Justification by Faith in Christ, not by Works of the Law

The term “to justify” and its cognates are predominantly Paul’s words in the New Testament.[1] In Galatians the verb “to justify” is used eight times, of which four occurrences are in Gal. 2.16-17, and the noun “justification” four times (one of them occurs in the Old Testament quotation in Gal. 3.6), of which one appears in Gal. 2.21.

In order to understand Paul’s usage of the term “justify”, the incident at Antioch where the Jewish distinctive ritual, the dietary laws, which has served as a wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles, is to be taken seriously. The repeated usage of the term “justify” in Gal 2:15-21 reflects on the withdrawal of Peter, Barnabas and the other Jewish believers from table fellowship with the Gentile believers at Antioch. This indicates that “justify” has a corporate dimension. Paul uses this term in the context of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles.

The separation between Jews and Gentiles is expressed by the Jewish separatist vocabulary “we ourselves are Jews by birth” and “Gentile sinners”. Striking here is the Jewish description of Gentiles as “sinners”. In Jewish thought “sinners” are “pre-eminently those whose lawless conduct marked them out as outside the covenant, destined for destruction and so not to be consorted with (eg. Pss. 1.1, 5; 37.34-36; Prov. 12.12-13; 24.20; Sirach. 7.16; 9.11; 41.5-11).” Thus, this term is used to characterize the Gentiles (Tobith. 13.6; Jubilee. 23.23-24; Psalms of Solomon 2.1-2). Paul, by using this separatist Jewish language, echoes not only the conduct of the group “from James”, but also the behavior of Peter and the other Jews who withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentile believers. It is in this social context Paul uses the term “justify”. Paul’s concern here is the relation between Jews and Gentiles. (The traditional understanding revolves around remitting of sins. But the vocabulary of “forgiveness” is missing in Galatians.)

The term “justify” refers to the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, who are separated by the “works of the law” lifestyle.

Justification is a social event. It ties human to human together. Leander Keck has proposed the translation “rectify” for the Greek verb dikaioō (“justify”). The action involved in the Greek verb “justify” is the idea of “rectifying” a relationship or righting the wrong. Justify depicts God’s activity of rectifying a relationship or righting the wrong. What has gone wrong in the world is relationship among human beings through construction of walls of separation. In the context of Antioch incident it is the separation of the Jews from the Gentiles through the practice of the Jewish distinctive ritual, dietary laws. This Jewish lifestyle, which excluded the Jews from having fellowship with the Gentiles, prompted the usage of the phrase “works of the law”.

Paul contrasts “works of the law” with “faith in Jesus”. Paul is  not criticizing “works” as such in an attempt to divorce “believing” from “doing”, but “works of the law”, which is “living like a Jew”. This Jewish way of life has crucified Jesus Christ, persecuted apostates and excluded Gentiles from having fellowship with Jews. Paul reminded Peter and those who followed Peter at Antioch that although they were Jews they believed in Jesus Christ, because they knew that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2.16). God justifying a person or making one right is through faith in Jesus Christ. This implies that he/she has died to the law, “a death to its ritually excluding aspects that undergird Jewish separatism.”

Peter being convinced that a person is justified by faith in Christ abandoned the “works of the law” lifestyle and had table fellowship with the Gentile believers before the group “from James” arrived at Antioch. By withdrawing from fellowship with the Gentile believers after the arrival of the group and following the abandoned Jewish way of life based on the exclusionistic interpretation of the law, Peter made Jesus “a servant of sin” (Gal. 2.17). Because his faith in Christ has made him to abandon the “works of the law” lifestyle and so, to transgress the law by eating with the Gentile believers. To return to the Jewish way of life was tantamount to making Jesus an agent of sin. By his withdrawal from the table fellowship with the Gentile believers at Antioch, Peter demonstrated that violation of the dietary laws was a sinful action. His withdrawal further displayed that Christ was promoting the sinful action, which, for Paul, was an absurd conclusion. Paul argues that Christ does not promote sin, because to be justified means to be crucified with him (Gal. 2.19) and that means “to die to the law through the law”.

Paul has refused to return to the way of life demanded by the lifestyle patterned according to the works of law. Because it would amount to again “building the walls of separation” between the Jews and the Gentiles that have been torn down. Paul uses two terms kataluō and parabatēs to express what he intends to say (Gal. 2.18).  Kataluō means dissolve, dismantle, tear down, abolish, bring to an end and destroy. In the light of the issue of table fellowship at Antioch (and circumcision at Jerusalem Gal. 2.1-10) Paul’s metaphors of “tearing down” and “building up” (oikodomeō) refer to the distinctive laws of the Torah that maintained separation between the Jews and the Gentiles. Ta and tauta in the context refer to the distinctive customs of the Jews such as dietary laws (circumcision 2.1-10, 5.2-3 and special days Gal. 4.10).

By withdrawing from eating with the Gentile believers at Antioch Peter demonstrated himself a parabatēs. The nouns parabatēs and parabasis are related to the verb parabainō. The verb parabainō means not only “to transgress, to violate”, but also “to deviate, to step by the side of” (LXX Dan. 9.5; Sirach 23.18, 42.10; Acts 1.25).  In Gal. 2.14 Paul has accused Peter, Barnabas and the other Jewish believers of deviant behaviour when he charged them of not walking straightforwardly according to the truth of the Gospel, when they withdrew from eating with the Gentile believers. Rebuilding the walls of separation between the Jews and the Gentiles by adopting the “works of the law” lifestyle is in a way denial of God’s justifying or rectifying or unifying act through the Christ event.

The truth of the gospel, according to which Jews as well as Gentiles are justified or unified by faith in Christ, establishes a new pattern of life. Paul tries to explain that the life expressed by works of the law and that by faith in Christ are mutually exclusive. Paul expresses his severed relationship with the life patterned according to the exclusionistic understanding of the law through the metaphor of “dying to the law”: “Through the law I died to the law” (Gal. 2.19). Paul died to the law when he participated mimetically in the death of Christ on the cross, when he put faith in Christ, the victim of the curse of the law (Gal. 2.19). The identification of Paul with the crucified Christ has brought an entirely new relationship with Judaism, to which Paul once belonged. The perfect tense of the verb “crucify” denotes both the punctiliar action of dying to the law and the continuing life for God. In other words, Paul says that the system of sacred violence that crucified Jesus Christ is the same system that excluded the Gentiles through the practice of the Jewish ritual boundary markers. Notice that the system based on the exclusionistic understanding of the law is not destroyed. Rather the death of Jesus Christ has exposed the system of sacred violence, and that the life demanded by this system is not living for God. Paul says that he died to the life patterned according to the works of the law that mandated the separation of the Jews from the Gentiles. Dying to the law is necessary to live to God. Since through the law Paul died to the law and his present life in Christ is a life to God, he deviates from the truth of the gospel if he once again lives according to the law which enforced separation between Jew and Gentile.

In Gal. 3.19-25 Paul argues that the law is active in its function of imprisoning and guarding its subjects from having any contact with the “outsiders”. It is from this “bondage” or “slavery” that God through his justifying act in Jesus Christ has redeemed humanity. God’s justifying act in Jesus Christ is a unifying act, unifying Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female into one single community. This righting of relationships between the Jews and the Gentiles fulfils God’s promise to Abraham: “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you” (Gal. 3.8). Therefore, for Paul no one is joined to Christ except together with a neighbor and for Jew the primary neighbor is Gentile and vice-versa. The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by Paul is the good news that the promise of God to Abraham (that is, the unity of the nations) is fulfilled through the Christ event. The death of Jesus Christ brings in the new creation where people irrespective of their ethnic, class and gender backgrounds are united in Christ as the children of God, and possess God’s eschatological gift of the Spirit.


Therefore, a believer who maintains a lifestyle based on caste, class, language, race or gender that separates him/her from other believers is actually joining the forces that crucified Jesus Christ. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ has demolished the barriers that separated human beings from one another and united the believers in him. Those who are justified received the spirit of God irrespective of their ethnicity, caste, class, gender, race and region.



[1] Pauline corpus contains 27 of the 35 New Testament occurrences of the verb “justify”.


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