A Commentary by John Stott

Galatians 2:15-16. 1). Exposition.

His exposition takes the form of a contrast between the Judaisers’ doctrine of justification by works of the law and the apostles’ doctrine of justification through faith. He repudiates the former and enforces the latter.

a). Justification by works of the law.

By ‘the law’ is meant the sum total of God’s commandments, and by ‘works of the law’ acts done in obedience to it. The Jews supposed they could be justified by this means. So did the Judaisers, who professed to believe in Jesus, but wanted everybody to follow Moses as well. Their position was this: ‘The only way to be justified is sheer hard work. You have to toil at it. The “work” you have to do is the “works of the law”. That is, you must do everything the law commands and refrain from everything the law forbids.’ ‘Supremely’, the Jews and the Judaisers would go on, ‘this means that you must keep the Ten Commandments. You must love and serve the living God, and have no other gods or god-substitutes. You must reverence His name and His day, andhonour your parents. You must avoid adultery, murder and theft. You must never bear false witness against your neighbour or covet anything that is his.’ But still they have not finished. ‘In addition to the moral law, there is the ceremonial law which you must observe. You must be circumcised and join the Jewish church. You must take your religion seriously, searching the Scriptures in private and attending services in public. You must fast and pray and give alms. And if you do all these things, and do not fail in any particular, you will make the grade. God will accept you. You will be justified by “the works of the law”.’

Such was the position of the Jew and the Judaizer. Paul describes them as ‘seeking to establish their own…righteousness’ (Rom.10:3). It has been the religion of the ordinary man both before and since. It is the religion of the man-in-the-street
today. Indeed, it is the fundamental principle of every religious and moral system in the world except New Testament Christianity. It is popular because it is flattering. It tells a man that if he will only pull his socks up a bit higher and try a bit harder, he will succeed in winning his own salvation.

But it is all a fearful delusion. It is the biggest lie of the biggest liar the world has ever known, the devil, whom Jesus called ‘the father of lies’ (Jn.8:44). Nobody has ever been justified by the works of the law, for the simple reason that nobody has ever perfectly kept the law. The works of the law, a strict adherence to its demands, are beyond us. We may keep some of the law’s requirements outwardly, but no man except Jesus Christ has ever kept them all. Indeed, if we look into our hearts, read our thoughts and examine our motives, we find that we have broken all God’s laws. For Jesus said that murderous thoughts make us murderers, and adulterous thoughts make us adulterers. No wonder the Scripture tells us: ‘by works of the law shall no-one be justified’ (verse 16, alluding to Ps. 143:2). The astonishing thing is that anybody has ever imagined he could get to God and to heaven that way.

Tomorrow: Galatians 2:15, 16. b). Justification through faith.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Galatians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.