Beckett: Galatians 2:11-21 – Justification by Faith, Not Works of the Law

This is an exegetical paper I wrote for my Pauline Epistles course as part of the M.Div programme at Concordia Seminary, which I received an A on. The first section of the paper is translation and notes, but I will put the notes of my translation at the end of this article for the few who can read Greek and save the trouble of confusing those who cannot read Greek. In the other sections of the essay, I will put the transliteration of the Greek words into English in parentheses for those who cannot read Greek, e.g. Χριστός (Christos).

Translation of Galatians 2:11-21

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him before his face, because he was condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and separate himself, fearing the circumcision ones. 13 And the rest of the Jews joined hypocritically with him, so that even Barnabas associated with them in hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting rightly with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before all of them, “If you are a Jew living like a Gentile and not a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15 We are Jews by nature and not Gentile sinners; 16 but we know that no person is justified by works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ, and we in Christ Jesus have believed in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because no flesh will be justified by works of the law. 17 But if we, in seeking to be justified in Christ, were found to be sinners also, is Christ, then, an agent of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I build up again that which I have destroyed, I show myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I myself died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. 20 And it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and that which I now live in the flesh, in faith I live in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up on my behalf. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died in vain.

Literary Analysis

At issue in this text is the practice of Judaising. Should the Galatian, Gentile Christians follow the example of Cephas (aka Peter) and Barnabas by becoming Jewish in order to be true Christians? Paul is exhorting the Galatians not to Judaise. To address this issue, Paul sets up his propositio (proposition), which sums up the narratio (the narrative in question) and then transitions into the probatio (the problem).

The narratio is found in verses 15-16. Does a person have to include obedience to the Law to faith in Christ—and therefore be circumcised—in order to be true Christians? If so, what does this imply about the Law and faith? If not, what role does the Mosaic Law play in the Christian life, whether Jewish or Gentile?

Paul’s argument here is often seen as an anti-works argument. Though Paul is certainly anti-works righteousness, we will see that Paul in fact is not anti-works or anti-Law (antinomian). Ultimately—and in contrast to the new perspective on Paul postulated by E.P. Sanders—Paul does not view the Law as how a person comes to salvation or remains in salvation, but how one “goes on in Christ” (Witherington, 172). (For more on the fallacy of the new perspective on Paul, see my article, The New Perspective from Paul.) That is, how one continues life as a Christian now that they are justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law.

In the narratio (vv. 15-16), Paul begins with what the Jews are not—they are Jews “by nature” and are not “Gentile sinners.” But, Paul continues, no person is justified by works of the Law. Paul draws on the Jewish understanding that Gentiles are unlike them—that being outside the nation of Israel, uncircumcised, lacking God’s Law, and therefore outside God’s covenant, they are sinners (the new perspective calls this “boundary markers”).

Then Paul continues with the contrastive conjunction but. Gentiles were outside the purview of God’s covenant, but Paul continues that “we know” (that is, he and his fellow Jewish Christians) no person is justified by works of the Law. Paul is assuming the Jewish Christians know they are not justified by works of the Law vis-à-vis what they know about the work of Christ. As far as Paul is concerned, both Jews and Gentiles are equally sinners before the eyes of God (cf. Romans 3:21-23). God takes both their sins seriously.

The verb Paul uses for “justify” (δικαιόω, dikaióō) comes from a word group of the Old Testament in a Law court context (LXX δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosunē). Old Testament examples of this word group “speak of a judge acquitting or vindicating the innocent or righteous (cf. Ex. 23.7; Deut. 25.1, 2; 2 Sam. 15.4; Mic. 6.11). To be acquitted by God in these sorts of texts has to do with being found faithful to the covenant and the demands of its Law” (Witherington, 174).

Yet in Galatians, as well as Romans, we find Paul describing the acquittal and vindication of the unrighteous and sinners (Romans 3:23-25). Witherington attributes this to a change in nuances of Jewish literature. Without expanding on this claim, I find this to be unlikely since we still see examples of Jewish leaders among all the sects who still believed one had to become righteous/acquitted by obedience to the Law (cf. Luke 10:25-28).

It should be noted, however, that “justification is not the main subject of this letter, it is brought into the discussion about how the Galatians should behave as Christians and whether they should ‘add’ obedience to the Mosaic Law, to their faith in Christ” (emphasis added) Paul responds by saying that because the Law did not bring them into Christ in the first place, it is unnecessary to add obedience to the Law to their faith in Christ. “Rather, they should continue as they started in Christ, walking in the Spirit and according to the Law or Norm or Example of Christ” (Witherington, 175). As Lutherans, we would call this the third use of the Law, which will be covered later.

So, when Paul says “works of the Law,” what sort of “works” is he speaking of here? Paul deals with the Law in two primary ways: “(1) as as corporate entity and (2) as connected to a specific covenant which must be evaluated in light of recent salvation historical developments” (Witherington, 177). In other words, Paul makes a distinction between being under the Law and being in Christ as two separate points of salvation history. The latter is seen most clearly when he later says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son” (Galatians 4:4-5), and “the law was our guardian until Christ came” (Galatians 3:24-25). We can only conclude, then, that what Paul means by “works of the Law” is obedience to the Mosaic Law, i.e. all commandments of the Law.

Paul is not concerned with specific laws, but with the entirety of the Law. Paul is wholly cognisant that Christ came not to abolish the Law but to fulfil the Law (the fulfilment of God’s covenant), and therefore nullifying the requirement of obedience to the Law. “Fulfillment has to do with a salvation historical argument about the consummation of God’s purposes in and for human beings, obedience has to do with being in and under obligation to a particular covenant and its strictures. Paul affirms the former and rejects the latter” (Witherington, 178).

Yet it seems the Jewish Christians in Galatia have forgotten they are not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ, hence “we know” as that reminder of what they already knew. They are not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ.

Yet a problem arises in how one translates ἐὰν μὴ διὰ πίστεως (eán mē diā pístéōs). Witherington notes the phrase can either be translated as “exceptive in force” or “adversative.” If exceptive, it would be translated as “except through faith”; if adversative, it would be translated as “but only through faith,” or simply “but through faith” (Witherington, 178; the adversative in force is my translation decision).

Proponents of the new perspective, under the framework of covenantal nomism, translate it as exceptive in force so it reads, “a person is not justified by works of the law except through faith in Christ.” This is because under the covenantal nomism framework, proponents of the new perspective believe “a person can be justified by works of the Law” if obedience to the Law is “supplemented with our accompanied faith in Christ” (Witherington, 178).

In other words, a person can only be justified by works of the Law if they have faith in Christ added to it (hence “except”). However, this is highly unlikely especially considering other Pauline contexts in which Paul says a person is justified apart from works of the Law (cf. Romans 3:28). Either Paul is contradicting himself here and thus compromises the inerrancy of the Scriptures, or ἐὰν μὴ is adversative, which is far more likely, thus “a person is not justified by works of the law but only through faith in Christ.”

A second issue that arises is whether one takes πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (pístéōs Iēsou Christou) as an objective genitive or a subjective genitive (in v. 20 as well). If πίστεως is objective, then the faith of Christ is the object, thus the translation would be “faith in Christ,” which is the choice of the ESV translators. If it is subjective, it would be referring to Christ’s own faith since it is the subject, thus it would be translated, “the faith/faithfulness of Christ.” I agree with the ESV objective genitive translation for two reasons.

First, Paul is concerned here about how a person is justified. Yet the proponent for the subjective genitive will argue it’s because of the faith/faithfulness of Christ that one is justified. This is true, but it is also true that a person has faith in the faithfulness of Christ, i.e. faith in the work and obedience of Christ. “[Justification] happens through faith on the subjective side, but on the objective side it happens through or because of the death of Christ” (Witherington, 181). So, yes, Christ was faithful and obedient to death, but it is also His faithfulness that actuates our faith in His obedient work on the cross. Thus, the translation “faith in Christ” is more fitting.

Second, Paul is emphasising the distinction between works of the Law and the person’s faith. Paul’s main concern is what Christ accomplished on the cross, which the Law could not accomplish in the person. “Thus for Paul, the objective means of justification is Christ’s death on the cross, not the Law, and the subjective means of appropriating justification or right standing with God is faith in the faithfulness of Christ, not works of the Law” (Witherington, 182). In other words, Paul is not concerned here with the faith of Christ, but what the person has faith in, particularly faith in the faithfulness and obedience of Christ. Thus, again, the translation “faith in Christ” is more fitting.

In verse 17, Paul uses a rhetorical question not as a way to seek information, but rather to strengthen his argument. By use of this rhetorical question, Paul is shaming the point of view of his opponents. To rephrase Paul’s rhetorical question, we could phrase it as, “If we are found to be sinners whilst also being justified in Christ, does Christ, then, tolerate sin? Absolutely not!” Here, Paul is defending himself against any allegations made about his gospel message that he was antinomian or tolerated licentiousness.

In verse 18, in the building and destroying of buildings metaphor Paul uses, “the ultimate issue is what makes for the building up of community and what makes for its destruction” (Witherington, 187). Paul is using the metaphor to speak negatively of the practice of reconstructing a law-based religion. Since Christ had obeyed the Law to the fullest, there is no need to add obedience to the Law to faith. This is the probatio (problem). Paul makes it personal by saying if he were to do this, he would become a “transgressor,” or violator. That is, he would transgress against and violate Christ and His work. In other words, if Paul (or we) were to rebuild a law-based religion that Christ tore down by His full obedience to the Law, he would be violating Christ’s work and merit.

Paul continues in verse 19 with his personal view of this issue with the emphatic use of ἐγώ (égō), hence “I myself died to the law.” To better understand what Paul means here, Witherington notes it is helpful to think of this in context of what Paul says in Romans 7:1-4Verse 4 is especially helpful when he says his hearers “also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to Him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”

Paul, as well as the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Galatia (and us), have died to the Law because they have been crucified with Christ in their Baptisms (cf. Romans 6:1-11). Explicating on this, Witherington says, “The place where the Law was abolished or set aside was on the cross of Christ… Inasmuch as Paul or any Christian was crucified ‘with’ Christ on that occasion… he or any Christian also as a result died to the Law. This meant they were no longer under the Law’s jurisdiction, no longer obligated to keep the Law, no longer under the Law’s power, free from the Law’s curse and its demands” (189). It is no wonder, then, why we would be violators of Christ’s work since His work fulfilled all this for us.

Verse 20 is where we finally get to Paul’s concern with how a person “goes on in Christ” (“it is no longer I who live”). Remaining personal, Paul attributes his current living to Christ and not to himself. Witherington calls it an “inward conformity to the life and nature of Christ” where the Spirit “indwells the believer (Rom. 5.5; 8.9, 11, 15, 16, 23, 26).” This is explicit in the placement of νῦν (nun, “now”), which “here speaks of what is true of the believer after conversion and before physical death” (190).

In verse 21, Paul does not “nullify the grace of God” because anything that takes place of Christ’s own work and merit on the cross nullifies the grace of God. By saying this, Paul is implying there are Jewish Christians who are nullifying the grace of God by suggesting a Gentile and Jewish Christian has to add obedience to the Law to faith. This is why Paul can say he does not nullify the grace of God since He adds nothing to it and neither puts anything in place of God’s grace.

Thus, the propositio “ends with a bang in the form of a conditional statement” (Witherington, 192). Works of the Law nullify the grace of God. If one were justified through the Law, then Christ died in vain! He died for no purpose! Thus, works of obedience to the Law—and therefore Judaising—have no place in the role of justification by faith.

Historical-Cultural Context

Antioch was a highly multiethnic city, which inhabited a population of well over 500,000 people during the first century of the Roman Empire (Longenecker, 65). The Jews were some of the original inhabitants of Antioch when Seleucus I found the city in 300 B.C. For the majority of the Seleucid Empire, the Jews in Antioch had freedom to follow their religious customs without the interference of the Seleucid government, so Judaism prospered during the Seleucid reign.

By the first century AD when Rome took over, Josephus explains how the Jews were granted citizen rights by Antiochus Epiphanes and were considered equal with the Greeks (Longenecker, 68). It was this standing among the Greeks that allowed for Gentile converts, also known as “God fearers” or “proselytes.”

Thus, Antioch prided itself in being a tolerant, multiethnic metropolis. It is generally thought among Christian circles that the Jews were racist against Gentiles. Whilst this was certainly true of Jews in Jerusalem (i.e. tensions in Jewish-Samaritan relations), this was not true of Antiochene Jews in Galatia. With this historical understanding of tolerance towards other cultures and ethnicities, it is easier to understand why Judaising became an issue at this particular Galatian church.

Considering this historical-cultural context, it is less likely that the Jewish Christians thought their race or previous religion were superior to the Greeks’, and it is far more likely they were trying to find a way to reconcile the two completely different cultures. In other words, it is unlikely that the Antiochene Jews, in their Judaising attempts, were being ethnocentric; it is far more likely, considering the cultural tolerance of Antiochene citizens, that they were attempting to be inclusive of other cultures and just went about it the wrong way. Desiring to be in Christian unity, they went about that by including Jewish obedience to the Law to the Gentiles’ faith. Conversely, Paul urged them of their unity in the freedom found in the Gospel, not the Law (Galatians 3-4).

The Broader Biblical and Historical Confession

With Paul’s concern of how a Christian “goes on in Christ” vis-à-vis the Law, the third use of the Law could be brought into conversation. There is debate among some Lutherans as to whether there is a third use of the Law. It is a feckless debate since article VI of the Formula of Concord is dedicated to proving its function. When examining Luther’s writings, it can be argued he only wrote on two uses of the Law since he specifically lists two (Engelbrecht, 145). However, it can also be argued that Luther would acknowledge a third use of the Law judging by the language he uses.

For example, on concerning good works, Luther says, “Good works follow such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins, and whatever in these works is still sinful or imperfect should not even be counted as sin or imperfection, precisely for the sake of this same Christ” (SA III.XII.2).

This matches with what Melanchthon says in the Formula of Concord, “Instead, just as [Christians] will see God face-to-face, so they will perform the will of God by the power of the indwelling Spirit of God spontaneously, without coercion, unhindered, perfectly and completely, with sheer joy, and they will delight in his will eternally” (FC SD VI.25).

So, how does a person “go on” in Christ? Now that you have been justified by faith in Christ and redeemed by His blood, you are now free to do what you were created to do without burden of conscience. How do you know what to do? The Law tells you (i.e. love God and love your neighbour).

Personal and Pastoral Application

I’m going to take a different approach than would be expected. What I think is expected is that I develop a sermon around the concept of works of the Law versus faith in Christ. Instead, I would like to take this Galatians passage as a study on how to contextualise our Lutheran confession into different cultures, examining the right and wrong ways to do it.

The obvious wrong way is what Paul acknowledged in the Judaising—adding some work to faith in Christ. This is done in some high church Lutheran circles who claim that the only right way to do church is to do high church, i.e. incense, candles, gold, only hymns given in the LSB, and vestments indicative of Roman Imperialism, which are all issues of adiaphora. They make adiaphora into a required work in order to be God’s true and faithful church. They’re more concerned with looking orthopraxy than they are about whether or not the Gospel is proclaimed.

Imagine being garbed up in high church Lutheran vestments in 120º weather in Liberia, with no fans and air conditioning, and scolding the Liberian Lutherans for dancing and using their own instruments and doctrinally sound music in worship. Orthopraxy is elevated over the Gospel in this case, and this is precisely what’s happening in America today among many high church Lutherans.

It’s not only some high church Lutherans, however. We all do this. In order to bring people of other cultures into the faith, we want them to look exactly like us and act as we do. If an African culture likes to use their own instruments and dance whilst they praise God, we frown upon this and demand they be emotionless, stoic Germans because we immediately assume there’s some sort of mysticism involved in their joy. But they’re not Germans, they’re not stoic, and they’re not being mystical. So, this Galatians text would be a good text to use as a study on how a congregation might appropriately contextualise their faith in other cultures as it attempts to bring in peoples of other ethnicities.

Translation Notes

v. 11, Absence of the article before Κηφᾶς indicates Cephas is known to the Galatians.

v. 12, The article as a substantive with a prepositional phrase (πρὸ τοῦ γὰρ), signifying a temporal sense.

Infinitive of time, subsequent infinitive (πρὸ + ἐλθεῖν), indicating before something had taken place, thus the usual translation, “before” (Wallace, 596).

ὑπέστελλεν and ἀφώριζεν are both imperfect, and I chose the inceptive use of them because it fits the occasion and tense better.

v. 13, ὣστε + the indicative in a subordinate clause bears the force of “actual result” (Wallace, 480).

Adverbial infinitive indicating result. “ὣστε + inf. in classical Greek indicated natural result (a result anticipated, not purposed; but one that may or may not have come to fruition), whilst ὣστε + the indicative indicated actual result (a result that definitely occurred, though normally not anticipated). In Koine, ὣστε + inf. now does double duty, whilst ὣστε + indicative, the rarer construciton, is used as it was in the [Attic Greek]” (it occurs but twice in the NT in subordinate clauses, in John 3:16 and Galatians 2:13) (Wallace, 593).

vv. 15-21, The subjective genitive. Is “the faith of Christ” objective genitive or subjective genitive? Wallace notes, “It is argued that ‘Pistis followed by the personal genitive is quite rare; but when it does appear it is almost always followed by the non-objective genitive…'” Because of this, some like Longenecker suggest to take it as subjective genitive and thus translate it “faithfulness” rather than “faith” (Wallace, 116). See my literary analysis for why I agree with the ESV translation of the objective genitive.

v. 15, Comparative adjective used with an elative sense (Ἰουδαὶοι with ἐθνῶν). “[T]he quality expressed by the adjective is intensified, but is not making a comparison” (Wallace, 300).

v. 17, μὴ γένοιτο—volitive optative. “[S]tereotyped formula that has lost its optative ‘flavor’: μὴ γένοιτο usually has the force of abhorrence, and may in some contexts be the equivalent of οὐ μη + aorist subjunctive (a very strong negative)” (Wallace, 481). Hence, “Certainly not!” or “May it never be!”

v. 18, Conditional indicative (εἰ γὰρ ἃ κατέλυσα). “This is the use of the indicative in the protasis of conditional sentences. The conditional element is made explicit with the particle εἰ… The first class condition [which is the case in this verse] indicates the assumption of truth for the sake of argument, while the second class condition indicates the assumption of an untruth for the sake of argument” (Wallace, 450).

Conditional sentence of equivalency. “[W]e could put this formula this way: ‘If A, then B’ means the same thing as ‘A = B'” (Wallace, 483).

v. 21, Adverbial accusative (δωρεάν). “The accusative substantive functions semantically like an adverb in that it qualifies the action of the verb rather than indicating quantity or extent of the verbal action… The noun δωρεάν is frequently used for an adverbial accusative” (Wallace, 200).


Engelbrecht, Edward. “Luther’s Threefold Use of the Law.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 75, no 1 (2 Jan – Apr 2011): 135-150.

Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000.

Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians. Word, Inc. 1990.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Witherington III, Ben. Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.


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