Amateur Hour — Unpacking Galatians 2:17-21 by Matt Sutton

When I was in college, I tried to memorize a whole bunch of different Bible verses. I made it most of the way through my list, but unfortunately each verse was memorized in isolation. Not to take anything away from memorizing Scripture, but in my case, the effort at the time was probably more an act of spiritual bravado than anything else. The real goal was to get through the list. One of the verses on my list was Galatians 2:20. I ended up memorizing it alright, but at the time I wasn’t really sure what Paul was saying. What did “being crucified with Christ” mean? I’d like to explore Galatians 2:17-21 and list a few thoughts I have regarding what Paul might be trying to communicate. Undoubtedly, however, many of you have far greater hermeneutical skills than I, and therefore its your job to set me straight if I’m missing something. Let me present the NIV version of the text and then give you a few thoughts:

17 “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a law breaker. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be obtained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Setting the Stage:

When you look at Galatians as a whole, one theme, or rather one question seems to garner significant attention. The question is: “What role does law in general, or The Law, in particular play in salvation?” The answer is quite radical, especially if you are a blue-blooded, law-abiding Jew. But even if you are a Gentile sinner and not a Jew, the answer still cuts cross-grain to what “feels” right. The answer to the question above has many implications, nuances and layers. However, I believe the core of the answer is found in Galatians 3:24, which states: “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” The purpose of the law was to expose sin; to drill into our hard hearts concrete knowledge of our desperate need for a Savior. “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ.” What we do with Christ then becomes the real issue. Furthermore, when speaking of salvation, the notion of levels of obedience to the law is really quite meaningless. It is our failure to obey the entire law perfectly that is the whole point! The law prosecutes me perfectly before a Holy Judge. That is its sole purpose. The case against me, brought to light by the law, is absolutely iron clad. The verdict is guilty! I need a Savior. Now, if this is the role of Law in general, then what role does Law play in my life now that I am a believer? I believe Galatians 2:17-21 seeks to answer this question. So, lets look at the text verse by verse.

Verse 17: “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ...”

Obviously, this verse is referring to believers. Paul is including himself in this group. And, Paul is differentiating between any other group of people who may be trying to be justified before God by some other means.

Verse 17 continued. “…it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!”

In some ways this statement could be the understatement of the year! First, to repent and believe requires that we become cognizant of our sin. (This is why we have the Law) Second, after we truly do repent and believe and receive the Spirit and are given a new heart, a strange thing begins to occur. We become increasingly aware of our sin over time. This is the very working of the Spirit in our lives. When encountering an obvious believer who is struggling with sin, Geoff Volker likes to quip: “If you think you’re sinful now, just wait a year.” I know Geoff pretty well, and he’s not getting any younger… I think he’s got it right! The question, however, that Paul is trying to address is this: Just because I continue to sin after becoming a believer, does that mean Christ has put His stamp of approval or endorsement on my sin? Don’t we need the Law too, just to help keep us all in line? Christ may have purchased forgiveness from sin, but is that really enough? How are we going to squash all of this sin that keeps bubbling to the surface? Surely Christ doesn’t want me to continue sinning, does He? No, He doesn’t. But, the purpose of the Law was to lead us to Christ. Once we become a believer, a radical change occurs that could never have happened while we were prisoners of sin. We obtain a new internal motivation, the Law written on our hearts, that pushes us onwards towards sanctification. It is impossible for a real believer not to make progress in holiness! For that purpose, we don’t need the Law.

Verse 18: “If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker.”

I try bring the Law back into the equation for any purpose whatsoever after becoming a believer, what do I accomplish? Well, I end up back at square one, which is, I simply prove once again that I am a guilty sinner in need of a Savior. That is as far as the Law is designed to take a person. So, if I rebuild what I destroyed, which is justification through obedience to the Law, then all I gain in return is proof that I can’t truly be justified through obedience to the Law!. I’m incapable of perfect obedience; that’s the point and that’s why I need a Savior.

Verse 19: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.”

This sounds somewhat convoluted at first reading, but I’m pretty sure Paul is just saying the same thing once again. The law was put in place to lead me to Christ. However, the law is powerless to effect a changed life and grant me forgiveness of sin. In effect the law holds me prisoner until Christ sets me free (Romans 7). So, if through the law I become cognizant of my need for a Savior and thus accept Christ, I die to the imprisoning effects of the law and instead become a child of God. The law leads me to Christ, and then once I repent and believe, I’m released from its condemnation.

This takes us right up to verse 20, the verse I struggled with when in college. I want to stop here today and pick things back up in a day or two. The point I leave you with, though, is that the Law was put in place to lead us to Christ. That is the purpose Scripture seems to give to law. Consequently, if we try to use the Law for any other purpose, we risk going against what Scripture teaches. Christ death on the cross is sufficient to pay the penalty for sin. And, the Spirit’s work in the life of a believer is sufficient to effect all necessary change that will ultimately lead to holiness. Having the assurance that my salvation and sanctification are both guaranteed by God Himself is very comforting. Of course, all of this is true only if I persevere in faith until the very end and thus prove that my salvation is genuine indeed!


9 thoughts on “Amateur Hour — Unpacking Galatians 2:17-21 by Matt Sutton

  1. Hi Matt,

    Excellent article!

    I have a question: If the only purpose of the Law is to bring us to Christ, what happens after we obtain salvation? Do we use the Law in our daily decision making or do we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us?


  2. Hi Tim,
    Good question; though it is a bit loaded in nature! The answer is both yes and no. Look at Galatians 4:1-7. I won’t quote it here for lack of space. But, the fundamental issue is the new heart, which every believer recieves at salvation. The new heart includes the transformation from being a slave to the law to being a son of God. Furthermore, the new heart provides the internal motivation to obey God’s law. Now, look at Galatians 5:13-18. The entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Furthermore, what does it mean to live by the Spirit? Well, it just means to obey Scripture. Because we know that all Scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking and training in righteousness. So, if we live by the Spirit, which means we obey Scripture, then we will not sin, or as Galatians says “gratify the desires of a sinful nature”. So, yes we use Scripture to guide our daily decisions as a believer, but no we do not use obedience to the Law as our standard of justification. The method by which the Holy Spirit will guide us is through application of the Scripture understood in context to our lives. But, on the other hand, our performance has no bearing on our justification. Nonetheless, we don’t need to really worry about real believers living it up in sin for the rest of their lives, so to speak. God is a rather capable Father. If we are truly his sons, and we get out of line, He is more than capable of imparting the proper discipline for each of us individually. I know from experience that if I try to remain in my sin, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable, until getting back in line is the only thing that I care about doing. Furthermore, as I become acquainted with more Scripture, I become more aware of sin, and the desire to “get back in line” becomes stronger. It is really Hebrews 12:7-11 in living color. Make sense, or more confusing?

  3. I think this clarifies things. Basically you are saying that we don’t obey law to become acceptable to God; we obey because Spirit changes us so that we want to obey.

    Is this right?

  4. A follow-up question based off of Tim’s Question; the way you answered the question, you implied that we use the law to guide our actions. is this a fair characterization of your answer; the Spirit we are dependant upon for the right motivation and ability to “not sin,” and we use the scriptures (in this case the Law) as a guide for our lives. Now my true question is, how is this not the very same Reformed view of the third Use of the Law? doesnt New Covenant theology usually argue against this view? Perhaps i misunderstood, which is possible, or that some words were minced, but i was just struck by how close to Sproul’s view (a third use of the law proponent) your response was. incidently, if the Law is a “guardian until Christ came” (esv), with an emphasis on the until, are we truly to regard it as a tutor still? Have you ever read Luther’s “How Christian Should Regard Moses?” if not, here is an online link.

    with love

  5. Hi Jason!

    In case Matt does not get to this, I thought I’d give my two cents. Matt and I both believe that Christians still use the law as a guide for how to live, but the question is “which law?” Christians use the law of Christ that is found in the teaching passages of the New Testament to figure out how to love God and not sin against him. So, we are close to Sproul and Covenant Theology in that we both believe there is black and white law to be followed rather than some spiritual impression to figure out what God desires us to do. But we are miles apart from Sproul and CT when examine which law we are to obey and what hermeneutic we use to arrive at that conclusion.


  6. Thanks Steve,
    i only recently came across New Covanent Theology (under this name at least) and thought that (that is, the gist of your post) was what NTT was about (as trite as that sounded), i was just clarifying…

    in Him,

  7. Thank you for your web site. It’s so hard today to find sound teaching. When I do, it really uplifts me. Galatians 2:20 & 21 have been so deeply rooted within, through the teaching and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, that these 2 little verses is like an onion , that as you continue to peel away, goes deeper and deeper to do exactly what God intends to do, …conform His Children into the image of His dear son, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The ” no longer I, but Christ in me” that has made us acceptable in Christ only to enter into the Holy of Holies, and come into the very presence of God our Father. A new and living way, that was not opened as such, until the veil was rent, that is to say His flesh. To enter through His flesh, is to enter into the fellowship of His sufferings, as Paul says in Philippians chapter 3. That I may know him, and the fellowship of his suffering, being made conformable to his death, that I may attain to the resurrection. This , Romans 6-8, 6 being crucified with Christ, 7, dying to the law (that which is dead is dead, our old man, and our old man now is not under the law, but is crucified daily.) and 8, the “promise” of the Spirit, who has raised us up with Christ, but also this same Spirit, says, that if we through the Spirit, do mortify (put to death) the deeds of the body (the flesh) we shall live. Always carrying about in our body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus is made manifest. And those who are led by the Spirit are the Children of God. ( I’m trying to remember these verse so please forgive if it is not exact for word. However, the exact words are what is.) Those who suffer with Him, will also be glorified with Him. John chapter 6 talks much about… to eat my flesh and drink my blood. The disciples who were following Him seemed to want a King, miracles, food etc, but didn’t want what Jesus came to do….to bring redemption through His death and resurrection. But He is saying, we take part in this death and resurrection life… of which they said was too hard. So many today have sold their birthright for the things here and now (earthly blessings) as Esau did, and Judas, who also was included in those who betrayed Christ, who refusing the way of the cross, and settling for earthly, Kingdom Now blessings. Ask these what Galatians 2:20&21 mean to them. Their faith seeks in the promises of what they can find in the scriptures to delight the flesh, our faith rests in a Person, Jesus Christ, who causes us to seek those things which are above, and not below. The riches that are in Christ Jesus.

    God Bless you all,
    With Love in Christ Jesus
    Kathryn J. Adams

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