GALATIANS - A Verse-by-Verse Commentary

by Thomas W. Finley

Chapter Two - Paul’s Defense of Grace in Personal Experience

Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem – 2:1-10

Acts records five trips which Paul made to Jerusalem, which seem best arranged in this sequence: (1) After his time in Damascus three years following his conversion; Acts 9:26-30; Gal. 1:18-20; (2) The visit to bring famine relief; Acts 11:27-30; 12:25; (3) The time of the Jerusalem council; Acts 15:1-30; (4) The visit to greet “the church” after completing his second missionary journey (most Bible interpreters identify “the church” in Acts 18:22 as the one in Jerusalem); Acts 18:22; (5) The last visit where Paul was taken as a prisoner by the Romans; Acts 21:15-23:31.

Bible teachers are divided on whether the visit recorded in Gal. 2:1-10 is the second one noted above or the third one. See the “Background of Galatians” in this writing for more detail about this issue. It seems that the best explanation is that when Paul says “I went up again to Jerusalem” (Gal. 2:1) he is referring to the next visit after the one in Gal. 1:18-20. This would be the visit prompted by the predicted famine (Acts 11:27-30), which resulted in some brothers from Antioch taking relief funds to Jerusalem.

Paul writes in Gal. 2:2: “It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain.” Now, we know that Paul has a purpose in this portion of the letter, namely, to show that his gospel and his ministry were validated by the apostles in Jerusalem. So, he does not mention the relief funds, because they are most secondary to his purpose and to his personal spiritual burden for this visit. In this verse we can see that Paul had something very important on his heart when he took this trip to Jerusalem after “fourteen years,” likely using the time of his conversion as a beginning marker for time references in this letter (1:18; 2:1). What Paul had on his heart was the matter of the truth of the gospel.

There was a revelation given to Agabus about the famine in Acts 11:28, which was the cause of the trip to Jerusalem. This may be the revelation referred to in Gal. 2:2. Yet, Paul makes it very clear that his spiritual burden on the trip concerned the gospel, not primarily the relief funds. It may be that Paul had an additional revelation from God prompting him personally to go to Jerusalem (“I went up”) for the sake of his gospel work - that it might not be in vain. The idea here is not that maybe Paul had the gospel wrong after all. That would not be a valid interpretation based upon Paul’s clear statements about the God-given derivation of his gospel (Gal. 1:11-12). Instead, Paul was likely concerned about the influence of Judaizers, which was undoubtedly already being felt in Syria and Cilicia. He feared that his ministry to the Gentiles might be severely hampered, even rendered ineffective (being “in vain”), if the Jewish apostles in Jerusalem were somehow sympathetic to the views of the Judaiziers. He sought to determine if the leaders in Jerusalem agreed with his law-free ministry to the Gentiles, perhaps especially as it concerned circumcision as a necessity for the converted Gentiles. The context here shows that there was much pressure by some persons to get the Gentile converts circumcised (see 2:3-4). Yet, Paul was clear that circumcision was not needed for the Gentile believers.

In line with Paul’s concern about the truth of the gospel, he tells us in verse three that not even Titus, a Greek convert who went with him to Jerusalem, was compelled to be circumcised, apparently meaning not compelled by those who received them in Jerusalem. Verses three through five are a parenthetical thought that enters into the text here, and Greek experts note that the grammar of these verses is jumbled and poor. This shows, perhaps, the suddenness with which these thoughts occurred to Paul as well as his passion in relation to this matter of Judaizers, who were a danger to the truth of the Christian’s liberty (from the law) in Christ. Some versions render the thought of Paul in verses four and five along this line: “This issue arose because of false brothers smuggled in, who came in secretly to spy on the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us. But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:4-5, HCSB).

In other words, the matter of circumcision for Gentile converts was at least a significant background issue there in Jerusalem, and it existed because of false brethren who were pressing for circumcision because of its prominence in the Law. Some Bible teachers believe that verse four references Judaizers who had actually invaded the meeting in Jerusalem with their demands. Others believe that Paul is noting a problem he had with Judaizers at another time as a support for his position that Titus, or any Gentile convert, should not be compelled to be circumcised. It is not important that we know for sure when the events of verses four and five took place. What is important to understand is that Paul would not yield to this legalistic threat to his gospel, and in line with that he was bold enough to take uncircumcised Titus with him to Jerusalem, and he was prepared to resist any attempt for Titus to be compelled to be circumcised.

In verse six and verse nine Paul notes the leaders in Jerusalem as those of reputation, but adds in verse six that their seeming status did not matter, because he also had an apostolic status to the Gentiles (verses 7-8). Perhaps Paul was here answering a case made by the Judaizers that the apostles in Jerusalem were special (perhaps due to their personal closeness with Jesus) and Paul should fall in line with them, showing them deference. In verse six Paul states that the leaders in Jerusalem “contributed nothing to me;” that is, they did not add anything to Paul’s understanding of the truth. In fact, those in Jerusalem recognized Paul’s apostleship and the working of God’s Spirit in his ministry.

Notice how the “effectual working of God” in the apostles (verse eight) is equated with “the grace that had been given to me [Paul]” in verse nine. This again testifies of the dynamic meaning of grace being God’s work in the believer. Further, they even gave to Paul and Barnabas the “right hand of fellowship” for their field of ministry, honoring their calling by God to His work among the Gentiles. In summary, the private meeting with the apostolic leaders in Jerusalem led to a confirmation of Paul’s law-free gospel for the Gentiles as well as a full recognition that his apostolic calling was genuine and on an equal footing with the apostles in Jerusalem. This history added much to Paul’s defense of his ministry against the undermining claims of the Judaizers, those distorting the gospel of Christ.

This section on Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem closes with verse ten and an appeal by the apostles in Jerusalem to Paul and Barnabas to “remember the poor.” A question arises here. If this meeting took place at the time when Barnabas and Paul brought a gift for famine relief to Jerusalem, why would the leaders in Jerusalem ask those from Antioch to “remember the poor,” which they already seemed to be doing? We can only guess at the timing and circumstances of this appeal, which took place at the private meeting. It is not unreasonable to imagine that this appeal arose some amount of time after the gift was given, either hours or more likely a day or more afterwards. In this case, it is likely that this was an appeal for ongoing recognition of the needs of the poor, probably referring especially to the poor Jewish brethren in Judea.

Here Paul reveals his heart for the unfortunate poor by saying it is indeed the very thing he was eager to do. This shows that although Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles, he did indeed have a heart for the poor of the Jewish churches. No doubt this kind of concern helped the unity in the body of Christ. Not only that, this reveals that even a great apostle, with much responsibility for the ministry of the word of God, had a tender heart of love and concern for the practical needs of the saints. Those who desire to teach and preach the word of God should measure their spirituality by this example.

Cephas opposed by Paul for the truth of the gospel – 2:11-16

This section opens with this phrase: “But when Cephas came to Antioch.” Firstly, let me give an estimate of when this incident took place with Cephas. I believe that this event is being related in line with the orderly chronological sequence so far given by Paul in Gal. 1:15-2:10. A number of good Bible interpreters take this position. Perhaps Peter visited Antioch not too long after the meeting took place in Jerusalem (2:1-10), or perhaps his visit took place after the first missionary journey, shortly before the council transpired in Acts 15 around 50 A. D. Secondly, this introductory phrase opens up a contrast between the meeting in Jerusalem, where the apostles to the Gentiles and the Jews were in agreement on the gospel, and this later incident where Paul had to stand up to Peter’s error for “the truth of the gospel.”

The main issue of the truth here is not uniquely circumcision, even though the problem arose due to a visit from “certain men from James,” who may have been the same as “those from the circumcision” (literal translation, Gal. 2:12), or strongly influenced by them. One issue here was one of distinctions between Jewish and Gentile believers, and respective requirements upon each group. Of course, we see this matter addressed again at the council in Acts 15 (a later event in our understanding).

Peter is shown here as being in the wrong. Let us remember that Peter had a vision from God in Acts 10:9-15 showing him that what God had cleansed he should no longer consider unholy. Peter understood this vision to mean that Jewish social interaction with Gentiles was perfectly in line with God’s purposes and intentions. In the past, he had understood that it was “unlawful . . . for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him” (Acts 10:28). Now, after this vision, he presented the good news of Jesus at Cornelius’ house and saw these Gentiles receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is apparent that he stayed with Cornelius for a few days afterwards, and even ate with these converted Gentiles, which gave rise to criticism from his fellow Jews (Acts 10:48; 11:3). But, Peter defended his eating with the Gentile believers on the grounds of the vision and the Spirit’s instruction to him to go to Cornelius’ house (Acts 11:4-18). It was at that point that the Jews who objected realized that God was including the Gentiles in the blessings of eternal life in an entirely new divine arrangement.

The visit to Cornelius’ house took place sometime before this confrontation with Paul in Antioch. What happened to Peter’s clarity on this matter of eating with Gentiles and God’s work of making them as holy as the Jews? When Cephas first came to Antioch he practiced eating with the Gentile believers, as other Jewish believers did. This “eating” fellowship probably included participation in the Lord’s table, which at that time was taken together with a meal. But when certain men “from James” came he began to withdraw from eating with the Gentiles, “fearing the party of the circumcision.” [1]

The fear of man took hold of Peter. Although the text says that these certain men from Jerusalem were “from James,” that may refer to how they presented themselves at Antioch. The reality probably was, however, that James did not truly “send them,” especially not to correct Peter. More likely this traveling party had a strong connection to those back in Jerusalem who were Jewish believers “from the circumcision,” yet still strongly held to the old Jewish ways. It seems likely that they were a powerful group in Jerusalem and Peter feared the trouble that they might make for him. But, Peter did not act on principle here because he already knew the truth, directly by revelation from God, that Jewish believers should no longer consider the Gentiles unclean. His separation from them was based upon cowardice to stand up for the truth of the gospel that both Jews and Gentiles who believed in Jesus were fully accepted by God through faith. Thus he was a hypocrite, acting contrarily to what he knew was right.

When Paul observed that Peter began to withdraw from table-fellowship with Gentile believers, Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” Peter’s actions were public, and because they touched the core of the gospel truth, Paul boldly opposed him publicly. Peter stood condemned, not by some person, but by his own actions, which were against the truth he already knew. Sadly, even Barnabas, a seasoned co-worker at Antioch who knew the truth of how God fully accepted the Gentiles, followed Peter in hypocrisy.

Paul was fearless of criticism or peer pressure from the powerful or influential. He tells us in chapter one about this: “If I were still striving to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10). He was boldly committed to the truth and his rebuke of Peter was due to the importance of the gospel truth. In verse 14 he explains how he addressed Peter because he saw that Peter and others had indeed not been “straightforward about the truth of the gospel.” Peter had been freely associating and eating with Gentile believers in Antioch previously. Thus, Paul could describe him as a Jew living like a Gentile. But now, by Peter yielding to the pressure of the Jewish party from Jerusalem, he was reverting to strict Jewish ways, thus sending a message to the Gentile believers that Jewish customs were a right standard for holiness, consequently setting a pattern for the Gentile believers to follow Jewish ways. This is what is meant when Paul asserts to Peter, “how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

One of the problems that Bible interpreters face in this section is where to end Paul’s direct statements to Peter. The original Greek language had no markers for actual quotations like quotation marks. Older English versions do not show any quotation marks for Paul’s talk to Peter. Modern English versions generally try to offset the discussion by quotation marks. These Bible versions begin the quotation marks in verse 14, where Paul begins to relate what he said to Peter. But, should the actual confrontational statements which Paul made to Peter end at the close of verse 14 or at a later point? It is impossible to tell, but some modern versions end the quotation at verse 14, while some others take the discussion all the way down through verse 21. I think there is some ground for ending the discussion at the end of verse 17. We will look at that when we reach verse 17.

It is significant to note that the way verse 15 begins shows an argument by Paul from the standpoint of Paul and Peter’s mutual background as Jews. The Jewish perspective is that they were a special people of God, distinct from the Gentiles with special privileges. Two things made them particularly distinct – circumcision and the law. The Jews held a disdainful attitude towards the uncircumcised. Circumcision marked the Jews as belonging to God. Also, the Jews felt that the law made them holy, but those without the law were sinful until they embraced the law as God’s standard for righteous living. You can see this attitude especially in Rom. 2:17-24. One can also see that the law constituted a great dividing barrier between the Jew and the Gentile (Eph. 2:14-15).

Thus, to the traditional Jewish mind, the Gentile could only leave the category of “sinner” if he was circumcised and began to follow the commandments of the law. But now Paul argues how these traditional imperatives have been erased by the gospel of Christ! He writes: “nevertheless knowing that a man [even a Gentile] is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we [Jews – Peter and Paul] have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (2:16).

It is important to note that starting with verse 15 Paul gets to the root issue of the problem that manifested at Antioch. The real issue here, and throughout the Galatian letter, is how man is to relate to God. For centuries the Jews had related to God through the Law He gave at Sinai. When we get to Paul’s arguments in chapter three, we see that the law served only a temporary function until Christ came, and faith came. Once faith came, the law was no longer the way for the Jews to relate to God, but it was replaced by faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, not only Jews are affected, because the Scripture here tells us that all men, not just Jews, are to relate to God by faith (Gal. 3:5-10). There is a “law principle” that all fallen men, Jews and Gentiles, tend towards naturally. This tendency is to live by man’s efforts – “works of law” - to fulfill the requirements, or standards, of some code of conduct, whether it is the Old Testament law given by Moses or any code of conduct that men may have, shaped by society, tradition, or man’s fallen mentality. Therefore, we should not read the Galatian letter, as if “law” always means the Jewish Old Testament law. Being “under law” is simply a principle of living up to some standard of righteousness (often represented by a set of commandments), which in turn requires the effort of man to do so.

The entire NT presents a contrast between such a “law principle” and a “grace principle” (see Rom. 6:14). Living by grace, through faith, simply means living in union with Christ Himself by the supply and power of the Holy Spirit. To live by grace (to live by faith) is to live by another life, the life of Christ. It means living unto God Himself in dependent faith, not exercising one’s efforts to obey some standard of right living. We will explore this more as we proceed to expound this epistle, but this is the key concept that one must keep in mind for understanding the meaning of this letter and for understanding the Christian life. Remember that Paul defines succinctly the problem among the Galatian believers and why he is writing to them: “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by [literally, “in”] the grace of Christ, for a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). The good news is the grace of Christ! This grace is God Himself supplied to us, and experienced by us, through faith. This grace is not only for our initial justification, but is for our daily walk of holiness with God, our sanctification. This is what the epistle is all about.

Paul is arguing that the Jew who believes in Christ is not justified by works of law, but solely by faith. The basis of righteousness before God then is faith, not law. Since the Jew and Gentile now have the common ground of faith, and the law has been replaced by faith, there should be no distinction or separation between Jew and Gentile believers (and Paul puts this truth strongly later in the letter in Gal. 3:28). The distinction between the two groups has been erased in Christ, so for Cephas to pick up the practice of the law again is not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel.” The gospel, as we saw in chapter one, is all about “the grace of Christ” (1:6). When Peter followed the lead of the Judaizers in separating from the Gentiles based upon Jewish law, he ignored what God did in Christ, making the two groups into one (Gal. 3:28).

Paul’s testimony: He lives by the life of Christ, not by law – 2:17-21

Verse 17 is one of the most difficult verses in this epistle to interpret, and there have been various explanations by commentators. The best explanation seems to be that Paul is continuing to explain what happens when Jews come to faith, when they seek to be justified in Christ. As they come to Christ in order to be justified they realize, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, that all of their efforts at law observance have not made them righteous before God, and therefore justification by the works of law is futile. Thus, Jews who trust in Christ for salvation recognize that they are also sinners even though they have God’s law! When they place their faith in Christ alone, they leave law-works behind and out of the salvation process entirely.

Paul now confronts a wrong conclusion – that the believer may live as he pleases after coming to Christ. This was most probably the conclusion of the Judaizers, since they focused on the danger of not having a God-established standard of behavior (OT law), which, in their minds, would logically lead to a license to sin. But Paul states that the view which proclaims a law standard is needed to avoid sinful living would lead to an inconceivable conclusion – that the holy Christ, in setting aside law-works in salvation, would then become a “minister of sin.” “May it never be,” says Paul. It may be that Paul picked up this term “minister of sin” from the lips of the Judaizers, who accused Paul of being such because he was not promoting law observances for Gentile `believers after salvation. Justification by faith, apart from law (which the Jews relied upon for “holiness”) does not mean the demand for holiness upon the believer is gone. It only means that the way of holiness is no longer by trying to carry out the works of some law standard. In the next few verses Paul expands upon this, unfolding a key revelation of the epistle.

In verse 18 we note that Paul drops the use of “we” and begins using “I.” Some Bible commentaries explain here that Paul is still recording his actual conversation with Cephas, and Paul uses “I” as a kindness toward Peter, not accusing him directly of reverting to law and thus being a transgressor. This seems most unlikely, considering both Paul’s earlier strong rebuke of Cephas in verse 14 as well as the awkwardness of using “I” to prove a point meant for the person being corrected. It seems more plausible that Paul has ended the record of his conversation with Cephas at the point of his strong conclusion in verse 17, which knocks down the logic of the arguments by those promoting law for sanctification. Then, in verses 18-21, he expands on the theme of law versus true Christian living by grace. His attention is now fully turned from the event with Cephas to the needs of his readers in Galatia. His explanation is marvelous both in simplicity and spiritual depth. By personal testimony of his own tested experience Paul explains how the Christian life is lived.

“For if I rebuild what I once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (2:18). Here Paul is stating what the case would be for him, if he himself might become one who turned back to the law as a means of sanctification, a means of living a Christian life. What Paul once destroyed, in his personal life, is a life under law, as indicated by the next verse. In what way would Paul prove himself as a transgressor? Anyone who tries to live by law will find that he cannot, as efforts to live up to the law stirs up sin within man (Rom. 7:7-11; 1 Cor. 15:56). A study of Romans chapter seven leads one to conclude that the experience there of defeat was one Paul experienced after he was saved (“I was once alive apart from the law”; Rom. 7:9) and then tried to follow the law, ending in failure. Not only would Paul be a transgressor of the law’s requirements, but it may be that this verse is also indicating that he would be a transgressor against God’s revealed way of living in union with Christ, as the following verses indicate.

Verse 19: “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.” A more accurate and literal translation would show that there is no article “the” before Law in both places in this verse, and that there is no capital L in Law (the Greek does not specify that the OT law is meant). Darby’s translation is more of a literal rendering: “For I, through law, have died to law, that I might live to God.” Most English translators assume Paul means the Torah, the Jewish OT law, and thus most English translations insert an English “the” before “law.” Paul does, certainly in one sense, refer to the Jewish law because he indeed was a zealous Pharisee (Phil. 3:5). But, it is clear that he has a deeper sense of “law” in mind, the entire principle of law – man striving to keep a standard of conduct for approval by God, or even by man.[2] Later, Paul expresses concern that the Galatians, whose background was Gentile, were now those who were turning back to a law principle that they had once practiced (4:9-10). Paul died to “law” as a principle – a way of being approved by God - that he might live to God.

Some Christians believe that “legalism” describes a practice of picking up extra-Biblical rules. However, legalism is really just the principle of man living “to law,” setting some code of conduct before him to be obeyed in order to be approved by God. That code could consist of genuine Biblical commands, but it could also include extra-Biblical rules. In the New Testament, God does give commandments, but we should understand that these are to be carried out in our lives in a different way than the way of law, a legal principle. One verse that shows this is 1 Cor. 9:21, where Paul spoke of his way of dealing with unbelievers in order to win them to Christ: “to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.” We have been released from a set of rules that we must keep, but we should live by the law of Christ, the life principle of the person of God’s son.

Another passage that confirms God’s life principle is Rom. 8:2-4:

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Here we clearly see that law cannot set us free from the dominion of “the law [principle] of sin and of death” within us. So, God provides us with “the law [principle] of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” When we walk according to the Spirit (by the power of the Spirit of life and following the leading of the Spirit), then we spontaneously fulfill all the righteous standard of the law (Rom. 8:4). This is because the life of Christ lives up to God’s full standard of righteousness. When we live in union with Christ, the Holy Spirit will lead us in God’s way, and we often realize His leading as He reminds of His commandments. Yet, our focus and dependency remains on God Himself (not the commandments) and He empowers us by His life to obey Him.

When we reach chapter five of Galatians we will again see the truth of the power of the Spirit for obedience to God: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the [sinful] desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). We will also again see the contrast between the way of law and the way of grace: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18).

It was through the OT law that Paul, as a transgressor, was condemned by that code (Gal. 3:10-11). But, Paul’s separation from law was something very deep spiritually. He does not say he “gave up the law” after he came to faith. Rather, he says he actually “died to law.” This can only refer to his co-crucifixion with Christ (Rom. 6:6; 7:4-6). “You were also made to die to the Law through the body of Christ [His body on the cross], so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order to bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4).

All believers have died to law in their death with Christ. Our co-crucifixion with Christ, and our burial with Him into His death, as well as our co-resurrection with Christ, are real “spiritual facts,” utterly true in the spiritual realm (Rom. 6:3-6). When we were put into Christ by God, we were also put into His death and His resurrection. We must believe and stand in faith on the truth of our death with Christ and our resurrection with Him. All that is true of us “in Christ,” must be appropriated by faith, and lived out in obedience, to become real in our lives. We see this in Romans chapter six (Rom. 6:11-13) and we see this in this passage on Christian living in Paul’s testimony: “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).

The important point to be made on this verse is that our break with law (the law principle) is something that happened with Christ’s death. In His death on the cross Jesus died to His identification with Adam (the whole human race), and the way of law in Adam, breaking that identification. Then, after burial, He was raised to live unto God. All men are born with the fallen nature of Adam. Inherent in the Adamic nature is the tendency to try to live up to some moral or religious standard in order to be acceptable to God (or even a false god, as in the case of many false religions which teach that men should live by their code). The works of man to gain God’s approval began with Adam and Eve making leaf aprons to cover their shame. This means that fallen man tends toward living under some “law,” some standard that he tries to meet in order to feel he is right morally or religiously. We can even see this when men compare their behavior to others, trying to prove to themselves, or others, that they are morally superior and thus acceptable.

Gal. 2:20 is one of the most important verses in the Bible as respects the living of the Christian life. In conjunction with verse 19, a key concept is revealed here in the book of Galatians by means of Paul’s personal testimony. Paul shows the Galatians (and us) how he himself, a former legalist, has escaped the trap of legalism and lives in freedom to please God. We can follow Paul’s pattern of freedom from law to living Christ’s life by faith.

Verse 20 adds further information on how Paul “lives to God,” which he just stated in verse 19. Firstly, Paul deals with the negative – the problem of his old life before regeneration, the old “I” that was Paul himself. “I have been crucified with Christ.” The verb is in the perfect tense; the action was completed in the past and it has present results. Paul is standing in faith on the truth of spiritual revelation – his old man was crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6). Even though in Paul’s experience (like ours) his old nature was still present with him, and a source of all sorts of wrong desires and motives, the death of Paul’s old “I” was made effective through his faith, rendering it inoperative in living out its sinful desires. Because Paul’s death and resurrection with Christ was true in the spiritual realm, and was made effective through his faith, he could say “it is no longer I who live.” The old life of Paul was no longer expressed in his living, and the same can be true of us.

Now Christ is living in Paul. Yet, this Christ-life is a life which Paul himself lives: “but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith.” The new Paul is living in spiritual union with Christ. He is joined to Christ and Christ has now become his life (Rom. 7:4; Col. 3:4). Paul writes: “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith.” Faith is trust, and in the Christian life it is trust in Another. The Christian life involves the rejection of trust in one’s self and dependent trust in Christ. Paul is allowing Christ to live through him in dependent and yielding faith. Paul is not trying to live up to a code of conduct, or even trying to “imitate Christ.” Instead, he is participating in Christ, sharing in His life by faith. He is trusting God’s revealed truth and trusting the Son of God. Paul’s faith is “in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” His faith is also a response to the unmeasurable love of Christ towards him.

Verses 18-21 are a real turning point in this epistle, a “bridge,” connecting two portions together. Gal. 1:11-2:17 are biographical, where Paul relates his history, but, of course, with real purpose in mind. In this portion, in biographical form, he is trying to make his apostleship and the truth of the gospel very clear to the readers. Then, in 2:18-21 Paul gives the testimony of his personal practice of his Christian faith. Again, his writing, which is under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is deeply purposeful. He is laboring to correct the Galatian error of utilizing the law as a means of Christian living or Christian sanctification. In Galatians chapters three and four Paul moves from the biographical to the doctrinal, expanding his arguments about law versus grace.

I will use “grace,” or the “grace principle” to be the all-inclusive term for the true way of living the Christian life. In chapters three and four we don’t see the noun “grace,” but we do see the term “faith” and the all-important truth of the “Spirit” in the believer’s life. (We do have a verbal form of grace in Gal. 3:18.) Both “faith” and the “Spirit” are key elements of the grace principle (especially note Gal 5:4-5). When we live by grace, we live by the power of the Spirit through faith.

Law and grace are two totally different principles. The history of the Christian church throughout the centuries records how these two principles have competed against one another for the theology of the church and the practice of the believers. Unfortunately, law has mostly prevailed in the Christian church, setting aside God’s way of grace. Although many churches claim to believe in “grace,” in actual practice they embrace living under some form of law. This is why the book of Galatians is so important and needs to be understood correctly.

Galatians 2:21 is a continuation of Paul’s testimony of his present experience: “I do not nullify the grace of God . . .” It is important to note that he is talking about his present experience, how he now lives as a believer, just as verse 20 is talking about his practice as a believer. A significant principle of Bible interpretation is the principle of paying attention to context. What is the immediate context of the word or phrase or sentence? If we use the context to help us understand the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence then we are on the right track of understanding what the author intended to convey. The previous context of verse 20 is Paul’s present experience – how he is living the Christian life.

Also, the context following verse 21 again reveals Paul’s thoughts in this passage are on living the Christian life (sanctification), not on initial justification. This is seen in Gal. 3:2-5 where Paul directly argues with the Galatians concerning how the Christian life should be lived by them. Based upon the fact that they have already begun their new lives in Christ by receiving the Spirit, he argues that it is then foolish that they should now try to mature in their Christian lives by the efforts of their flesh to carry out works of law. So, in verses 3:2-5 Paul is not arguing for a correct understanding of how to “get saved,” or be justified. He is arguing for a correct understanding on how to mature as a believer, how to progress in sanctification.

Therefore, when Paul states that he now does not nullify the grace of God (2:21), we must recognize that he is not talking about initial grace in salvation (justification). He is talking about God’s grace transmitted to the believer in order to live the Christian life (sanctification).

In the entire section of 2:19-3:5 we see Paul contrasting the two principles of law and grace (and he will continue this contrast on through chapters three and four). When we see this context, in conjunction with Paul’s underlying purpose in writing – to bring the Galatians back to grace after being diverted by law – then we can understand his statement in the latter part of verse 21 and the first verse of chapter three.

In Gal. 2:21 Paul states: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law then Christ died needlessly.” A more literal translation would show that “through the Law” is simply “through law.” In Paul’s practice of the Christian life he lives so that he does not nullify – frustrate, or render inoperative - the grace of God. That is, he is living by grace, and does not stop its effectiveness by picking up law (v. 19). He explains that law cannot produce righteous living that would meet God’s standard of righteousness, for if it could, then Christ’s death would have been unnecessary. Stated another way, we might say, “Christ’s death was needed because the law could not produce righteous living, a righteousness acceptable to God.”

Rom. 3:9-20 tells us that no one lives righteously, Jew or Greek, and through law only comes the knowledge of sin. Paul’s testimony in Romans chapter seven tells us that even after he believed in Christ the law could not deliver him from the power of sin. The inability of law to produce a truly righteous living is described further by Paul in Gal. 3:21: “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based [literally, “out from”] law.” The law does not supply the power (the life) to be righteous. All attempts to live by the law principle, whether by an unregenerate person, or by a regenerate person, only results in sins (1 Cor. 15:56). Thank God for the power of grace!

Gal. 2:21 is connected to Gal. 3:1 because both explicitly mention the death of Christ. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publically crucified?” (Gal. 3:1) The Galatians were being foolish in picking up the way of law because with their spiritual sight they had seen Christ’s crucifixion, which was a solid testimony against any efforts of man to live righteously. The validity of law as a way to be approved by God is utterly refuted by the cross. Now they were being “bewitched,” or deceived, by someone – namely, the Judaizers - who promoted the law as the way for these believers to live a righteous life before God.

Life Application

A word should be added here about the old life to which Paul died, and to which we are also called to die unto by faith. For Christ to live in us, we first must die. The Bible reveals a number of ways in which our old life was lived out before we became believers. We should keep these aspects of the life of our old man in mind, knowing that we must die to these tendencies by faith. We should die to law – our efforts to perform for God by living up to certain standards or obligations (Gal. 2:19). We should die to self, our preferences, our plans, our rights, our ways and our choices (Lk. 9:23-24). We should die to sin, what we tend to think of as the sins of the flesh (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:19-21, 24; Col. 3:5). We should die to the world, its principles and its lusts (Gal. 6:14; Col. 2:20-23; 1 Jn. 2:15-17).

The history of the Christian church shows us that those saints who have learned the secrets of living the Christian life have learned the great importance of the “identification truths.” These are the truths of our identification with Christ, especially in His death and His resurrection (see Rom. 6:1-14; 7:4-6; Gal. 6:14; Col. 3:1-4). Any believer who really wants to live Christ’s life must spend time with these truths, memorizing them, meditating on them regularly and putting them into practice by faith - believing and acting on them. Confessing these verses in communion with God also strengthens our faith, especially in times of temptation.

An important point should be made about appropriating the death of Christ into our walk (our living) by faith. If we are not willing to die to some sin, some worldly desire, to law, etc., then claiming our death with Christ “by faith” will not work. We must be willing to die to all that is of the old man: sin, the world, the self and the flesh. Then, when we stand on the truth of our death with Christ in faith, disregarding our feelings, victory becomes increasingly evident in our lives.

Some Bible teachers have illustrated the reality of the believer’s experience as a railroad train consisting of three railroad cars. I would label the three cars as fact – faith – experience. The word of God is absolute truth, so we take what it says as “fact.” In this “train” of Christian experience, the word must come first as the engine of the train, then our faith in that word, and finally, as a result, experience of the Holy Spirit will follow. If we look for some type of “feelings” we will fail. “Feelings” would be emotions, sensations, or even the absence of the desires of the old nature. We must place our faith, our full trust, in what the word says, and then the experience of Christ (through the Holy Spirit) will follow. Of course, we also place our faith in Christ Himself.

Faith never regards feelings. For example, a believer may have a strong sinful desire at the very time he is trying to practice living Christ’s life by faith. In living by faith one must always stand upon the “spiritual facts” of God’s word and not regard his own feelings. As he stands on the truth of God’s word, trusting it, confessing it and acting upon it, he will not carry out the fleshly desire, but will instead let Christ’s life live through him. The more a believer meditates on these truths, and appropriates them by faith, the more they will become real to him or her and progressively manifested over time in the believer’s life. I challenge you to begin this practice if you have not already done so.



Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] It seems unlikely that this group was the same group referred to in Acts 15:1.Those from Jerusalem in this chapter took issue simply with eating with the Gentile believers – a matter of living after salvation - whereas those in Acts 15:1 focused on the need for the Gentiles to be circumcised before they could even be saved.

[2] On this point J. B. Lightfoot, whose older, yet still respected scholarly commentary on Galatians, makes the following comments on this verse: “The written law – the Old Testament – is always ό νόμος [the law]. At least it seems never to be quoted otherwise. Nόμος [law] without the article is ‘law’ considered as a principle, exemplified no doubt chiefly and signally in the Mosaic law, but very much wider than this in its application.” J. B. Lightfoot, D. D., St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (London and Cambridge: MacMillan and Co., 1866), p. 117.