This passage is the transition point in Galatians. Paul began this letter quickly, skipping his usual section of thanksgiving and opening with a sharp rebuke. After more than a chapter of Paul defending his apostolic authority, and after taking a moment to explain the episode where he stood opposed to Peter, he now transitions to describing the central doctrine of Christianity.
In Galatians 2:15-3:14 Paul defends the doctrine of justification by faith. We are only looking at the first part of the first section, where he states the proposition (2:15-2:21). From there he will go on to make an argument from experience (3:1-5), then he gives an example from Abraham (3:6-9). Finally, the argument concludes with a culminating statement that the curse of the law has been replaced by the righteousness of Christ that comes by faith (3:10-14).
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 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.
17 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! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 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. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
This is the Word of the LORD.
So Paul follows the defense of his apostolic authority with an example of his commitment to the truth of the gospel as he stood opposed to Peter (who was undermining that very truth). And then, building to a climax, Paul declares and defends the central doctrine of Christianity: “Justification by Faith.” He closes with some very strong words. If the Judaizers are right about justification coming through the law, then Christ did not have to die at all!
Listen to this comment from Timothy George on this passage:
“What was under dispute at Antioch (when Paul and Peter clashed) was not the burning question in Galatia: not the personal clash between two leading apostles or even the rift between two sections of the church (the “men from James” versus the Pauline party) but rather the one and only basis of salvation for all peoples everywhere.”
Paul has been building his argument. The only reason he felt the need to defend his role as an apostle was in order to make sure his audience would not tune him out at this most crucial point. This is the heart of Galatians. If you can grasp what Paul is saying here, you grasp the central truth of Christianity. But it will take some clarification.
Tim Keller points out that we need to have a clear understanding of the gospel along with all of the difficult vocabulary that goes with it, because grasping the gospel is slippery. Something can be slippery because the object itself is slimy or your hands can be dirty and slimy. Obviously, the Bible tells us the gospel isn’t the problem, but the problem is with us. When the gospel is “easy” to grasp, you may not actually understand it. The fact that even Peter had difficulty applying the gospel makes this clear.
This morning we will only have time to look at the first two verses, vv.15-16. We will begin by considering What We Cannot Live Without. Then we will address What the Law Cannot Provide. And finally, we will see What We All Need.
What We Cannot Live Without
Every one of us is born with a universal problem: 1) God is holy, and 2) We are not. The question is, “How can anyone be right with God?”
Maybe you’re sitting there thinking “Who says I was ever wrong with God?” I would argue that you already know this to be true, even if you don’t like to hear it. Everyone knows this intuitively. There is a standard that you are trying to live up to – and when you are being honest – you will admit that you are failing.
If you ever need an example of this, just watch Michael Jordan’s speech at his induction into the Hall of Fame. Is there a better candidate for someone who proved all of his doubters wrong? He spent almost all of his time, in the speech, calling out everyone who wronged him in the past. He spent very little time thanking those who supported him (including his personal trainer). Afterward, another Hall of Famer said privately, “M.J. was introduced as the greatest player ever and he’s still standing there trying to settle scores.”
It’s one example that the standard we are trying to reach is always beyond our grasp. Michael Jordan could never be satisfied with what he accomplished because he knew there were still some who doubted. What is he doing? He’s trying to justify himself before others. He’s trying to make himself right in the view of everyone else. In an interview with ESPN, several years ago, he said he “would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.” Why? So he can get back to proving that he is the best.
For M.J. It was basketball. But this problem is universal. All of us are affected by it. It may be a standard of beauty we are seeking to achieve. It may be a level of success we are living for. It could be financial security, marital bliss, expert parenting, or any number of goals you are trying to accomplish. When your happiness is gained or lost based upon how close to the standard you are living, you have made a law for yourself.
That is a form of living under the law in order to make yourself right before others. And what it implies is that there is a dissatisfaction with your present condition. Now, all you have to do is see how that is a small taste of what you are doing before God. The only reason basketball, or beauty, or success has any power over anyone is because they have turned those standards and goals into their gods. Whatever it is that you cannot live without is your god.
But what you have to realize is that these things will never provide you with the ultimate satisfaction that you seek. The same can be said for those who try to make themselves right before God by their obedience to the law.
It’s to the law that we now turn our focus…
What the Law Cannot Provide (15-16)
The first thing Paul wants us to realize is that the law was never meant to make anyone right before God. When he refers to the law, he simply means all of the commandments in the Old Testament (Precisely 613 according to Maimonides). But you see, God never expected perfect obedience to these commandments. That’s why the sacrificial system existed in the first place! God gave the sacrificial law to temporarily atone for the failures of his people.
By “works of the law” the Judaizers meant that a person was justified by their obedience to all of God’s law. They must obey the moral law which includes the ten commandments. They must obey the ceremonial law which requires sacrifice and offerings to be made. The entire law must be kept perfectly.
Is there anyone here who would claim to have kept even the ten commandments perfectly? If you say “yes” you just broke the 9th Commandment, which is “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” And know this, Jesus Christ only raised the bar higher. In the sermon on the mount He related anger to murder and lust to adultery. If there was any confidence in their ability to keep the law, Jesus shattered that confidence. There is not an innocent person alive.
Paul points out that regardless of religious and ethnic background, no one – whether Jew or Gentile – can be saved by the law. The law is insufficient for such a task.
One of my favorite novels is Les Miserables. The character who best illustrates strict adherence to the law is Javert (or Russell Crowe for those who have only seen the movie). At one point Javert says, “I’ve tried to live my life without breaking a single rule…” In the end, he finds it to be an impossible standard to live by.
Many of us are just like Javert. Whether we are measuring our lives by the standards laid out for us in Scripture, or some set of standards we have made for ourselves, the results are always the same. You will either be perpetually frustrated by your inability to follow the rules perfectly, or you will re-write the rules making them easier to follow.
Paul reiterates his point three times in these two verses. No one is justified by works of the law. We are completely incapable of justifying ourselves. And this is one target that we cannot bring closer. There is no work we can accomplish that makes us right with God. If “works of the law” were the only way to be right with God, then all of us would be utterly hopeless.
So why did God give the law in the first place? To show us just that! To show us our inability to save ourselves. That’s the point of the law. To bring everyone to the equal recognition that none of us are good. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God! We cannot do anything to change that.
So we cannot live without standards, and yet we will never achieve the standard we are seeking. But there is great news for those who realize this. And that brings us to our last point…
What We All Need
Now, the language Paul uses over and over here is “justify” or “counted righteous.” It occurs three times in these two verses. You find it five times in verses 15-21. It is about being made right with God. And his point is that this happens not by our works, but through faith in Jesus Christ. Again, the law was never meant to justify anyone.
Paul’s argument maintains the same contrast throughout. Are men justified by works of the law or by faith in Jesus Christ? It is a contrast between two human approaches to justification. Do our works make us right with God? Or does our faith allow us to be right with God? I’m setting this up carefully because that contrast informs the next several passages. Paul’s argument can be confusing if you lose sight of this contrast between works and faith.
Martin Luther referred to the doctrine of justification by faith as the ‘chief’ doctrine of Christianity. Since it is so central to our beliefs we need to take the time to understand it well. Luther said this truth should be beaten into our heads continually.
Justification is a legal term. It is a declaration of innocence. It is the opposite of condemnation. It is a judge declaring a person to be “not guilty.”
In religious terms, it is God declaring a person to be right before him. That person is not made righteous, but God considers him to be righteous based on the work of another, namely the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Later in the worship service we will look at what the Westminster Confession of Faith has to say about this doctrine. But listen to what the Heidelberg Catechism Question 60 states: How are you righteous before God? The answer…
“Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. In spite of the fact that my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have not kept any one of them, and that I am still ever prone to all that is evil, nevertheless, God, without any merit of my own, out of pure grace, grants me the benefits of the perfect expiation of Christ (NOTE: Expiation refers to the satisfaction/atonement of God’s wrath that Christ accomplished), imputing to me his righteousness and holiness as if I had never committed a single sin or had ever been sinful, having fulfilled myself all the obedience which Christ has carried out for me, if only I accept such favor with a trusting heart.”
Now I know that is a bit long, but some key points to understand is that we are not made righteous (for we still sin), but we are righteous before God. How is that so:
1. By True Faith (which is resting NOT working)
2. By Pure Grace (which is received NOT earned)
3. By the Imputation of Christ’s righteousness (which is credited to us NOT infused in us)
There is so much rich theology in this truth that needs to be unpacked further. We have only scratched the surface. But this is what it all boils down to: The only way anyone can be right with God is by faith alone in Christ alone.
That is what we all need…
We are all chasing after some standard that we cannot live without. None of us have lived up to the standard of the law of God. But the law was never intended to make one right with God to begin with. Therefore, if no one is saved by “works of the law,” then everyone must be saved by “faith in Jesus Christ.”
It is almost too good to be true. You are saved simply by resting and receiving. The only way to rest is to stop working. You will never be good enough to earn a right standing before God.
The only way to receive is to let go of whatever it is your holding up before God. All your best works cannot bring you one inch closer to God. If you are in Christ, you are as close as you can ever be to God! Let go of everything else and receive the righteousness of Christ by faith.
True faith begins when you repent of your sin and rest in the finished work of Christ. When you do that you will receive His righteousness which can never be removed.