2:15 “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 2:16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
For a discussion of the word ”Justified”, please refer to the relevant page. It is argued on that page that the Greek word does not imply a legal process, but is equivalent to “reconciled to God” (2Cor. 5:20) and is perhaps best translated as ”put right with God”.
Since Paul argues that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (2:16), we can assume that “the party of the circumcision” (2:12) argued the opposite, namely that man is justified by the works of the Law. This is confirmed later in the letter, where we read that the Galatians were seeking “to be justified by law” (5:4).
Still another way to confirm this is from Acts 15. Galatians only contains Paul’s arguments. We only see reflections of his opponents’ arguments in Paul’s arguments. But his opponents’ arguments are recorded more directly in Acts 15.
For the following reasons it is proposed that the church council meeting in Acts 15 was called to settle the dispute in Antioch that is recorded in Galatians 2:
- Both disputes arose after men arrived in Antioch from Judea (Acts 14:26; 15:1; Gal. 2:11-12 – from James = from Judea).
- In both disputes Paul opposed these men from Judea (Acts 15:2).
- Both disputes were about the circumcision of Gentiles (Acts 15:3, 5; Gal. 2:12, 14)
- Both disputes were about how people are justified (Gal. 2:16; Acts 15:1).
If we conclude that the church council in Jerusalem was called to settle the dispute in Antioch that is recorded in Galatians 2:11-14 (Acts 15:2), or even if it is only agreed that the same issues were involved, the arguments of Paul’s opponents, as recorded in Acts 15, helps us to understand the issue in Antioch, and therefore in Galatia. They argued:
- “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
- “It is necessary to circumcise them (the Gentiles) and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
Paul’s opponents not only demanded that Gentile Christians be circumcised, but also that Gentile Christians “observe the Law of Moses”.
They justified their demands by saying that this is required for salvation. Salvation is the same as to be justified. This explains why Paul in Galatians argues that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). In chapter 3 Paul provides various arguments in support of this view , while chapters 5 and 6, being more practical in nature, returns to focus more specifically on circumcision itself.
There is nothing recorded as happened in Antioch that supports Paul’s view on circumcision, apart from Paul’s own arguments, but if we accept that the council meeting in Acts 15 is an extension of the events in Antioch, then we obtain support for Paul’s view from the church council’s decision. The issue on the table was whether Gentiles must be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 3, 5), and the decision of the church council was that “we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Act 15:19-20). The church council therefore supported Paul’s stance that Gentiles should not be circumcised.
The question before the council as well as their decision did not include the circumcision of baby boys from Jewish Christian homes, and it did not involve the question whether Jewish Christians must observe the Law of Moses. The implication is that Jewish Christians continued to observe the Law of Moses. They had Christ’ teachings, and His teachings focus on the internal issues of the heart and mind (love & faith), in contrast to the Judaism of Christ’ day with its focus on external works, but Christ did not preach against the Law of Moses. Christ’s teachings did not contradict the Old Testament, but was consistent with the prophets that repeatedly pleaded for the circumcision of the heart. The Law of Moses, as received from God, was not a system of justification by works, but it developed into one through the addition of the elaborate ancestral traditions. It was only some years after His death that God sent Paul to preach the message as contained in Galatians. The change took years and decades to complete, and at the time of the events in Acts 15 the Jewish Christians still continued all practices of the Law of Moses.
For further information, see the pages on the historical context and on the ancestral traditions.
The council decision did not deal with the moral laws, such as killing or hating people, but Gentile Christians obviously had to adhere to the moral laws as explained by Christ; referred to by Paul as “the law of Christ” (6:2).
The Law relevant in Acts 15 is the “Law of Moses” (Acts 15:1, 5). This implies that the “Law” in 2:16 and in most of Galatians is the Law of Moses. This is confirmed by 3:17 and 4:24-25, as will be discussed below. The only part of Galatians that does not deal with the Law of Moses is 5:13-6:10, where the Law of Christ is discussed (6:2). When Paul therefore argues that “man is not justified by the works of the Law”, he is specifically referring to the works of the Law of Moses, not “works of the Law” in general. This is important, because later he would argue that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (Romans 2:13; compare Gal. 6:2-8), where he is referring to a different Law, namely the Law of Christ.
To return to Galatians, Paul not only explains that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (2:16). He also provides the correct alterative, namely that man is justified “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). He thereby contrasts “faith” and “the works of the Law” (2:16; 3:10):
- “Works” refer to external deeds. “Faith” refers to the internal mind-set.
- “Works” seeks to earn justification. “Faith” relies on God’s merciful-kindness (grace) to justify one.
2:16 is therefore a pivotal verse in the letter to the Galatians. The remainder of this article refers back to this verse several times.