Galatians - Lesson 5

Galatians 2:15-16

Introduction of the term, "justification." Also a discussion of the meaning of the phrase, "works of the Law."

Douglas Moo
Lesson 5
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Galatians 2:15-16

Galatians 2:15-21

I. Differences in various translations

II. Galatians 2:15

A. Contrasting Jews and gentiles

B. What is the standing of the Galatian gentile Christians?

C. Overview of the paragraph

III. Galatians 2:16

A. Works of the Law vs. faith

B. Homiletical expedience

C. Faith (believing) in contrast to works of the Law

D. Meaning of the Greek genitive construction, "Christ faith."

  • Galatians is about how you get yourself right with God and also how the Gospel is an inclusive power. 

  • Paul's autobiographical reasons for why you should listen to him.

  • Paul's interaction with the apostles in Jerusalem and an encounter with the apostle Peter. Dr. Moo challenges you to define the Gospel in light of the themes in the text so far. (The handout on the Gospel that Dr. Moo mentions at about the 44 minute mark is not available.)

  • Paul framed his preaching of the Gospel in the context of both the fulfillment of promises of God to Israel and the contemporary images of the Greco-Roman tradition. The Good News is not simply a matter of individuals experiencing a relationship with God, but also a broader theme of God establishing his rule over the universe through Jesus. [There is some intermittent static in the audio for about the first 30 minutes]

  • Introduction of the term, "justification." Also a discussion of the meaning of the phrase, "works of the Law."

  • Paul contrasts the ideas of faith and the Law. One way to describe the Galatian controversy is to determine who has the correct reading of the Old Testament. 

  • The meaning and implications of the doctrine of justification. One notable distinction is whether you are justified apart from your works, according to your works or on the basis of your works.

  • Discussion of the metaphors of the Law as a guardian, and being adopted into God’s family. 

  • Paul uses rhetorical techniques that were common in his day to persuade people. He also refers to Old Testament passages to instruct the Galatians in theire conduct. Dr. Moo discusses the process of translation.

  • Appropriation of the Old Testament in the New Testament includes both explicit and implicit quotations.

  • Discussion of the meaning and application of the term, "by faith alone" as it relates to the subject of justification.

  • Paul reminds the Galatians that they started well and need to finish well. The Spirit-led righteous life results in authentic community. Discussion of the idea of freedom to live as we are created to live.

  • To what extent does the Law of Moses provide specific direction for the way we should live as disciples of Jesus?

  • Discussion of what the Bible teaches about the extent to which your eternal destiny is tied to your behavior and the meaning of the term, "new creation."

Dr. Douglas Moo, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School, is an acknowledged expert in the writings and theology of Paul. His commentary on Romans is among the best ever written, and he is working on a new commentary on Galatians. In this class, Professor Moo will walk you through the book of Galatians and will spend considerable time summarizing Paul's basic theology.

We do not offer this class for credit. The comments that Dr. Moo makes regarding assignments and credits refer only to students who were taking the course for credit at the time of our filming.

Dr. Douglas Moo
Galatians 2:15-16
Lesson Transcript


I. Differences in Various Translations

‘We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law because by the works of the law one will be justified. But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!’

This is a fairly key text which we will spend a lot of time on, especially considering some of the theology within it. This is one of the more important paragraphs in the New Testament. The works of the law is a little more straightforward rendering of the Greek here. Observing the law is a little more interpretative. There has been a lot of discussion on this phrase, works of the law. The NIV considered this a technical phrase as such since there is a lot of debate about this phrase. This has also been talked about in regards to the new perspective. The NRSV says nullify in verse 21. This is a text that most of the translations would be fairly similar. The NET reads as the faithfulness of Jesus Christ instead of by faith in Jesus Christ. The Greek allows this to be rendered either way. When you don’t have the Greek, using different translations provided an understanding of why certain verses are translated the way they are. Be careful in using one person translations of the Bible as you may not be given different options in regards to translation in the footnotes. For example, the message gives us a lot of Peterson’s ideas of theology but he is just one individual. A variety of translations provides a window into different difficult texts that have been debated from time to time. Another such difference in verse 17 says that Christ is a servant of sin compared to the NIV Christ promotes sin. The phrase servant of sin is a more straightforward rendering which is typical of the ESV. Rendered in this way kind of betrays the translation philosophy of the ESV. What does it mean to be a servant of sin? Is it serving sins or advancing the cause of sin, with it being different, promotes sin with the NIV. The NIV uses this because it was believed that it is getting at what the Greek was saying. The NET translates it encouraging sin. Dan Wallace, a Greek professor at Dallas who has written a widely used intermediate Grammar. He argues strongly for this way of using that construction in the grammar and it is no surprise that you see it in the NET Bible. The NET Bible is a good Bible as it has a lot of interesting options they argue for. This translation comes packaged with a very extensive use of translation notes that explain why they translated something one way or the other. Mainly translators at Dallas were the ones responsible for the NET Bible.

II. Galatians 2:15

The text that we are going to study is a transitional text. If you look at different commentaries on Galatians, you will find them putting this paragraph in different places. Some put it at the end of the first section, so they put a key dividing line between 2:21 and 3:1. Other commentators put a key dividing line between 2:14 and 2:15 where 2:15 and following introduce the next following section. You have a quotation mark that begins in the middle of verse 14; all of us will have that (I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” The problem in the Greek text is where to end the quotation because there are no punctuation marks in the Greek. You can usually tell where a quotation begins because you have a formula like you have here. But where does it end; there is no mark in the Greek to tell us this. So the NIV takes the quotation all the way to verse 21. But other versions end the quote at the end of verse 14, while others end it at verse 17 or 18. That is a judgment call that translators have to make. You can understand why the NIV continues the quotation here. You have Paul speaking to Peter at Antioch; he is telling the Galatians about what he said to Peter. This flows on fairly naturally with the idea of ‘we’, meaning Peter and Paul who were Jews by birth. So, this becomes an argument for putting a key dividing line at the end of verse 21. Paul is still telling us in this text what he said to Peter at Antioch. But the other argument for putting a break between verses 14 and 15, there would be a transition between the two verses. Paul would be addressing the Galatians in regards to why things happened the way they did. Note that Paul is recording this so that the Galatians will know about it. We can assume that this is a summary of what he says, not a verbatim record of the exact words that Paul used when he confronted Peter at Antioch. But, in verse 17, it could be considered a fuller explanation of what Paul said to Peter. You have Paul elaborating on the theology that comes out of what he said to Peter and then you have Paul applying this in 3:1.

So, we see Paul using the language of justifying, the law, all keywords that occur throughout the remaining of Galatians. You can see why many say that 2:15-21 is the introductory paragraph in this theological argument. Ultimately, these kinds of questions are often best answered with neither, nor or both and. The tendency for those who try to outline Biblical books to follow Roman Numerals and letters, etc. often imposes a kind of artificial structure on a text. A lot of passages of Scripture can’t be categorized in one place or another. This is why I label this transitional. It is both finishing the first part of the letter and begins to introduce the second part at the same time. Interestingly, a few Bibles have done away with chapter headings and even chapter names and numbers to help provide a fresh way of reading in the Bible. In reading a letter like Galatians in the way Paul originally wrote it; there were no numbers, he didn’t have chapters nor heading like our Bibles do. We use these heading and numbers to figure out where we are. They are needed to direct ourselves and others of where to start from, but without those numbers and headers, it actually becomes a letter to read. So there is something to be gained from this kind of approach.

We should see how Paul is putting the matter into the context of, ‘we Jews by birth.’ He says that we are not sinful gentiles. This translation is a little problematic, perhaps. The problem with ‘sinful gentiles’ can sound as if Paul is talking about perhaps a class of sinful gentiles. But from a Jewish standpoint and definition, he is referring to all gentiles. There are other translations that render this a little better than the NIV does. He says ‘we Jews’ and this is the way Paul and other Jews looked at humanity. That was the key dividing line. You have the people of Israel, Jews on the one hand who are the biological seed of Abraham, automatic heirs to the promises and covenant of God because they were born as Jews. And then you have the gentiles that are everyone else. This was the key dividing line in the 1st century Judaism rooted in the Old Testament where you have God entering into this relationship with the one people, Israel. So that is being reflected on here and it is obviously relevant to the situation in Galatia. What is the standing of these Galatian gentiles who have now come to faith in Jesus as Messiah? What is their status? Do they belong and on what basis do they belong?

As an overview of the paragraph; verses 15 and 16 which is one sentence in Greek is the key idea in regards to justification by faith. The implications of this and the role that the law and sin play in regards to being crucified with Christ, which is a little bit of a parenthesis in some ways and returns to the issue of righteousness in verse 21? Verse 16 is a really important verse in this collection in that it introduces some keywords we need to consider. The language of sin comes to play in verse 17. But in verse 15, Paul is writing from the standpoint of his fellow Jews, deliberately adopting the usual terminology that was typical in his Jewish context and environment. Clearly, Paul doesn’t think all gentiles are sinners in the same way, but he does continue to recognize that gentiles in respect to the traditional language of the covenant do have a different status. In verse 16, you can see first the verb justified used three times. This is introduced as a key idea. We will come back to this later, looking at justification as a theological topic a little more broadly. The second thing to note is how it contrasts with the works of law three different times and the language of faith and believing. You have the verb, we ‘have believed’ in Christ Jesus in the middle and you also have the phrase that is rendered something like ‘Christ’s faith.’ I think this is a good starting point in understanding this particular phrase and seeing some of the options for what its meaning might be. We noticed the difference in the translations here, some saying ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ which would be most of the translations. But some translations rendered it ‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ which reflects an option within the Greek text.

The phrase ‘the works of the law’ is also very interesting which Paul contrasts with faith eight different times. We see this text in Galatians but we also have like texts in Romans as well. This works of the law versus faith contrast comes also in 3:2 and 3:5, 3:10 and 3:11. You also get it in Romans 3:20 and 3:28. What does this phrase mean and does this idea work in contrast with faith? The usual way of understanding this phrase has been the second option; that is to view works of the law as observing the law. This was the original translation of the NIV. It has to do with the human need to obey God’s law, the Torah. When we have the word ‘law’ in English, it is a good translation but sometimes using the word ‘Torah’ serves to remind us that Paul is talking specifically about the Jewish law, the Law of Moses; the Law God gave his people Israel, a very distinct focus which is obvious in Galatians. So, the usual understanding of the phrase, ‘works of the law’ talks about humans doing the law, a very broad and general sense. The key point theologically and in the way you preach Galatians, we can move from the works of the law to the broader category of works. This is the traditional reformation approach. So, if you are preaching Galatians 2:16, you will probably preach it to gentiles with few of the tempted to put themselves under the Law of Moses; that is, being circumcised and observing the food laws and also Passover, etc. But you will almost always have people who think that they can get right with God in what they do, who are bringing their own works into their status with God, so in this sense, this text applies. Paul is talking about a particular form of works; he is addressing Galatian’s gentile Christians who are being tempted to adopt the law. He has reminded them that justification isn’t based on doing the Torah. The implication is that justification is not based on any kind of doing. That is the broader point of what you want to preach. If you look at Calvin, Luther and other reformers since then, this is the point that would be made from Galatians 2:15 &16.

This second view would fall under the category of homiletic expediency. I like this view because it will be understood by my congregation. I can make a better sermon out of it without quite as much thinking and struggle of what it may be saying. Again, you have the historical particularity; Paul, a Jew, talking to Gentiles who are tempted to become Jews by taking on the Law of Moses. A historical particularity here that is rarely going to match our ministry here and now; so, if the second view is correct, this move is going to be a lot easier. In beginning with the new perspective, although this view has been out there for a long time, there is a new emphasis being seen in this phrase. You can understand why the new perspective would want to find a different emphasis here. Remember that the new perspective is following in the wake of E.P. Sanders view of Judaism. According to Sanders, it was not a religion according to what the Jews thought to be saved or justified but rather being born a Jew into God’s covenant. If Sanders is correct then, who is Paul talking about here with his negative statement? When Paul says that a person is not justified by works of the law; no person is justified by the works of the law; no flesh will be justified by the works of the law. He is talking about someone who is arguing that point. The only reason to say this is to counter-act someone who is saying that we are justified by works. But if Sanders is right, there is no one who is saying that. If Sanders is right, that is not what Jews think, it is not their belief. And so that leads again to the new perspective with Dunn and others saying that they need to figure out a new meaning for this phrase. We need to understand what Paul is really saying and how we can understand it.

In order to explain how Paul might be attacking the Judaism of his day; people like James Dunn are the first to emphasize this point. He is the one who has done the clearest writing on this issue of the works of the law. He has written fifteen to twenty different articles since the early 1980’s. You can see it in his commentary on Galatians and his Pauline theology. Dunn says that if you look at the way this phrase is being used in Paul’s climate, the focus wasn’t so much on the doing of the law as on the law itself. An important point in Galatians, note that Paul never contrasts works and faith. The contrast is always between law and faith. But in Romans, you do have Paul contrasting works and faith. You see this in Romans 4 and in Romans 9 and also 11, however in Galatians, it is always the law. The argument is then, the works of the law are not just a way of talking about a subset of works; it is talking about a different thing, about Torah faith. It is talking about the observance of God’s law. It is talking about doing the law in order to validate one’s special place among God’s chosen people. In effect, Paul is saying here in Galatians 2:16 that no person is put right with God in terms of the Old Covenant since Christ has come. The Old Covenant with its requirement of Torah obedience is no longer the context in which righteousness or justification is found. No longer does our standing with God relate to works of the law in terms of these badges of covenant membership. This is the language that Dunn likes to use, ‘badges of covenant membership.’ So Dunn thinks that Paul is responding to 1st century Judaism as Sanders describes it. The matter is that the Jewish assumption that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is sort of eternal is the arrangement that will always exist to mark out the people of God. So the Judaizers are naturally saying that the law continues and that is the context for anyone to be part of the people of God. Both Night and Dunn take this stand, but as far as Sanders, I don’t think it is right to categorize him as a new perspective advocate. His view of Judaism was picked up by those who advocate the new perspective.

On that view, the works of the law then, the point is, you have two separate circles and you cannot validly move between them. So the new perspective advocates that the works of the law have nothing to do with good works. Rather, works law is a specific phenomenon tied to these Jewish convictions about Torah and Covenant. So, if that is true, preaching Galatian 2:16 becomes a lot more difficult. Because what Paul is attacking is not sort of legalism or works righteousness in general, but the specific claim that one is justified in terms of the old Mosaic Covenant. The question about whether a text is more easily applied or easily preached has nothing to do with deciding what it means. And too often, we let that have a strong effect on the way we read the Bible. I do fear that we let homiletic expediency take charge too often. So, the idea that works of the law refers to the ceremonial law is a view you have in the history of the church. Pelagius argued that view along with Calvin and his institutes which held that view. This is not quite what Dunn and the new perspective people are arguing. They don’t necessarily confine the phrase to the ceremonial law, they see this as a simple catch phrase to talk about the mentality of 1st century Jews who think that the doing of the law is important to validate their position and keep the gentiles out. The phrase itself is very rare in whatever language. The main debate in recent years has been over a document called 4QMMT which is a document in the Dead Sea Scrolls where the phrase does occur and those like Dunn and Wright think that the use of it there validates their view, but others disagree.

I don’t follow the new perspective view myself, but I do want us to acknowledge the validity of what they are trying to do. They are trying to read what Paul is saying here in their understanding of the 1st-century context of discussion. Dunn Wright will often say things like, we are so used to reading this language in a certain way because of the way the reformers understood it, we can’t even think outside this. We have developed tunnel vision about this. The whole context of the discussion has so formed by the way we have been brought up to read the language a certain way that we can’t see outside of it. But if you really emerge yourself in the 1st-century Jewish world and see what is going on there, hear the way they are using the language, then this other view would make a lot more sense and fit the historical circumstances. It is a valid argument that they are following. They are not trying to bash the reformation, although it occasionally comes out that way. They are trying to understand Paul faithfully in his context of 1st century Judaism as they understand it. I don’t think they are totally right about this but I do respect what they are trying to do. Some dismiss Dunn and Wright as a heretical thing, a clearly advocate view of Christianity. However, there is a key contrast that must be considered with Paul who doesn’t include works but the law. This shows that the key contrast here is not with the works but instead with the law. And it is likely that whatever Paul meant by the works of the law in Romans, he means that in Galatians as well.

Remember there was a ten year period of when Paul first came to Jerusalem and his second visit to Jerusalem? That became important in this way; if Galatians is the first letter Paul wrote as I suspect it is and dated in 48, I suspect that he was converted around 33 AD. So, when Paul wrote Galatians he has been preaching the Gospel and studying Scripture and understanding Christ in relation to those Scriptures for fifteen years. The first letter he wrote was not written as a theological novice, fresh out of seminary. He has been fifteen years in ministry. Then between Galatians and Romans, another nine years go by. The Books Romans was written around 57 AD. And so by the time he writes Galatians, he has had plenty of time to develop his theology and the vocabulary he wants to use to communicate it. So I think there is something valid in saying this phrase, works of the law where it is used six times in Galatians and two times in Romans probably means the same thing in both letters. It is unlikely that he would have shifted the meaning of it as he uses the same vocabulary and the same argument, etc. In Romans, Paul does consistently talk about works in relation to works of the law. For me, this is ultimately the most important argument here that justified a second way to think about this. It is saying that you Galatians don’t need to put yourself under the Law of Moses to be justified. So, in the era of the Gospel, God opens the doors to everybody. This helps in preaching the Gospel to everybody where everyone is accepted on the same basis. There is no difference between Jew and gentile. But for the Jews, they are guilty of lording the Law of Moses over the gentiles which keep the gentiles out of the kingdom. This is the new perspective and it does include the idea of works of the law as well. But I think Paul is also saying that if we are saved, then works need to be there also. These are not unimportant and they will not be unimportant on the Day of Judgement either.

There is a balance that should be maintained. Yes, a lot of people are anxious about their status and we need to tell them that it is by grace that they are saved. But it depends on what God has done for you. There are a lot of people that are way too comfortable in their Christian life. They look back and say that they believe and have faith, but don’t want to be bothered about obedience. This is not sanctification that I am talking about but it is more about justification. And yes, we must remember that religious performance is not the fundamental basis in which we are accepted by God. This is more evident in some churches rather than others, especially those churches that used to be state-affiliated as in Europe and other places. We have pushed against that over the many years and probably too far at times. But as evangelicals, we do need to develop an authentically robust theology of baptism and other sacraments of the church. These are not the basis for salvation or even necessary for salvation, but they are important ways that God has ordained for the community of Christ to be reminded of God’s work of grace.

III. Galatians 2:16

The contrast of Works of the Law is the language of faith and believing. Paul uses both the verb in the middle of the verse and then the noun form here. The verb is clear enough; it is the act of believing in or in the context of Christ, but the noun phrase is much more debated. This is one of those genitive constructions that are often so difficult to pin down. A kind of a good start in English when you see one of the genitive expressions in a noun phrase and hence I have used the double noun construction, Jesus Christ’s faith or Christ’s faith. This represents the ambiguity of the construction here. The obvious question is whether this is faith that Christ has exercised or the faithfulness of Christ as the NET Bible translates it. Or is the faith being directed toward Christ; hence the usual English translation of faith in Christ. This phrase is seen a number of times with Paul and is much debated over in recent years. There was a whole book of essays published a few years ago on just this issue. The Authors have taken a variety of viewpoints and argued it from different standpoints. You have these places where the noun is translated faith or faithfulness plus a reference to Jesus in the Greek genitive case. The usual view here which is represented in most of our English versions of the Bible; these phrases talk about humans believing in Christ; it is faith directed toward Christ as our object. The traditional view of Luther and Calvin and James Dunn, one of the new perspective advocates. The view that has grown very popular in recent years is that the phrase refers to the faithfulness of Christ. You see this in the NET Bible and referenced in other Bibles. This view goes back a long time. An Australian by the name of Roberson argued it in the 1950s and my own teacher, Richard Longnecker was a strong advocate of this view. This is not a distinctly new perspective view. Dunn and Wright, the two key figures of the new perspective, disagree on this. It is clearly not central to the new perspective. It is related in the sense that if in Galatians 2:16, the contrast is fundamentally between the Jewish law observance and the faithfulness of Christ. Then the verse would kind of eliminate human response almost entirely. It would be a sort of contrast between the Old Covenant and the New. Theologically, there is really nothing objectionable in thinking that our justification comes through Christ’s faithfulness. It is precisely because he was faithful and obedient to death on the Cross and to what God called him to be and do as a covenant representative. He died for us and therefore we are justified in him; there is nothing theologically problematic about this.

The question remains as to what the phrase most likely means. I mentioned the Greek genitive here which is equivalent to the English double-noun construction. We use a lot of these in English, such as a fire sale; a sale that has some kind of relationship to fire. Now, people have such sales when there has been no fire; they still call it a fire sale. A similar phrase would be a fire hose. This is a hose for putting out a fire, right? Another such double noun would be a storm chaser, one who chases storms. Yet, another one would be a head case. This can be very difficult if you are trying to pin them down grammatically. We put the nouns together and know what they mean by a type of association. There can be an objective genitive or subjective genitive. When we are trying to understand these genitives, expectations are critical. A way to ask the question; when the Galatians read what Paul said here, how would they have unpacked it or what meaning would they have gotten from it? There is some important evidence herein that Paul never makes Jesus the subject of the verb. He never talks about Jesus exercising faith for them. However, humans are regularly subject of the verb. In Galatians 3, Paul will go on to talk about Abraham in believing God was reckoned to him as righteousness. In the verse, ‘we who have believed in Christ Jesus; we have the verb with ‘we’ as the subject and ‘Christ’ as the object. This shows evidence of taking the phrase in the traditional way, ‘faith in Jesus.’ There could be a problem of redundancy. We see in Galatians 2:16 that Paul says ‘believing in Christ Jesus.’ Why does he say, ‘our faith in Christ’ as well? I think he does it for repetition. I don’t think this issue is altogether significant theologically. Understand that I am now looking at this verse in the way it is generally understood.

I think the general rendering of the works of the law and faith in Christ seems to be well justified in the language and context. There are many places where Paul clearly says that we are justified by our faith in Christ. Paul talks about the need for human belief in justification and he talks about Christ’s obedience as necessary for our justification (Philippians 2, Romans 5). But the question is what particular category these texts fall into and ultimately I don’t think it makes that much difference. In Mark 12, it talks about the faith of God and faith in God. You have a similar occurrence of the divine name, God and even the faith of Abraham is often an example that is cited. It is made clear with a human who is doing the believing; precisely the point. When you have Christ’s faith, you don’t have a human as it were; you have the divine name which works the other way. Paul repeats his point in 2:15 & 16, the works of the law and you would expect the contrast to work the same way all three times. People argue in terms of the redundancy here if Paul wanted to say this, which is what he would have said. Why does he shift to a different construction? He has kept the works of the law the same throughout. If you wanted to talk about believing in Christ, why doesn’t he just keep the verb as he does there all three times? The fact that he shifts construction might signal that he means something a little different by it.