About a week ago I posted a blog commenting on Galatians 2:17-21. I preached through those verses this past week at The Well (my church’s weekly college gathering), and as I studied it, my understanding of verse 17 changed.
Verse 17 is not as straightforward as the verses before and after it. This could be because Paul is intellectually brilliant, and the way he is making a counter-argument is, well, brilliant, and not easy to understand. But here is what he seems to be saying.
The false teachers in Galatia are saying that through the law we are saved. They are probably not saying Jesus’ death and resurrection is worthless, but rather we simply need to add to Jesus’ work our obedience to the law. “Jesus + our obedience = salvation” would be their equation.
But Paul has made clear, and makes clear again in verse 16 that we are saved solely by Jesus’ work, with no help of our own. We are saved by grace alone, not by grace plus obedience.
In verse 17, I think Paul turns the false teachers’ argument on its head; he works out its conclusion to its end, showing that it is ridiculous and blasphemous.
He says, “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?”
With this “But if…” it is like Paul is saying, “But if it is true what you say…”. He goes on: “But if, in our endeavor to be justified by faith, we too are found to be sinners…” Here is what I think Paul just said, “But if it is true that in this life of trusting that Jesus is enough for us to be fully loved by God, fully justified, we are still found unjustified…”
Paul is using the word “sinners” not to mean people-who-sin, but rather he is using it as he used it just before in verse 15, when he distinguished between Jews and Gentile “sinners”. “Sinners” here refers to people who are still in their sin and guilt. He is looking from God’s perspective, who sees people as either innocent or guilt; saints or sinners; justified or unjustified.
Paul is restating the argument of the false teachers, who say that though Paul and the Galatian churches believe in Jesus, they are still unjustified before God; they are still in their sin and guilt, condemned by God. They must add obedience to the work of Jesus.
Now to the kicker. Paul works out this logic: “…is Jesus then a servant of sin?” This is a bit tricky to understand. I no longer think it means what it sounds like it means. I think Paul is speaking in the same terms he uses in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6.
In 2 Cor. 3:5-6 Paul says there are 2 kinds of ministers, using the same Greek word he uses for “servant” in Galatians. There are ministers (think preachers for simplicity) of the “letter”, meaning the Law of God. And there are ministers of the Spirit, referring to the Spirit who is given according to the preaching of the Gospel. There are ministers of the Law, and ministers of the Gospel.
Ministers of the Law leave people in their sin and guilt. Thus, they are ministers, or servants, of sin. Ministers of the gospel bring good news to those in their sin, news of grace and salvation. Thus, they are servants of salvation.
Do you see what Paul did?
Paul is saying, “When you say that even though we believe in Jesus, we are still unjustified, you make Jesus into a minister of the Law, and not of the Gospel of grace. You turn Jesus into a religious task-master, rather than a Savior. You make Jesus out to be Someone who walked around, telling guilty sinners that if they could just do better, follow His example, and obey God more, they would be acceptable to God. You turn Jesus into Someone who saves no one, for by works of the Law no one will be saved.”
The false teachers make Jesus out to be merely our supreme example of morality, rather than our sovereign Savior.
If this is true of Jesus, this is horrifying news, because this means we are still under the Law, under guilt and condemnation. If we must follow Jesus’ example to be saved, is anyone following his example well enough? Is anyone like Jesus enough to be accepted by God?
This turns Jesus into a lifeguard who sees someone drowning 100 yards out in the ocean, and begins yelling, “Kick harder. Move your arms. Tread water. Don’t drown! (go this example from Tullian Tchividjian)”. Would that be helpful? Of course not! The lifeguard would be telling the drowning person to do things impossible for them to do. If Jesus only came to preach the Law, He would be telling us to do the impossible, to make ourselves acceptable to God.
If Jesus only partly died for our sins, only helps us some of the way, then he does not help at all! Imagine another lifeguard who goes out to the man drowning 100 yards out, and he swims him in 50 yards, and then says, “OK, I have helped save you some, now you must finish the job.” Is that helpful? Is that salvation? No! The guy will still die, just in a new location in the ocean.
If Jesus is only our moral example to follow, and/or only partly save us, then we will still die in our sin. There are only 2 options: either we are saved by works, or by the grace of Jesus. One saves, the other kills (see the next few verses about how the Law kills us).
Praise God, Jesus is not a minister of the Law.
Paul says, “Certainly not!” In my own words, “No freaking way is Jesus our moral example to follow so that we can save ourselves!” That would make Jesus’ whole life, death, and resurrection worthless. God forbid we would believe that. Jesus lived, died, and rose because we are not like Him. We are sinful and rebellious. We are disobedient and stubborn. We need a Savior, not swimming lessons. Praise God, Jesus is enough for you and for me to be accepted by God on Christ’s behalf.