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 2:17-21 ESV
Paul’s take on the universal problem of sin is best summed up in his oft-quoted statement: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). He went on to say, “and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-26 ESV). When Paul used the word “all”, he was including the Jews. Even the chosen people of God, the descendants of Abraham, found themselves in the same condition as the unrighteous Gentiles. They were all guilty and stood condemned before God because of their sins. Because while the Jews had received the law of God through Moses, they had been unable to keep God’s righteous decrees perfectly and completely. In their attempt to be justified or made right with God by keeping the law, they only found themselves condemned by the law.
And Paul is claiming the same thing to be true regarding the proponents of circumcision. They were attempting to add circumcision as a necessary requirement for all Gentiles to “complete” their salvation experience. They were teaching that it was disobedience, and therefore sin, for the Gentiles to refuse circumcision. But Paul argued that justification through Christ reveals that all are sinners, regardless of whether they have been circumcised or not. Jews and Gentiles all stand before God as guilty of sin and worthy of death, because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). When men finally come to the realization that they are completely incapable of justifying themselves before God through human effort, they are forced to recognize their own sinfulness and guilt. That is what Paul means when he says they are “found to be sinners.” The process of being made right with God through faith in Christ necessarily reveals our sinfulness and need for a Savior. But that does not make Christ a servant of sin. In other words, it is not that Christ is leading us into or encouraging us to sin, but He is simply exposing our sin to us. We discover that, as Isaiah says, even our most righteous acts are like filthy rags before God – stained, contaminated and unacceptable (Isaiah 64:6).
So, Paul contends, why would anyone want to rebuilt what has been torn down? Why would we want to go back to trying to earn favor with God through rule-keeping? The law could never save anyone. All it could do was condemn and accuse. This did not make the law an accomplice in man’s sin, but the law was God’s holy and righteous means of revealing the full extent of man’s sinfulness. Paul put it this way:
Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. – Romans 7:7-8 NLT
As a result, Paul says, “I died to the law — I stopped trying to meet all its requirements — so that I might live for God” (Galatians 2:19 NLT). He learned to stop trying to earn favor with God through religious rule-keeping. His life was no longer based upon human effort. He had died alongside Christ and had been given a new life with a new nature. “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT). Paul wanted his readers to know that they had a new power within them, provided by God and made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross. No longer did they have to trust in themselves and their own self-effort. They were to trust in the Son of God and to rely on the Spirit of God who dwelt within them.
Paul had no desire to rebuild what had been torn down. He didn’t want to go back to his old way of life, attempting to please God through trying to keep the law. He remembered all too well what that life had been like. The more he had tried to keep the law, the more his sinful nature seemed to resist and rebel against the law. If it said, “Don’t covet”, he wanted to covet all the more. Like a child who is told not to do something, he felt compelled to do it even more than ever. Now that he was free in Christ, he had no desire to go back to slavery he had felt under the law. And he did not want his readers to fall back under the law either. The bottom line for Paul was, that if righteousness could have ever been achieved through the law, then Jesus’ death would have been meaningless and unnecessary. But as Peter wrote, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18 ESV). Jesus died so that we might live. He fulfilled the law we were incapable of keeping. He did what we could not do and did for us what we could never have done for ourselves, made us right with God. So now our obedience to God’s righteous standards is motivated by a sense of love and gratitude, not duty. We are no longer trying to earn God’s love, but simply return it. We are not trying to make Him accept us, but are only trying to express our appreciation for having already done so. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).