top of page

Galatians 2:15-21

Galatians 2:15-21

We’ve all been there: the awkward dinner. Or maybe for you it was a breakfast. Either way, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps the mix of people at the table was just not right. Somehow the staunch Republican got seated next to diehard Democratic and somebody brought up healthcare. Or maybe for you, it’s a family meal and the raucous drinking cousins were riling up your teetotaler aunt. Whatever your story, you know the feeling. Awkward! Let’s be honest, separate tables would just be easier.

In our Galatians text, Paul has just recalled what I imagine to be the most awkward dinner party of all time. The Gentile believers tried to join the Jewish believers for dinner and things got weird, especially when Peter made a scene of refusing to eat with the Gentiles. Paul is mortified by this hypocrisy, calls out this behavior, and jumps into a theological defense of his position on the matter where our text begins.

The temptation we have as preachers is to remove this pericope from the context of the awkward dinner party and the book of Galatians as a whole. The typical reader’s eyes immediately hit upon “works of the law” and “justification” and, with our invisible 16th century theological baggage to give us a nudge, we declare this passage to be all about not earning salvation by doing good things works but rather about just trusting in Jesus. While this might make for easy preaching and hearty amens from the congregation, it does not take begin to tap the depths of Paul’s assertions in this passage, nor does it do justice to the story of Galatians as a whole.

In Galatians, the message of justification cannot be separated from story of covenant. The entire book of Galatians is asking (and answering) the question: what does it mean to be a part of the family of God and how does one get included in that family? Paul declares that there is one Gospel and thus one family of God and we all enter it on the same grounds: the faithfulness of Jesus.

So what is this family of God like? How do you get included in that family? Paul states unequivocally, it is not by the works of the law. As faithful preachers, we must stop at this point and define our terms for our people. For too long, this phrase has been reduced to simply mean doing good things in an attempt to earn salvation. Again, this reductionist interpretation does not do justice to the context of our passage.

We forget that God’s first covenant with the people of Israel to the father of Israel, Abraham, preceded the giving of the law by centuries. To suggest that any God-fearing Jew saw themselves as included in the covenant of Abraham (justified) by following the Mosaic law is an anachronism. Rather, the works of the law (such as food laws, holy days, circumcision, etc.) served as external indicators to demonstrate who was justified, meaning who was a part of the covenant family already.

Consider a marriage. There are certain things that you do and don’t do in the context of a marriage covenant. However, those acts do not create or absolve the marriage. The marriage is created when the couple enters into that covenant. The marriage is dissolved only when that covenant is intentionally and legally abandoned. The acts performed by the members of the covenant do not “make or break” the marriage, but rather indicate the partners’ commit to the covenant already established.

So too in the biblical covenant. God established his covenant with God’s people based on God’s self-giving love. The law prescribed a way of life that would be indicative of faithful commitment to that covenant. Works of the law did not establish the covenant, but served as indicators of justification, of faithfulness and family identity, of being a part of the family of God.

Paul declares to the Galatians that this is no longer the case. Keeping the works of the law is no longer the measure or indicator of inclusion in the family of God. Rather, by faith in (or faithfulness of) Jesus, the Covenant Keeper, all people can be counted as children of God. The break with the old way of doing things is so stark that Paul says he himself died to the law. The former way of justification through the works of the law and being justified by faith in Jesus are completely incompatible! Something had to go. Now, to be justified, namely to be included in the covenant family of God, both Jews and Gentiles must trust in Jesus and his act of covenant faithfulness on the cross.

At first glance, this seems to be the end of the sermon. Trust in Jesus and you’ve got a seat at the family table! And in a sense, it is the end, the end of trusting external signs as indication of our justification and family inclusion. But Paul makes it clear that justification is not a passive process but rather a participatory one when he declares the he “has been crucified with Christ.” Paul declares that he has participated in Christ’s great act of covenant-keeping by being co-crucified with Jesus.

More often than not, our congregations can do without the minutiae of Greek grammar in our sermons, but not here. Here, Paul employs the perfect tense to describe being co-crucified with Christ, a tense that indicates a past event with current implications. Paul was crucified with Christ, but that co-crucifixion continues to shape his current life and behavior.

Michael Gorman summarizes it well: “For Paul, justification - restoration to right covenant relations with God and others - occurs, not through performance of or zeal for the Law, but through participation in Christ's quintessential act of covenant-keeping.”[1]

As we seek to faithfully preach this text to our people, may we avoid the all-too-easy temptation of extremes. We are justified, brought into the family of God, not by external indicators of “choseness” nor are we justified by mere passive mental assent to what Christ’s death accomplished. Rather we are justified, brought into the blessed family of God, by our faithful, Spirit-empowered participation in the crucifixion of Jesus. May it be so.

[1] Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. By Michael J. Gorman