In the Forest Hills Student Ministry we have been studying the book of Galatians verse by verse. As we do this, I have been writing Bible Study Curriculum for our teachers to lead small groups. Here is an adaptation of one of those lessons from Galatians 2:15-21. I hope by God’s grace it is beneficial to you:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 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. 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! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 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. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. – Galatians 2:15-21
In Paul’s letter, especially in the book of Galatians, there is a huge theological teaching that we must grasp. This issue is central to the teaching of the church and essential to the truth of the Gospel. It is the doctrine of justification. The doctrine of justification deals with the issue of, how can a righteous God have a relationship with unrighteous sinners? If God is a holy and good God, how can miserably wicked mankind ever be united in a intimate relationship with Him? This question is precisely the issue at the foundation of Christianity. In Galatians 2:15-21, Paul unpacks the depths of this doctrine which is the truth of the Gospel. Remember in Galatians, Paul is battling a group of early Christians called the judiazers over how justification happens. The judiazers claimed humanity is justified by Jesus and the works of the Law. Paul claimed that we are justified by faith and faith alone. Within this passage, we will come to see that we are saved not by our own righteous effort but we are justified by faith because of the righteous blood of Jesus Christ.
In verse 15, Paul, still reflecting on his confrontation with Peter, states that they are Jews who know and obey the Old Testament Law, while the gentiles are ignorant of the written law and are sinners. Paul says that although the Jews might be more righteous than the gentiles, those good deeds are ultimately pointless when it comes to being justified before God. Paul states in verse 16, “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Salvation isn’t like the world religions, where your good deeds must out weigh your bad ones. No matter how good you are, you will never measure up to God’s holy and righteous standard. Romans tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. Our righteousness can not save us, only faith in Christ. This might lead some to the question, why does faith in Jesus justify humanity back to God? The reason is that Jesus is the only one who ever perfectly obeyed the Law. He is the only one who has kept the whole law in both mind, heart, and deed. He is God in the flesh, and on the cross Jesus substituted himself in our place, taking on the death of our sin, and in return he gives us his righteousness. Therefore, when we have faith in Jesus Christ we trust in the righteousness that he gives to us, not our own. It is only through faith in Christ that God’s righteous anger can be pacified and wicked sinners can be justified.
In verse 17, Paul brings up a common argument of the Judiazers against the doctrine of Justification by faith. The Judiazers argument was that if we are justified by faith alone, and not by our works, doesn’t that just encourage people to keep on sinning? If Jesus saves us without any conditions, doesn’t that just mean people will just continue in their wicked ways? This was a regular objection to the Gospel by the religious people of Paul’s day. The phrasing of verse 17-18 can be difficult and it would be good to examine Romans 6 to better understand Paul’s point here. Paul’s response to this argument is that justification is more than just a change in legal standing before God, it is a change at the very core of who we are. God announces us righteous because of Christ, but transforms us and writes His law on our hearts (Jerimiah 31:33). John Stott put it well when he says “No Christian who has grasped these truths could ever seriously contemplate reverting to the old life.” Jesus now lives within us and we share with him his death and resurrection. For the one who has been justified by faith, he no longer lives for himself, but Christ lives in him and he lives by faith in the son of God. (v. 20) This is the grace of God given to us in Jesus and if we could be saved through our righteous acts, the works of the law, Jesus’ death was without purpose. If we could be saved by works than Jesus died for nothing.