Chapter 2:15-21(ESV) 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.
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! 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.
Question to consider: What does Paul mean by the phrase, “...by works of the law no one will be justified?”
The original Biblical texts did not have chapters and verses, section headers or even punctuation so sometimes it can be hard to determine where one idea ends and another begins. This is one of those passages. In the ESV, verses 11-14 have the heading, “Paul Opposes Peter” and verses 15-21 have the heading “Justified By Faith”. They have Paul’s entire statement to Peter wrapped up in verse 14. However, other translations like the NIV, NKJV, and NASB all have verses 11-21 as a single section with 14-21 all being part of Paul’s statement to Peter. I haven’t done enough research on the translations to understand why the ESV puts in the section header, but if we do see today’s verses as a continuation of what Paul said to Peter, I think we can start to understand the tone with which it was delivered.
I don’t think Paul uses the phrase “Gentile sinners” because he sees them as more sinful than the Jews. Throughout Paul’s letters, he does a great job of using people’s words against them to build an ad absurdum argument. An ad absurdum argument is one that takes an idea to its logical conclusion to point out how foolish it really is and is often quite humorous. So in this case, I could picture Paul putting sarcastic air quotes around “Gentile sinners” when he said it because it was probably an idea or phrase that was used by members of the circumcision group. The reason I say this is because the very next phrase is stating that a person is not made righteous before God because of our good deeds but because of our faith in Christ. This means that Gentiles were no more or no less sinners than the Jews before God. This is reinforced by the next statement, “we too were found to be sinners.”
He then makes the argument that if we are all sinners, does that make Christ a sinner or promoter of sin (literally translated “deacon of sin”) as well? We could probably spend a few days on verses 18 to 21, but the gist of it is that even though we continually demonstrate our need for grace by falling back into sin, the part of us that is righteous before God because of the work of Christ is no longer bound to the penalty of the law since we were crucified with Christ. If our standing before God depended on our own good works, then Jesus’ death was meaningless. So Paul is telling Peter what he already knows, that both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace through faith and not by works so there is no room to think of ourselves as better than anyone else. Peter made this exact argument in Acts 15:7-11, so Paul was just reminding him of it.
Lord God, thank you for working through Paul to show Peter his sin and making us witnesses of it. Please continue to remind us that we are saved by grace and not our works so that we never think of ourselves more highly than we should and yet have the blessed relief of knowing that you will continue to forgive us when we do sin. Amen.