Galatians 2:17-21 Don’t Set Aside the Grace of God WC McCarter
We have seen that things were tense between Paul and the Galatians from the beginning of this letter. Last week we saw that things had gotten heated on one occasion between Paul and Peter. If there is anything we have learned thus far, although I believe that we have learned a lot, it is that Paul is not afraid to stand up for the truth of the Gospel. Today, we really get at the heart of that Gospel truth once again. Remember what we are accomplishing by going through these passage in Galatians: We are warning and reminding ourselves that turning away from what we know about Christ is devastating. We have put our complete trust in Christ for salvation, and we want to stay in it!
READ Scripture- This is the Word of God
Found Sinners (17-18)
The “we” refers to both Peter and Paul (and possibly extends to all other Jewish Christians). Apparently there was an allegation coming from the Judaizers that Paul was swaying Jews away from the Mosiac Law and thus making them “sinners.” They would have been sinners in the sense that they were doomed apart from the law. So, this was not talking about particular sins, but it was a category (see the way that he uses the term in v15). For the Jews, all Gentiles were sinners because they did not live by God’s law. Jews found their identity in the OT Law and considered everyone else “sinners” because they were not associated with the Law. The Judaizers were apparently saying that Paul was preaching a Christ who was a “minister of sin” in the sense that He was drawing people away from the Law.
Yet, Peter, Paul, and other Jewish Christians had abandoned the Law as a means of justification (remember what that term means, at the moment of your conversion, God reckons your sins forgiven because of Christ’s righteousness and He says that you are Not Guilty). If they are no longer looking to the law to be right in God’s eyes, then the legalistic Jews are going to consider them “sinners.” But, Paul does not care about that. He is not here to please men, but God as he said in chapter one. The apostle Paul often poses a conditional question (“if”) and answers it with a strong negation (“certainly not!”). He does that very thing here when he says that Christ is certainly not a minister of sin.
As we go into verse 18 the question becomes, What is it that Paul has destroyed? Through his preaching of the Gospel, Paul has destroyed (torn down) the idea that the Law can make someone righteous in God’s sight. He says, If I build it again, that is, if I return to the Law as a means of justification, then I make myself a transgressor. For those who were once under the Law and then turned to faith in Christ for justification, enjoying the benefits of it such as communing with Gentiles, abandoning food regulations, and such, if they turned back to the Law for justification they have proven themselves transgressors. They were the ones who broke the parts of the law about segregation of Jews from Gentiles (Moo, 167). If a Jewish Christian, who had torn down the law, rebuilt the law as a means of justification, then he made himself to be a transgressor of that law.
Live By Faith (19-20)
Paul has a new relationship to the law that can only be explained in the dramatic terms of death and life (Moo, 167). Paul’s break with the law is decisive that it is like dying and being reborn (Moo, 168). The law no longer has any power over him, no authority whatsoever. Therefore, as one commentator says, “The question of transgressing the law does not arise for one who has died in relation to the law (Bruce, 142). How is it that Paul died to the law through the law? The law demands a curse and death for the sinner. Christ has become our curse by being hung upon the tree, and He has died in our place to free us from the law and freely make us right before God. As the hymn says, “In my place condemned He stood.” Of course, Paul follows this death with the life that we now live. In Christian theology, after death comes life. We die to the law and are raised to live unto God. The apostle teaches that the death and resurrection we experience actually enables us to live unto God. Under the law, you cannot live unto God, but you are crushed by the weight of the law’s demands. How is it that we have died and been raised to a new life? It is in our union with Christ! We have been crucified with Christ. When we are united with Christ, God considers us to have hung on the cross with Christ.
This is the Gospel message: Christ has died, and you are able to die with Him. You see, so many people do not want to hear that message. From a worldly point of view, that does not sound like Good News, that you have to die. No one wants to die. No one wants to throw themselves at the mercy of God. People fear giving up their identity. But what happens when we are crucified with Christ is that the old “I” is put to death. The old “I” enslaved to sin and the law is done away with, to be replaced by a new “I” whose existence is determined by the indwelling of Christ (Moo, 171).
The last part of verse 20 explains what is said in the first part. We still have a life to physically live here on the earth during this age. We must live it by faith. These words should dominate our lives. We should meditate on them day and night. We should rejoice in these words, give thanks, and constantly let them dictate what kind of life we are going to now live. What words am I referring to? “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” As another apostle says, “We love Him because He first loved us.” And as Paul says in another place, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” These two things, Christ loving us and giving Himself for us, cannot be divorced. They are so closely related that they are basically one in the same. You cannot speak of Christ loving you without speaking of His death and vice-versa. This is the Gospel and our life.
Don’t Set Aside the Grace of God (21)
When Paul gets to verse 21, he wants to return to what he said in verse 18 and sum it up with a punch. For a Christian to leave justification by faith in Christ alone and go to the law as a means of right standing with God, he/she is nullifying the grace of God and the cross of Christ. Paul says, “I do not set aside the grace of God.” What can be worse than utterly rejecting the great work of God that is done in our behalf?
I have known folks, and even a minister or two, who have had no clue what the grace of Christ truly is. They attended church services and activities their entire lives, even preached hundreds of sermons and did not know the grace of Christ. You see, the apostle’s point here is very simple. If you lean on yourself, that is, your obedience to the Law, or tradition, or any kind of religious performance, you are setting aside the grace of God.
The Galatians are faced with the option of setting aside the grace of God. Paul gets very personal in these last few words of the chapter. He says, “I do not set aside the grace of God.” He had made up his mind. He had been there and back with the issue of righteousness through the law and wanted no part in it. He was going to live and die by faith in Christ’s death. He would hope, boast, and glory in the righteousness that is only found in the Son of God, who loved Paul and gave Himself for Paul.
The one question that saved me from legalism was, Why did Christ die? This is the verse that saved me. If righteousness and salvation still depends on me, then Christ died for no reason. If I have to add to what Christ has done, then His death really means very little to nothing.
Conclusion and Christian Application
(1) “True (humility) is to accept what God offers. One must either receive God’s offer of salvation or insult Him” (Boice). The latter is a dangerous position!
(2) This life that you live here and now must be lived by faith in the Son of God. Let that dominate your life. Maybe you should commit this verse to memory. It is short, simple, and unbelievably central to who we are as Christians.
(3) Have you abandoned the law, or tradition, or your own personal do-good-ism as a means of justification before God? Are you still trying to make yourself right before God by religious performance? If you have not, let me urge you to abandon every form of justification by works and turn to Christ. Repent of your sins, confess Christ as Lord and Savior, trust Him for salvation, and be united with Him in baptism. This is the Word of God. This is the way of salvation.