The circumcision party justified their demand for the circumcision of Gentile Christians by claiming that people are justified (accepted by God) by observing the works of the Law of Moses. This does not mean to try to be good or to love God and your neighbors. It means to earn salvation through the observance of the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses, as interpreted through the Traditions.
They focused on circumcision because that was the door into Judaism; the first step to observing the works of the Law of Moses.
To explain why one does not have to be circumcised, Paul not only explains that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16), he also provides the correct alternative, namely, that man is justified “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). “Faith” is an internal mindset that trusts God’s grace to forgive your sins.
The Acts 15 Church Council was called to settle the dispute. It supported Paul’s position but did not address the circumcision of baby boys from Jewish Christian homes or whether Jewish Christians must observe the Law of Moses. Jewish Christians continued to live like Jews.
The Church Council also did not address moral laws, such as killing or hating people. Its only concern was circumcision and the other ceremonies and rituals. Gentile Christians, obviously, have to adhere to God’s eternal moral principles as explained by Christ, which Paul calls “the Law of Christ.”
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.
WE ARE JEWS
This distortion of the gospel is caused by Jewish Christians and Paul, therefore Paul addresses them directly. “We” and “our” in Galatians often refer to Jews.
JUSTIFIED BY THE WORKS OF THE LAW
Since Paul argues that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16), we can infer that “the party of the circumcision” (Gal 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” (Gal 5:4).
Acts 15 also confirms this. Galatians only contains Paul’s arguments. We see his opponents’ arguments only indirectly reflected in Paul’s rebuttal. But his opponents’ arguments are recorded more directly in Acts 15.
Justified means to be accepted by God, in spite of your sins. The Jews argued that one is accepted by God if you observe “the works of the Law.” This does not mean trying to be good. It means to rely on the observance of the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses, as interpreted through the Traditions.
JUSTIFIED THROUGH FAITH IN CHRIST
Paul not only explains that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16). He also provides the correct alternative, namely, that man is justified “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). The article In Christ explains that the phrase “by faith in Christ” actually consists of two parts:
“By faith” refers to trust in both God the Father and His Christ.
“In Christ” refers to the fact that Christ is the Means through which the Father saves people (E.g. Col 1:13-14).
The Jewish “works of the Law” were external deeds through which one earns salvation. In contrast, Paul wrote that people are saved “by faith,” which refers to an internal mindset of trust in God’s grace (merciful-kindness) to forgive your sins. The difference between the two systems of salvation is discussed in the article By Grace through Faith. Paul argued for a different law (the Law of Christ) and a different means of justification (by grace through faith).
Galatians 2:16 is, therefore, a pivotal verse in the letter to the Galatians. The remainder of this article several times refers back to this verse.
We agree today that people are saved by grace through faith, but we disagree on how that exactly works. There are many Atonement Theories. One of the prominent theories relies on the legal undertones of the word “justified” to describe atonement as a legal process through which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner. See the article Justified for a further discussion.
ACTS 15 CHURCH COUNCIL
CALLED TO SETTLE THE DISPUTE
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) and about how people are justified (Gal 2:16; Acts 15:1).
THE VIEWS OF THE CIRCUMCISION PARTY
If we conclude that the church council in Jerusalem was called to settle the dispute in Antioch as 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 provided by 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, which is the same as justified. This explains why Paul in Galatians responded that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). In Galatians chapter 3. Paul provides various arguments in support of his view, while chapters 5 and 6, being more practical in nature, returns to focus more specifically on circumcision itself.
THE CHURCH COUNCIL AGREED WITH PAUL.
There is nothing recorded that happened in Antioch that supports Paul’s view on circumcision, apart from his 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” (Acts 15:19-20). The church council, therefore, supported Paul’s position that Gentiles should not be circumcised.
JEWISH CHRISTIANS STILL OBSERVED THE LAW.
The question before the council, as well as their decision, did not address the circumcision of baby boys from Jewish Christian homes or whether Jewish Christians must observe the Law of Moses. The implication is that Jewish Christians continued to observe the Law of Moses.
The Jewish Christians had Christ’s teachings, which focus on the internal issues of the heart and mind (love & faith), in contrast to the Judaism of Christ’s day with its focus on external works. However, Christ did not preach against the Law of Moses. Christ’s teachings did not contradict the Old Testament but were 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 Christ’s death that God sent Paul to preach the message as contained in Galatians. The change took many years and decades to complete the change, and at the time of the events in Acts 15, the Jewish Christians still continued all practices of the Law of Moses. (See Jerusalem Phase of the Early Church)
CHRISTIANS MUST OBSERVE THE LAW OF CHRIST.
The church council was called to discuss the relevance of the “Law of Moses” (Acts 15:1, 5) for Gentile Christians. This implies that the “Law” in Galatians 2:16 and in most of that letter is the Law of Moses. This is confirmed by Galatians 3:17 and 4:24-25. More specifically, the church council was not asked to deal with moral laws, such as killing or hating people. Its only concern was circumcision and the other ceremonies and rituals.
The only part of Galatians that does not deal with the Law of Moses is 5:13-6:10, where Paul discusses the Law of Christ (Gal 6:2). Gentile Christians, obviously, have to adhere to God’s eternal moral principles as explained by Christ, which Paul calls “the Law of Christ.”
Therefore, when Paul argues that “man is not justified by the works of the Law”, he specifically refers to the works of the Law of Moses. This is important because later he would argue that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom 2:13; compare Gal 6:2-8), where he refers to the Law of Christ. See By Grace through Faith for a further discussion.