Galatians 2:15-16

Sermon preached on November 28, 2010 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2010. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

When I was a teenager I had a friend who went to the same church as I did. The thing about him was that he was always a little bit bad. He was always getting into trouble. He would think of bad things to do that I would never think of. I remember one time he was sick and was in the hospital. I went to visit him and while I was there a nurse came in to take his temperature. Back then they had the old glass thermometers that you put under your tongue. You had to keep them there awhile for it to give you your correct temperature. That day the nurse was busy and she came in, put it under his tongue, and went to the next room to give someone else his thermometer. As soon as she left, my friend took the thermometer out of his mouth and started rubbing it very vigorously on the bed. He was using friction to heat it up in order to fool the nurse about his true temperature. To this day I still don't know why he did it, what his purpose was. Why would anyone do that? I guess it was just to mess with the nurse. He was trying to fool her, trick her and perhaps get her all agitated.

There were people in Galatia who were agitators. They were giving false information to the Christians there. They were telling the Gentiles there that besides believing on Jesus, they also had to keep the Jewish ceremonial law. They introduced great error into the church. The apostle Paul had to set things straight. He wrote, (Galatians 2:15–16)

"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 Christ.
So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus
that we may be justified by faith in Christ
and not by observing the law,
because by observing the law
no one will be justified."

The main point that the apostle Paul makes here is that

no one will be justified by the law.

Justification. This was main issue in the Protestant Reformation was a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over justification. Martin Luther is reported to have said that,

"justification is the article of a standing or a falling church."

In his Lectures on Galatians he wrote,

"If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost… if we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything."

Luther was not exaggerating. Justification is that important. If you get justification right, you see that our only hope is in Jesus Christ and will rejoice in Him and His salvation, giving glory to God for Jesus and His great work. If you get justification wrong, to a great extent the glory of God and His work for us is obscured. In his commentary on Galatians Martin Luther wrote,

"When the article of justification is lost, nothing remains except error, hypocrisy, godlessness, and idolatry."

If this doctrine is so important, we need to understand the terms involved. First of all, let's consider the term 'justified'.

What does it mean to be justified?

The Roman Catholic way of viewing justification is to understand it as something that transforms our character. When one is justified, one is made righteous, righteousness is infused into a person. The Reformers of the Protestant Reformation taught that this wasn't so, that the concept of justification in Scripture was about someone being declared righteous.

The Reformers position is backed up by Scripture and they showed that there were many places where justification could not possibly mean to make someone righteous. For example, Deuteronomy 25:1 says,

"When men have a dispute,
they are to take it to court
and the judges will decide the case,
acquitting the innocent
and condemning the guilty."

The judges were to 'acquit' or 'justify' the innocent. If justification were to mean make righteous, then this verse wouldn't make sense. The righteous were already righteous. They were the ones that were right in the case. The judge was justify the innocent—he was to declare that they were innocent, or just.

The judge was also to 'condemn' the wicked. If justification mean to 'make righteous', there would be nothing wrong with that. If judges could make evildoers into righteous people, that would be a good thing. If they could change their character and transform them into law abiding citizens, that would be very good. But the judges of Israel were not told to justify the wicked, they were told to condemn them. They were told to declare them 'guilty'.

We see the same principle in Proverbs 17:15. It reads,

"He who justifies the wicked,
and he who condemns the righteous,
Both of them alike are
an abomination to the LORD."

Again, if justifying the wicked meant to make them good, that wouldn't be an abomination to the Lord—that would be something good. But God declared that justifying the wicked was an abomination in His eyes—showing that the meaning of justifying was not making someone righteous, but making a legal declaration about them—that they were righteous.

Another verse that shows that justification cannot mean to make righteous is Luke 7:29. We read (KJV)

"And all the people that heard him,
and the publicans, justified God,
being baptized with the baptism of John."

They justified God. Did that mean that men made God righteous? Of course not. Justifying God could not possibility mean that men make God more righteous or holy. God was and always has been perfect. What the people were doing was declaring that God was righteous. They were making a pronouncement about Him, declaring what He was like.

So none of those verses fit the Roman Catholic understanding of the term. They cannot be made to fit.
What then does the term 'justify' mean? As we saw from Deuteronomy 25 it is a legal term. It was a declaration of the legal status. The judge was to decide a case and declare that the party in the right was just. The party in the wrong was to be condemned. In regard to Proverbs 17:15, if a judge justified the wicked, if, because of a bribe or any other reason, he declared the wicked to be right—that was an abomination to God. The opposite was true as well. If the judge condemned the righteous party, declaring that he was in the wrong, that was an abomination to God.

The juxtaposition of 'justify' and 'condemnation' also helps us to understand the meaning of justification. It shows that they are opposites. A judge was to justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. We see this again in Romans 8:33–34. Paul wrote,

"Who will bring any charge
against those whom God has chosen?
It is God who justifies.
Who is he that condemns?"

So justification is a legal declaration about us. Donald Macleod writes about the biblical use of the term justification, (A Faith to Live By, p. 158)

"It didn't change your character or even describe what kind of person you were. It declared your relation to the law. It was about your legal status, not about your spiritual condition. It meant that you were acquitted and that in the eyes of the law you were, 'Not Guilty!'"

Justification is about being declared righteous in God's sight. It's about obtaining a right legal standing before God.

What Paul tells us is that we cannot obtain a right standing before God by observing the law.

What does this phrase, the 'works of the law' mean?

It's clear from the context here that in talking about the law here Paul was including the ceremonial law, circumcision and things like it. We cannot be justified by observing rituals.

But there are indications that Paul meant the law in general, both the ceremonial and the moral law, the ten Commandments. In Romans 3:19–20 Paul says the same thing he says in our text—that no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by observing the law. The section on the law preceding that, from Romans 2:17 to 3:18 contains references to the moral law, to stealing (2:21), adultery, 2:22), idolatry, (2:22) The section immediately proceeding, in Romans 3:9-18 could be seen as a way of saying, by way of contrast, that people have not kept the summary of the law, that they have not loved God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that they have not loved their neighbors as themselves.

Thus when Paul writes in Romans 3:19-20,

"Now we know that whatever the law says,
it says to those who are under the law,
so that every mouth may be silenced
and the whole world
held accountable to God.
Therefore no one will be declared righteous
in his sight by observing the law;
rather, through the law
we become conscious of sin."

—it seems that he is referring to the law in its entirety, not just a part of it. Through the law we become conscious of sin. The moral law is the primary way we become conscious of sin—so to think that that's not included when Paul says that by the deeds of the law no one will be declared righteous—misses Paul's main thrust. Philip Ryken quotes Das saying, (Galatians, p. 62)

"The 'works of the law,' then, 'always refers primarily to what the law requires in general and in its entirety.'"

Ryken goes on to give a striking example of the typical Jewish attitude town the law as a means of justification. He gives an inscription from the epitaph on a first-century tomb. It says,

"Here lies Regina… She will live again, returned to the light again, for she can hope that she will rise to the life promised, as a real assurance, to the worthy and the pious in that she has deserved to possess an abode in the hallowed land. This your piety has assured you, this your chaste life, this your love for your people, this is your observance of the Law, your devotion to your wedlock, the glory of which was dear to you. For all these deeds your hope for the future is assured."

Whoever wrote that was expecting justification from the deeds of the whole law.

So when Paul states that no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by observing the law, he means the law in its entirety.

Thus what Paul is telling us here is that no one will be declared righteous in God's sight through the law.

Paul repeats this three times in verse 16 alone. This shows how important it is that we get this through our minds. You cannot be justified by the law. You cannot be justified by the law. You cannot be justified by the law. Don't look to law for justification—it will fail you. The reason Paul repeats it is because this is the way that we want to be saved. We want to do something. We want to earn our salvation. Donald Macleod writes, (A Faith to Live By, p. 161)

"All human religions are in essence systems of self-justification: we earn justification by being good."

But we're sinners. That means that the law can do nothing but condemn us. It can never make us righteous in God's sight. It can only condemn us. As the apostle would write later in Galatians, (Galatians 3:10)

"All who rely on observing the law
are under a curse, for it is written:
'Cursed is everyone who does not
continue to do everything written
in the Book of the Law.'"

The law cannot help us. It can only condemn us.

There are four lessons to draw from this.

First, don't look to the law for salvation.

Your good works, your great efforts, your self- worth, your giving yourself to help other people—none of that will save you. The law cannot save you. You were born a sinner. That means that the only thing the law can do is condemn you. In order for you to be saved you need to look outside of yourself. You need someone else to save you.

Secondly, this means that

you need to have faith in Jesus.

He's the only One who can save you. Having faith in Him is the only way for you to be declared righteous in God's sight. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:20–24,

"Therefore no one will be
declared righteous in his sight
by observing the law; rather, through the law
we become conscious of sin.
But now a righteousness from God,
apart from law, has been made known,
to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
This righteousness from God
comes through faith in Jesus Christ
to all who believe.
There is no difference, for all have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God,
and are justified freely by his grace
through the redemption
that came by Christ Jesus."

In order to be justified we need Jesus. We need Him to wash away our sins. We need His righteousness. We should forsake all attempts to save ourselves and look to Jesus. As Paul wrote in Philippians 3:4–9,

"If anyone else thinks he has reasons
to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:
circumcised on the eighth day,
of the people of Israel,
of the tribe of Benjamin,
a Hebrew of Hebrews;
in regard to the law, a Pharisee;
as for zeal, persecuting the church;
as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
But whatever was to my profit
I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
What is more, I consider everything a loss
compared to the surpassing greatness
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,
for whose sake I have lost all things.
I consider them rubbish,
that I may gain Christ and be found in him,
not having a righteousness
of my own that comes from the law,
but that which is through faith in Christ
—the righteousness that comes
from God and is by faith."

Thirdly, it's important that you grasp the truth that justification is God's legal declaration about us being righteous (based on Christ's work) because, not only is it true, but

it can be a great help to you in your Christian living.

There's a difference between justification and sanctification. We are justified by faith when we believe in Jesus. We are declared righteous by God. That's our legal standing before Him. Sanctification is our growth in holiness. It's a gradual process where we die to sin more and more and live for God. We should always remember this distinction. Our justification doesn't wait until we are made perfect. We are justified when we are still sinners. This is clear from Romans 5:1-2 where Paul wrote,

"Therefore, since we have been
justified through faith,
we have peace with God
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access
by faith into this grace
in which we now stand.
And we rejoice in the hope
of the glory of God."

So you should realize that your legal standing of being righteous before God has nothing to do with your own works.

This can be a great help to us in two ways.

First, it can be a bridle on our pride.

If you realize that your standing before God is not on the basis of your works, but rests solely on the work of Jesus—how can you be proud? If that's the case you can only boast in Jesus Christ. Knowing the truth of justification should help you not be like the Pharisees, who were self-righteous and looked down on other people who had not achieved the same degree of spiritual success.

Secondly, this can be a great relief to you when you feel guilt about your sin.

John Owen writes that justification is, (Works, V. 5, p. 7)

"the proper relief of the conscience of a sinner pressed and perplexed with a sense of the guilt of sin."

If you think that justification is God's work in you making you righteous—the sad truth is that, unless you delude yourself, you'll realize that there is still great sin in your life. This will play havoc with your conscience. The devil will show you your sin and tell you that you don't belong to Christ. You will see your sins and failings and conclude that you have forfeited God's favor and blessing. Depression and a feeling of failure will overcome you.

But if you grasp the truth of justification, you will see that, in spite of your sin, you are a child of God who has been declared righteous. As my friend Stafford Carson says, (Justified in Christ, p. 178)

"the only way we can relate to God is through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is only Christ's blood, not our good efforts, which will open the way to God's presence and will cleanse us from a guilty conscience."

This will give you peace in spite of your sin. This will help you to love Jesus more and more.

Fourthly, this doctrine means that

you should rejoice in Christ's righteousness.

What you have in Jesus is incredible. You have the forgiveness of your sins. How wonderful that thought is! Jesus paid the price for your sins. They are all forgiven. They are removed from you as far as the east is from the west. But you have more than that. You have the righteousness of Jesus given to you. You, a sinner, were declared righteous when you believed—because of the work of Jesus on your behalf—because of His righteousness. Christians, rejoice in this righteousness. What a gift you have received. No one can condemn you. The law, with it's curse—can't. The devil can't. God has justified you. Your status is that of righteousness. Rejoice in your standing in Jesus Christ.

Lastly, for you who are not Christians,

this means that you're lost.

On your own you're doomed. God compares your life to the law and sees that you've fallen short. The law can't save you. No matter how hard you try, no matter how good you try to be—you'll always fall short. The law is a curse for you.

You need Jesus. Only He can save you from condemnation. Ask Him to save you. Go to Him today.