Pastor David B. Curtis

HOME | STUDY INDEX

Justification by Faith

Galatians 2:15-21

Delivered 12/19/2004

This morning we are continuing our study of Paul's letter to the Galatians. We need to review, to some degree, our last couple of times together so that our Scripture for today will make sense and flow from the situation going on in Antioch.

If you will remember, Paul, Barnabas, and Titus took a trip to Jerusalem, to the Mother Church, to see the pillars of the Church - Peter, James, and John. The reason for their visit came about because Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to make the trip in order to demonstrate that the mission of those in Jerusalem was the same as the mission given by God to Paul and Barnabas. Even though they were reaching different groups of people, their efforts and their message were the same - they were declaring that people are made right with God through God's grace, and His grace alone.

After the meeting, Paul and the gang went back to Antioch, a largely Gentile city of about 500,000 people. Peter made a trip to Antioch after being shown by God that His grace was reaching out even to the Gentiles. Peter stayed in Antioch for a while and witnessed firsthand the move of God among those whom the Jews had categorized as outside of God's grace.

One day some men came from Jerusalem and Peter was scared of what they would think about him, because he was eating and fellowshipping with Gentiles. Peter withdrew from his Gentile brothers and sisters, and Paul spoke out against Peter's hypocrisy. The pressure to draw back from the Gentile Christians was so great that Paul writes, "Even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy." (Galatians 2:13)

This brings us to our Scripture for today:

Galatians 2:15-16 (NASB) "We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.

Peter's hypocrisy sets the stage for Paul to teach the most basic truth in all of Scripture - the doctrine of justification. The doctrine of "justification by faith" has for centuries been called "the article by which the church rises and falls."

To understand this section of God's Word will require you to give your utmost attention and focus to our time of study today. This is a difficult text and will require some mental labor. We may think that the doctrine of justification by faith is the stuff of elementary Sunday School class discussions, but I will tell you that no teaching of our faith is more neglected or less understood today than this treasure, this cornerstone on which the rest of our faith is built.

For those who believe I may be too dramatic, I would challenge you to go back to your office, your classroom, or your friends and ask them this simple question: "How can I know that I will go to Heaven when I die?" I will guarantee you that the answers you will hear more than any other is this - "Be good. Do good. Try harder." Nothing could be further from the truth. Let's take a look at our Scripture.

Galatians 2:15 (NASB) "We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles;

The word "sinners" here has caused much discussion. If we keep in mind the context of Peter, Barnabas, and all of the good Jewish Christians withdrawing from eating with the Gentiles, it will help us to understand that "sinner" is used here in a limited sense. Paul does not mean that Jews aren't sinners, but Gentiles are. We know this from looking at what Paul said in Romans:

Romans 3:23 (NASB) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Romans 5:12 (NASB) Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned­

I believe that what Paul means here (Gal. 2:15) by "sinners" is that he and Peter, as kosher Jews, were not guilty of the flagrant and constant neglect of the Jewish dietary laws. Gentiles, on the other hand, were all automatically in the category of "sinners" in the sense that they neither knew nor kept the rigorous legal requirements of Jewish life. It is going to be very important in verse 17 to remember that the term "sinners" may not refer to real wrongdoers, since the Jewish laws were no longer in force for believers. So what Paul is saying in verse 15 is that he and Peter were brought up as law-keeping Jews, not as law-neglecting Gentiles, but now both he and Peter have come to "know" that no one can gain a just standing before God on the basis of efforts to keep laws.

Galatians 2:16 (NASB) nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.

Three times in this verse, Paul uses the word "justified." And Paul stresses that we are justified by faith alone, apart from the deeds of the law.

While Christianity and the message of the Bible has been made to emphasize an array of subjects over the past century, its central message has not changed. The message of the Bible is about how sinful men can be brought into a right standing with God and be accepted by Him as righteous.

We can spend our time on other issues that are not central to the Bible. Certainly many of these issues are important and worthy of intense investigation. But everything palls in comparison to this truth of justification by faith. We can master the subject of eschatology, Christian service, loving our neighbors, caring for the needy, and church polity; but if we fail to understand justification, we have missed the central teaching of Scripture and the primary article of the Christian faith.

So what does "justification" mean? The root of the word means: "righteousness." So it certainly has something to do with our "right standing before God." Justification is the exact opposite of condemnation. If we need to be justified, then it goes without saying that our spiritual condition as humans is one of unrighteousness. Our standing with God is not right--neither judicially nor morally. He is the Judge of the universe. It is to Him, who created us, before whom we must answer and be judged. With God's righteousness expressed in the moral law being the standard, none of us has enough personal righteousness to commend ourselves to God. Our nature as sinners keeps us at enmity with God. Our practice of sin continues to offend the holiness of God. We are in need of being put into a right standing with God.

Throughout the Bible, the basic idea conveyed in the word "justify" or "justification" or "righteousness" is that of a legally right standing with God. The word is heavily weighted on the side of the forensic, though it does carry some ethical connotations too. But the ethical follows the forensic (legal), not vice versa. When Paul writes, "Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus...," he is speaking of a person's legal standing with God being declared right.

We find this to be a vital matter when we consider the character of God. Whether we look in the Old or New Testaments, we always find God consistently righteous. "The Lord is righteous..." (2 Chronicles 12:6; Lamentations 1:18). "O Lord God of Israel, Thou art righteous..." (Ezra 9:15). The Psalmist explains that even the legal decisions of God, those based upon His written Law or the law expressed by the righteousness within His nature, are always righteous:

Psalms 19:9 (NASB) The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.

If we could somehow measure infinity, then we could begin to explain the extent of God's righteousness, goodness, holiness, and justice. He is altogether pure; He is holy, holy, holy; He is light without even the least trace of darkness.

As a righteous God, the Lord has responsibilities that go along with His perfect righteousness. One of those is to deal justly with those who break His Law or those who have any rebellion in their natures against His authority. He cannot not be just. He cannot overlook sin without dealing with it judicially or legally. It is part of His whole nature as God to apply justice to His creation.

We sometime bemoan the crooks and criminals who seem to get away with all manner of lawbreaking. They violate every standard of law and order, yet they seem to never be held accountable for their actions. We are reminded, when we consider the nature of God, that He will not allow any injustice to ultimately survive His creation. We may not personally see the justice take place, but we are assured, "Each one of us shall give account of himself to God," and "They shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead," and "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Romans 14:10; I Peter 4:5; Romans 12:19).

The nature of God demands that each sin and each sinner be dealt with legally. The law of God that is bound up in His nature requires that each offense be paid accordingly.

The nature of our offense against the righteous standard of God demands nothing less than the eternal measure of His wrath. You ask, "Why so severe? Is God not a loving, kind God?" Absolutely, we must rejoice that He is a loving, kind God or there would be no chance for mercy! But the severity is found in the nature of our offense. We are not breaking a human law and thus offending only mortal creatures. We have broken divine laws and have infinitely offended the nature and character of God!

With our lives laid bare before Him, what we deserve, what His justice requires, is all too clear. Condemned! Divine judgment! Wrath! The Judge exercises His office with perfect wisdom and justice. He will not condemn the innocent nor overlook the guilty, for His judgment is carried out according to the perfections of His nature. Mistakes in judgment are impossible for Him.

How can a sinful man justify himself before God? Paul's argument is that he cannot. The Jews of the first century had inherited a teaching of self-justification through adherence to the law. For several hundred years the rabbinical scholars had taught the Jewish population that they could acquire merit in God's eyes by certain works of righteousness. They had essentially created a balancing scale model of justification. The works that were accounted as righteous would be added to the merit of a person's life, while their failures would become demerits. In the end, the weight of the balance would determine the person's standing before the judgment of God. There was no assurance for a man that he had more merit than demerits. If there was a tie between a man's merits and demerits, then God would show mercy and press on the merit side of the scale.

This is not far from the thinking of most people in our own day. Most view their standing with God based upon the positive addition of merit by good works outweighing their demerits. Normally, people have elevated views of their merits! They cannot even begin to fathom that they have enough flaws to sink the balance of the scale out of their favor. But the apostle states categorically, "that a man is not justified by the works of the Law...since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified."

We stand before God condemned; our only hope is in Jesus Christ. "Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus!" Now the apostle begins to unfold for us this wonderful, central message of the Bible. It is the fact that guilty sinners are brought into a right standing with God through faith in Christ Jesus.

Because He is gracious, full of mercy, and out of the abundance of His love, God has provided two important things: (1) the solitary way for sinners to be declared righteous before Him, and (2) the solitary way for God to be just in declaring sinners righteous.

How can God be just in declaring sinners righteous? God would be unjust to grant forgiveness to anyone of us apart from His divine justice being satisfied. This is where some well-meaning people err in seeking forgiveness. They appeal to God's mercy and love for forgiveness. But they do not do this on the basis of the justice of God at the cross. They believe that they are sinners, and they believe that God is indeed merciful and loving; so they appeal to God to grant them forgiveness without reference to the work of Christ. They ignore the need for divine justice. They ignore the fact that God is righteous and just; that forgiveness is not granted simply on the basis of God's love. The most-quoted verse in the New Testament attests to this fact:

John 3:16 (NASB) "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Because of God's love, He gave His Son as a satisfaction for sin, so that all of the judicial (forensic) requirements for righteousness might be provided for undeserving sinners. His love does not forgive apart from His justice being fully satisfied.

Because God is merciful, gracious, and loving, He provided the means to satisfy His own righteousness and, at the same time, declare undeserving sinners to be "Not guilty" for all eternity. The way our gracious God accomplished this was by transferring our guilt to His own Son. Our sin was imputed to Him at the cross. As Paul expressed it in:

2 Corinthians 5:21 (NASB) He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

The things that I have done are placed upon Christ's responsibility sheet, and the things that Christ has done have been placed upon my responsibility sheet. Thus, He assumes the responsibility for my sin - and pays the debt I owe; and I am attributed with His righteousness - though, in real life, I am not righteous.

The sinless Son of God took on the weight of our sin and guilt before God. He stood between us and the full measure of the divine wrath as our Mediator.

All that the Judge of the universe requires for you to have a right standing with Him, He has provided through Jesus Christ. All of the merits of Christ to justify you before a righteous God are not obtained by the works of the law, but only through faith in Jesus Christ. Are you trusting fully in Jesus Christ and His merits for your standing with God?

In the context of Paul's account of the disputes at Jerusalem (vv. 3-6) and Antioch (vv. 11-14), the phrase "works of the Law" refers to circumcision and the Jewish purity laws. The Jewish people were identified by their observance of these laws. So what Paul is denying in this context is that identification with the Jewish people through observance of these distinctively Jewish practices is not the basis of membership in the covenant people of God. Paul is appealing to the common affirmation of Jewish Christians themselves that believing in Christ Jesus, not following "Jewish customs" (v. 14), is the basis of being justified.

Being a Christian means that you have a new righteousness, one that has been given to you by God through Christ as a gift of grace. When giving a definition of a Christian, Martin Luther wrote, "A Christian is not he who hath no sin, but he to whom God imputeth not his sin, through faith in Christ" [Galatians, 72]. This imputation of righteousness is part of the doctrine of justification. It is not some extraneous issue for theologians to debate. But it is at the very heart of our understanding and applying the gospel in our own lives. The 1689 "London Baptist Confession" puts it like this:

God freely justifies the persons whom He effectually calls. He does this, not by infusing righteousness into them [the Roman Catholic view], but by pardoning their sins and by accounting them, and accepting them, as righteous. This He does for Christ's sake alone, and not for anything wrought in them or done by them. The righteousness which is imputed to them, that is, reckoned to their account, is neither their faith nor the act of believing nor any other obedience to the gospel which they have rendered, but Christ's obedience alone. Christ's obedience is twofold--His active obedience rendered to the entire divine law, and His passive obedience rendered in His death. Those thus justified receive and rest by faith upon Christ's righteousness; and this faith they have, not of themselves, but as the gift of God [chapter 11, paragraph 1].

It is this righteousness in justification, received by faith alone in Jesus Christ, that is the heart of the gospel. From it, we cannot waver. Concerning it, we cannot offer an alternative. In it alone can we be declared righteous before God.

This doctrine of justification is a divine doctrine. It is too wonderful to have been conceived by the mind of mere men. To think that God Himself became a man, fulfilled all the righteousness demanded by the Law on our behalf, then bore our transgressions and iniquity on the cross so that we might be declared righteous in God's eyes; that is a divine doctrine!

Three times in this passage, God says that we are saved "by" - that is, out of - the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the word "of" has been changed to "in" in the newer translations. In the Greek text, the word "Christ" is clearly in the genitive case, which denotes possession. Strictly translated, the phrase should read: "Nevertheless, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through Christ's faith." In fact, there is no preposition anywhere in this verse that could be translated: "in." But most translations and commentaries, instead of taking the original Greek word at its face value, have arbitrarily changed the word to "in," mainly because the word "of" doesn't fit their understanding of the phrase.

The truth is, God is saying here that we are not justified by our works nor our own faith, but by the faith of Christ. We are made righteous by His faithfulness in obediently doing what was required by God's law to save us and in giving us the faith to trust in Him. The faith that has saved us is the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what Paul emphasizes in:

Ephesians 2:8 (NASB) For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;

It is the faith that is the gift of God. Therefore, when we trust the Lord Jesus Christ, it is the evidence that God has saved us by giving us His faith.

Keep in mind that in our text, Paul is specifically addressing Jews: "...even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law"; Jews who have claimed to put their trust in the only one who could observe the law perfectly, and then died taking the penalty of our sin, despite the fact that He was sinless.

Paul's logic here is, "How can you have it both ways? How can you say that you are not saved by the law and then expect the Gentiles to follow the law as a way to that salvation? Why would you force this notion on them when you claim to be justified through Jesus Christ?"

Galatians 2:17 (NASB) "But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be!

What in the world is Paul saying here? This is a difficult verse. One writer tries to explain it this way:

The fact that the gospel views Jews, as well as Gentiles, as sinners, caused the Judaizers much grief. If this were true, they reasoned, then their standing before God was really better under the old covenant than under the new. It seemed to them that the gospel promoted sin, for in the previous dispensation, under the law, the Jews were righteous, and the Gentiles were sinners. However under the new covenant (the gospel), both Jews and Gentiles are each sinners. Doesn't this mean that if the gospel increases the number of sinners, that Christ must be a minister of sin, promoting sin rather than causing it to cease?

Another writer says, "Does the fact that Jesus Christ freely offers forgiveness of sin and a perfect standing before God on the basis of faith apart from works of righteousness on the part of those who would be so justified mean that Christ has a low view of sin, and that He encourages sin by making justification so free?"

This verse is very difficult, but let me tell you what I see Paul saying. First, who are the "we," who are "ourselves also...found sinners"? The answer is found by looking backwards from this verse for the proper antecedent. It is found in verse fifteen: "we who are Jews by nature." From this statement, we can legitimately gather that Paul is referring to himself and Peter.

The criticism of Paul, Peter, and the other Jewish Christians in that conflict was because of their practice of breaking Jewish purity laws by eating with Gentiles. When we keep this context in focus, it becomes clear that the term sinners refers to their breaking the ceremonial law. The Jewish Christians in Antioch were accused of sinning after their commitment to Christ. They were not accused of all kinds of immoral behavior: sexual immorality, deceitfulness, stealing and so forth. They were accused of a specific sin: breaking the law by eating with Gentiles. Such behavior put them on the same level as Gentiles; they were sinners outside the covenant people of God.

This interpretation makes sense of the accusation that Christ promotes sin. The accusers understood correctly that the Jewish Christians were eating with Gentile Christians, because of their common faith in Christ. Therefore, their faith in Christ led them into the supposed sin of breaking Jewish purity laws. If identification with Christ promoted unlawful identification with Gentiles, then, it was argued, Christ promotes sin.

Paul responds with, "May it never be!" Paul refuses to accept the conclusion that Christ promotes sin. From the perspective of his accusers, eating with Gentiles is sinful, because the law forbids it. But from Paul's perspective, eating with Gentile Christians is not sinful, because the gospel demands it. Withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentile Christians was hypocrisy; it was a violation of the truth of the gospel. The conclusion that Christ promotes sin is wrong, because what was judged to be sinful (eating with Gentiles) according to the law, is not really sinful according to the gospel.

Galatians 2:18 (NASB) "For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor.

This is Paul's argument for why Christ is no agent of sin when he frees us from dependence on law. What had Paul destroyed in the preceding verse? It's clear, isn't it? In seeking to be justified in Christ, Paul had destroyed the law as a means of justification.

The law can no longer be used as the basis for judging the practice of Christians (v. 17). To rebuild the law means to reinstate the law for the supervision of the Christian life. If the law is reinstated, then the Christian is proved to be a lawbreaker.

So the connection between verses 17 and 18 is this: When Christ leads us to trust Him for justification, instead of trusting our own legal efforts, He is not an agent of sin, for what really makes a person a true transgressor of the law is not the neglect of its ceremonial statutes, but the mixing of law and grace. The transgression against God is to presume that you can earn your way into his favor.

If we keep the context in mind, we will see that the transgression referred to by Paul, in verse 18, is actually the rebuilding of the law, rather than the breaking of it. According to verse 14, Peter's real transgression was that he did not live consistently according to the truth of the gospel. The gospel had destroyed all essential distinctions between Jews and Gentiles and rendered inoperative all laws that upheld those distinctions. Whoever observed all the Jewish law - and so maintained such Jew-Gentile distinctions - violated the truth of the gospel.

Therefore, it is not the gracious Christ who is the "minister of sin." Rather, it is those who go back from the principle of grace to the principle of law that are those who promote sin - because "the strength of sin is the law" (1 Corinthians 15:56), and "Where no law is, there is no transgression" (Romans 4:15).

Galatians 2:19 (NASB) "For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God.

If you must die to the law in order to live to God, then clearly it is a transgression to try to build the law again.

Paul declares that his death was accomplished by identification with the cross of Christ - "I have been crucified with Christ" (v. 20). When we interpret "through the law" in light of this declaration, "I have been crucified with Christ," then we can see that death to the law through the law is accomplished by identification with the death of Christ. Paul explains in the next chapter that the law pronounced a curse on Christ as He hung on the cross:

Galatians 3:13 (NASB) Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us-- for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE"--

By my union with Christ in His death, I died to the Law's demands and to its curse. The Law requires death for transgressors, so Jesus Christ died in my place before the demands of the Law. What the Law required, He fulfilled for me. Because I am in union with Christ through faith, then "I died to the Law; I have been crucified with Christ."

His claim hinges upon his identification with Christ's death. He was not, himself, historically and physically put to death by the law; nor was he historically and physically beyond the reach of the law. But, in his identity with Christ, he was both dead by reason of the law and dead to the reach of the law.

If Paul always did what "law" required of him after his identification with Christ's righteousness, there was no advantage to being dead "to the law." The law is no threat to the righteous. It is only a threat to the sinner. Therefore, the only person who benefits from being dead to the law is the person that the law might have some legitimate grievance against - in other words, the person who has sinned. But, since that one who has sinned has already been removed from the jurisdiction of the law by his death with Christ, he can not be penalized by the law-even though he has genuinely sinned. Therefore, Paul's future sins (after his being declared righteous by God) in no way threatened his security before God - because the law of God could no longer reach him (God has His own double-jeopardy clause).

The perfect tense of the verb have been crucified points to the permanent condition of Christians in relation to the law: we remain dead and fully punished. Therefore, the law can no longer condemn us.

Galatians 2:20 (NASB) "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.

"I have been crucified with Christ" - Paul means that in God's reckoning, it is a fact that He has already paid the price for his sin. As one whom God had chosen to save, Christ took upon Himself my sins in His crucifixion. Therefore, in principle, I was crucified on the cross in Christ.

"Nevertheless, I live." Why? Because I have become united to the Lord Jesus Christ, the victorious Savior. Now, Christ is life. And in union with Him, I have been given eternal life. Having eternal life, I will never, never be threatened again by eternal damnation.

Verse 20 is perhaps the best known passage in the entire book of Galatians, and yet few have come to appreciate it in light of the context of Paul's rebuke of Peter, whose behavior was inconsistent with the gospel which it summarizes. The thrust of this verse is the futility of seeking to live righteously under the law to which the saint has died.

Verse 20 outlines, in brief, what the gospel has done to save and to sanctify. When a man is saved by faith in Christ, he has died in Christ to the law; Christ now lives within him, enabling him to live righteously. He is now able to live a new life by faith, not by works. This is vastly superior to the old way of life.

Galatians 2:21 (NASB) "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly."

The word "nullify" here, according to Paul's use of it again in Galatians 3:17, means: "to set aside." We "set aside" the grace of God by attempting to add our human effort to it?

"...for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly."If a person can be saved by baptism, membership in the church, helping the poor, trying to be a good person, or any other work on his own, then Christ died for nothing. Why would the Son of God empty Himself of His eternal glory to become a lowly man and allow Himself to be humiliated, stoned, mocked, spat on, scourged, and finally nailed onto a cross to die, if salvation could be attained by other means?

No, God makes it crystal clear that even if a person rigorously kept the ceremonial law, it would not save him. If a person cannot be saved by keeping God's law, how then can any other human action save him? Salvation comes only through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are saved by grace through faith, and only grace through faith.

To see if you understand the doctrine of justification, let me ask you a question, "How many here were justified by good works? Raise your hands." No one? My hand is raised. Do you understand that every believer in this room was saved by good works; they just didn't happen to be their own good works?

Romans 5:18-19 (NASB) So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19 For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

The good works by which we are saved are the good and perfect works of the law that Christ came to accomplish on our behalf. The law, which demands perfection, was fulfilled in Christ. And when He died as a sinless sacrifice on my behalf, I died with Him when I accepted His sacrifice for me. And it's the same for you and the same for Paul.

And in this sense, we've satisfied our debt to God and can no longer be subject to the law's demands.

Media #309a

Continue the Series

Berean Bible Church provides this material free of charge for the edification of the Body of Christ. You can help further this work by your prayer and by contributing online or by mailing to:

Berean Bible Church
1000 Chattanooga Street
Chesapeake, VA 23322