I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly (NIV – for nothing).
The Jews attempted to receive “righteousness” through the Law, which means to rely on the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses to be put right with God.
But sinful man is unable to comply with God’s law. Therefore, the only way that we can receive “righteousness” is through God’s grace, which is His mercy.
The Galatians attempted to earn “righteousness” through the Law. Thereby they nullified “the grace of God.” Stated differently, since they trust in the rituals and ceremonies of the Law, they do not trust the grace of God.
The grace of God resulted in Christ’s death. Christ’s death was God’s will and it was the delivery mechanism through which God made His grace available to sinners.
Both faith and grace are required to be saved. God justifies sinners on the basis of their faith but faith does not merit justification. God, therefore, justifies people by grace through faith.
To receive “righteousness” is the same as to be “justified” (2:16). It means to be saved. Galatians 3:21 reads very similar to 2:21, but use “impart life” instead of receiving “righteousness” through the law:
“For if a law had been given which was able to impart life”
To receive “righteousness” or to be “justified” should not be understood as a complex forensic process. These are simply two of many Metaphors of Salvation and means to be reconciled to God. The GNB renders this as “put right with God” (Gal 2:21).
GRACE VERSUS LAW
Our verse contrasts two systems of receiving “righteousness:”
To receive righteousness “through the Law” is the same as to be “justified by the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16; cf. 5:4), which means to rely on the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses to be put right with God. It is to trust in your own efforts.
But Gal 2:21 asserts that sinful mankind is unable to comply with God’s norm, namely His law (e.g. Rom 3:9-10). For that reason, we receive “righteousness” through God’s grace, which is His mercy.
Law and grace, therefore, stand in opposition to each other.
NULLIFY THE GRACE OF GOD
The Galatians nullified “the grace of God” by striving for “righteousness … through the Law” (Gal 2:21). Consequently, for them, “Christ will be of no benefit” (Gal 5:2). The reason is that, if one relies on the rituals and ceremonies of the Law, it means that one does not rely on the grace of God. The article that discusses the Traditions of the Elders explains how these detailed rules and regulations, with their focus on external behavior, actually drives people away from God.
GOD’S GRACE IS THROUGH CHRIST’S DEATH.
Galatians 2:21 also implies a relationship between God’s grace and Christ’s death. The question is, what is the cause, and what is the effect? Did Christ’s death cause the grace of God or did the grace of God cause Christ’s death? In the introduction to the letter, we read:
“The Lord Jesus Christ … gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:3-4).
In other words, the grace of God came first and resulted in Christ’s death. Stated differently, Christ’s death was the delivery mechanism through which God made His grace available to sinners.
Exactly how Christ’s death atones for sins is a contested area. There are many Atonement Theories. Each of them tries to explain how Christ’s death saves God’s people. I explain the theory which I prefer in the article, Christ’s death proved that God judges rightly.
BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH
In the current verse, “righteousness” comes through God’s grace. But elsewhere in the Bible, “righteousness” comes through faith:
“Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gal 3:6; also Rom 4.3)
“Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith” (Rom 9:30).
Also the previous verses, “we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16). In other words, both “faith” and “grace” stand in opposition to “the works of the Law.” And both faith and grace are required to be saved. We must, therefore, ask about the relationship between faith and grace. This is explained in the article, By Grace Through Faith. In short:
God’s grace is available to all people, but only some are saved. There is, therefore, another factor that makes a distinction, and that is faith. People are saved, not by grace alone, but “by grace … through faith.”
Grace and faith are, actually, a single concept: Because their deeds are sinful, and man, therefore, is totally unable to save himself, God justifies sinners on the basis of their faith. But because faith does not merit justification, God’s people are justified by grace (Rom 4:16).