Galatians 2:17-21, “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! For if I rebuild what I tore down, 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. 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. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
These five short verses pack a big punch. Verse 21 alone contains the entire gospel! So let’s move slowly and savor this multi-course feast.
Our endeavor to be justified in Christ. After Paul’s conversion, he taught that justification comes by faith, not by keeping the law (v. 16). Justification takes place when God declares that we are righteous – even though we were sinners – based on the righteous works of Christ. It is a little confusing when Paul speaks of his “endeavor” to be justified in Christ, since he also says clearly that justification is not based on our own efforts. I take this phrase to mean the endeavor of faith, and the working out of Paul’s faith in his desire to spread the gospel to the Gentiles. Although we are not saved by our works, God certainly has prepared good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
Found to be sinners. Paul has previously stated that “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” (v. 15). Not only was Paul ethnically Jewish, we know that he excelled in the study of Jewish law (Galatians 1:14). In contrast, the Gentiles – who did not follow the Jewish law — were considered “sinners” and outside of God’s favor. Yet Paul was given a special commission to preach the gospel to Gentile “sinners” (v. 9). In the process, Paul “became as one outside the law” that he might “win those outside the law” (I Corinthians 9:21). It appears that Paul, at a minimum, relaxed the Jewish dietary laws in order to eat with Gentiles, and he encouraged Peter and Barnabas to do the same. This created problems for the legalistic Judaizers, who criticized Paul and intimidated the other apostles into separating themselves from the Gentiles again (vv. 11-14).
Christ a servant of sin? I believe this discussion of Gentile “sinners” is somewhat tongue in cheek. After all, Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). The Judaizers were disgusted by Paul eating with the Gentiles, just like the Pharisees were put off by Jesus eating with tax collectors and other deplorables. But we know that all have sinned, whether we acknowledge it or not (Romans 3:23). And we know that our sin – or even the ceremonial “sin” of eating with Gentiles — does not contaminate Christ, does not somehow master Christ. “Certainly not!” says Paul. The idea of Christ somehow serving sin because we are sinful is ridiculous. Christ has overcome sin and set us free.
Rebuilding what I tore down. The true sin, says Paul, is going backwards. The true sin is rejecting salvation by faith and returning to the law, like a dog returns to its vomit (Proverbs 26:10). We died to the law, died to that whole system of relating to God, by which no one can be saved (Romans 7:4). Paul counts all of his legalistic accomplishments as garbage, to be forgotten and left behind (Philippians 4:7-8, 13). Paul refuses to rebuild what has been torn down.
Crucified with Christ. As we have seen, Paul did not look back on his past with nostalgia. Paul did not have an amicable break-up with his prior legalistic beliefs, some kind of “agree to disagree” arrangement. Instead, Paul says, “I died to the law.” More specifically, “I have been crucified with Christ.” (vv. 19-20). Our salvation hinges on a death.
In Romans, Paul gives an example of wedding vows, where the happy couple pledges loyalty to each other “till death do us part.” While both spouses are alive, they are bound to be faithful to each other; otherwise, they are considered adulterers. But when either husband or wife dies, the marriage vow dissolves. The surviving party is free to love someone else, to remarry (Romans 7:1-3). Paul explains that we were formerly bound by God’s written code, the law of Moses. However, it wasn’t a happy marriage — we were sinful and utterly unable to keep our vows. Our only escape was death. Indeed, death was the punishment that we justly deserved (Romans 6:23).
Thankfully, God sent Christ to die on our behalf. And in a very real sense, when we believe in his sacrifice for us, we also die and are given new life. We died to the law, we are to daily die to sin, for we died to our former way of life (Romans 6:10-11, 7:4-6). Paradoxically, we often speak of Christianity as a new birth, being “born again.” Nicodemus was puzzled by that phrase; he asked Christ, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). The answer is that, before we are born again, we must die. The tomb miraculously became a womb.
Christ lives in me. Providentially, just as we share in Christ’s death, we also share in his resurrection (Philippians 3:11). We can look forward to our own resurrection, of which Christ was the firstfruits (1 Corinthians 15:20). But we don’t only focus on the future; we experience new life now, in this flesh and bone, by faith (v. 20). We have been set free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). We have the Spirit of Christ living in us, enabling us to finally please God (Romans 8:10-11, 16). We are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). And it’s all because Christ loved us and gave himself for us (v. 20). What a wonderful gospel!
Don’t nullify the grace of God. In light of what Christ has done for us, Paul is outraged at the Judaizers. Why would you nullify the lavish grace of God? Don’t you know that, if we could achieve righteousness through our own efforts, through following the law, that Christ died for nothing? (v.21). Our beautiful Savior sacrificed himself, died a horrific death, in an act of supreme love. We must never try to add to what he has done, try to work our way into God’s good graces. It’s impossible – been there, done that (v. 18) — and it is also an insult to the gospel of Christ. Our salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.