Epistle to the Galatians 2:15–21

Pekka Jauhiainen
Reija Becks

Paul’s own example of faith in Jesus Christ

Various false teachers had come to Galatia, and they wanted to change the teaching that Paul had brought there. The core of this changed teaching was that Christians should include the law of Moses in their Christian life.

At the end of the second chapter, Paul now clearly presents the law and the gospel as two different choices for living before God. He clearly stresses that the law and its commands cannot be the basis of Christian life. Paul gives his personal example of faith in Jesus Christ.

In the opening chapters, Paul condemns false teachings about the gospel. At the same time, he highlights one of the main themes concerning the law – slavery to the law. The phrase "slavery to the law" is repeated a few times in the letter (Gal. 2:4; 4:1-7, 9; 5:1). Throughout, Paul writes that there are two options on which to base your life: the law or the gospel.

Before his own personal example, Paul repeats three times the idea that we are not worthy of God because of the works of the law, but because of the gospel. The word righteousness means worthiness before God. To mention something three times in one verse means that the theme is very significant. The importance of the matter is also made known by the many examples he uses in chapters 3–4. Now we are coming to the main theme of the letter.

In this context, Paul took the Jewish brothers and sisters as an example of what kind of choice must be made. He wrote:

“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
(Gal. 2:15–16)

The text emphasizes the word ‘we’ – meaning the Jews. The Jewish apostles, including Paul, base their lives and worthiness before God on the gospel. An example of this is Paul himself and his testimony. Part of this personal example is Paul's own life as a Jew.

The Galatian Christians must have been outraged by the text that Paul had written. He mentioned twice that he had persecuted God's church. This persecution is an example of how seriously astray you can go when your life is based on the law. At the same time, it is an example for the Galatians that they too should base their lives on the gospel and not on keeping the law (Gal. 1:13–14, 23–24).

Paul adds here his own example of the kind of relationship he has with Christ. From the beginning of the letter, the focus of the gospel is Christ who sacrificed himself on the cross (Gal. 1:3–4). Now Paul brings up his relationship to this work of Christ, the centre of which is the cross of Christ. It is the crucified Christ that Paul also preached when he was in Galatia. Christ crucified was also his focus in Corinth when he first preached (Gal. 2:19-20; 3:1; 1 Cor. 1:17, 18, 23-24; 2:2). Thus, it can be said that Paul's personal testimony speaks about something very central in Paul's theology. At the same time, it tells how the prestigious apostle believes in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote:

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!
(Gal. 2:19–21).

Paul's text is quite concise and contains various topics, which he discusses more extensively later in Galatians and/or in different letters.

  1. The law caused Paul to be spiritually dead. In the past, he based his life on following the law. When he encountered the resurrected Christ, he knew that he had been opposing God's work i.e., he had broken the first and at the same time the most important commandment. According to the law of Moses, the result of this transgression is death. Later in the letter, Paul discusses the purposes of the law, one of which is this pronouncement of judgment to man (Gal. 3:19–4:7).

  2. The words "I am crucified with Christ" speak of a very close relationship with Christ. Although Paul had realized that he too was condemned, he knows that he can be close to Christ through faith. Christ came to Paul’s judgment to help Paul. Christ, in his nearness, brings his own nearness, love and grace instead of judgment.
    In Galatians, the meaning of Christ's work is discussed in many ways. All those examples can also be thought of as part of Paul's own experience. Christ came under the curse of the law, so that we might be set free from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). A little later, Paul writes about how Jesus became a man by being born of a woman and, under the law, to redeem those under the law (Gal. 4:4–5). Although these examples speak of Christ's work on the cross, his same loving attitude still prevails. Even though Christ is already living in heaven, because of his work of the cross, he still holds the same attitude that he had on the cross. It is this attitude that Paul proclaimed in Galatia. The same happens in all situations in which the cross of Christ is proclaimed. This great love is brought to people in speeches and writings to be received by faith. Even today, we can believe and trust in this same attitude and closeness (Gal. 2:19–20; 3:13; 4:4–5; Rom. 8:31–34, 38–39

  3. Christ's presence always gives birth to something new in the condemned – Christ lives in them. The same Christ, who bore all the problems of humanity on the cross, gave birth to something new in Paul and will do the same in you too. Paul's own efforts to live according to God's will ended in judgment. Under judgement and having lost everything, he received a new foundation for life – Christ, who loves him and has given himself for Paul. At the same time, Christ gives birth to new life in us, so that we can live according to God's will (Gal. 3:1–5; 4:4–7; 5:22–25).

  4. Even though Christ lives in the Christian and gives birth to new deeds worthy of God, life is not without problems. There are still problematic thoughts and desires in man, which arise from man's sinful nature. Paul mentions this issue only briefly in the example of his own life. He wrote that he lives in the flesh (in some translations “in this body”). Due to our sinful nature, even a Christian is divided and always needs the grace and love of Christ. For Paul, this especially meant that Christ loved him even though he had persecuted Christians. Later in the letter, Paul writes in more detail about how there is this sinful side or the flesh in the human being. In the fifth chapter, Paul brings up that a Christian renewed by the Holy Spirit is in a constant state of war with his sinful nature (Gal. 5:13–26).

  5. At the very end, Paul returns to the main theme of the Letter to the Galatians i.e. should your life be based on the law or on the gospel. Paul says that Christ died in vain if the basis of your life is the law.

We now conclude our discussion on Paul's own example of what it is to live as a Christian. Its basis is the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is the same gospel that Paul proclaimed in Galatia when he first preached to the Galatians. At that time, they received this gospel with faith.