Our birth was not of Gentiles but of Jews,
Yet still we know that none is justified
By works of the law, the paying of dues,
But through faith in Christ and Him crucified.
And if in our endeavor under grace
As failures under law we are perceived
Can any rightly Jesus’ name debase?
By no means! Christ is pure; be not deceived.
For if I do rebuild what Jesus broke,
The dividing wall of hostility,
That law would prove my righteousness as smoke,
As evidence of my depravity.
For through the law, I died unto the law,
That I might live to God an hallelujah.
I was inspired to write this sonnet when I read the center verse, Galatians 2:17, which reads, “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!” (ESV) When I read it, I was immediately encouraged because I know that anyone looking at my life would see that it is steeped in sin, that I am a failure, that my actions do not measure up to the standard of righteousness that my words uphold. I know that anyone would see my wretchedness, attribute it to my faith as a Christian, and then accuse my King of the same wretchedness. I could hear them saying, “This Matthew is a follower of Christ and clearly a sinner, so Christ must be a servant of sin” – this passage counters that fear, asserting that it is an invalid accusation. Upon further examination I realized it’s a rather complicated passage – is that really what Paul is saying?
So I did some digging, because I wanted to be sure I understood the passage right. In the context of Galatians as a whole, Paul is countering a group of people, called the Judaizers, who were corrupting the Gospel and preaching that Gentiles must live according to Jewish customs so as to be saved in accordance with the Mosaic Law (dietary restrictions and circumcision are specifically mentioned). In short, the Judaizers claimed that faith in Christ was not sufficient, that people must live out the full law of Moses to the letter to be saved. Paul was quick to counter this:
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (2:15-16, ESV)
Boy, he sure hammers his point home: Not works but faith; faith and not works; never works! This is the central message of Galatians: that our outer works do not justify us before God; it is our faith that justifies.
So what is verse 17 talking about? It helps to examine the verses after it:
“For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Gal. 2:18-21, ESV)
There is a lot to unpack here and I could do a series of sonnets (and then some) on what’s going on here, but the crux of the matter lies in this question: what is it that Paul would rebuild (v. 18)? In the Gospel that Paul consistently preached, he tore down the law as a means of righteousness; abiding by the law does not save you nor does it make you right in God’s eyes! This concept of works-righteousness – the appearance of obedience – is what Paul tore down. Righteousness does not come from eating only kosher or wearing the right tassels or being circumcised; nor does righteousness come from tithing or not committing adultery or not stealing or telling the truth. The law is meticulously detailed in its requirements, but, more than that, it is impossible to fulfill. Jesus makes this eminently clear in his Sermon on the Mount, when He says things like this:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22, ESV)
In this passage about anger and those following, Jesus teaches that the requirements of the Law extend to not only our outer works but to the very machinations of our hearts. The Lord holds in judgment before His law our words and our thoughts as well as our actions. Is not righteousness through works in the Law an impossibility?
It is this impossibility that showed Paul the depths of his sin, so that he says “through the law I died to the law,” meaning that he stopped attempting to be righteous in his works. We can never do or be enough to satisfy the law – it is impossible. This is the ultimate message of the Gospel: the law is too much for us to bear! This is why we need grace. This is why we need forgiveness and mercy. This is why we need the cross. It is inevitable that people will look into our lives and see us failing according to the law – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – but this does not mean Christ encourages sin. Rather, Christ fulfilled the law in His own life for us, took the penalty for our transgressions, and rose from the dead so that His righteousness might live in us. There is encouragement to be found in Galatians 2:17 as I thought, for I do not need to rely on my own obedience before God, and, as I originally thought, I do not need to justify the righteousness of Christ through my actions. Jesus is the pure Lamb of God without blemish and no amount of sin on my part can diminish my King’s righteousness.
Though often I am not obedient,
The righteousness of Christ is evident.