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Galatians 2:17-21 by Robert Dean
Series:Galatians (1998)
Duration:59 mins 7 secs

Justification Provides New Life in Christ; Gal. 2:17-21

Paul now uses a very vigorous system of logic here in vv. 17 & 18 in order to show a logical fallacy. Both verses involve an "if" clause which sets up a hypothetical condition. In the Greek there are four different ways in which a hypothetical situation can be expressed: if, and we assume it to be true; if, and we assume it not to be true; if, we don't know whether it is true or not; if, I wish it were true but it's not. Here we have the 1st class condition which means if, and we assume it to be true for the sake of argument. This is what is called a debater's first class condition, and often someone would take a position just for the sake of argument and then they would refute it.

To understand this passage and to break it open we have to go to the very last verse, verse 21: NASB "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness {comes} through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." In other words, he does not void or abrogate the grace of God, "for if righteousness {comes} through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." That is the point of all this discussion. If we could achieve this level of righteousness on our own then there was no need for Christ to pay the penalty for our sins.

Galatians 2:17 NASB "But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be!" We have in this verse the first objection. Paul is going to put words in their mouth. Apparently the contention of the legalists was: If you claim to get your righteousness from Christ and then you sin you are making Christ the author of sin, i.e. Christ doesn't have very good righteousness, does He?

But what is the problem here? It is that they don't understand the kind of righteousness that Paul is talking about. They are understanding this to be moral righteousness or experiential righteousness rather than the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Because they are putting the emphasis on morality instead of on the imputed righteousness of Christ then whenever a believer sins it somehow impugns the nature of Christ. This is typical of any legalist. Legalists come along and put all the emphasis on morality, usually some external form of morality, and pay very little attention to the most devastating of all sins which are mental attitude sins. Legalists always focus on the overt.    

Galatians 2:18 NASB "For if I rebuild what I have {once} destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor." He sets up another 1st class condition. In Acts chapter 10 Peter had a vision where he saw God lowering a tablecloth from heaven on which were all manner of animals and food that had been forbidden under the Mosaic Law and Peter was commanded to eat. Peter's objection was self-righteousness. Three times the Lord commanded Peter to eat it and finally the Lord had to tell him straight: If I have declared it to be okay, it's okay. The point the Lord was making was that because of the death of Christ on the cross the Mosaic Law was finished; it was no longer valid for the church age. Peter finally got the point and he goes to the house of Cornelius and gives him the gospel, and he doesn't pack in the Mosaic Law with it. Peter understood the point. Then he went back to Jerusalem where the Jewish believers there were all upset because he had gone to a Gentile and he explained why and what the dynamics were. To that they agreed he was right and that the issue now was grace and had nothing to do with the Mosaic Law. Then we come to the situation where he is in Antioch and he rejects what he has learned about grace and legalism, and now he is back into legalism emphasising the Mosaic Law. He first destroyed the Law and then when he came back to Antioch he decides he is going to rebuild the Law.

The point that Paul is making in verse 17 is: Peter, either you were wrong then and are right now, or v. 18, you are right now and you were wrong when you were destroying the Law. In either case Peter was wrong. If he was going back to the Law and rebuilding what he once destroyed he has proved himself to be a transgressor. Because if he says he is right now then he was wrong and a violator of the Law back when he was saying that the Gentiles could be saved without the Law. Paul is basically using a logical technique in setting up the horns of a dilemma that Peter was either right then and is wrong now, or he was wrong then and are right now. These are the only two options and if neither one is the case then you, Peter, are still a sinner. And because you are still a sinner you cannot get to heaven on the basis of your own moral perfection. Why? Because the issue is not what you do, the issue is the perfect righteousness of Christ, and when that is imputed to you then you are justified by faith alone and not by the works of law.       

Galatians 2:19 NASB "For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God."

Galatians 2:20 NASB "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the {life} which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me." This is a very important verse. "I have been crucified with Christ" – perfect passive indicative. The verb is staureoo [staureow] and it means to crucify. The perfect tense emphasises the completion of an action in past time. Sometimes all it is doing is emphasising the present reality of a past action. Even though it occurred in the past: "I was crucified with Christ is the past, I am emphasising the present benefits of that; I am crucified with Christ." That would be what is called an intensive perfect. But here we have an extensive perfect because it is contrasted to a present state. What Paul is emphasising here with this perfect is the completion in the past: "I have in the past been crucified with Christ. At this point when I was on the road to Damascus I put my faith alone in Christ alone, and at that point I was identified with Jesus Christ in His death, burial and resurrection." This is what we call the doctrine of positional truth.

That is, you come to a point where you realise that you need to be saved, that Jesus Christ died on the cross for all of your sins. So you come to the cross and you put your faith alone in Christ alone. At that point a number of different things happen to you which you do not experience, but nevertheless they are real. God the Son by means of the Holy Spirit places you in Christ. You are identified with Christ's death, burial and resurrection so that His death is applied to you and you are separated from the penalty of sin forever—eternal security. You enter into a permanent relationship with God and you are identified with Christ. This is called positional truth—your death with Christ positionally: "I have been crucified with Christ." That happened to you at the point of salvation.

"…and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" –at the moment of salvation one of the things that happen is all three members of the Trinity take up their residence in you. "Christ in you the hope of glory," so you are indwelt by Jesus Christ. You are also indwelt by God the Father and by God the Holy Spirit. As a church age believer you are in the unique privileged position of being indwelt by all three members of the Godhead from the moment of salvation forward. There are two senses, though, in which Christ lives in you. One has to do with this positional sense. We know this from a number of passages, like Revelation 3:20; John 14:20; Romans 8:10; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Colossians 1:27. But Galatians 2:20 is not talking about the indwelling of Christ, it is talking about the character of Jesus Christ that is produced in you. The contrast here is between the "I" who no longer lives—the sin nature control. The sin nature dominated your life as an unbeliever. The essence of sin ultimately is arrogance; my will as opposed to God's will.   

So Paul says, "it is no longer I who live." The old person that I was, the unregenerate person that I was, is no longer in effect. I am a new creature in Christ by virtue of positional truth. Christ lives in me. The goal of the spiritual life is to develop the character of Jesus Christ. But character is the result of thought. You are what you think and your life is the product of the decisions you make. As a believer you have a choice between thinking in the world's system or thinking as God wants you to think in terms of divine viewpoint. 1 Corinthians 2:16 says: "And we have the mind of Christ." The mind of Christ is the Bible. Philippians 2:4 says we are to have this thinking in us which was in Christ Jesus. Romans 12:2 says we are to renew or renovate our thinking. The spiritual life is a life of thinking. The essence of the spiritual life is not mysticism; the essence of the spiritual life is not intuition; the essence of the spiritual life is not how you feel; the essence of the spiritual life is your thought. Are you thinking like God thinks? Are you thinking like Christ thinks in terms of divine viewpoint? If your thinking is shaped by divine viewpoint it will radically transform the way you live and the way you feel. Everything starts with thought. If you are thinking the thoughts of Christ with the mind of Christ then the result of that is the character of Christ that is formed in you by the Holy Spirit.

Galatians 5:16 NASB "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh." Paul will drive this point home at the conclusion of this epistle. The term "flesh," sarx [sarc] in the Greek, is a reference to the sin nature and the fact that the essence of the sin nature resides in the cell structure of the body. We have a contrast here between the sin nature and the Holy Spirit. You can be either living your life under the control of the sin nature or you are living your life under the control and influence of God the Holy Spirit, one or the other. We are commanded as believers to talk by means of the Holy Spirit. It is a step-by-step procedure, you take one step at a time as you walk with your feet and you take one step at a time as you walk spiritually. It is moment by moment from one decision to the next that we decide to be positive to doctrine. Any time we decide to go negative we are out of fellowship and no longer controlled by the Holy Spirit, we are under the control of the sin nature, and the Scripture says that we are in the status of carnality. How do we recover? We recover through 1 John 1:9 NASB "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." From there we are restored to fellowship and from that point on we can begin to walk step-by-step by means of God the Holy Spirit. If we are dependent on God the Holy Spirit, thinking doctrine and applying doctrine, then we are not going to carry out the desires of the flesh under the sin nature. But of we go negative to God and decide to reject the filling of the Holy Spirit—quenching or grieving the Holy Spirit—then the result will be sin nature control. We see this battle exemplified in verse 17 NASB "For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please."

We are not under law, we have to be led by the Spirit and we have to have some means of knowing why the good that we are doing is divine good rather than human good. That is 1 John 1:9. If we don't have a method, a means or a mechanic for determining the difference between whether we are doing good from the sin nature or good from the source of the Holy Spirit then we end up reducing the spiritual life to morality. Anything good we do is automatically termed divine good just because we are believers, and that is where many Christians are. They have not understood the principle that the Mosaic Law is no longer in effect for today and so they are out there trying to impress God with their morality and they have reduced spirituality to morality. But morality is a system that God has devised for the entire human race, whether believer or unbeliever. There are many unbelievers in the world who are incredibly moral, much more moral than many believers, and they are very much concerned with their personal righteousness and adhering to some sort of ethical code that is usually pretty good. But God says that doesn't cut any ice with Him, no favour from Him, because it is all human good.

How do we know that the good we are doing is part of the fruit of the Spirit or done by walking by means of the Spirit? 1 John 1:9. We know it by fruit as well and that we see in Galatians 5:22, 23—"against such things there is no law." Those who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. The issue is the Word of God under the filling of the Holy Spirit.       

The issue in Galatians 2:20 is character transformation, not the indwelling of Jesus Christ, but the transformation from the inside out into the character of Jesus Christ. That is what the fruit of the Spirit exemplifies. How is our life transformed from its present character to the character of Christ? Only one way: two power options in the spiritual life. Power option # 1 is the filling of the Holy Spirit through 1 John 1:9; power option # 2 is to learn and apply the Word of God.

Galatians 2:21 NASB "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness {comes} through the Law, then Christ died needlessly."

Rom 8:1, 2 NASB "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Condemnation is the opposite of justification/vindication. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ you are justified; if you are not a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ you are condemned. Why is there no condemnation for the believer who is "in Christ Jesus"? "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death." At the moment of salvation the believer is set free from the law of sin and death. He is identified with Christ and his sin nature has been crucified with Christ.

Romans 8:3 NASB "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God {did:}…" Remember the law is on the outside but the sin nature is on the inside. Though the law in its basic structure is holy, just and good it cannot do the job of justification, it cannot make anyone righteous before God; it can't transform anyone on the inside, it is weak through the flesh.  God provided the solution in "sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and {as an offering} for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, [4] so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

How do we fulfil the requirement of the law which demands absolute perfection? Because the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. So we fulfil all the demands of the law by virtue of our perfect imputed righteousness.

Galatians 2:21 NASB "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness {comes} through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." "I do not nullify" is the perfect active indicative of atheteo [a)qetew] which means to set aside, to nullify, to void, to abrogate, to frustrate. Paul says he does not set aside the grace of God; he is going to stick with the message of the grace of God. Not like Peter who gave up grace and went back to the law. If you give up on grace and you start emphasising legal obedience, overt action, then you nullify the grace of God, you are no longer teaching grace, no longer living by grace. When  you are not living by grace you are not grace oriented and you can't solve life's problems. When you are not living on the basis of grace you are living on the sin nature and will be a failure in the spiritual life.

The theme of these first two chapters is justification by faith. The Galatians had deserted what Paul had taught them in terms of the gospel. The Galatians had two errors: # 1 they were trying to use the law in order to be saved; # 2 they were trying to use legal concepts as a basis for maturing in the Christian life.