This is the last of four daily notes on Galatians 2:15-21 (for the first three notes see #1, 2, 3). Today’s concluding note is on verse 21, which I have summarized as a concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness.
The sentence in this verse is made up of two statements or clauses, the first by way of a bold declaration:
ou)k a)qetw= th\n xa/rin tou= qeou=
“I do not displace [i.e. set aside] the favor of God”
From a rhetorical standpoint, this a refutation (refutatio) by Paul of a charge (real or hypothetical). The verb a)qete/w, “unset, displace, set aside”, is often used in a legal context, i.e., of “setting aside” (invalidating, nullifying) an agreement; it can also be used in the more general sense of “disregard, deny, repudiate”, even to “act unfaithfully, be disloyal”, etc. For other occurrences of the verb, cf. Gal 3:15; 1 Cor 1:19; 1 Thess 4:8; 1 Tim 5:12. Here Paul probably has the legal sense in mind, related to the Israelite/Jewish covenant (agreement) with God. Paul’s Jewish (and Jewish Christian) opponents might well have accused him of annulling the Covenant by his particular view of the Old Testament Law, as expressed here in Galatians (on this, cf. the previous note). According to the basic Jewish view, salvation (and the establishment of the Covenant) is the result of God’s gracious election of Israel; and observing the commands, ordinances and precepts of God, as revealed in the Torah (Law of Moses), represents the terms whereby Israel fulfills (and adheres) to the agreement. By effectively abrogating the Law, Paul invalidates the Covenant, and, in turn, disregards the favor (grace, xa/ri$) of God. This last is the argument that Paul refutes. It is actually a clever bit of substitution—he does not frame the charge in terms of setting aside the covenant, but rather of setting aside the favor/grace of God. This is important to his rhetorical argument as a whole, as we shall see in the second clause that follows:
ei) ga\r dia\ no/mou dikaiosu/nh, a&ra Xristo\$ dwrea\n a)pe/qanen
“for if justice/righteousness (is) through (the) Law, then (the) Anointed (One) died away dwrea\n“
The word dwrea/n (dœreán), which I left untranslated above, properly means “(as) a gift”, and so Paul uses it in a similar context in Romans 3:24; however, this translation can be misleading in English, since often the emphasis is rather on being “free of charge” or “without payment”, either in a positive (2 Cor 11:7) or negative (2 Thess 3:8) sense. It can even carry the harsher connotation of “in vain, for no purpose”; the English expression “for nothing” captures this ambiguity—it can mean something done “for free, as a gift” or “for no purpose”. It is this latter sense that Paul plays on here, juxtaposing xa/ri$ and dwrea/n, as he does in Rom 3:24; there the parallelism is synonymous (both words can mean “[as a] gift”), here it is rather antithetical (or better, ironical). I will return to this in a moment.
The key portion of this conditional statement is the unreal or false (indicative) clause: “if justice/righteousness (is, or comes) through the Law…” Paul has already stated that this is false in verse 16, effectively as a (rhetorical) point of agreement with his (Jewish Christian) opponents, implying however that their viewpoint and behavior actually (if unintentionally) contradicts the ‘agreed-upon’ doctrine in v. 16. Now, he goes on to say that, if they are correct, and one is justified by observing the Law, then this “sets aside” the very work of Christ on the cross! The final irony is that the false/hypothetical charge (against Paul) in v. 21a turns into a real charge against Paul’s opponents—by requiring believers to observe the Old Testament Law, they set aside the grace of God. Usually when Paul speaks of something being “in vain”, he uses the adverb ei)kh= or the expression ei)$ keno\n, as in Gal 2:2; 3:4; 4:11; so the use of dwrea/n here is most distinctive (and intentional), reflecting a powerful irony—by disregarding the central teaching that salvation/justification is entirely by trust (or faith) as a free gift from God (i.e. “for nothing”), Paul’s opponents have made Christ’s sacrificial death to be “for nothing”. Ultimately, of course, this entire argument is intended as a warning and exhortation for the Galatian believers (see Gal 1:6ff; 5:2-4ff; 6:12ff).
It also demonstrates again how important the mystical, participatory language and symbolism of dying with Christ was for Paul. Salvation “by grace” was not simply a matter of God overlooking or forgiving human sinfulness, it was centered in the idea of God “giving” his Son (and Christ “giving himself”) as a sacrificial offering for us. Our faith/trust is “into” Christ and places us “in” Him; this entry is focused—spirtually and sacramentally—upon our participation in His Death and Resurrection.