By Law we’re good as dead—so live for Jesus!

by K.W. Leslie, 11 May
Galatians 2.17-21 KWL
17 “While looking to be justified by Christ,
if we’re found to be sinners ourselves,
then isn’t Christ a servant of sin?”
This ought not be said!
18 For if I rebuild the things I destroy,
I stand up for my own transgressive behavior.
19 For I, through the Law,
die to the Law so I can live for God.
I was crucified with Christ.
20 I no longer live. Christ lives—
in me. He now lives in flesh.
I live by faith in the Son of God, who loves me
and hands himself over for me.
21 I don’t reject God’s grace,
for if rightness comes by Law,
then Christ died for nothing.
  • “Paul and the apostles of note.” Ga 2.6-10
  • “Paul challenges Simon Peter.” Ga 2.11-14
  • “Being good justifies nobody. Nobody.” Ga 2.15-16
  • Paul’s academy trained him in Greco-Roman rhetoric, the art of speech and debate. Most of us don’t know how the Romans practiced rhetoric, so sometimes we struggle to follow Paul’s arguments, and come to some very different conclusions than he was trying to make. This is nothing new; few things are. Peter rebuked ancient Christians for doing the very same thing. 2Pe 3.14-15

    Anyway it’s why I translated verse 14 with quotes. Paul’s doing a rhetoric thing: He’s quoting what other Christians have said, and responding μὴ γένοιτο/mi ghénito, “This ought not [be said]!” Most bibles translate it some variant of the KJV’s “By no means”—this is an idea we oughta strongly oppose. It’s heresy.

    So apparently this is what certain early Christians were teaching, particularly the legalists in Antioch. “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? He even endorses your sinful lifestyle? (Because certainly we would never say this.) You need to stop; Jesus can’t save a willful sinner.”

    To some degree we still hear this from today’s legalists. Yes, of course we’re to resist temptation and quit sinning—but they turn it into something we have to do lest we lose salvation. Lest we undo everything Jesus did for us. Lest Jesus himself reject us, because sin offends him so much, and he simply can’t work with people like us. It’s a mindset which entirely goes against Jesus’s stated practices in the scriptures, and of course grace. But that’s kinda to be expected of legalists.

    So Paul preemptively deals with this one: No it’s not okay to sin. Jesus doesn’t say that; Paul didn’t write that. Sin is still evil and wrong. But the fact Jesus works with and through sinful humans, does not mean he endorses sin, nor overlooks sin, nor did some behind-the-scenes jiggery-pokery which nullifies the Law and means nothing’s a sin anymore.

    What he did do, is kill our sin. Killed it on the cross with himself. Killed us on the cross with himself. Our penalties are paid for. Our debts are paid. Now follow Jesus.

    Dying to the Law.

    One of the ways Christians distort Paul’s teaching is by claiming his statement, διὰ νόμου νόμῳ ἀπέθανον/diá nómu nómo apéthanon, “through Law, I die to Law” (KJV “I through the law am dead to the law”) means “As far I’m concerned the Law is dead; as far as the Law is concerned I’m dead. We have no relationship anymore. It’s null. I needn’t obey it any more.”

    Funny; the same people who say the Law is null and void still teach the 10 commandments. It’s still wrong to worship idols, dishonor parents, perjure yourself, murder, steal, adulter, and lust after your neighbor’s donkey… yet somehow the Law’s invalid. Wait, how does that work? How do we have no Law… yet some laws?

    It makes no logical sense. Hence Paul’s statement in verse 18: “For if I rebuild the things I destroy, I stand up for my own transgressive behavior.” If the Law is dead, then okay, murder’s no longer a sin. But if we insist no, it really is a sin… we’ve basically rebuilt the Law. Enough to condemn ourselves as vandals and Law-breakers.

    Jesus didn’t render the commands of the Law irrelevant. It’s still wrong to do any of the immoral things the LORD told Moses to forbid the Hebrews. The moral commands still apply. (The judicial commands, which apply particularly to Hebrews living in ancient Canaan, oughta be taken under advisement; the ritual commands, which made the Hebrews “clean” and ready for worship, are irrelevant to a people indwelt by the Holy Spirit.) The Law defines sin, 1Jn 3.4, Ro 5.13 and if we wanna stop sinning, we gotta recognize what the Law tells us about life as a free people.

    But because we’ve sinned, and broken the Law plenty of times—as had Paul—the wages of sin is death. Ro 6.23 When Paul says he’s gonna “die to the Law,” that’s what he means: It’s the natural consequence of Law-breaking. When we sin, we merit death. By 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 live for God. “[I] die to the Law so I can live for God,” Paul wrote: Let’s 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 does 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 of death. 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.