as both God and man live perfectly according to the law, but He also suffered its penalty of death that you and I deserve. To believe, trust, and have faith in Him is to believe in a number of truths: (1) we have violated God’s law and stand condemned before Him; (2) Jesus lived out the law sinlessly and perfectly and merited a righteousness that we could never gain for ourselves; (3) Jesus died an undeserved death on our behalf and was vindicated as sinless at His resurrection (cf. 1 Tim 3:16); (4) His death and righteousness are our own when we believe in Him.

So, in putting these things together, our faith in Christ unites us to Christ and His righteousness becomes our own. The Father obviously approved of His Son when He raised Him from the dead, and we are thus approved and declared righteous by virtue of our standing in Christ. What a truth! 

The Hindrance to the Message: The Sin of Adding the Law to the Gospel (2:17–18)

But there was a problem for the Jews struggling through the implications of this message. They had lived (imperfectly) according to the law for 1,500 years up to this point and found it hard to let it go. In fact, they were gripping to the law so hard that they may have actually accused Christ of being the servant of sin by justifying Jews apart from the law (2:18). That would make Jews sinners (2:17) in just the same way as Gentiles (cf. 2:15).

Paul says it like this: “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!” (2:17). In other words, if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, they were found out by others to be sinners just like the Gentiles, does Jesus then become a servant of sin by justifying apart from the law, a supposedly most egregious sin indeed? Obviously not (2:17).

To clarify, it is not that they are denounced as supposed sinners after conversion for having set the law aside. They accept that they are actual sinners before their conversion and claim as much by seeing themselves just as hopeless as Gentiles when it comes to having a right standing before God. The law is no good, only the righteousness of Christ will do, and trusting in anything else results in something less than God’s approval.

So, when it comes to accusing someone to be a sinner, it’s the other way around. It is not Christ who has sinned in setting the law aside. Rather, the one who has found justification though faith in Christ will become the sinner by adding the law to his faith when only faith was necessary at the beginning of salvation. Paul states, “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (Gal 2:18).

Paul is not a transgressor for having torn down the law. Neither is the idea in this particular setting that he would again be shown a transgressor by once again failing to live up to the demands of the law, true as that would be. Rather, the idea here is that the law was torn down when Paul believed in Christ, and to build it up again would make him a transgressor by effectively denying the righteousness of Christ, which is quite the opposite of calling Christ the servant of sin for setting the law aside.

The Help to the Message: The Role of the Law in Leading to Life (2:19–20)

Before we throw out the law altogether when it comes to justification, we must remember that the law is not useless. After all, is it good when used in a lawful way (cf. 1 Tim 1:8–11). When someone attempts to live according to the law, his sin will show him time and again that he cannot live according to its demands and must suffer its penalty of death. Coming to this realization is actually one of the good purposes of the law. It shows one just how much he cannot attain his own righteousness by keeping the law because he can never perfectly keep it (cf. Gal 3:19–25). In this way he dies to the law, through the law, and is led to live to God in another way (Gal 2:19). Or, as Paul put it, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (Gal 2:19). That other way is justification by faith in Jesus Christ.

Remember that Christ lived out the law perfectly under the era of the law. And remember that He died the lawbreaker’s penalty of death without ever having broken the law. And remember that faith unites us to Christ. So, when we believe, we are united to Christ in His death, and thus we can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20). And it is who we were under sin as exacerbated by the law that died with Him at the cross.

Moreover, our union with Him is to be united to Him in life, so much so that we could even say again with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Even now, while in our physical bodies, we can have be justified by faith in Jesus Christ: “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal 2:20).

And for those who have faith, we are compelled to love the Savior all the more because it is He “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

The Hope of the Message: Righteousness through the Death of Christ (2:21)

Having said the above, we can claim that is actually us who do not deny God’s grace in salvation because we are not seeking God’s declaration of righteousness by living according to the law (cf. Gal 5:4). Were we to try such a thing, we would effectively dismiss the purpose of the death of Christ—to sinlessly die the sinner’s death so that all might live through Him (2:21). As Paul stated, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21).

Parting Words

The Jews’ struggle then is the struggle that so many in our world have today—“Let me do something to gain God’s approval when I one day stand before Him.” For the Jew, they attempted God’s approval through the law. For people today, the principle is the same—doing good works and finding false assurance in what we have done instead of the work of Christ on the cross. May we find our justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone, and may we always see the best of our works for what they are—something infinitely less than the work the Christ did for us on the cross.

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.