Series on Galatians, I The Apostolic Authority, I The Argument, Text: 2:15-21, Title: Where is the Power?


Do you remember that Paul said to the Christians at Rome in 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation to the Jew first and also to the Greek. That is where the power is. The Judaizers sought to find the power in keeping the law. Their clinging to the powerless law is not surprising since generations of Jewish leaders leading up to the life of Christ, our Savior, had spent all of their time erecting a hedge around Israel to separate it from the Gentiles. This hedge was combined of Torah, Talmud and Mishnah. The God breathed written Torah which we have in our Bibles, was therefore probably only about a third of the Jewish Torah-Law during the times recorded in the New Testament.The oral Law was part of the torah law including the interpretations of the Rabbis, and to give us an idea of how ridiculously high the hedge had grown there was a body of unwritten legal opinions intended to make the Law applicable to changing situations. Thus the scribes, or experts in the Law, had identified thirty-nine different kinds of work in the written Law which were prohibited on the Sabbath; in the oral Law each of these types of work was expanded to include thirty-nine sub-categories of work, resulting in some 1521 different kinds of work which were prohibited on the Sabbath. I cannot say how much of that tradition  the Judaizers were trying to impose on the church members, but the issue in Galatians is circumcision because in their minds that made you a Jew. After that, who knows? I tell you these things so that you can see how powerful the idea of the law was for the first century Jews. Nonetheless many Christians, both Jewish and Gentile had been delivered from that bondage. And it was left to Paul to lift up the banner of grace for the church in succeeding generations. The law had no power to save and Paul’s classic formulation of that is in Romans 8:3 and 4, For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

I The Concurrence

The point of agreement is the first thing Paul points to here in  his argument. He says in verses 15 and 16,  We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing 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 observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. The Apostle is not speaking to Jews in general, but to those who have trusted in Christ, what we would call today Messianic Jewish Christians. Obviously in trusting in Christ for salvation these Jews have confirmed the Old Testament teaching that salvation is through faith. These people would have acknowledged that their father, Abraham, was saved by grace through faith. Sadly, the Jews of the first century in general were not understanding that Abraham was saved by grace through faith and they insisted on the law as their hope. Listen again to the account of Jesus and the leaders of the Jews in John 8:39-44, “Our father is Abraham,” they said. “If you were Abraham’s children,” replied Jesus, “it is Abraham’s deeds that you would be doing. But, in fact, you are longing to kill me, a man who has spoken to you the truth which I have heard from God. Abraham did not do that. You are doing the deeds of your father.” “We,” they replied, “are not illegitimate children. We have one Father, namely God.” “If God were your Father,” said Jesus, “you would love me; for it is from God that I came and I am now here. I have not come of myself, but He sent me. How is it you do not understand me when I speak? It is because  you cannot bear to listen to my words. The father whose sons you are is the Devil; and you desire to do what gives him pleasure. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand firm in the truth — for there is no truth in him. Whenever he utters his lie, he utters it out of his own store; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe me. We can see that the nation in general and its leaders in particular were not understanding their Scriptures or their teaching, but those who had come to Christ for salvation  did agree with salvation by grace through faith and concurred with Paul.

II The Contention

Paul now proceeds to address the source of contention. The disagreement is over whether believing in the grace of Christ makes us sin as set forth in verses 17 and 18, “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. The Apostle’s argument here probably seems convoluted to the average reader, but it is not so difficult if we understand the context in which he is writing. The dispute in the Galatian churches was over whether remaining uncircumcised was breaking the law. The Judaizers said it was and that such behavior put them on the same level as Gentile sinners outside the covenant people of God. In other circumstances the issue was whether not eating kosher was breaking the law. In other words the question  is whether fellowshipping with uncircumcised brothers who did not follow the Jewish dietary laws was sinning or not. Paul says, “Absolutely not,” in the strongest language, “God forbid.” He explains with these seemingly enigmatic words, "If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker." To rebuild the law means to reinstate the law for the supervision of the Christian life. If the law is reinstated, then the Christian is proved to be a lawbreaker. The thing that was destroyed was the law as a means of salvation. If you bring it back then you are nullifying the forgiveness that you have in Christ through faith.

III The Confession

Now Paul uses his own Christian experience to illustrate his point in verses 19-21, 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 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!” The depth of Paul’s emotional reaction in this debate can be gauged by his closing words. If the Judaizers are right, Christ died for nothing. This is the most abhorrent thing that Paul can think of. They are trampling the love and mercy of God and the willing sacrifice of Christ under their feet. Like stubborn children they are saying they would rather do it themselves, and this is an insult to the one who has offered to save them. Paul says he died to the law. This happened when he trusted in Christ because Jesus Christ bore the curse of the law for us in His death. The Apostle says in chapter 3:13, Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. Paul is saying that in his union with Christ he has become identified with Jesus’ death and resurrection so that when Jesus died, Paul died, and when Jesus rose, Paul rose. “We died to the law,” says Paul. The penalty of the law is death and we have experienced that penalty in Christ. This means the law is dead as a way of salvation. If you are dead, then the law has no power over you and consequently the law is also dead. So where is the power? It’s  not in the cemetery, but in the nursery. It’s not in the grave but in the life. When we go out to look at our garden at the end of a hard winter we see plants that are brown and lifeless. I say to my wife we need to wait until spring to see if it gets green again. It usually doesn’t, but the weeds do. As we apply this teaching to ourselves we need to see that the specter of the law as a means of salvation keeps reappearing in the church like weeds. Legalism is alive and well, but we need to remember it is absolutely useless. No observance of any law, moral, civil or ceremonial will move us one millimeter closer to salvation. The power is all in the gospel of God’s grace alone with nothing added to it. One preacher asked, “Have you climbed over your own corpse?” There is a large corpse between you and God and it is all your righteousness. If you have climbed over that corpse, then you know what Paul is talking about when he says, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.


To put it another way in conclusion, on November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said, “We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” And that is what we say as Christians who truly believe. We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow our lives. Only Jesus who died for us can do that, and therefore Paul says, 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!