E.The implications of his gospel (2:17–21)

The debate in Antioch had been a hard-fought affair. The Judaists had raised every conceivable objection, mounted every conceivable argument: for, as Luke records, there had been “no small dissension and disputation” (Acts 15:2). But Paul had won the debate convincingly. The wavering Barnabas had been confirmed. Peter and his fellows had been won over by Paul’s impassioned appeal. The Judaists had been routed. Paul and Barnabas had been endorsed by the Antioch ecclesia as their official delegates to a council in Jerusalem.

Having told this story for the benefit of the Galatians, Paul wanted to move on, and set out the true relationship between the promises and the Law (3:1–5:1). But he could not conclude his narrative without addressing one of the most obnoxious Judaist arguments (2:17–18), and declaring, by contrast, his own great love for the Lord who had given his life for him, and who now lived in him (2:19–21).

  1. Our sinfulness does not mean that Christ is the minister of sin; but rebuilding the Law undoes his atonement (2:17–18)

17 But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.

18 For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor ”.

Not the argument of Peter

It is not possible to define exactly where Paul’s interrogation of Peter ceases. It is our opinion that it finishes at the end of verse 16, and that the verses which follow (v 17–18) reflect a Judaist argument that Paul encountered in Antioch. With the traditions of the fathers at their finger-tips, and debating skills honed by generations of legal quibbles, the Judaists loved nothing better than a convoluted religious argument. It is not hard to see a man, even a great man like Peter, feeling a little unclear and confused, doubting his own convictions for a moment; feeling that perhaps it was best after all, in the circumstances, to uphold the traditions of the fathers, and keep some distance from the Gentiles. But it is impossible to believe that Peter abandoned his profound love for his Lord, and his understanding of justification by grace, and embraced the teaching of the Judaists.

Judaist ‘logic’

The obscure, convoluted argument that lies behind verses 17–18 can only have come from a Judaist, with his legalistic mindset and twisted moral logic. Paul cites a number of examples of their thinking in his writings, all of them directed against the gospel of grace. Most of these took issue with statements Paul had made, purporting to highlight the impossible contradictions or immoral implica­tions of his gospel—as they thought: “If some Jews were in fact without faith, their lack of faith makes God’s faithfulness of no effect” (Rom 3:3–4). “If our unrighteousness commends the righteousness of God, God is unrighteous to judge us” (3:5–6). “If the truth of God abounds to His glory through my lie, why am I judged a sinner?” (3:7). “Let us do evil, that good may come” (3:8). “We make the law of no effect through faith” (3:31). “We should con­tinue in sin, that grace may abound” (6:1–2). “We should sin, because we are not under law, but under grace” (6:15). “The law is sin” (7:7). “That which was ordained for life becomes death” (7:13). “God is unrighteous to elect some to salvation” (9:14). “God has cast off his people” (11:1). “The law is against the promises of God” (Gal 3:21).

Paul’s response

To all of these foolish and false statements Paul responded in the same way: “God forbid!” Or, to paraphrase, “Never let such a thing be thought, let alone said!”

2:17. Before launching into an extended ex­position (3:1–5:1) of the great proposition he had defended at that momentous public meeting in Antioch—that we are justified on the basis of faith in the promises, not on the basis of compliance with the Law—therefore, Paul takes the opportunity to address this most obnoxious and dangerous of the arguments mounted by the Judaists.

The Judaist’s self-delusion stripped away— but he blames Christ!

And it is a curious argument that can only have come from their twisted minds. ‘We seek to be made righteous by Christ, do we?’ the Judaist asks. ‘Then how is it that, in the process, we are found sinners? Doesn’t look like righteousness to me! Far from conferring righteousness, Christ is administering sinfulness! Christ is the agent of sin!’

The “we” makes it clear that Paul is thinking from the viewpoint of the Jew, seeking righteous­ness in Jesus Christ. Before God can make the Jew righteous, the Jew must acknowledge his sins. But there is a problem at this very point. The Judaist thought of himself and those of his fellow Jews who were observant as “just persons, who need no repentance” (Mark 2:17; Luke 15:7). When he came before God he had nothing to confess (cf. Luke 18:11–14). Any suggestion that he was a sinner like other men he found personally offensive.

God’s approach to saving men in Jesus Christ stripped away the Judaist’s self-deception. Men who had thought themselves righteous suddenly found themselves naked before God, exposed as sinners—according to Paul’s gospel, that is. “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). “We have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:9–10). Every mouth is stopped: all the world is guilty before God (v. 19). The symptoms of righteousness—the scrupulous observance of many detailed regulations, broad phylacteries and large tassels, prominent seats and greetings in the mar­ketplace, honorific titles and long prayers—these masked an inward uncleanness, unrighteousness, iniquity. The righteousness of the Judaist was an illusion. He was as clean and shiny as newly washed china on the outside; on the inside, he was, like all men without God, filled with rottenness, corrup­tion, uncleanness. We are “found sinners” in the sense that we have been judged and found guilty.

But the Judaist would have none of that. Confession, repentance and forgiveness were for others—the publicans and the sinners in Israel, or, worse still, the dregs of humanity, “sinners of the Gentiles.” Rather than admit the truth of Paul’s gospel, and accept that he needed to rethink his righteousness and repent, he argued that Paul’s gospel was wrong, and that in accusing him, an observant Jew, of being a sinner, it was Paul who had twisted righteousness out of shape. In reclas­sifying righteous men as sinners, in making sinners out of righteous men, they charged, Paul effectively made Christ “the minister of sin” or “the agent of sin” (NET fn).

Answer (1): The Judaists are proven to be trans­gressors because they are rebuilding justification by the Law

  1. To this argument, framed as a rhetorical question, Paul responded. His response can be understood in two different ways; but they point to the same outcome.

The first way, favoured by most commentators, understands Paul as speaking hypothetically in the first person, “I,” to avoid further embarrassing Peter; it is really Peter’s actions that he is speaking of. Thus Brother John Carter writes, “He puts hypothetically for himself what in fact others were doing … ‘If I build again or if Peter or Barnabas or you build again, the things I or you once destroyed, I and you prove ourselves to be transgressors.’”

By preaching justification by faith in the house of Cornelius and after, Peter had begun the impor­tant work of destroying the doctrine of justification by the Law and pulling down “the middle wall of partition” (Eph 2:14) which stood between Jew and Gentile. Now, by his actions, he was reconstruct­ing that wall, and implicitly the whole doctrine of justification by the Law. Hence the esv, “If I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgres­sor.” They were transgressors either because they admitted that their actions in pulling down the wall were a breach of the Law, or because the return to justification by Law, “the ministration of condem­nation,” separated them from Christ’s atonement, and made them sinners all over again. So Brother Carter continues, “What had they destroyed? They had cast out the notion that life could be by law— that by law’s works they could be justified. And now to go back to law was to seek for their justification from that which their whole experience had shown to be a “ministration of condemnation.” This was to fly in the face of God’s own decree, and His purpose in the law, and therefore made them transgressors.”

Answer (2): Paul proves himself to have been a transgressor

That is perfectly true; and that is the explanation of the rather long heading we have put over these two verses. But there is another way to understand Paul’s words, which is more in line with the way he uses this same language in other places. If we ask ourselves, ‘What had Paul destroyed? How was he rebuilding those things? How did that process make him a transgressor?’, we come to the second way in which this verse can be understood.

On this second understanding, Paul is not speaking hypothetically of others, but personally of his own experience, as he continues to do in the verses that follow (v 19–21). He had been a Judaist just like them, righteous according to the Law, living in “all good conscience before God”, in fact, “a Pharisee of the Pharisees.” He had not just been another Judaist. He had been an outstanding exemplar of their class.

The Greek kataluō, here translated “destroyed,” was twice used by Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher, to warn that the Jewish establishment would be unable to destroy Christianity (Acts 5:38–39). Yet Paul, his most outstanding student, hurled himself into that very endeavour, driving himself to the point of mad­ness in the process! (22:3). If only he had listened to his wise mentor! Similar language, though not the same word, is used elsewhere of Paul’s terrible but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to destroy the ecclesia and its members (Acts 8:3; 9:21; Gal 1:13, 23). On this understanding, “the things I once de­stroyed” are salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, the gospel message, and the ecclesia comprising those who had accepted that proclamation.

Rebuilding the ecclesia that he had once destroyed

Now, however, having embraced the gospel of grace, Paul had dedicated himself to the task of “building again” those very things which he had once destroyed. The Gk. oikodomeō is frequently used of building a life in Christ (Matt 7:24, 26; Luke 6:48–49; 14:28, 30), or the ecclesia (Matt 16:18; 26:61; 27:40; Mark 12:10; 14:58; 15:29;John 2:20). Importantly, it is specifically used of the ef­fects of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:31), and his work since that time (Rom 15:20). In fact, he regarded “building in love” as the ethical principle inform­ing all labours in Christ’s service (1 Cor 8:1; 10:23; 14:4, 17; 1 Thess 5:11). He had been among the Jewish builders who rejected the Messiah (Matt 21:42; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11), but now he thinks very differently. And a cognate expression (Gk. anoikodomeō, “build again”) is used twice by James at the Jerusalem Conference which followed the Antioch affair; and James uses it of precisely this same work, of building the new Israel—this time with Gentiles well and truly ‘inside the tent’ (Acts 15:16).

Unlike the Judaists, however, who preferred to argue that Christ was “the minister of sin” rather than accept and admit that they were in fact “sin­ners,” Paul freely admitted that he had been “a transgressor” (Gk. parabatēs, “a breaker of the law”). Despite the fact that he had lived with a clear con-­science, he now knew that this was a self-delusion. In reality he had been “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Tim 1:13 esv). He had not been the most righteous of men, as he had thought, but the chiefest of sinners. He acknowledged the absolute validity of Christ’s verdict, he agreed un­reservedly with it, and it was now his own verdict on his past. But Christ had then justified him. The grace of God had enabled him to see anew. He had risen from his bed to be baptized, washing away his sins and calling on the name of the Lord. He had dedicated himself passionately to rebuilding what he had once furiously attempted to destroy.

The future is Christ

Looking back over two thousand years, the argu­ment and Paul’s response may seem obscure; but they go to the heart of God’s purpose in saving us. All believers are faced with a clear choice between the past and the future. For the Judaists, the past was the Law. They found it almost impossible to accept that the Law had been a bill of condemnation from which they had been released; a prison house, from which they had been set free; a temporary custodian whom they had now outgrown; to accept that they had been sinners, prisoners, children. Christ had set them free; but they clung determinedly to the past.

Is it so difficult to understand? How easy do we find it to let go of our “old man”? Are we not, from time to time, drawn back to the comfortable, the familiar, the attractive past? But we cannot rebuild what has been destroyed. We cannot resuscitate what has been drowned in the waters of baptism. We must look to the future; and the power of the new life is Christ, and Christ alone. That is where Paul will take us in the verses that follow.