Nijay K. Gupta
Paul says in Galatians that believers are “not justified [made right] by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus.” I assumed that Paul was objecting to the idea that we are saved by earning God’s favor through doing good deeds—until I learned this.
Paul did oppose the idea of earning salvation, but “works of the law” is not synonymous with “good deeds” in Gal 2:16. Paul is referring to the Law itself: the Law of Moses, the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy).
The first-century Jews viewed the Torah as a gift. It was a guide for honoring and pleasing the God who rescued them and made a covenant (contract) with them. The Hebrew word Torah (תורה) is better translated as “guidance” than “law.” Thus, the Jews believed that following the Torah was the best way to have a God-honoring life, even though they knew God’s love and mercy was the only thing that could ultimately save them from the corruption of human sin.
This explains why Paul, a Jew who recognized Jesus as Israel’s hope and savior, continued to think highly of the Torah (Rom 7:12). But when Christ came, the kingdom of God began to expand beyond Israel at a rapid pace. Gentiles (non-Jews) joined the people of God and became equals with Jews. Should these Gentiles follow the Torah? Should we follow the Torah?
Paul insisted that the Torah had fulfilled its good and rightful role, but some Jews still tried to force it upon Gentile Christians. This angered Paul. He argued that the Torah was meant to point to Christ (Gal 3:24). The Torah no longer defined our relationship with God, or with each other, because Jesus fulfilled its rule, reign and role (Gal 3:25–26).
What was the purpose of the Torah?
Condemnation of Sinfulness
The Torah cursed Israel, God’s covenantal people, for being disobedient.
Galatians 3:10; 5:3
Protection from Sin
The Torah guarded Israel from the contamination of sin and outside corrupting influences.
Galatians 3:19, 23–25
Revelation of Sinfulness
The Torah fixed Israel under sin’s power to make the people acknowledge their spiritual failings.
Instruction for Godly Living
The commands of the Torah demonstrated God’s love, justice and character.
But some Jewish Christians were still confused. They argued that believers ought to follow Jesus and obey the Torah. Paul recognized something they didn’t. Part of the Torah’s purpose was to reveal sin, and punish God’s people for their waywardness. Holding on to the Torah would be holding on to an outdated system. They no longer needed the Torah for protection from sin, or as a basis for their relationship with God. It was never intended as the final solution. So Paul basically told them: “Live under the old protective system of the Torah, which cannot ultimately make you right with God, or live by faith in Christ and cease reliance on the Torah. You can’t have it both ways!”
Paul grasped the real purpose of the Torah, but the Jews in Galatia didn’t. We, the people of God, are like a family on a cross-country driving trip. The huge nail of sin has blown out a tire, and we are stranded on the side of the road—immobile. We get out the spare. The Torah is like the spare tire that makes the car road-worthy again. Even though we need the spare tire, and are extremely appreciative of this provision, it is meant to be temporary (Gal 3:19). Our goal is to get to a repair shop and get a new tire—faith in Jesus. That’s the only way we will reach our final destination.
Paul wanted the Galatians to see that they did not need anything but Jesus to be right with God. He still expected them to do good and honor the law of loving one another (5:14), but the Torah had fulfilled its purpose. It did not need to stand at the center of the life of God’s people any longer.
Get resources on Galatians at Logos.com/Galatians