15 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. 17 But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. 19 For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. Galatians 2:15-21
The question addressed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the churches in Galatia is this: Are we saved by God’s grace alone and through faith alone in Christ Jesus and His atoning sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world, or is salvation obtained by our obedience to the law and especially to the worship laws of the Old Testament which include circumcision, observing the Sabbath and feast days, as well as abstaining from certain foods?
In the days of Martin Luther, the question was similar: Are we saved by God’s grace alone and through faith alone in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world, or is salvation obtained by our obedience to the teaching and ordinances of the Roman Church and its hierarchy, including outwardly keeping the Ten Commandments, doing assigned penance, purchasing indulgences, observance of church feasts and festivals, abstaining from certain foods, living a celibate life, revering the church-recognized saints, etc.?
And today, the question remains before us: Are we saved by God’s grace alone and through faith alone in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world, or is salvation obtained by our outward keeping of the Ten Commandments, obedience to the teachings and ordinances of various churches and church bodies and their hierarchies, including the observance of church festivals and customs, abstaining from certain foods and drinks, etc.?
How does the Apostle Paul answer that question for the churches in Galatia (in modern-day Turkey)? What does he say in His letter to the Galatians? Though he had traveled through Galatia preaching salvation through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and His cross for the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting, some had come from Judea saying that faith in Christ wasn’t enough. To be a Christian also required being circumcised and keeping the commandments and ordinances given to the children of Israel by Moses, they said.
Paul’s answer (given in connection with his rebuke of the Apostle Peter)? “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:15-16; cf. Rom. 3:9-26).
Of course, the same was true in Luther’s day. Neither Luther, nor priest, nor monk, nor nun, nor parishioner could be righteous before God by obedience to God’s law or to the teachings of the Roman Church. All had come short and all stood condemned by God’s law (cf. Rom. 3:23), and following the teachings of the Roman Church could not remedy their condemnation!
And God’s law still condemns us today, for none of us has kept it perfectly, from the heart, as God requires! We are all guilty before God and deserving of the eternal torments of hell.
How then can we sinners be saved? It is, as Paul writes: “By faith in Jesus Christ.”
Jesus kept all of God’s commandments for us, perfectly and without sin in thoughts, desires, words and deeds. He was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22). And God “laid on Him the iniquity of us all” and punished Him in our stead that we might look to Him in faith and receive God’s pardon and forgiveness (Isa. 53:6).
Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And, it is as St. Paul wrote to the Romans in Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”
But if we who have faith in Christ then add requirements and conditions to the Gospel, saying that it is also necessary for salvation that we keep certain commandments, observe certain church rites or traditions, worship in a certain form or manner, or (as taught the Judaizers who troubled the Galatians) be circumcised and keep the worship laws of the Old Testament, do our failures make Christ a servant of sin?
St. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:17-19: “But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.”
Since we have rejected the erring belief that we can be justified by our own works because of our sins and failings, do we then go back and rebuild the error we destroyed and now seek to be justified by faith plus works? Certainly not, for the law condemns us and we died to the law when we trusted in Christ.
Paul clearly points out that we have been condemned by God’s law and we, when we were joined to Christ in our baptisms, were joined to Him in His death and His resurrection (cf. Col. 2:11ff.; Gal. 3:26ff.). Christ suffered the law’s just condemnation of our sins for us when He died on the cross and, being joined to Christ through faith, His death was our death and we have died to the law that we might be alive in Christ and live to God. And the life we now live as believers is the risen Christ living in us, moving and empowering us to love God and gladly and willingly obey His commandments.
St. Paul writes in verse 20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
So, dare we add any requirements or conditions to faith in Christ for our salvation? Do we add other things we must do to be saved – whether that be obedience to the Ten Commandments or the observance of certain church rites and customs? St. Paul’s answer: “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (v. 21). And later in his epistle, Paul warned the Galatians (5:4): “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”
And so we see that trying to add any of our sin-tainted works to the Gospel overthrows the Gospel. As soon as we add works of the law to the Gospel as necessary for our salvation, we are no longer under grace but under the law, and the law condemns us because we fail to keep it as God requires – perfectly in our thoughts, desires, words, and deeds.
St. Paul wrote to the Galatians (3:10-14): “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’ But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.’ Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
And so, I ask you, do you want to be forgiven and just and righteous in God’s eyes and inherit everlasting life? Don’t trust in your obedience to the Ten Commandments, your church membership, your religious life! Don’t even add your works to the perfect works of Christ! If you do, you have come short! You stand condemned because of your failure to keep God’s law perfectly, as He requires!
Trust in Christ alone! He fulfilled all the righteous demands of the law in your stead! And, He suffered your just punishment, and the punishment for the sins of the world, when He was condemned and forsaken of God and died on the cross for our sins! Cf. Matt. 27:46). Through faith alone in Christ’s holy life and His innocent sufferings and death to atone for our sins you are forgiven, just and righteous in God’s eyes and you have the promise of eternal life in His kingdom!
Again, St. Paul wrote to the Colossians in Colossians 1:19-23: “For it pleased the Father that in Him [Jesus Christ] all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight – if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
God grant to you such faith in His Son! Amen.
[Scripture is taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]