July 3: Gal 2:17-18

This is the second of four daily notes dealing with Galatians 2:15-21. Yesterday’s note covered verses 15 and 16, summarized as a basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction. Today’s note will examine verses 17-18, which I have summarized as:

A Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers

Galatians 2:17-18

In verse 17, Paul begins by posing a question (best understood as a rhetorical question), the first conditional clause of which contains two parts:

(a) “But if, seeking to be declared just in [e)n] (the) Anointed (One)…”

This can be understood one of two ways:

(i) True condition—A Gentile who seeks (correctly) to be justified/saved by faith in Christ (instrumental use of the preposition e)n)
(ii) False condition—A believer (Jew or Gentile) already “in Christ” seeks (incorrectly) to be justified by observance of Jewish law

The second part of the clause is:

(b) “…(we our)selves are also found to be sinful ones [i.e. ‘sinners’]…”

This clause also can be understood either as a:

(i) True condition—Converts are shown to be sinful (by the Law) and thus can only be justified through faith in Christ
(ii) False condition—Believers “in Christ” who do not observe the Law are considered to be “sinners” (from the strict Jewish Christian perspective)

The overall polemic, and the specific use of a(martwloi (“sinners”) in verse 15, strongly indicate that the second portion (b) is a false condition—that, according to the Jewish Christian viewpoint, Gentile believers who do not observe the Jewish Law are effectively “sinners”. However, Paul may also be playing on the idea of the true condition as well—i.e., if his (Jewish Christian) opponents are correct, then believers (already justified by faith in Christ) are truly sinful, having transgressed the religious law. The sense of the first portion (a) of the clause is even more difficult to determine: perhaps it is intended as a true condition, emphasizing those (Gentiles) who seek to be justified/saved by faith in Christ, but the false condition is at least possible as well.  The upshot of the question, however, is that the Jewish Christian emphasis on observing the Law results in (Gentile) believers effectively being reckoned as “sinners”. This is made clear in the concluding clause:

“…then is (the) Anointed (One) an attendant [i.e. servant] of sin? May it not come to be (so)!”

The notion Paul frames within this question, drawn from the implicit logic of his (Jewish Christian) opponents, is that a believer who trusts in Christ for justification (being declared just/righteous) ends up becoming a “sinner”. This, in turn, implies that Christ serves to bring about sinfulness (transgression) for the believer (under the Law)—clearly an absurd notion!—and yet one which Paul effectively regards as true if it is necessary (as his ‘opponents’ claim) for believers to continue observing the Old Testament Law.

The conditional statement in verse 18, brings greater clarity to the complex rhetorical question of v. 17:

“For, if the (things) which I loosed down [i.e. dissolved/destroyed], these (things) I build (up) again, I make myself stand together (with) one (who) ‘steps over’ [i.e. violates/transgresses]”

As Paul will expound in the argument:

    • by trusting in Christ one effectively dies to the Law (dissolving it)
    • to continue observing the Law—or claiming that one needs to do so—re-establishes it (builds it up again)
    • but the purpose of the Law was to make sin (transgression) known (Rom 4:15, etc) to all people
    • therefore, if taken seriously, the believer (attempting to observe the Law) again comes to be under sin (a transgressor)

It is powerful line of reasoning, and, I suspect, one which many Jewish Christians would not have considered (and which many still do not realize today). The uniqueness of Paul’s viewpoint comes largely from the third premise above—his extraordinary teaching that the fundamental purpose of the Law was to make sin known (effectively to establish humankind’s bondage under sin, Gal 3:22). There is hardly a Jew at the time (or since)—including, I am sure, many (or most) Jewish Christians—who would accept this remarkable Pauline doctrine. The stark implication of it is that, to (re-)establish the requirement of Torah observance for believers who have died to the Law (Torah), serves ultimately to undo the very work of Christ! This will be discussed further, in the next daily note on vv. 19-20.

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