Those puzzling verses in Galatians 2

May 8, 2018

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’ve been preaching a sermon series on Galatians, and last Sunday I tackled Galatians 2:15-21. It includes Paul’s first use of the verb “to justify” in the letter (four times in vv. 16-17, plus the noun form of the verb in v. 21). Justification by faith alone is the letter’s most important theme. Paul is dealing with false teachers who’ve infiltrated the churches in Galatia and are teaching that Gentile believers have to add circumcision and observance of Jewish dietary laws and festivals in order to be fully acceptable to God. It’s not that they deny that faith in Jesus is necessary for justification—but just add these few additional things.

Paul, by contrast, argues that if Christians add anything to the gospel of free grace through faith in Christ, they lose the gospel entirely. In fact, they do so at the risk of their very souls: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” The stakes for getting the gospel right couldn’t be higher.

But Paul’s opponents in Galatia, the “Judaizers,” were saying that it was Paul, not they, who had the gospel wrong. Paul is, at best, a second-hand apostle, having learned the gospel—or, rather, not learned it properly, or misunderstood it—from the “real” apostles in Jerusalem before “going rogue” and starting churches independently of the Mother Church and apostolic authority.

So Paul spends 1:11-2:21 arguing for his own authority. He is an authentic apostle, every bit the equal of Peter, James, John and the rest (vv. 1:11-24). In fact, when he presented his gospel to the apostles in Jerusalem—after 14 years of preaching and teaching it—they agreed completely with Paul and endorsed his mission to the Gentiles (vv. 2:1-10). On the basis of Paul’s own authority, he even confronted Peter “to his face” for failing to live up to the gospel (vv. 2:11-16).

Which brings us to the very difficult verses 17 and 18. In the ESV, as literal as English translations get, it reads:

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! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.

There is no scholarly consensus on the meaning of these verses. One possible interpretation relates to antinomianism: If we misconstrue the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying “let us continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1), that’s on us, not Jesus. Jesus will not be a “servant of sin” (or Christ has not therefore “led us into sin,” NLT). The “rebuilding what I tore down” would represent a reversion to the kind of sinful lifestyle from which Christ came to rescue us; living this way would not only be unbecoming of the gospel, it might even signal the kind of backsliding that, if left unrepented, would lead us back to condemnation.

Nevertheless, I am persuaded by the interpretation that Douglas Moo, among others, favors:

Peter, Paul, and other Jewish Christians are seeking to find ultimate justification in their union with Christ and, in doing so, have recognized the implications that Paul states in verse 16: they have abandoned the law as a means of finding that justification. They therefore “find themselves” to be in the same category as the Gentiles (v. 15): “sinners” who do not live by God’s law. But this does not make Christ the servant of sin (in the ultimate sense of that word). This would be the case only if Jewish Christians would “rebuild” the law as a fundamental authority; they would then truly be “transgressors.”[1]

For me, this interpretation makes far better sense of Paul’s ironic use of the word “sinners” in verse 15. I say “ironic” because his point in verse 16 is that “Jews by birth” who possess the law of Moses and seek to follow it are also sinners in need of redemption through faith in Christ. As John Piper said in a sermon on this text, Paul’s use of the word “sinners” in verse 15 ought to have scare quotes around it, as indeed the CSB, NLT, and GNT have it. Paul’s point is not that Gentiles who disregard Jewish ceremonial law are truly sinful as a result (as Moo says, in the “ultimate sense”), only that they would be considered “sinners” under the old covenant—not the new.

In verse 17, therefore, Paul concedes for the sake of argument that Jewish Christians who’ve abandoned the law as a means of justification may now be considered “sinners” under that law—but not in a way that matters. Why? Because Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf. We can no longer come under the curse of the law; Christ became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). Ironically, these Judaizers who attempt to place themselves back under the authority of the law (who “build up what I tore down”) are the ones who are in trouble: because the law can only condemn them: they will be shown to be “transgressors.” Remember James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” There’s no middle ground: we live by faith in Christ or according to the law. The rest of the letter goes to great lengths to make this point.

The ’70s were awesome!

Let me now say a word of praise for the New Living Translation. Given its dubious heritage—as the successor to the hippie-dippy Living Bible paraphrase (not that this child of the ’70s doesn’t love it)—I’m amazed at how solid the NLT is in its interpretive decisions. (Unlike its predecessor, it isn’t technically a paraphrase; it’s a “dynamic equivalence,” thought-for-thought translation, made by a translation committee rather than one individual.) Note how well the NLT captures the preceding discussion in its (loose) translation of verses 17-18:

But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down.

The phrases “because we have abandoned the law” and “the old system of law” are interpretive glosses, but they illuminate the meaning of these verses nicely. In fact, although I wouldn’t recommend the NLT as your first Bible, it’s an excellent second Bible. And I heartily recommend it as a Bible study tool!

1. Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 164.

5 Responses to “Those puzzling verses in Galatians 2”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This is a puzzling passage! I agree that the Judaizers had it all wrong. It is not faith in Christ plus observance of Old Testament “ceremonial” law that saves; in fact, the latter is simply no longer relevant. My only caution is one I have stated previously, and with which I think you agree, and that is that a “faith” which does not result in some works consistent with putting Christ first (accepting him as “Lord” as well as “Savior”) is not a “saving” faith. As James says, “Faith without works is dead.”

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    This is difficult doctrine but, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Law is no longer relevant. Jesus held the Law in great regard. After all, it came from God.

    Matthew 5:17-20

    17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

    Or, Luke 16:17

    17 It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.

    I believe that what Jesus did was nail the condemnation, or curse, of the Law to the cross. He saw that the Jews had created a theocracy, under which the Law became not just a way to live, but also a system of judgement. No one could fulfill it all, so He did, thereby satisfying it in the true sense it was intended.

    The Law cannot save us. We are no longer slaves to the Law. But, if we are saved in Christ, then a great deal of the true meaning of the Law will be reflected in our behavior.

    I do agree that the “ceremonial” aspects of the Law are no longer applicable to us. We are saved by the blood of Jesus, and by nothing else.

    • brentwhite Says:

      We abandon the law as a means of justifying ourselves. Of course it’s relevant—it’s written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Even the ceremonial law is relevant in the sense that it teaches us—as Tim Keller says—how difficult it is to be “pure enough” for God, apart from Christ’s imputed righteousness.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Grant, I have to concur with what Brent says that my “not relevant” as to ceremonial law is an overstatement. I meant that it is not relevant as a direction of how we should currently live. We can eat shellfish now and can trim our beards and don’t have to offer sacrifices, etc., etc. As far as the “moral law” is concerned, I agree that is still “directive” to us as a “schoolmaster.” But Paul is clear that this it not what “justifies” us–that is a matter of faith. (Although true faith necessarily results in good behavior–Ephesians 2:10 follows on the heels of verses 8 & 9 that everyone quotes.).


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