The apostle Paul is in the midst of an explanation of the gospel of Jesus. He has explained how there are false brethren who are calling for the Gentile Christians to become circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved and belong to the family in Christ. Paul has preached along with Peter, John, and James that this is not the case and is in violation of the gospel. However, Peter was found not walking in line with the gospel and acted hypocritically, along with many other Jewish Christians, which required a public confrontation. This brings Paul to the heart of the message of the gospel that he wants to teach the Galatians which is found in the end of chapter 2 and continues through chapter 3.
Not Justified By Works of the Law (2:15-16)
As we read verse 15, this statement can sound condescending to our ears. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” What does Paul mean by this? The picture is the distinction that exists between the privileges and blessings of belong to the nation of Israel in contrast to the Gentiles who were separated from the promises and privileges found in covenant relationship with God. Paul declares that even we Jews recognize that even possessing all the great privileges of being Israel are inadequate for achieving a state of righteousness before God. Paul is declaring the very message that Peter proclaimed in Acts 15.
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10 ESV)
Galatians 2:15-16 gives us the best definition of Paul’s usage of the phrase “the works of the law.” The letter to the Galatians has been about those troublers who are saying that the Gentile Christians must observe the Law of Moses and be circumcised to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1,5). The keeping of the various ordinances, in particular, the things that identified Israel as distinguished from the rest of the world — circumcision, eating only clean foods, and the keeping of certain days — is what Paul means by “the works of the law.” The point is that if the chosen Israel cannot be justified by the works of the law, then certainly Gentile sinners (that is, those outside of covenant relationship with God) cannot. Why would the works of the Law of Moses be applied to the Gentiles when the Jews could not be saved by this system?
Therefore, Paul makes the important declaration: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” The purpose of the Law of Moses was to show that no person could find justification through those activities. They would need to rely on God to forgive their sins and keep them in relationship with him. Our spiritual dilemma is that a person is totally incapable of overcoming one’s own sinfulness. We cannot by our actions makes ourselves right before God. There is nothing we can do to clear ourselves of our guilt. Performing circumcision or eating only clean foods did not make one right before God. Paul made this very point to the Roman Christians also.
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19–20 ESV)
Therefore, in verse 16 Paul says that the Jewish Christians (we) have believed in Christ so that they can be justified by faith. They did not believe in Christ in order to be justified by the works of the law because that system does not justify anyone. Paul will explore this in more detail in chapter 3. But the point is that the covenant of Christ cannot be turned into the same faulty system of justification by works. Right standing before God is only found through faith in Jesus. The Gentiles are in no different of a position than the Jews in needing to be justified by faith.
The Law Makes Us Sinners (2:17-19)
Paul presses this point further in verse 17. To understand what Paul is saying we need to keep the context in mind. Peter and some of the Jewish Christians have separated themselves from eating with Gentile Christians because of the influence of these troublers who have come from Jerusalem. Verse 17 addresses the implications of this teaching by asking a question. If we are sinners as we endeavor to be justified in Christ (and not by works of the law and therefore ignoring those works like circumcision and eating only clean foods), then Christ is also a servant of sin! If eating with Gentile Christians their unclean foods makes us sinners, then Christ is also a servant of sin.
Paul proves this point by implication and by argument. The implications are evident. Jesus himself taught that a person was not defiled by what one ate. “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18–19 ESV) The Lord is the one who gave Peter the vision instructing him three times to eat unclean foods (Acts 10:12-16). If a Jewish Christian became sinners because of fellowshipping with a Gentile Christian, then Christ himself is a minister of sin because that is the message Jesus taught himself.
Paul now argues that he is the sinner if he rebuilds what he tore down, that is the Law of Moses and the works of the law contained in it. Rebuilding the Law of Moses makes one a sinner, not saved. There is no justification by reverting to the Law of Moses and trying to reestablish a covenant that was demolished by Christ. The Law makes one dead but it is Christ who makes one alive (2:19). The Law destroys all hope of salvation by works, forcing me to cry out for salvation another way. Paul would tell the Romans that when we die with Christ we are dying to the Law (Romans 7:4). Union to Christ and his death is our death to the Law and all its requirements (Colossians 2:13). These concepts will be further elaborated on in Galatians 4.
Crucified With Christ (2:20-21)
Now the apostle Paul draws us into the amazing result of being in Christ:
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, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)
Here is another summary of the gospel message that Paul has boldly proclaimed. Justification by faith means that we are no longer alive. We no longer follow our desires. We no longer control our life. The reason this must be the case is because our lives have been enslaved to sin. We are condemned under the law. We cannot justify ourselves. Our actions are fully condemning and utterly sinful. Our old lives must be put to death so that we are not the one who are living this life but Christ is. This is our life banner. Christ has made me alive and the life I live is by faith in him. What identifies a person as a child of God is not the works of the law (as they did under the Law of Moses), but faith in Jesus. Faith is the identifying mark that shows we belong to Jesus. Faith is seen as Christ alive in us and the putting to death our old ways, desires, and life. Faith is what shows we belong to God. This is what matches us to Abraham because the life of faith is what showed him to belong to the promises of God. What marks a person as belonging to Jesus is not baptism, because we can compel people to be baptized. We see this today where we see infants and children baptized. Faith is the identifying mark. Faith in Jesus to give one’s life to him and crucify self is the basis for our obedience to his covenant. True faith will generate repentance, confession, baptism, and all the other acts that Jesus has called us to do and be because he is alive in us now. We know that we are in relationship with Jesus because we can point to the faith in our lives that is moving us to love him and give ourselves to him because he loves us and gave himself for us. Verse 20 is so powerful and so personal. Jesus loved me and gave himself for me. So I am dead to self and live by faith in Jesus.
Therefore, returning to the Law of Moses and any of its works is a rejection of the grace of God (2:21). Why did Christ die if we can go back to the works of the law system? If I can find justification by circumcision, by eating clean foods, or by any other action, then why did Christ die? The point of the cross is that we cannot keep the Law at all and are only able to receive justification by faith. Salvation is by grace alone!
Justification by faith changes everything for us. This is the part of the gospel that brings life into our sinful, dead lives. In spite of our sinfulness we can be declared righteous and stand justified in the sight of God. But may we never think that our justification is by our accomplishment of particular works. God justifies us. We do not justify ourselves. Our hope is in Christ and we put our faith in him. Our lives are forever changed as we continue to trust in the promises of God. Pursue holiness and conform your life to the ways of Jesus because he loves you and gave himself for you.