Today’s passage picks up in Galatians 2:15-16 where Paul was confronting Peter about not being straightforward about the truth of the gospel:
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (NKJV)
Here Paul seems to be contrasting the sin of the Jews and Gentiles, but he is not saying that the Jews are without sin. (His words in Romans 3:23 make it clear that “all” have sinned.) Perhaps the Jews had been given the law and tended to live with more moral restraint and discipline, yet still were with sin. The Gentiles did not have the law and lived in more obvious sins of wickedness with less restraint. Perhaps it’s the contrast of a life well-ordered, yet still sinful through pride or hypocrisy, and the life lived with willful abandon and more obvious, outright sin.
My Bible notes say that Paul isn’t saying the Jews are without sin, but he is implying that Jews enjoy spiritual privileges (see Rom. 9:4-5) that should make them more knowledgeable about how to be justified before God.
We then come to this marvelous verse 16 which is a key verse in the book of Galatians. Paul states that justification (being made right with God) comes by faith in Christ, not by works of the law. He actually states it three times over (“a man is not justified by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ”; “we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law”; “for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified”).
Paul is clearly pointing out that we are not justified by our works, but by faith in Christ. Maybe the works we are depending on today do not include circumcision, but other religious acts or ceremonies (baptism, communion, confirmation, etc.). Perhaps it’s tempting to think our works could earn us something – by being good, doing right, helping others, living a good life of moral restraint and self-discipline in hopes that it will save us or merit us something. No matter how we have lived or what good we have done, we all have sinned, and we all need to be saved from sin and its power.
Our good works cannot save us; only Jesus can. Only His death and resurrection on our behalf and by faith in Him can we be saved from our sins and made righteous before God. This glorious gospel truth will lead us then to do good works, but the motivation is different. We aren’t doing good works to be saved (for we could never do enough to cancel out our sins on our own); we are doing good works out of love for Jesus who has saved us through his death on the cross and out of love for and obedience to Him which brings us great blessing.
PRAYER: Thank you, Lord Jesus, for making a way for us to be made right with God, that we can be justified through you, Lord Jesus, not by anything we do. Thank you for your death on the cross where you bore our sins and the penalty for them so that we don’t have to. We are not saved by religious acts or ceremonies, but by confession of You as Lord, believing in our hearts that God raised You from the dead. Open our ears to hear, our eyes to see, and our hearts to understand that we might then live our days in full faith, believing, following and pursuing You, loving and obeying You, our Savior and King. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.