If Paul’s letter to the Romans is his theological masterpiece, then Galatians 2:14-21 is his elevator speech. To recap, Paul is writing to the Galatian church because they, although being non-Jews, have adopted Jewish Law as a part of their salvation in Christ and accused Paul of being a false apostle. In defending himself, Paul recounts an incident with Peter (Cephas) at Antioch. Galatians 2:14-21 is Paul’s rebuke to Peter that also beautifully summarizes the Gospel of Grace.
Paul writes, “But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we 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. “But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! “For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, 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; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2:14–21, NASB95) Paul’s thoughts tumble quickly in this passage as he addresses four key points.
Paul’s first point is that both Jews and Gentile believers are justified by faith in Jesus and not the works of the Law. Justified means to be acquitted and set free from the guilt of our sin. It is an echo’s Jesus’ declaration of mission, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18, NASB95) Perfectly keeping the Law of Moses does not and cannot justify or set free anyone. Being justified is only by faith in Jesus.
Paul’s next point answers a question – if a justified believer sins, does that make Christ complicit or somehow encouraging of that sin? Of course not, Paul says that it only indicates and confirms that we are sinners in need of God’s grace. Part of the Galatian charge to Paul was that his gospel encourages people to sin. In this short verse, Paul reminds us that our life in Christ is “already here but not fully here.” Meaning that we are fully justified when we first believe in Christ, but we are also seeking for our thoughts, words, and deeds to conform to Christ and godliness (1 Timothy 6:3). Our sin does not disprove the efficacy of the Gospel; it proves our need for the Gospel.
Paul’s third point is like a dual-edged sword. One edge declares how we conquer sin, and the other edge declares the power of the Gospel. “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” How do we conquer sin in ourselves? By dying to the Law, dying to ourselves, and living for Christ. We are utterly powerless to accomplish this on our own. God instead provided the way in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection (1 Peter 3:18). Nowhere does Paul declare the Law to be bad; he instead sees it as a tutor showing us our sin. But the Law was powerless to justify, to set anyone free from guilt. That took an act of God’s grace.
Paul’s final point is a strong declaration, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” If we can achieve or prove our right standing with God through thought, word, or deed, then Jesus’ death was unnecessary. But we can’t; no one can. As Paul writes in Romans, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24, NASB95) Who indeed can set us free from sin, guilt, shame, and fear? Paul answers his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25a, NASB95)
That is the Gospel of Grace in a nutshell. We are justified, saved, made righteous through faith in Jesus Christ by God’s grace. Period, full stop. Law is always restrictive, telling us what we can’t do. Grace is liberating, telling us what we can do in Christ. We are set free in Christ, but somehow, we always find ways to restrict that freedom through laws, edicts, social/cultural norms, expectations, and shame. Throughout church history, well-meaning folks have bolted various “laws” unto the Gospel. You’re only saved if… you attend the right church, were baptized a certain way, observe certain days, don’t observe other days, eat or drink something or abstain from certain foods and drinks, speak in tongues or don’t speak in tongues, say certain words or don’t say other words – the list is endless. Christ didn’t set us free to be chained again by a new set of laws or even the old set of laws. God’s grace sets us free.
Neither did Christ set us free to sin in whatever way we choose. We died in Christ, and we now live for Him. That doesn’t mean that we won’t sin but that we are seeking to follow Him in all things. Our life is no longer bent towards sin but now leans on Christ. And if we sin? The promise is, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NASB95) Grace upon grace.