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Galatians 2:15-16

March 14, 1999

Text Comments

v.15     It is hard to know whether to take vv. 15-16 as part of what Paul said to Peter, or as Paul’s own summary of the issue that was and is in dispute.

            “Jews by birth” in this context, of course, means “Jewish Christians.” Formerly, there was a barrier between them and the Gentiles: they had the law, the covenants, the temple worship, the promises, as Paul puts it in Romans 9. “Gentile sinners” may be a quotation from the vocabulary of the law-abiding Jews of Paul’s day. [So also Jesus: “tax collectors and sinners.”] But now that Paul, Peter, Barnabas and the others have put their faith in Christ, they know that in the matter of salvation, of justification before God, of access to God’s saving righteousness, there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, at least none regarding the salvation of God.

            Now, we have already here a question that we will bypass at this point because we will have many occasions to consider it later. When Paul speaks of “Jews by birth” and thinks of them as they were and as they thought before they came to know Christ, does he mean Jews who rightly understood the religion of Moses and the OT or is he speaking of Jews, like himself, who had denatured and corrupted that evangelical faith into a system of works-righteousness? I’m quite sure he means the latter. He was a Jew — a Jew in very good standing — for a long time before he himself understood that both Abraham and Moses taught justification by faith and not by works. This is one of the grand questions of NT interpretation and bears mightily on the right understanding of Galatians, though we meet the question at many places in the NT. For example, in a related text to which we have already made reference several times in these studies — Acts 15 and the account of the Jerusalem Synod, met to discuss the very question at issue in Galatians — Peter says to the circumcision party, “why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” Does Peter mean by “yoke” the Mosaic law itself or does he mean the legalistic, ritualistic principle and practice that had corrupted the Mosaic law and turned it into a religion of works-righteousness? I’m quite certain Peter meant the latter, not the former, and was making no complaint whatsoever about the true religion of Moses. There was nothing wrong with that. Jesus and the apostles are not represented ever in the NT as being in a contest with truly evangelically minded Jews, — such Jews as Zechariah, Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna — Jews whose theology of grace and salvation and whose spirit of faith and humility were the same as Abraham, David, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Rather, his contest was with the Jews of that day who had departed from that faith and that theology. Christ and Paul were calling them back to the true understanding of Moses, not away from it.

v.16     “observing the law” is literally “the works of the law.” Paul had no word such as we do, for “legalism.” So what is meant by “works of the law” has to be deduced from the context. Obviously the phrase means simply “those actions that are required by or commanded in the law of God.” In connection with justification, “works of the law” mean what we mean by “legalism”, that is, the notion of obedience earning or meriting God’s favor. This is particularly important in contexts where Paul will go on, as he does here, in v. 19, to speak of “dying to the law”. Is Paul saying that the law no longer serves any purpose in the Christian life, as some Christians say, or is he saying that the gospel has brought an end to my thinking that I can earn my own salvation? Surely the latter is what he means. We’ll talk a great deal more about that, of course.

            Often when Paul uses terminology like this — “works of the law”, sometimes even “law” itself — he means, in context, as one writer has put it, “the upward striving of human religion and morality, [which] therefore colours all human activity with sin, for it represents man’s attempt to scale God’s throne” [Barrett, Romans, 129 cited in Bruce, 138]. But that, of course, was not the religion or the salvation that was taught in the law and the prophets. Indeed, the prophets were a grand protest against that very thought!

            The last phrase, “by observing the law no one will be justified” resembles but is not a precise quotation of Psalm 143:2 (LXX 142:2).

Here, in these two verses, we have, for the first time, a precise statement of the issue that Paul is addressing in Galatians. We have been told already that the dispute concerns the freedom of Gentile Christians from Jewish ceremonial regulations, but we have not until now been told precisely what Paul understands to be at issue in that dispute. Here he says it straightaway.

The issue is: how is a person justified? This is Paul’s first use of the terminology of justification in Galatians. Does justification come by faith or by works? That is the issue. And, obviously, Paul is charging the judaizers with teaching that justification comes by works. As we have said before, whether they would have described their teaching in just that way is an open question. But Paul saw it as amounting to justification by works.

It is also interesting and highly important that Paul seems to assume that there are only two answers possible to this question of how sinners can be justified before God: works or faith; there is no other alternative. Faith plus works, which is what the judaizers taught, is, in fact, simply another form of justification by works. This is an extraordinarily important point for the discussions going on today between evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics. It is not enough to say that someone believes in justification by faith if he does not mean justification by faith alone. We’ll get to that. Clearly here and everywhere else Paul takes the view that justification is by faith and not by works. He does not deny that there must be good works in a Christian’s life. He will make that point directly later in this same letter. But he does deny with all possible emphasis that good works contribute to justification, to our pardon and acceptance with God.

This point is of supreme importance because the idea of justification by works can take an almost unlimited number of forms. It is, in fact, the common doctrine of all the world’s religions.

In 1901 Professor Max Muller, Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, said this in his speech to the British and Foreign Bible Society:

            “I may say that in my forty years fulfilling my obligations as Professor of Sanskrit… I have dedicated myself to the study of the holy books of the East as much as any other person in the world. And I venture to say of this collection, what I have found to be the key-note, the one agreement of all of these so-called holy books of the East — whether the Veda of the Brahmins, the Puran of the Siva and Vishnu, the Koran of the Muslims, the Zend Avesta of the Zoroastrians — that the key-note, the one agreement, which one sees throughout all of these, is that salvation is through works. They all teach that salvation must be purchased and that the purchase price is one’s own works and merit. Our own holy book from the East, our Bible, is from beginning to end a protest against this doctrine. Good works are, to be sure, required in this holy book from the East, indeed, demanded more emphatically than in any other of these holy books, but they are only the outpouring of a thankful heart. They are only a thankoffering, only the fruit of our faith. They are never the ransom price of the true disciple of Christ.’ Let us not shut our eyes to what is noble and true, and what is sound in those other holy books, but let us teach the Hindus and the Muslims and the Buddhists, that there is only one holy book of the East, in which they can put their trust in that weighty hour in which they must cross alone into the invisible world. It is that book that contains the certainly true message, worthy of all acceptance, that is valid for all mankind, men, women and children and not merely us Christians, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” [Cited in Bavinck, GD, iii, 553n.]

But justification by works is not the message of non-Christian religions only. We know already from the Bible that the true religion revealed by God in his Word is always susceptible to corruption in just this way — a turning of the message of divine grace into a message of works, a message sinful men are by nature much more comfortable with and agreeable to. Israel had done that countless times — this was the force of every one of her dalliances with idolatry (paganism in all its forms is a theory of justification by works — by acts designed to win the approval and reward of the deity). And Judaism had done it again in a non-pagan form after the cruder forms of idolatry were wrung out of her by the exile to Babylon.

Jesus confronted a Judaism that was so legalistic that it had no place any longer for a redeemer who would die for the sins of the world. And Paul will tell us that he himself was born and raised on a Judaism that taught justification by works. The message of justification by faith was a revolution to him even though he was a graduate of the best Jewish seminary of his day!

Justification by faith is so unnatural a doctrine that it is often given up by churches and by people who claim still to believe it! It is the natural religion of the human heart. Robert Traill, the Scottish Covenanter and theologian, who wrote a splendid short treatise on justification in 1692, made this point:

            “‘all the ignorant people that know nothing of either law or gospel’, ‘all proud secure sinners’, ‘all formalists’, and ‘all the zealous devout people in a natural religion’, line up together as ‘utter enemies to the Gospel.'” [Cited in Packer, “Justification in Protestant Theology,” Here we Stand, 86-87. The full text in Works of Robert Traill, i, 272-273.]

And so it has been ever since. There is as much of this justification by works in so-called Christian churches as there is justification by faith, though few would come out and say that such is their teaching. [This is the glaring improbability in the recent assertion of scholars such as E.P. Sanders and others, that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not legalistic. This position not only has to wrench a large number of texts into virtually unrecognizable shapes, it not only has to deny the presentation of Jesus’ ministry and of Judaism in the four Gospels, it has to ignore the fact that legalism is the common default position of all men most of the time. Christianity has collapsed into legalism more times than we can count; the one thing that Jewish legalism in the first century is not is surprising!

Now, then, here in Paul’s thesis statement. And in it there are a few things to be observed in a preliminary way, before moving further into the argument Paul is going to advance in favor of his thesis.

First, specific words are often crucial to the proper understanding of theological concepts, but this is true to a special degree in this case.

A great deal of the debate about justification by faith concerns the precise meaning of the term justification and its related verbs and adjectives. Many of you are aware of the debate. It concerns whether “to justify” means “to make righteous” or “to declare righteous.” “Justificare” the Latin word used to translate Paul’s Greek here in the Vulgate means “to make righteous.” This is one of the things that so confused Luther as he was trying to figure out what Paul was teaching about justification. The medieval theologians, partly under the influence of that translation [there were other fateful translations; e.g. “paenitentiam agite” = “do penance” for “repent” in Matthew 4:17], defined justification as pardon plus inner renewal (i.e. the believer is made a righteous person in fact, in himself by the grace of justification that came through baptism, etc.). Luther knew he was not righteous in himself; that his conduct and his spirit was not righteous, and so he concluded that he was not justified and could not be. If justification meant to make righteous, then he wasn’t justified because he knew himself to be not a righteous man.

The Reformers, returning to Paul’s language and argument realized that Paul was taking the word and its derivations, as usually before in the Bible, (verb, to justify; noun, justification; adjective, just or righteous) in a forensic sense: to declare righteous. Justification, in Paul’s usage, is the action of a judge, who, as we read in an important OT text in Deuteronomy 25:1, condemns the guilty and justifies or acquits the righteous. That declaration is based on the facts of the case. The man who is righteous is justified, the man who is not is condemned.

And this is how justification is tied to Christ’s work for us as our Redeemer. Paul can use justification in that sense of sinners being acquitted or declared righteous because that justification, that declaration of righteousness, he taught is based on the communication to us of Christ’s righteousness — “the righteousness from God”, the benefit of Christ’s atoning work on our behalf. “He who knew no sin, became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) The judge acquits us of guilt because Christ’s work for us has been reckoned to us and to our account.

As Luther put it:

            “This is that mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners, wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s, and the righteousness of Christ is not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied himself of his righteousness that he might clothe us with it, and fill us with it; and he has taken our evils upon himself that he might deliver us from them.”

This is the sense of Paul’s powerful and paradoxical statement in Romans 4:5 that God “justifies the ungodly” — the very same phrase used in the OT (Exodus 23:7; Isaiah 5:23) for a corrupt judgment that God will not tolerate. God must judge righteously. He cannot acquit the guilty. He must punish those who deserve punishment; it is the holiness of his own nature that requires it. But there are none in the class of fallen human beings who do not deserve divine wrath — all are sinners and guilty before God. The prospect is of universal condemnation, of Jews and Gentiles alike, for the Jew who breaks the law is no more acceptable to God than the Gentile. This is Paul’s argument in Romans 2-3. But a way is found for God to be just, as he must be, and at the same time to be the justifier of the ungodly, and that way is Christ’s life and death in the place of these sinners. This justification — declaring a man right with God and acquitted in the judgment — is really an eschatological act, the last judgment brought forward into the present. The justification, once it is pronounced, is unequivocal and irrevocable. The divine wrath will not touch the justified. The Judge of all the earth has spoken!

There is a huge literature on this debate about the vocabulary of justification, and it is getting larger as the whole territory is being surveyed again in view of the new rapprochement between some evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics. I will not weary you with the details, except to say that by and large, the Reformers got Paul right, which even a number of important Roman Catholic biblical scholars now admit. It is clear that what Christ did, not what we do, even as Christians, is the basis for justification and that justification is once-for-all, not something that waxes and wanes as in Roman Catholic thinking. It is because of what Christ did for us that God can and does declare us “not-guilty”, not subject to punishment, but acceptable to him.

This is the point Paul makes explicitly in his great exposition of justification in Romans 3:24-26: Christ was set forth as a propitiation — as one who by his sin-bearing turned aside the wrath of God from us — so that God could be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ Jesus. God could acquit us and declare us righteous only because Christ had suffered for our sins, exhausted the law’s penalties against us in our place. It is not that he makes us righteous, but that because of Christ’s work in our place God judges us now righteous.

And this is the Bible’s view everywhere, even where the language of justification is not employed, though it often is. An excellent example in the preaching of the Lord himself is his parable of the tax collector and the pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. It begins with the notice that Christ told the parable to some who were “confident of their own righteousness” (“and looked down on others”). The Pharisee looked precisely to his own works (“I fast and I tithe.”). The tax collector, on the other hand, could only see his sin and guilt and cried out to God for mercy. “That man went home justified before God.” That is, God acquitted him, accepted him, but not the Pharisee. He didn’t make him righteous, he declared him to be righteous before himself. And precisely because he turned away from any thought of his own deserving or his own works.

What justification confers is a standing with God, an acceptance with God, a relationship with God, not first a new kind of righteous living that God sees and rewards. That comes, of course, but out of, on the basis of justification.

Second, justification by faith = justification by Christ.

The means of this justification, Paul emphasizes here, is faith in Christ. He mentions it three times in one verse! But what is clear everywhere in the NT is that justification is by faith because justification is by the work of Christ. The ground, the basis of our new standing with God is what Christ has done for us, in our place. That is the sense of justification by faith alone.

We do not mean, of course, that there are no good works to be performed as part of the whole salvation that God works out in a believer’s life. Faith works through love. What is being asserted is that which is obviously Paul’s point. Justification is by faith so that it might be by Christ and in no respect by us or our works.

Christ’s righteousness for us in the only ground of our justification. Faith is the conscious acknowledgement of that fact: our own unworthiness, the impossibility of our earning a standing before God, our turning away from any thought of our own merit to acknowledge our utter need of a righteousness we do not have and cannot earn, Christ’s work for us as providing that righteousness, and our embrace of him and his work for our justification, our pardon, our acceptance with God.

As Robert Traill put it: “…faith in Jesus Christ doth justify…[but] only as a mere instrument receiving that imputed righteousness of Christ, for which we are justified…” [277]

Listen carefully to this fine statement by the English scholar A.M. Stibbs:

            “The faith of the individual must be seen as having no value in itself, but as discovering value wholly and solely through movement towards and committal to Christ. It must be seen as simply a means of finding all one’s hope outside of oneself in the person and work of another; and not in any sense an originating cause or objective ground of justification. For true faith is active only in the man who is wholly occupied with Christ; its practice means that every blessing is received from another. For this reason faith is exclusive and intolerant of company; it is only present when any and every contribution towards his salvation on the part of the believer or on the part of the church is absolutely and equivocally shut out. Justification must be seen and received as a blessing dependent wholly and exclusively on Christ alone, on what he is and what he has done — a blessing enjoyed simply through being joined directly to him, through finding one’s all in him, through drawing one’s all from him, without the interposition of any other mediator or mediating channel whatever.” [Cited in Packer, 95-96]

In other words, justification by faith is another way of saying justification by Christ and Christ alone. Faith is not our contribution; we make no contribution to our receiving this acceptance with God, this relationship with him. It is the means appointed by which we receive this gift. It is itself God’s gift to his elect, in any case. But, in the matter of justification, it is by faith, so that it may be clear that it is by Christ; we are made right with God through what was done for us and suffered for us by another. Faith is the recognition of that fact and an acting upon it.

So there is the thesis. There are fundamentally only two ways of thinking about how people can be right with God: by what they do or by what Christ does for them. It matters not if in the former case, as would have been true for these judaizers, the works that were required for justification were combined with faith in Christ. It is all or nothing. Any works at all, makes it justification by works. It is works of any kind, to any degree, or Christ alone. That is the alternative. That is what makes Christianity so radical a message and a philosophy of life. It sets itself against not only every other religious idea, but the natural tendency of every human heart, to hold salvation — at least to some degree — in one’s own hands.

That is the problem with the judaizers’ teaching. By requiring Gentiles to become Jews in order to be Christians, they cannot help but imply that Christ’s death, his atoning work, is not fully sufficient for justification. Something else is also required. And that amounts to justification by works and not by Christ!