Paul’s Proposition

Paul presents the points of agreement and disagreement with his opponents at Galatia – Galatians 2:15-21.

Presentation - Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash
In the first two chapters of 
Galatians, Paul explains how he received his gospel for the Gentiles by divine revelation, a commission confirmed later by the leaders of the Jerusalem church. And he details how certain “false brethren were smuggled in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus” in a similar controversy at Antioch - [Presentation - Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash].

In the city of Antioch, “certain men from Jerusalem” infiltrated the assembly to disseminate disruptive teachings, especially the claim that it was inappropriate for Jewish believers to eat with uncircumcised Gentile disciples.

If implemented, their policy would prevent Jewish and Gentile believers from participating together in the “Lord’s supper,” and any other communal meals. The pressure to conform was so great that even Peter and Barnabas were caught up in the practice. Therefore, Paul confronted Peter over his hypocrisy:
  • When I saw that they are not walking straightforwardly regarding the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all: ‘If you, being a Jew, are living like Gentiles and not like Jews, how are you compelling the Gentiles to Judaize?’” - (Galatians 2:11-14).


The conflict concerned the status of Gentile believers. Were they acceptable members of the covenant community without submitting to circumcision?

The key phrase in Paul’s statement is “compelling Gentiles to Judaize.”  The Greek verb is a strong one and means just that: “to compel, force” (anangkazō – Strong’s - #G315).

The Greek infinitive rendered “Judaize” occurs only here in the New Testament. It is from a Greek word that denotes one who lives like a Jew, to adopt a Jewish lifestyle - (Strong’s - #G2450).

This was the crux of the matter. Some Jewish Christians were “compelling” Gentiles to conform to their customs and practices, effectively, becoming Jews.  And to refuse to eat with Gentiles would insinuate there was something defective with their faith, that on some level they were not full-fledged members of God's covenant people.

Paul’s opponents did not deny God’s grace or the necessity for faith. Instead, circumcision was presented as a necessary component of the Christian life, a requirement in addition to faith. Getting circumcised was necessary to “complete” one’s faith:
  • (Galatians 3:1-5) “Having begun in Spirit, are you now to be made complete by the flesh?”


His opponents had a strong case, biblically speaking. After all, circumcision was given by God to Abraham as the “sign” of His “everlasting covenant.” Any male not circumcised was “cut off from Israel” since “he has broken my covenant.”

Because Christianity originated from the faith of Israel, confrontation over this matter became inevitable once the gospel was preached to Gentiles - (Genesis 17:7-14, Acts10:44-48).

Galatians is Paul’s response to this group of agitators. In it, he compiles a series of arguments why it is a mistake for the Galatians to submit to circumcision, and otherwise, place themselves under the jurisdiction of the Torah. If Gentile disciples adopt circumcision, they will place themselves under the Law with all its various obligations:
  • (Galatians 3:10) – “For as many as are from the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written: Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.”
  • (Galatians 5:2-3) – “Behold, I Paul say to you, that, if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothingYea, I testify again to every man that receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”

The first disciples were Jews, and initially, the gospel was preached only to Jews, and only later was it opened to Gentiles.  The church did not view itself as a new religion, but as the fulfillment of the faith of Israel.  Jesus was, after all, the promised Messiah of Israel.

The inevitable question is - What is the basis on which Gentile believers become acceptable members of the covenant people? Secondarily, if Gentile believers are not set right with God from the Law, and therefore, not required to submit to circumcision, what was the purpose of the Law? Paul addresses both questions in chapter 3 of his letter.

The immediate bone of contention was circumcision. To be full members of the covenant people, must Gentiles also add circumcision to their faith in Jesus? Paul’s emphatic answer is “NO!

The Apostle does not charge his opponents with compelling Gentiles to keep the entire Law, nor does he accuse them of repudiating faith in Jesus.  The indications are that his opponents insist on Gentiles conforming only to certain requirements of the Torah, not to the whole Law. This includes circumcision, and most probably, calendrical observations and the Levitical dietary restrictions.


His main proposition is found in chapter 2. In it, first, he presents what he holds in common with his opponents (verses 15-16). Second, he summarizes the areas of disagreement (verses 17-21).  He begins by explaining the basis on which a man is acquitted before God:
  • (Galatians 2:15-16) - “We ourselves by nature Jews and not sinners from among the Gentiles, know that man is not declared righteous on the basis of the works of the law but through the faith of Christ Jesus; even we believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be declared righteous on the basis of the faith of Christ and not on the basis of the works of the law; because from the works of the law will no flesh be declared righteous.”

The proposition begins with an emphatic pronoun, “we ourselves.”  Rather than a rhetorical statement, Paul stats something on which he and other Jewish believers agree. A man is not put in right standing with God “from the works of the Law but, instead, from the faith of Jesus Christ.” This is common ground.

The Greek does not read, “by faith in Jesus,” but instead, “from the faith of Jesus.” It refers to something that Jesus had or did. The noun can be rendered as the “faithfulness” of Jesus. Most likely, it is shorthand for his faithful obedience unto death. This understanding is confirmed in verse 21 (“I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up on my behalf”).

Acquittal before God is based on the act of faithfulness by Jesus, not on the Torah or the deeds it requires. The agitators wanted to add things to that faith. Paul reminds his audience that these Jewish believers also responded to the gospel by putting faith in Jesus (“even we believed in Christ Jesus”).

The issue is not good works in general, but a specific category of works:  The works of the Law. That is, the deeds and requirements stipulated in the Torah. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the necessity of good works and even refers to “the law of Christ” - (Galatians 6:21 Corinthians 9:21).

In the context of the letter, the “works of the law” can only refer to the things required by the Mosaic Law. Next, Paul presents the key areas of disagreement:
  • (Galatians 2:17-21) - “Now, if in seeking to be set right in Christ we ourselves also were found sinners, is Christ, therefore, a minister of sin? Certainly not!  For if the things that I pulled down these again I build, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For I, through the law, died to the law that I might live to God. With Christ have I been crucified; and I am living no longer, but living in me is Christ, as long as I now do live in flesh, I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up in my behalf. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if through the law is righteousness, then Christ died without cause.”

Most likely, the agitators claim that if the Law does not regulate Christian life, then moral anarchy will result. But that would make Jesus responsible for all subsequent sin, a false charge rejected emphatically by Paul.

To return to the Law after being freed from it is the real transgression in this case. By rebuilding the former way in which one walked, the Christian transgresses by stating that Jesus died in vain.  This is a transgression of the worst sort since, intentionally or not, it declares the death of Jesus insufficient to acquit a man before God.

The Christian has “died to the Law” on the Cross (“I through the law died to the law that I might live unto God”).  In Paul’s parlance, to die to something is to cease to have any relationship with it.  The crucifixion of Jesus releases believers from the Law’s jurisdiction and its potential curse.

According to Paul, what defines the people of God and determines membership in the covenant community is Jesus Christ, especially the Messiah revealed on the cross, and nothing else! This does NOT mean the Law serves no purpose; however, it is not the basis for determining who is and who is not a member in good standing of the people of God.



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