Justification by Faith: Galatians 2:15-21

This article represents a re-start of Reformation Fridays as a regular feature on this site. I introduced this feature some time ago, and the commemoration this weekend of the Festival of the Reformation (Oct. 31) seemed like a fitting moment to begin posting articles for it again. The purpose of the feature is to examine the Scriptural basis for a number of the key principles and tenets of the Protestant Reformation. It is intended at least as much as an opportunity for critical exegesis of the relevant Scripture passages, as it is an evaluation of Reformation beliefs. I begin with the doctrine of justification by faith (and the principle of sola fide), having initially posting studies on Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:6ff/Romans 4:3ff, with Paul’s treatment of the underlying Old Testament passages Hab 2:4 and Gen 15:6; and will continue the same subject here.

One of the main differences between the Pauline and Reformation views of “justification by faith” is that Paul was working from within a distinctive Jewish religious (and cultural) framework regarding the role of the Torah; thus, for him, the contrast between faith and “works” was oriented toward the binding obligation of Israelites and Jews to observe the regulations of the Torah, and how this relates to the religious identity of believers in Christ. The Reformers and early Protestants tended to understand “works” more broadly and generally, as any attempt by human beings to achieve (or regain) a right standing with God. This generalizing was a natural byproduct of the application of Paul’s teaching to the Reformers’ own situation in the early 16th century, responding to the wide range of binding traditions, legalism, and dependence upon ecclesiastical institutions, which, over the centuries, had come to be firmly established and widespread within the (Roman) Catholic Church.

While Paul would not necessarily have disagreed with this Protestant broadening of the doctrine (see esp. the Pauline teaching in Eph 2:8-9), his main concern was the relationship between Jewish tradition and the new religious identity of believers. For this reason, his use of the term e&rga (“works”) has a technical meaning, as a shorthand for “observing the regulations of the Torah”, with the implication that there is a binding obligation (i.e., requirement) to do so. Paul writes on this subject extensively in the letters to the Galatians and Romans; I have discussed the matter in considerable detail in the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law” (in the series “The Law and the New Testament”). Perhaps the best way to encapsulate this here in a short space is with a brief study on Galatians 2:15-21, which represents the beginning of his main line of argument in Galatians, and is thus his oldest surviving piece of writing on the subject.

Galatians 2:15-21

In the preceding verses 10-14, Paul is narrating an episode that occurred at Antioch, involving a conflict between he and Simon Peter. The conflict centered on the observance of the Torah purity laws and the traditional Jewish views regarding certain kinds of contact (eating and drinking, etc) with non-Jews (Gentiles). According to Paul, Peter backed away from eating with Gentiles publicly, when certain Jewish Christian representatives from Jerusalem (“some [people] from James”) arrived. While Peter may simply have done this out of polite respect for the Jewish Christian visitors, Paul viewed such separation as a fundamental violation of Christian principles. He states it this way:

“I saw that he [i.e. Peter] did not set (his) foot straight toward the truth of the good message [i.e. Gospel]”

By separating from Gentile believers when Jewish believers were present, the implication, according to Paul, was that, in order for the Gentile believers to maintain full fellowship with the Jewish believers, they would have to become Jewish, taking on the obligation to observe the Torah, including the dietary and purity laws, etc. This was a subtler form of the same issue involving circumcision—i.e., whether (Gentile) believers in Christ were obligated to be circumcised—which was at the heart of the conflict in Galatians. In both instances, it involves what Paul calls “making it necessary [vb a)nagka/zw] (for the) nations [i.e. Gentiles] to (live) as Jews” (v. 14).

It is not entirely clear how far the quotation of Paul’s words to Peter extends; in any case, vv. 15ff certainly continues the same line of argument. Verse 16 provides a lengthy statement of Paul’s teaching on ‘justification by faith’, along with the implications of this doctrine:

“seeing that a man is not made just/right out of works of (the) law, if not through trust of [i.e. in] Yeshua (the) Anointed, even we [i.e. who are Jews] trusted in (the) Anointed Yeshua, (so) that we might be made just/right out of trust of [i.e. in] (the) Anointed (One), and not out of works of (the) law, (for it is) that out of works of (the) law all flesh will not be made just/right [i.e. no person will be made right]”

Here, the “works” are specified as “works of (the) law” (e&rga no/mou), where the “law” (no/mo$) refers to the regulations, statutes, and precepts of the Torah. The verb dikaio/w, as previously noted, has the basic meaning “make right, make just”, sometimes in the judicial sense of “establish justice, declare (a person or situation to be) just”. The religious connotation of Paul’s use of the verb is of a person being in “right standing” with God.

Paul’s line of argument in vv. 15-18 is complex and clever, and can be a bit difficult to follow on a casual reading. He starts from the premise that Gentiles are “sinners” (v. 15), in the traditional religious (and cultural) sense that they are outside of the covenant between God and Israel, and thus do not observe the Torah. This is the basis for the religious-cultural division between Jews and non-Jews. The remainder of the line of argument can be paraphrased and interpreted as follows:

    • Believers in Christ are “made right” through their trust in Jesus (as the Anointed One), and not through fulfilling the terms of the covenant and observing the Torah (v. 16); Paul treats this as something all Christians (even Jewish Christians) would agree upon =>
      • Given that this is the case, to treat Gentile believers as though they were essentially still ‘sinners’, in the traditional religious-cultural sense (separate from Israel and the covenant), means that, in spite of being “made right” through trust in Christ, believers are still marked as “sinners”; Jewish believers who live in a similar manner, associating freely with Gentiles, would be “sinners” as well (v. 17) =>
        • This effectively would make Jesus Christ a “servant of sin”, which of course would be impossible, and is itself a horrifying thought (“may it n[ever] come to be [so]!”) =>
          • Moreover, Christ’s sacrifice dissolved (vb katalu/w) the Law (Torah) and the old covenant, and its binding force was removed for us, as believers, by trust in Jesus (v. 18a); thus, if we maintain or keep in place the requirement of observing the Torah, we re-create (“build again”) the religious-cultural distinction (of Gentiles, etc) as “sinners” =>
            • Such a person re-establishes sinfulness by keeping in force the idea of sin as transgression (“stepping over”) the Torah regulations (v. 18b), and so becomes a transgressor himself

This line of argument explains the consequences of the false premise that believers—and Gentile believers, in particular—are still required to obey/observe the Torah (“works”), whether it be the requirement of circumcision, the dietary laws, associating with people deemed ‘unclean’, or any other regulation. In verses 19-21, Paul proceeds to expound the true premise: that believers are freed from the binding force of the old covenant, and are “made right” with God through trust in Jesus. To illustrate this, Paul uses the motif of a person who dies, and is thus set free from any binding obligations during his earthly life. The illustration is given with more precision in Romans 7:1-6, but the same idea is clearly expressed here in Galatians as well. Through trust in Jesus, the believer participates in the death of Christ, and so dies with him. The person dies to the Law (Torah) and to the power of sin which the Law makes manifest (through its regulations); according to Paul’s unique understanding of the role of the Law in keeping humankind bound under sin’s power, the Law plays an active role in leading believers to salvation (3:22; Rom 5:20-21; 7:7-13). Thus, Paul can say, paradoxically, that he dies to the law through [dia/] the law, expressed vividly and strikingly by the image of the piercing nails of crucifixion (cp. Col 2:14). While we die to the law, we live in Christ, participating in his resurrection just as we participate in his death. And this life comes from the power of Christ himself (his Spirit, the Spirit of God) living in us. This inner power of the Spirit of Christ replaces the outward force of the Torah regulations (cf. 2 Cor 3).

Clearly, Paul used the term “works” (e&rga), both here and elsewhere in his letters, in a very distinctive sense, as a shorthand for the expression “works of the Law” (e&rga no/mou), by which he meant observing the regulations and requirements of the Torah [For more on the background of this expression, cf. the Qumran text 4QMMT]. However, there are other passages in the New Testament were “works” are understood in a somewhat different way, and these, too, have a bearing on the concept of “justification by faith”. The two most notable of these are James 2:14-26 and Ephesians 2:1-10 (esp. verses 8-9), and we will consider both passages in the next article.

For more detailed commentary on Gal 2:15-21, see my earlier note-set, along with the article in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

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