11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of some men from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and separate himself, fearing those of the circumcision. 13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 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? 15 “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from the Gentiles; 16εἰδότες δὲ ὅτι οὐ δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἔργων νόμου ἐὰν μὴ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν, ἵνα δικαιωθῶμεν ἐκ πίστεως Χριστοῦκαὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων νόμου, ὅτι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται ⸃ πᾶσα σάρξ [Gal2:11-16]
Paul’s rebuke of Peter
The first part of the passage is relatively straightforward. Paul is confronting Peter and other Jewish believers because they stopped socializing and eating with Gentiles for fear of some who had come into the Church insisting that non-Jews be circumcised and followed other requirements of the Torah. So, whilst Peter and the like excused themselves from such requirements (i.e. lived like Gentiles), they were effectively expecting Gentile converts to live like Jews. That, as Paul rightly called it, was hypocrisy.
Then the fun begins, and it starts with the translation. In the quoted passage I have retained the Greek for verse 16 (i.e. what Paul actually wrote) as a reference point for those with some familiarity with biblical Greek. [Given the availability of interlinear translations, all that is needed to verify most of the points I raise is a good grasp of English grammar and some awareness of how, say, the genitive case was utilized in biblical Greek, discoverable on the internet].
Gal2:16 & the faithfulness of Christ
And so to the translation, but as ever there are options (i.e. ambiguities) concerning exactly how verse 16 should be translated. The translation utilized by most bible versions results in a double tautology, i.e. Paul would appear to be saying the same thing three times in the same verse – viz. “believe in Christ” (x3). “ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν” can only be referring to the believer’s faith in Christ. Not so, “διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ” or “ἐκ πίστεως Χριστοῦ” which more commentators are coming to recognize should be treated as a subjective genitive. That is, it is not referring to a believer’s faith in Christ but to Christ’s own faithfulness in fulfilling His mission to rescue humanity. [You can see some typical discussion on the subject HERE]. Then there is the conjunction ἐὰν μὴmeaning “if not” i.e. unless or except, which has almost uniformly been disregarded in English translations [commented on HERE]. Taking these points on board, Gal2:16 should in fact read along the lines: “But knowing that a person is not justified by works of the Law except (or apart from) Jesus Christ’s faithfulness, so we have believed in Jesus Christ in order that we might be justified by Christ’s faithfulness and not by works of the Law – for no flesh can be justified by the works of law”.
Paul not to contradict Jesus’ teaching on final judgement
The yardstick I am applying throughout this process is that Paul’s teaching on faith and justification must cohere with that of Jesus, as well as every other apostle for that matter. If there appears to be a conflict, as there usually is with regard to the definitive Mt25 (sheep and goats) passage on final judgement, then either Paul (as some dare to say) is a false apostle or his teaching has been substantially misunderstood. I am affirming it is the latter. So when theἐὰν μὴ conjunction is included in v16 [which it should be – Paul wrote it, it is a part of Scripture], the inference is that works can justify in view of Christ’s saving work. But then surely that accords with Jesus’ teaching in Mt25 – the only reason provided for the “sheep” being accepted into God’s Kingdom was their acts of kindness to those in need, whom Christ as Son of Man Himself represents (Mt25:40).
But can works in themselves justify a man? By no means! “For no flesh is to be justified by works of law” (v16b). At first sight that appears to contradict what Paul has just stated in v16a. But note the change of subject from “man” (ἄνθρωπος) to “flesh” (σάρξ). Of course, σάρξ can and does sometimes represent incarnate man as a whole (e.g. Phi1:22) but more often with Paul “flesh” is referring to what I have described as the procreated intellectual vessel (i.e. body plus brain minus spirit). Paul and Peter also refer to this entity as our earthly tent or vessel (2Cor5:1; 1Thes4:4; 2Pet1:13-14) – i.e. that which is left behind when the spiritual part of us returns to God (Eccles12:7). Unlike the whole person, that fleshly part of us is morally bankrupt: “For I recognize that there is no good whatsoever within me, that is in my flesh, for the willingness to do good is indeed present but the ability to fully accomplish it (κατεργάζεσθαι) is lacking” (Rom7:18).
Paul and James concur at last
This in turn reconciles Paul with James and the writer to the Hebrews, both of whom more obviously challenge Luther’s notion of faith as primarily a trust/reliance/assurance regarding the saving work of Christ. For James writes: “Someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (2:18). If James is to be believed (of course Luther didn’t believe him) it affirms that faith cannot be as Evangelicals usually define it. For how can one demonstrate the fact that one is “relying on Christ’s merits” or “ceasing from one’s own efforts to be righteous and looking to Christ’s finished work on the Cross” or suchlike by one’s works? Such a substantiation could equally suggest the contrary. Ah, say some, Paul and James are speaking of faith in different contexts. But clearly Paul is writing concerning faith that saves or justifies a man before God, but so is James (2:14). Likewise, the writer to the Hebrews makes clear that faith is a virtue (11:4-40) and that it pertains to seeking a reward from God (especially v6). On the face of it, it may appear that Jesus (in Mt25) and James (ch2) are suggesting that justification is on the basis of works, but that is absolutely not the case as I shall explain.
Justification by faith nothing new
Paul affirms it, justification is and always has been based on “πίστις” – faith or faithfulness. “For as it is written ‘the righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom1:17). But where is it written? In the prophecy of Habakkuk: “Behold, as for the one who is puffed up, his soul is not right within him; but one who is righteous will live by his faithfulness” (Hab2:4). “אֱמוּנָה” means firmness, fidelity or faithfulness as I have translated it. As can be examined HERE, of the 48 occurrences of the word in the NASB , only once has it been translated as faith and that is here in Hab2:4! You will observe from the other references that it is a quality that God Himself possesses so it is most assuredly a virtue. By relating justifying faith to this verse in Habakkuk Paul is affirming that a person is justified before God in view of a virtue he or she possesses, viz. אֱמוּנָה / πίστις / faith / faithfulness. However, unlike the Deity, humans only possess it to a degree, never to perfection. But I know a Man who does, and it is on the basis of His faithfulness that a person who exercises their own faith or faithfulness is ultimately/meritoriously justified before God [ἐκ πίστεως Χριστοῦ]. Hence “a person is not justified by works of the Law except (or apart from) Jesus Christ’s faithfulness” (Gal2:16a).
Works of themselves cannot justify
And contrary to what Jesus and James might appear to be saying, man is not justified by the works themselves. For the Mt25 sheep cannot have perfectly fulfilled God’s law of love for neighbour to its letter, but they had fulfilled the spirit of the law, as indeed must all those who are to avoid perdition (Gal5:14; Rom13:8; Rom2:13; Mt25:45). If the “sheep” had been justified by works, perfection would have been required. But (we might all agree), fallen man is incapable of such perfection in view of the flesh – hence “No flesh can be justified by works of law (Gal2:16b). That is why by the grace of God, at the universal/historical level man is justified simply by exercising a quality he possesses by nature: faith or faithfulness to the light provided to him in his spirit. It functions through the conscience such that “When Gentiles who do not have the Law instinctively perform the requirements of the Law, these, though not having the Law, are a law for themselves in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience testifying such that their thoughts either accuse or defend their actions (Rom2:14-15). That is why the “sheep” did what they did – however imperfectly, they demonstrated love/compassion (Greek: ἀγάπη) because their “hearts” (inner man) and consciences prompted them to do so (Rom7:22).
So that is faith and justification in the historical and universal context. And as Mt25 indicates it determines whether or not one is finally accepted into God’s Kingdom. As I am more widely adducing, whether or not one is in the Covenant of Promise determines in what capacity one enters the Kingdom (cf. Rev19:7). In terms of those who through God’s elective choice are in that exclusive covenant, the criteria has changed. Their justifying marker had previously been the Law – circumcision and observance of Torah, but now it is by faith in Christ. The Law had been provided as a schoolmaster to prepare for the faith that was to come (Gal3:24). But some were not content – they had no desire to be marked out as a child of God through the merits of an accursed crucified Messiah, thank you very much. They would sooner be identified as God’s chosen people through circumcision and their own Torah observance – “the deeds of the Law”.
The context of Paul’s anti-law rhetoric
So notwithstanding what was affirmed above concerning justification being by faith not works, it is this scenario of Torah observance usurping faith in Christ as the marker for covenantal justification that is the context of Paul’s apparent anti-law rhetoric in Galatians. This is clearer later in the letter where he asks “How is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles, to which you want to be enslaved all over again? For you meticulously observe days and months and seasons and years” (4:9-10). As I stated in the previous post, the Law (Torah) has become redundant – not so the law, the spirit of which must be fulfilled. And so it shall be wherever πίστις is present and active. Paul’s problem was that some in the Galatian church had failed to grasp that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal5:6NASB). Many Christians today “get” the former point, less appreciate the latter. Nor do they discern that “being justified in Christ” is far from the end of the story (vv17-21 next post).
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