The Cruciform God: Chapter 2, Gal 2:15-21, Part 1

We’re continuing our study of Michael J. Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God.

Gorman offers an extensive interpretation of Gal 2:15-21 to explain “justification” in Paul. Now, among scholars, there’s quite an extensive debate going on regarding how to understand Paul doctrine of justification. I’ll not spend time here trying to explain all that. Rather, I’ll attempt to explain this passage in a Gorman-esque way. The book is great, but it’s not really necessary to get into the details of the scholarly disputes to make the point.

In other words, I’m making his points consistently with his argument but in my own way.

(Gal 2:15-21 ESV) We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

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.

Now, this brief passage is a highly compressed expression of Paul’s view of justification. His views are expanded in the rest of Galatians and, much more so, in Romans. We can get the gist of this part of Gorman’s arguments here, though.

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ …

Paul begins by pointing out that even Jews (such as Peter) are “justified” by faith in Jesus — and not works of the law.

Now, there are several words and ideas that bear close inspection. We’ll later learn that “works of the law” is a reference to circumcision and other obligations imposed by the Torah. But at this point, Paul hasn’t explained “works” at all. But if we don’t look ahead, we see that “works” are things that separate Jews and Gentiles — things that N. T. Wright calls “boundary markers.” We later see that he is speaking primarily of circumcision — a command going all the way back to Abraham — and to celebrating “special days and months and seasons and years” — surely a reference to Jewish festivals and holy days. These are from commands of God, and they are the sorts of commands that divide Jews from Gentiles.

On the other hand, Paul continues to insist on fundamental morality and love. It’s early to fully understand his thinking, though.

“Justified” is from a root that can be translated either “just” or “righteous.” In First Century Greek usage, it’s the verdict announced when a defendant is acquitted. It’s the judge announcing that the person charged has been found innocent.

As a result, many commentators define justification in terms of a legal fiction — God’s declaring us righteous even though we really aren’t, because he counts Jesus’ obedience as ours. And there’s truth in this. But is this the totality of justification?

16b so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by [the faithfulness of] Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

“We also” is a reference to the Jews. Even the Jews must have faith in Jesus to be saved, because their obedience to the law of Moses won’t do the trick. And Paul declares that this is because justification doesn’t come from works.

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!

Paul next confronts the obvious problem. If we aren’t justified by works, doesn’t Jesus thereby condone sin? How can it be that believers still sin and yet Jesus doesn’t encourage sin? After all, someone could easily read “not justified by works of the law” to mean “can keep on sinning and still be saved.”

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.

Paul answers the question from the perspective of the convert. First, he says that something happens when we’re justified that tears down our sinfulness. One purpose of justification is for us to no longer be transgressors or lawbreakers. But if we’re not justified by works of the law, how can those thoughts fit together?

Well, we’ve been crucified with Christ. The Greek is sustauroo, meaning co-crucified. (The second “o” is sustauroo is a long o.) When we were justified, we joined Jesus in his crucifixion. But not only were our sins hung on the cross, so was our sinful nature — and we were resurrected Spiritual beings that live to God.

20b It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

When I was saved, I died — “I” meaning the sinful part of me. Rather, Christ lives in me — through the Spirit. The point isn’t that I agreed to obey God’s new law. The point is that the Spirit lives in me to transform me into the image of Christ.

(Gal 5:16-18) But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Notice that Paul credits to the Spirit the same things he credits to justification in chapter 2. In 2:19 he says we “died to the law.” in 5:18, he says those led by the Spirit “are not under the law.” It’s much the same thing. Indeed, what we want to do is what the Spirit desires, but we still have fleshly desires that conflict with the Spirit. We aren’t made perfect (in fact), but our desires are changed.

Now, there’s an important subtext here. Remember kenosis and theosis. To be crucified with Christ is much more than a legal verdict being rendered declaring us innocent. That’s part of it, but Christ’s submission to crucifixion was a self-emptying (kenosis) that showed him to be like God (theosis), as a servant and even a slave. And for us to be co-crucified, we must participate in Jesus’ kenosis in more than imputation. We must also empty ourselves — and we’ve already seen several examples where this is taught in very kenotic terms.

The Spirit helps us to be like Jesus — by helping us be self-emptying servants who die to sin and live for Jesus — that is, to emulate Jesus in his kenosis.

(Gal 2:20c) And the life I now live in the flesh I live by [the] faith[fulness] [of] the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

“I live.” Kenosis is volitional. We have a choice. After all, Jesus had a choice, and his decision would mean nothing if he had no choice. Just so, we live our lives by faith, and with the powerful help of the Spirit — defined by Jesus’ giving of himself.

(Gal 5:22-25) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

In 5:24, Paul again refers to Jesus’ crucifixion as defining justification. We are saved by Jesus’ faithfulness, resulting in his crucifixion, and so we must join him in faith and in his crucifixion by crucifying our fleshly nature.

And he again speaks in the active voice: we crucify the flesh, but we do it by Spirit. The result is to live in a way that satisfies the law without binding us to “boundary markers” such a circumcision and festival days.

Of course, to get to this conclusion, Paul has to define “law” in a way that excludes circumcision and holy days and yet preserves the fruit of the Spirit.

(Gal 5:14) For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Of course, the Law of Moses includes circumcision and holy days, but these don’t “fulfill” the Law. They aren’t the ultimate purpose of the Law. The ultimate purpose is to bring us into right relationship with our fellowman through love.

Therefore, it’s not necessary for a Gentile to act like a Jew to be justified, except that Jews must also show fruit of the Spirit. Those are the true boundary markers, because the true mark of the church is the presence of the Spirit.

(Eph 1:13 NIV)  And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,

Paul concludes in discussion in chapter 2 with –

(Gal 2:21) I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

We are declared righteous, that is, obedient to God’s covenant. Indeed, as we’ll see in a bit, “righteousness” could refer either to God’s faithfulness to the covenant or to ours. And neither kind of righteousness can be gained through the law, because God cannot honor his covenant to declare as righteousness those with faith through the law, and we cannot be declared righteous through the law — because we cannot keep it.

Now, seemingly “righteousness” appears here for the first time, but in fact, “righteousness” and “justified” are based on the same root word in the Greek. “Justified” is really “declared righteous” — because this is what the judge says when you’re acquitted. You are not guilty because you’ve been found righteous, not just.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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4 Responses to The Cruciform God: Chapter 2, Gal 2:15-21, Part 1

  1. Mick Porter says:

    Great stuff! I spent several months wrestling with Galatians last year – it was incredible to look at it through an NPP "lens". I found Richard Hays, James Dunn, Gordon Fee, N.T. Wright to all be super helpful in getting to grips with it. Fee, as one would expect, is most helpful in drawing out the implications of what Paul is saying about the Spirit and the church.

    I see particular importance in what you're saying here about true boundary markers of the church – quite ironic to read Galatians in this way and to see Christians divide :-(

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Thanks, Mick.

    The real response to Church of Christ disunity is the book of Galatians. Get it right, and everything else falls into place. You just have to be willing to believe that Paul means what he says.

  3. John says:

    Kenosis –> Theosis.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    John,

    Exactly.

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