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Summary: Justification. By law, or by Jesus Christ?

THE LIFE THAT I LIVE

Galatians 2:15-21

After giving his biographical testimony (Galatians 1:13-24; Galatians 2:1-10), including an account of his brief contention with Peter (Galatians 2:11-14), Paul appears now to particularly address the Jewish Christians in Galatia: especially the Judaisers among them who had wanted to impose Jewish ritual upon Gentile Christian believers. “We Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles,” he begins (Galatians 2:15).

There is no doubt that the Jews are a people of privilege, as Paul spells out with a breaking heart in Romans 9:1-5. The Jews, he says, are just as much under sin as the Gentiles (Romans 3:9). ‘Not sinners of the Gentiles’ was how they viewed themselves: and Paul also has a handle on what it means for the Gentiles to be outside of those privileges (Ephesians 2:11-12).

The key word in this whole section is the verb, ‘to justify’, which occurs three times in Galatians 2:16-17. In this context, ‘to be justified’ is ‘to be declared righteous before God’. The question is, are we to be declared righteous by the works of the law, or through faith in Jesus Christ?

“We…,” Paul answers, “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith of Jesus Christ…” (Galatians 2:15-16a). The “works of the law” might include circumcision, rules about who we eat with, or anything else in the entire Old Testament. “Through faith of Jesus Christ” may either refer to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, or to our God-given faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8).

The dichotomy here is often portrayed as “faith” versus “works”. This is true in as far as it goes, but the real dichotomy is between “law” (cf. Romans 3:20) and “Jesus Christ” (cf. Romans 3:22). The law incites me to establish ‘a righteousness of my own’, which is self-righteousness; but through faith in Christ we receive ‘the righteousness which is from God by faith’ (Philippians 3:9).

In the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia, Paul had preached of Jesus: “by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). “We…” he says here in Galatians 2:15; and in Galatians 2:16b: “…even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by faith of Christ…”

“Not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law…” Paul emphasises, quoting Psalm 143:2, “no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16c).

People who believe in the doctrine of ‘justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone,’ are often accused of inciting others to lawless behaviour. ‘If the law doesn’t matter,’ the argument goes, ‘then we can do what we like.’ Sometimes those who profess to be Christians live that way, too, making the assertion, ‘it’s covered by the blood’ as an excuse for sin!

The question here is, “But if, while we seek to be justified in Christ, we ourselves are also found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin?” The answer is an emphatic, “No!” (Galatians 2:17). If I go back to the life of sin it is my fault, not Christ’s: “I make myself a transgressor” (Galatians 2:18).

If we are “IN” Christ (Galatians 2:17, Greek), the sinless One, then how can we possibly imagine that we should continue to live as we did before (cf. Romans 6:1-2)? ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away and all things have become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). If we are truly ‘born again’ (John 3:3) then we will be being conformed to His image (Romans 8:29).

Paul aptly describes this as a death, and a resurrection. “For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God” (Galatians 2:19). That is to say that the Law’s penalty of death is fully fulfilled in the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 4:25). Furthermore, we are associated with (or in!) Jesus in His death, and in His resurrection (cf. Romans 6:4).

This is very personal: “I” have been “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). How different from the self-justifying self-righteousness of my former life! The law demanded death, and I am dead to the law in Him. Being “crucified with Christ” is in the perfect tense: a completed act in the past with on-going implications in the present. His sin-bearing sacrifice dealt a death blow to sin in our lives once and for all. Being “crucified with Christ” is the outworking of our commitment to Him in day to day living. I no longer live for self, but for Him.

“Christ lives in me; but that which now I live in flesh, in faith I live, that of the Son of God, who loved me and gave up Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20c, Greek). This is not mysticism but living in union with Christ.

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