25 June 2016

Galatians 2:15 – 3:5

“If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (v. 21)

Psalm: Psalm 19


Today's passage is arguably one of the most important in the New Testament, and has had a very significant impact on Christian theology. Paul's argument that we are justified by faith alone was particularly important during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, when it became a crucial bone of contention between reformers like Martin Luther and some in the Catholic Church.

The essential argument that Paul is making here must be read in the context of the whole letter and the dispute within the Galatian, and indeed the wider early, church. A key word here is 'justification', which may be understood as meaning 'placed in a right relationship with God' - something to which the first readers of this letter and indeed all Christians aspire. Paul wants his readers to understand very clearly that this happy state does not come about because of anything that they do. In particular, it does not come about because they have been circumcised or they follow Jewish dietary rules. The phrase "the works of the law" (eg vv. 2:16; 3:2, 5) may be understood here as Paul's shorthand for these practices. Instead, Paul argues, we are justified solely because of what God has done through the person of his crucified and risen son, Jesus Christ, and our faith in him. Paul tries to make this clear to his first audience by reminding them that they first experienced the free love, or grace, of God not through their own actions but by the generous gift of God, in the person of the Holy Spirit.

It is important to remember here, though, that Paul is arguing a case and trying to persuade his audience that his interpretation is correct. This means that he uses powerful language (eg "You foolish Galatians!" (v. 3:1)) and may exaggerate some of the differences between himself and his opponents. In particular, it is very clear that no faithful Jew believed that they were made right with God solely by performing ritualistic acts like avoiding pork or keeping the Sabbath. Instead, such practices were merely symbolic of Israel's grateful response to God's gracious calling of the nation to be God's own people (Deuteronomy 10:12 - 11:32).

To Ponder

  • Why do you think that this passage became so important for later generations of Christians?
  • What does it mean for you for Christ to 'live in' a person (v.20)?
  • How can you see the impact of being justified with God in your everyday lives life?

Bible notes author

The Revd Geoffrey Farrar

Geoffrey Farrar is currently a Methodist presbyter in the West Hertfordshire and Borders Circuit of the Methodist Church, where he has pastoral charge of three churches in the Watford area. He trained at Wesley House in Cambridge and has recently completed an MA in Ancient History with the University of Trinity Saint David.