By Law we’re good as dead. So live for Jesus.

Galatians 2.14-21.

To recap: Simon Peter (whom Paul calls Κηφᾶς/Kifás in this passage, ’cause that’s his Aramaic name כיפא/Kifá Jn 1.42), in a lapse of judgment, was segregating himself from gentiles. Paul objected ’cause Peter’s motivation wasn’t based on the gospel, but on legalism: We’re not right with God, nor saved, because we obey the Law. We’re right by trusting God, and only by trusting God.

Galatians 2.14-16 KWL
14 But when I saw they weren’t orthodox with the gospel’s truth, I spoke to Kifa in front of everyone:
“If you Jews live gentile, not ‘Jewish,’ why do you obligate gentiles to live ‘Jewish’?
15 We’re naturally Jews, not gentile sinners:
16 We know people aren’t right with God by working the Law. It’s through trusting Christ Jesus.
We put our trust in Christ Jesus so we can be right with God through a faith in Christ.
Not in working the Law: No flesh is right with God by working the Law.”

Peter knew this stuff already, but that’s the thing about legalism: We’ll get so fixated on being good, we’ll forget it’s the cart, not the horse. Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit, but how’d we get the Spirit? By being good? No; by trusting God, who in response sealed us with his Spirit. Goodness doesn’t come first; humanity is too messed up for that. We gotta begin with faith. We gotta trust God to save us. Which he graciously will, not as a reward for goodness, but as a response to our trust in him.

Paul goes on, so let’s go on.

Galatians 2.17-21 KWL
17 If we who strive to be right with God in Christ, are also found to be sinners ourselves,
does Christ justify the sin? Absolutely not!
18 For if I destroy something, then build it again, I demonstrate I myself was wrong.
19 For because of Law, by Law I’m good as dead… so I can live for God!
I’ve been crucified with Christ. 20 I no longer live. Christ lives!—in me.
The life I now live in flesh, I live by trusting God’s Son, who loves me and handed himself over for me.
21 But I don’t set aside God’s grace!
For if being right with God came through Law, Christ died for nothing.

Paul’s academy trained him in rhetoric, so he knew how to give speeches and how to debate. Whenever Paul states “Absolutely not” (Greek μὴ γένοιτο/mi ghénito, “it ought not be”), it’s in response to the sort of counter-argument someone might raise against him. Possibly he heard this argument from the legalists in the Antioch church: “You claim you’re following Jesus. But you sin. Everybody sins. You shouldn’t, but you do. So are you saying Jesus is okay with your sins? It’s fine with him if you sin? (Because certainly we would never say this.)”

So Paul preemptively deals with that one: No it’s not okay to sin. No Jesus doesn’t nullify the Law so that our sins are no longer sins. Paul’s not saying that. Nobody’s saying that. Just because we’re anti-legalism doesn’t mean we’re anti-Law. That’s a common mixup; one both legalists and Law-breakers use to their advantage. Legalists use it to accuse us of being unrepentant sinners; libertarians use it to be unrepentant sinners and call it “anti-legalism.” And Christians tend to skip Paul’s answer, or claim it means something entirely different, and use it to defend legalism or libertarianism, depending on their biases. They’re both wrong. Paul upheld the Law, Ro 3.31 but understood its proper place: It’s the cart, not the horse. Grace is the cart.

Dying to the Law.

One of the ways Christians distort Paul’s teaching is by claiming Paul’s statement, “Because of the Law I die to the Law” (διὰ νόμου νόμῳ ἀπέθανον/diá nómu nómo apéthanon/“By Law, I’m dead from Law”) means “I’m dead to the Law—and the Law is dead to me. Our relationship is null. I needn’t follow it any more.”

In verse 18 Paul both admits he’s broken the Law, and that it’s bad to break the Law. “For if I destroy something, then build it again, I demonstrate I myself was wrong.” If he breaks one of God’s commands, yet tries in future to not repeat that mistake, and teaches others to not repeat his mistake, he shows he believes Law-breaking is wrong. Jesus didn’t change things so the commands are irrelevant: It’s still wrong to lie, cheat, steal, murder, adulter, worship idols, and do any of the stuff God told Moses to forbid. Grace doesn’t suspend morality.

But because Paul’s a Law-breaker, he’s sinned—and the wages of sin is death. Ro 6.23 “For because of Law, by Law I’m good as dead.” The word apéthanon, “I’m dead,” is in the aorist tense, which has no time attached to it: It’s neither past, present, nor future. It’s describing the natural consequence of Law-breaking: When we sin, we merit death, and according to the Law’s standard, everybody merits death. Paul’s gonna die. So are we. So’s everyone.

So if there’s no escaping death, should we sit around, wring our hands in fear and dread, and strive to follow the Law perfectly in case God might relent and let us live forever? Or… perhaps he already decided we will live forever; that he’s gonna resurrect us just like he did Jesus; that God’s gonna undo the Law’s consequences, so we need no longer fear them—like a legalist would have us do.

But if we need no longer fear death, does this mean we’re now free to sin ourselves sore? Absolutely not. Sin’s still evil! What we’re now free to do, is not sin. We can use that freedom from worry and legalism, and use it to follow Jesus. And when we screw up, as we will, there’s grace. But do try not to screw up.

So now, Paul wrote, Christ lives in him instead. He’s part of Christ’s body, and identifies with Jesus so much, when Jesus died, in a very real sense Paul died. (As did every Christian.) Our head, our live-giver, our Lord, died. And when he died, he took the Law’s penalty upon us with him. For Jesus never merited death. He never sinned. But in dying as our sin-offering, 2Co 5.21 he paid off our sins once and for all, and again: God’s gonna undo the Law’s consequences. It’s nothing to fear. Christians have no business living in fear!

Freed from the Law’s consequences, what Paul did from then on, he did for Jesus. His faith was put in Jesus. It’s not in the Law but the Law-giver. And since the Law is Jesus’s Law, he’s gonna follow it the way Jesus wants. Without legalism; with loads of grace.

Don’t set aside God’s grace!

That’s one of the many problems of legalism: It doesn’t do grace. Doesn’t forgive, doesn’t act out of love, doesn’t have a good attitude about the people it’s judging, isn’t patient, isn’t kind, doesn’t put up with a thing. It’s entirely unlike God. It’s more like the devil.

So when we follow the Law, we’re not at all to do it legalistically. Any mindset where we think being good is earning us good karma; that Jesus has to grant our prayers because he owes us one because we’re good; that we’re better Christians, or extra holy, or more right with God than other Christians who aren’t as obedient: All these attitudes are divisive, self-centered, and godless. We’re not following the Law to get an advantage! We’re following it because it’s what God naturally expects his people do.

Why, what else are we gonna do? Sin? Ro 6.1 Of course not. Ro 6.2 We’re supposed to be beyond that, better than that, not plotting to commit even more sins so we can take advantage of grace. That’s libertarian thinking—which Paul deals with in Romans more than in Galatians, ’cause here he’s mainly dealing with legalists.

If adhering to the Law means in any way that we achieve salvation, that our good behavior earns us heaven, it therefore means Christianity is entirely unnecessary. It means the Hindus, the Buddhists, and every other works-righteous religion is right: We’re saved by good karma, not grace. Being good gets you the good afterlife; being bad gets you the bad afterlife; strive to be good or you’ll wind up in the bad place. Where’s the tipping point between good and bad on the karmic scales? Well one religion says one thing, another says another; good luck finding out which of them has the correct answer.

But that’s why Christianity doesn’t do karma: If God’s kingdom really does work by karma, there was no point for Jesus to die. There’s no free gift of salvation: It’s earned. Follow the Law as best you can, kill all the goats necessary to make up the difference, and you’re in. Jesus could’ve come to earth, told us that, then went back to heaven, all without needlessly getting beaten to death. But he didn’t—because killing goats doesn’t save, and never did. God saves. Trust God.

Legalism sets aside grace, God’s forgiving attitude towards his kids, and replaces it with condemnation for not doing the Law to the legalists’ satisfaction. Worse, it describes God without his grace. And God without grace is awful. You’re not gonna love God when he’s depicted that way; you’re gonna be terrified of displeasing him. And as soon as you figure out God’s not really that way, you might be so outraged at the deception, you don’t care to find out what he’s really like; you’ll just angrily leave Christianity, figuring the whole thing’s a lie and a farce.

Yet another reason legalism is heresy.