Justified by Faith, Not by Law: Galatians 2

Someone had been telling the Galatian Christians false stories about Paul’s relationship with the original apostles and the Jerusalem church. Paul responds by recounting his history — and he uses that story as a launching pad for preaching the gospel of salvation by grace. Chapter 2 includes two important interactions.

An agreement between Peter and Paul

“After fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me” (Galatians 2:1, ESV). Grammatically, it is not clear whether this is 14 years after Paul’s conversion, or 14 years after his first visit with Peter (1:18). It may have been A.D. 48 — perhaps the famine-relief visit that Luke describes in Acts 11.[1]

“I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (v. 2). Paul described his message to the leaders in Jerusalem — he was not asking them for instructions or orders (contrary to what the opponents in Galatia apparently said). Was Paul afraid that he was preaching the wrong message? Apparently not, but he feared that the apostles might undercut his work if they disagreed with his gospel.[2]

“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (2:3). Paul hints that there was some controversy, but the apostles agreed with him on at least this much: that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised. Unfortunately, they did not seem to communicate this conclusion to the lay members, and that lack of communication later led to problems. People from Jerusalem traveled to other church areas and took it upon themselves to demand that other churches conform to their standards. The church visits may have been authorized by the apostles, but the specific requirements probably were not.

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Paul says that the controversy arose “because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery” (2:4). These people claimed to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but at least from Paul’s perspective, they had missed the message. They did not just want to “spy on” believers’ freedom — they wanted to eliminate it. They wanted the new faith to be just as demanding as the old one. In Judea, tensions with Rome were rising, and some zealots were quick to accuse others of religious compromise.[3] Paul says this pressure for conformity amounts to slavery. (He will use the “slave” language again in chapter 4.)

“To them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (2:5). Paul stood against the pressure not just for the convenience of his people, but for the truth of the gospel. The gospel is not just a message of how people are saved — it requires that people be freed from obsolete obligations and social barriers.

Did the leaders tell Paul to add some requirements to his gospel? No: “From those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me” (2:6). Paul seems indirectly acknowledge that the other apostles were important in some way, but they were not essential for his mission. Although they eventually gave their approval, he did not need their approval in order to preach the message Jesus had told him to preach.

“On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles)” (2:7-8). They recognized that Christ had given Paul a mission, and they let him do it. Paul gives Peter a positive word here, but implies that he has authority only over Jewish churches, and not the Gentile church in Galatia.

So they agreed to go their separate ways: “When James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (2:9). Implied in this division of labor is that the leaders would not meddle in each other’s ministry — an agreement being broken by Paul’s opponents in Galatia, who were claiming to act with authority from Jerusalem.

“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (2:10). Paul had come to help the poor believers in Jerusalem, and his letters show that this continued to be part of his ministry (Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-4). It was a humanitarian effort not to poor people in general, but to the poor members of the Jerusalem church. To Paul, it had theological significance, for it illustrated the unity of Gentiles and Jews.

So they agreed: Peter would go to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. But the plan failed to address one circumstance: what should be done in churches that contained both Jews and Gentiles? That is the next step in the story.

A disagreement between Peter and Paul

Paul’s next words are: “When Cephas came to Antioch…” Paul introduces this topic as if the readers already knew that Peter had gone to Antioch, and that they knew what Peter had done there. Paul’s opponents had probably told the story; now Paul tells his side: “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (1:11).

Paul backs up to give the context of the story: “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (1:12).

Old Testament laws did not require Jews to eat separately from Gentiles, but Jewish custom did (see Acts 11:3). Peter knew that this custom was not biblical, so he ignored it. However, when representatives of the Jerusalem church arrived, he changed his behavior.[4] It was a change of behavior based on a desire to please people — the very thing Paul had been accused of (1:10).

However, this separation implied that the Gentiles were second-class citizens, that they would not be fully acceptable unless they conformed to Jewish laws. Paul saw this as a violation of the gospel. If God was willing to live in these people, then the Jewish believers ought to be willing to eat with them.

Other people followed Peter’s example: “The rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” (2:13). The change in behavior was not consistent with their beliefs, and was not consistent with the gospel, so Paul spoke to them all by addressing Peter, who had set the example:

“But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile[5] and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (v. 14).

Peter had been living like a Gentile, and he should not pretend that he didn’t. He had been ignoring the rules that separated Jews from Gentiles, but his change in behavior implied it was wrong to be a Gentile. “Peter is in effect requiring the Gentile converts at Antioch to adopt a higher standard of Torah observance than he himself would normally follow.”[6] Social discrimination violates the truth of the gospel.[7]

Unity in the church does not require that everyone follow the strictest opinions. God does not require Gentiles to live like Jews — and he does not require Jews to do it, either! Even the Jews are allowed to live like Gentiles, and the church should not let itself be tyrannized by overly conservative critics.

Paul explains that Jews are saved by faith, not by keeping the law: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners[8]; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ[9], so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ[10] and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (vv. 15-16).

Paul’s first statement about “justification” is that it does not come through the law. This negative way of introducing the term suggests that it was not Paul’s original way of explaining the gospel. Rather, his opponents were using the word, saying that people could be justified (or declared righteous) only by keeping the law.[11] Paul uses their terminology, but turns it around. Even those who try to keep the law cannot be justified by doing the law, because everyone fails at some point or another.

We cannot claim to be righteous on our own merits — if we are going to be declared righteous, it must be on some other basis. That is why the Jewish believers, like the Gentiles, put their trust in Christ, not in themselves. The implication here is that since Jews and Gentiles are accepted by God on the same basis, for the same reason, then they ought to accept one another. Jews are not required to eat Gentile foods, but they should be willing to sit down at the same table!

A perfect source of righteousness

We are not justified by keeping the law. Does that mean that God doesn’t care whether we sin? No. Paul asks, “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!” (v. 17).[12] We are justified in Christ, by being united with him, so that he shares his righteousness with us. When we trust in Christ rather than ourselves, we admit that we are sinners, and that we cannot be declared righteous on our own merits. God accepts us even though we are sinners, but his pardon should not be interpreted as permission to sin. (The opponents were apparently saying that Paul’s gospel encouraged people to sin.)

Paul’s next statement is puzzling: “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (v. 18). It seems that Paul was accused of being inconsistent, but it isn’t clear what he is referring to.[13] An inconsistency would prove that Paul broke the law either before or after his change.

His point seems to be about sin and the law, for his next statement is: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (v. 19). Elsewhere, Paul explains that people die to the law through Christ (Romans 6:3; 7:4). Christ suffered the worst penalty of the law on our behalf, and it has no further claim on us. Since we died with Christ, the law has exacted its penalty on us. But this does not mean that we are free to live however we please — rather, it means that we are to live for God. Paul will elaborate on that in the last third of his letter.

Paul explains his new outlook on life: “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 [literally, by the faith of the Son of God], who loved me and gave himself for me” (v. 20). Paul no longer views himself as an individual trying his best to keep the laws of God. That old approach was flawed, and it died with Christ. Paul considers all his previous merits as good as dead (see Philippians 3:7), and his life has value now only as it is empowered by Christ, only as it is in union with Christ.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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This article was written by in 2007 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

He was united with Christ in his crucifixion, and he is united with Christ in his resurrection. Whatever good he does, even his faith/fulness, is from Christ living in him. The reference point for Paul’s life is not the law, but the fact that the Son of God loved Paul and gave himself to save not just the whole world, but for Paul himself. It became personal for Paul. Christ gave himself to save Paul, and when Paul started to believe that, he abandoned his own agenda for life and began to live for God, letting his life be directed by Christ. This emphasis on Christ does not promote sin — it promotes a radically God-centered life.

Paul concludes: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (v. 21). There is a contrast: Either righteousness is based on the law, or it is based on grace. Either it is earned, or it is given. And Paul figures that if there was any way on earth that people could get righteousness by keeping laws, then Jesus died in vain — and that is simply unthinkable.

Paul had seen proof with his own eyes that Jesus was alive, that God had given him resurrection life ahead of everyone else, which meant that he was the Messiah. And God would not let the Messiah suffer the most ignominious death unless it were absolutely necessary. The fact that God let his own Son be crucified was proof to Paul that righteousness could be attained in no other way. Salvation comes through Christ, not through the law!

Questions for discussion

  • Peter went to the Jews, and Paul to Gentiles (v. 9). A comparable situation today might be that one preacher agrees to focus on European-Americans, and another on African-Americans. Is this approach wise, or racist? What problems might result?
  • How well do I remember the poor? (v. 10)
  • Does the “truth of the gospel” require that we eat with believers who have customs we do not like? (v. 14)
  • Why is it that people cannot be declared righteous on the basis of keeping the law? (v. 15).
  • If “I no longer live,” why does it matter how I live? (v. 20)


[1] Ben Witherington, New Testament History, 197. Some scholars identify the Galatians 2 visit with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) instead, saying that Paul did not mention the Acts 11 visit because he had no discussions with the apostles on that visit and it was therefore irrelevant for his story. The topic in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 is the same: whether Gentiles should be circumcised. This would mean that Galatians was written after the Jerusalem Council. Support for the “late date” of Galatians also comes from the “northern Galatia” theory, which says that Paul is writing to people who are Galatian by ethnicity, and that Paul did not reach their region until after the Council.

Other scholars say that it is unlikely that Paul would have visited Jerusalem on the famine-relief visit without meeting with anyone and without discussing this topic, and in order to answer objections Paul would have had to include all his visits to Jerusalem no matter what was discussed. In Gal 2:2, he specifically says that the discussions were private, whereas the Acts 15 council was a public discussion. He says he went in response to a revelation, which comports well with Acts 11:28. And Galatians 2:10 says that the apostles wanted him to continue to remember the poor, which makes it sound like he had already done something for the poor — bringing famine relief. On a controversy like this, more than one discussion was probably necessary. This means that Paul wrote Galatians before the Jerusalem Council, and Paul was writing to people in Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium — in southern Galatia. Those cities were in the province of Galatia even though the people were not Galatian by ethnicity. Acts 2:9 shows that people could call themselves by their province, not just by ethnicity. But in the end, the scholarly controversy about the date of the letter and location of the recipients does not affect the interpretation of the letter.

[2] “If they reject the legitimacy of this mission, it will indeed make Paul’s work futile in one sense, for their rejection will thwart God’s intent to bring Jew and Gentile together as one in Christ” (Richard Hays, “Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI [Abingdon, 2000], 223).

[3] The sociological pressures may have been similar to what we see in some Muslim regions, where radicals threaten violence against anyone who does not adhere to strict standards — for example, shaving is supposedly a sign of weakening religious loyalty, so radicals may threaten barbers who shave their customers. “We will publicly shame you as a compromiser unless you conform to our standards.” Paul calls this tyranny of judgmentalism an attempt to enslave.

[4] We do not know if the men from James demanded this separation, or if Peter was merely afraid that they would want it. Perhaps he planned to do it temporarily, to avoid offense, but ended up causing offense to the Gentiles.

[5] In this phrase, Paul has broadened the discussion beyond the question of eating with Gentiles, but it is difficult to determine exactly what he meant. In the first century, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles usually focused on circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath days. Some rabbis taught that Gentiles were required to keep the laws given to Noah. Galatians 3:17 suggests that the difference lies in the laws added in the days of Moses. Gentiles were expected to keep the laws that existed in Genesis, but were not required to keep those added later.

[6] Hays, 235.

[7] “One can betray the truth of the gospel not only by preaching false doctrines but also by engaging in false practices — particularly practices that fracture the unity of the church…. God has brought into being a new community that embraces Jews and Gentiles together as God’s people. This is not merely an implication of the gospel of an inference from the gospel; rather, it is an integral part of the gospel itself” (Hays, 248).

[8] “The phrase hardly expresses Paul’s own view of Gentiles, and should probably be heard as an echo of what the group from James had said” (James Dunn, Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians [Cambridge, 1993], 74).

[9] The Greek says “the faith of Jesus Christ,” and some scholars take this literally — that people are saved by the faith/fulness that Jesus himself had (the Greek word can mean either faith or faithfulness). See Hays, 239-240. This would be similar to saying that his righteousness is imputed to us. We are saved by what he has done, not by something we do (see the last half of Romans 5:19). We need faith, but our faith is always imperfect — it cannot save us, so we must trust in Christ. Our faith and his faithfulness go together.

[10] Again, the Greek says “faith of Christ.” If the meaning is our faith in Christ, the verse is repetitious. If the meaning is his faithfulness, then the verse says that we trust in Christ with the result that we are accepted on account of his faithfulness, not on account of our works. Paul may be playing on the two meanings of the word.

[11] “Before mentioning the positive basis on which a person can be justified, or ‘righteoused’, Paul emphasizes the negative basis on which such justification is not possible. This order may well reflect the fact that the statement is made in a context where Paul is arguing precisely against those who do think that ‘the works of the law’ are necessary for all who would be members of God’s people” (David Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul [2nd ed.; T & T Clark, 2006], 77). Paul apparently had not used the word justification when he was actually in Galatia.

[12] Since the original Greek did not have any quote marks, it is not clear how much of this passage was spoken to Peter in Antioch. The NIV puts the ending quote mark at the end of v. 21, but it is possible that vv. 15-21 are an expansion of the original statement. These verses seem to speak to the Galatian situation better than the one in Antioch. “Paul merges his response to Peter into the opening statement of his appeal to the Galatians…. Galatians is what he should have said to Peter at Antioch had time and sufficient reflection allowed it” (Dunn, 73). On the other hand, Hays thinks that the quotation extends through v. 21 because Paul continues to use first-person pronouns as if he is speaking to a Jewish audience — but he notes that “the desired effect is that the Galatians will hear the speech to Peter as being addressed to their situation as well” (Hays, 230).

Paul never tells us whether Peter agreed with him; most scholars conclude from this that Peter did not agree (Hays, 231). Some Jewish Christians maintained separate churches for several centuries after Christ.

[13] Is he talking about rebuilding a barrier between Jews and Gentiles? Or were opponents saying that Paul would change his teaching on the law? Or is he using a proverb to talk about rebuilding sin, after preaching that Jesus died to destroy it?

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