NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CONGREGATIONS OF BELIEVERS
CHAPTER TWO (Lesson XXXV)
British theologian James D. G. Dunn presents an interesting point of view in his commentary on this second chapter. As he sees it, the term “Works of the Law” are not the subject here, not by the Judaizers who flooded into Galatia or by Paul himself, as works, which earn God’s favor, as merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges: they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what identify the Jews as God’s people; given to them by God for precisely that reason, that they serve to demonstrate a covenant status with Him. They are the proper response to God’s covenant grace, the minimal commitment for members of God’s people. This is a historical conclusion of some importance since it begins to clarify with more precision what were the connections and disconnections between Paul, his fellow Jewish Christians, and his own Pharisaic past, so far as justification and grace, covenant and law are concerned.
Dunn is disappointed that some dismissed the “works of the Law” because they see them as “good works” done to earn or enhance one’s salvation. In fact, these regulations prescribed by the law are what any good Jew would follow simply to define what a good Jew would do. To be a Jew was to be a member of the covenant, was to observe circumcision, food laws, and sabbath. In short, once again Paul seems much less a man of sixteenth-century Europe and much more firmly in touch with the reality of first-century Judaism than many thought.
Andrew Roth gives us his translation of verse sixteen from the Aramaic Version. It reads: “For we know that the sons of men are not justified by the works of the Torah, but by faith in Yeshua the Messiah. Even we who believed in Him know that it is from the faith in Messiah that we will be justified and not from the works of the Torah. For from the works of the Torah no flesh shall be justified.” This should help us understand that from the Jewish perspective, the “works” spoken of here by Paul were the works required by the Law for any Jew to prove themselves as a true Jew. This does not eliminate the good works reflected in the Fruit of the Spirit or the high moral standards that Jesus taught on how we should love each other and our fellowman.
In their Exposition on Galatians, several writers take the words of David as something Paul alluded to here in this verse. David prayed: “Adonai, hear my prayer; listen to my pleas for mercy. In your faithfulness, answer me, and in your righteousness. Don’t bring your servant to trial, since in your sight no one alive would be considered righteous.” They then go on to note that David is at the end of his rope and he knows that no one is righteous before God, nor is there anything in any person that makes them right before God. Nothing in us warrants, merits, initiates or causes God to save us. Justification is all about grace, which means that faith itself is evidence of grace. Therefore, we must be careful not to make faith into a work of the law, so to speak. Yet, this is what is being done with things such as conventional prayers which, when recited, are supposed to result in a conversion. If we’re not careful, “Do this work and you’ll be saved” is what we’re communicating to people. But faith is not a work we muster up. Faith itself is evidence of grace. Justification is a gracious act of God that we need Him to take.
Ronald Fung tells us that verses fifteen and sixteen form a single, overloaded sentence in the Greek; and aptly described as “Paul’s doctrine of justification in a nutshell” and must be examined in considerable detail. Speaking “from the provisional standpoint of the Jews” Paul describes himself, Peter, and the other Jewish Christians as “Jews by birth, not sinners like Gentiles.” This characterization at once focuses attention on the sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile. What made the Gentiles sinners, in the estimation of the Jews, was not only that they did not observe the law but also that they did not even possess it and consequently lacked the possibility of obtaining righteousness through it.
Fung then goes on to provide an extensive examination of what Paul is saying here about the role of knowledge in acquiring justification to stand before God as forgiven and redeemed. There are both negative and positive aspects of this concept. On the negative side, Paul is asserting that no human being is justified by doing all that the Law demands in order to live a righteous life. Positively, Paul states that there is a way and that is only through faith in the Anointed One Jesus. So, when we look for the middle ground between what is negative and positive factors, it boils down to two words, “not,” and “but.” People are not to depend on their good works to gain a right standing before God, but trust in the work of the Anointed One on the cross to make that possible. The Law is good in telling you what to do and not to do, but the Law cannot forgive or wash one’s sins away. Only the blood of the Lamb of God possesses that power. So, put your trust in Him, not in yourself.
Don Garlington gives us a lengthy discussion on these two verses. But here are some of the salient points he makes. First, the concluding verses of chapter two appear to be disconnected from Paul’s autobiography. However, on closer examination, it is clear that Paul does not leave off talking about himself. Repeatedly in this closing on the first major segment of the letter, he refers to himself, along with other like-minded Jewish Christians, either in the first person singular or plural pronouns. The convictions at which he arrived about the justification of the people before God were forged on the anvil of his own experience as he made the painful transition from zealot persecutor of the congregation to proclaimer of the Gospel. But not only does this bring to a close what went before, it also forms a transition into chapters 3-4 in which Paul will expound in detail salvation’s historical grounding behind his Christian certitude that the Anointed One ended the law, fulfilled the promise to Abraham, and procured the gift of the Spirit for the reborn people of the final covenant.
Paul is basically saying to those who were “Jews by birth,” that they must understand that they only become Christians by a new birth. But their new birth would be very much like that of Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night to find out he could become part of the Kingdom of God. He was told that he lacked the knowledge he needed to understand the truth. So in order for him to gain that understanding, he must experience a complete overhaul of his mind and thinking. Garlington points out that this was also a factor in Paul’s illustration about the Jewish believers being the natural branches in the Holy Olive tree and the Gentile believers being the wild branches that were grafted in.
Garlington also points out the difference in how various English translations parse the participle “knowing” in verse sixteen. The New American Standard Bible reads: “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 the Anointed One Jesus.” On the other hand, the New International Version renders the participle as a finite verb and provides a somewhat smoother reading: “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus the Anointed One.” Either way, Paul’s point is that God’s method of justifying both Jews and Gentiles was a matter well-known to every Jewish believer.
Duncan Heaster also shares an interesting insight as to why Paul is emphasizing the fact that once a person knows they cannot be justified by works, there’s only one choice, and that is to put their faith in Jesus the Anointed One. After his call by the Anointed One on the road to Damascus and his years spent in the wilderness, Paul was deeply touched by the inability of the Law to save. This realization led him to throw himself on the mercy of God by placing his faith in Jesus for justification. Therefore, the motive for believing in Jesus is not some impressive argument interlinking Jewish and Christians theologies. Instead, it is the stark realization that apart from the Anointed One, no one saves themselves from the penalty for their sins. Not through obedience to the Law nor in an abundance of good works.
Grant Osborne joins in the chorus in helping us understand the importance of this critical juncture in Paul’s doctrine of justification. Here in verse sixteen, we are introduced to the language that will dominate the doctrine of salvation for the rest of human history. The two key phrases are found in the antithesis between “justified by faith” (which occurs three times) and “works of the law” (also three times). Osborne says these would become the primary concepts for Paul’s understanding of salvation by faith in the Anointed One alone, with “justify” appearing twenty-seven times in his writings.
There are three levels at which this justification takes place: Because of the atoning sacrifice of the Anointed One when He took our place and carried our sins to the cross. (1) We are declared righteous by God and forgiven and our sanctification process expands. (2) Then we are made righteous by the Spirit, and the ethical side is born. (3) We then live rightly (“in righteousness”) before Him. All three elements are indicated in the “righteous” word group. All this means is that we are justified entirely by faith in the saving blood of the Anointed One – in no way by the works of the law. This phrase is found eight times in Romans and Galatians, always in connection with the issue of justification. While obeying the law could never bring salvation, it provided enough light to maintain a right relationship with God under the First Covenant. But now that the Anointed One came, both salvation and relationship with God result from the cross. The works of the law cannot justify a sinner, cannot produce forgiveness of sins, and cannot make a person right with God.
Osborne finishes by saying that our faith and trust cannot be in the Law or in our inherent goodness and good deeds, for it’s impossible for them to keep the Law perfectly enough or perform without error and often enough to overcome sin and purchase salvation. We are like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus claiming that he observed the law from childhood and hoped that his record would be sufficient, only to go away crestfallen because he couldn’t overcome his lust for wealth. It would take a morally perfect person to earn salvation, and there is no such person apart from the Anointed One.
In our modern context, this means that just being born in a Christian family, being baptized as an infant, and going to church during your youth years and continuing thereafter does not make one right with God nor qualifies them to be called a born-again child of God. Like the Jews and Gentiles, it only comes with a person’s recognition that sinners remain, sinners, unless they put their faith and trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Believing in their heart and confessing with their mouths that He is the Son of God and they are now in union with Him.
 James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008), Section II.
 Andrew G. Roth: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.
 Psalm 143:1-2 – Complete Jewish Bible
 Platt, David; Merida, Tony, on Galatians: op. cit., loc. cit., p. 46
 Ronald Y. K. Fung: On Galatians, op. cit., loc., cit., pp. 112-118
 John 3:1-17
 Romans 11:21-24
 Don Garlington: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 71-74
 Mark 10:17-22
 Osborne, G. R. On. Galatians, op. cit., pp. 71-73
 Romans 10:9-10