17 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! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 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. 21 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 included the Jews. Even the Israelites, who were the descendants of Abraham and God’s chosen people 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.
Paul recalls exactly what he said to Peter when the party of the circumcision had come to town.
“You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles. Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law.” – Galatians 2:15-16 NLT
He acknowledged that the Jews had been set apart by God and extended very unique privileges as His people. His statement, “not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles” does not claim that Israelites are without sin but that their sinfulness is judged differently. They are held accountable to keep the law because the law was only given to them. Paul makes this point clear in his letter to the Romans.
When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. – Romans 2:12 NLT
The Judaizers were claiming that without the requirement to keep the Mosaic Law, the Gentiles would end up living lives of lawlessness and license. But Paul disagreed. He knew that the law was given to expose the sinfulness of the people of Israel. It was meant to display the true nature of their hearts. For centuries they had lived under the laws that Moses had given them but had repeatedly violated or simply ignored them. Their hearts were not in it. In fact, God had declared of them, “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13 NLT).
For Paul, the issue was always about obedience, and from what he could see, there were Gentiles who were better at keeping God’s law than the people of God themselves.
For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight. Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. – Romans 2:13-15 NLT
God had given His law to the Israelites to demonstrate their distinctiveness. No other nation was blessed with direct access to Yahweh and the privilege of living under His righteous laws. Moses put it this way:
“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” – Deuteronomy 4:7-8 ESV
But as great as the law was, it could never justify anyone. The law’s sole purpose was to expose the Israelites’ incapacity to live set-apart lives. The law was clear but their hearts were unclean. This led Paul to paint an unlikely scenario.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? – Galatians 2:17 ESV
He’s posing the question of whether Jesus’ claim of justification in Him alone was intended to lead Jews into sin. And for Paul, the answer is an emphatic, “Certainly not!” It would be ridiculous to suggest that Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV) was encouraging people to ignore the law altogether, causing them to sin. He is the one who also said, “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose” (Matthew 5:17 NLT).
Jesus came to fulfill or keep the law. As the sinless Son of God, He was the only one capable of living up to God’s righteous standards. Jesus’ perfect obedience is what made Him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
So, all this talk about the law and the proposal of a circumcision requirement for all Gentile believers was more than Paul could handle. Jesus had accomplished it all on the cross and there was nothing more necessary. The proponents of circumcision 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 exposes our sinfulness and our 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 rebuild what has been torn down? Why would we want to return 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 rebelliousness against God. 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. They no longer had to trust in themselves and their own self-effort. They were to trust in the Son of God and rely on the Spirit of God who lived 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 law-keeping. 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 more than ever. Now that he was free in Christ, he had no desire to go back to the enslavement that came with trying to keep the law. And he didn’t want his readers to fall back under the law either.
The bottom line for Paul is 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 never have done for ourselves; He 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 returning it. We are not trying to make Him accept us, but we are only trying to express our appreciation for having already done so. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.