Justification by Faith in Galatians 2:16

Jarvis Williams

The doctrine of justification by faith was a central belief of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers believed the church had forgotten this doctrine, and they believed that to lose this doctrine was to lose the gospel. In this October anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we Protestants would do well to meditate on justification by faith.

Gal. 2:15-21 is an important section in the argument of Gal. 2:11-21. Here Paul continues his remarks to Peter in Antioch. Paul reminds Peter that Jews are Jews “by nature” (2:15), i.e. by birth, and not sinners by associating with the Gentiles. Numerous Jewish texts identify a sinner as a Gentile who does not follow Torah (1 Sam. 15:18-19). The Jewish scriptures associate sinners with lawless behavior (Ps. 1:1, 5-6; 54:4; 91:8; 100:8; 124:3; 128:3; 118:53).

Paul mentions justification for the first time in Gal. 2:16 in a context of Jewish and Gentile table-fellowship. The verse is emphatic because it mentions justification three times, possibly faith in Christ three times, and it contrasts justification by faith with justification by works two times.

These remarks could suggest that 2:16 is the nerve verse of the entire section of 2:11-21. That is, Paul provides the central premise and reasoning of 2:11-21, a premise that provides the theological foundation as to why Peter’s actions to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentile Christians were wrong and why he was not walking in a straightforward manner with/toward/in the truth of the gospel when he separated from Gentile Christians because they were not Jewish. Paul’s point in Gal. 2:16 is works of the law (obedience to the law of Moses) do not serve as a basis for approval in God’s judgment for either Jews or Gentiles, but faith in Christ justifies Jews and Gentiles. I defend this interpretation below.

First, the verb dikaioō, translated as “to justify,” means to declare to be in the right. The verb is a forensic/law court term. It communicates the idea of a divine verdict in God’s law-court (cf. Rom. 3:20-22, 24). The verb occurs in context where the judge condemns the guilty to be in the wrong and declares the innocent to be in the right (Greek translation of Deut. 25:1; 2 Sam. 15:4; 1 Kgs. 8:31-32; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23). Paul excludes works of the law from the verdict of justification in Gal. 2:16, but bases the verdict exclusively on faith in Christ as the means by which Jews and Gentiles lay hold of salvation in Jesus and justification before God.

Second, in Gal. 3:6, Paul uses a cognate noun (dikaiosunē) to affirm that Abraham’s faith in God was counted to him as righteousness (cf. Rom. 3:21-4:25). The noun comes straight from the Greek version of Gen. 15:6. There God reiterates the promise to Abraham that he would bless Abraham. Abraham, old and barren and married to an old and barren wife, did not ultimately know how God would fulfill this promise. Yet, by faith he believed God’s promise in the presence of God. Consequently, God reckoned Abraham’s faith in his promise to him as a status of righteousness in his presence. Even if the legal/forensic background is not exactly the same in Gen. 12:1-3 as in Gal. 2:16, the forensic/background is still present in Galatians, for God’s reckoning of righteousness to Abraham happened in the presence of God and his faith in God’s promise proved him to be in a status of righteous and provides an example to the Galatians how God reckons Jews and Gentiles to be not guilty: namely, by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ’s cross and resurrection (cf. Gal. 1:4; 2:16; 3:2-13). The forensic/legal context of the verb is strong in Gal. 2:16 since Paul states that one is justified by faith apart from “works of law” (=Torah observance) and since Paul uses the same verb in 3:11 to deny that one is justified in God’s presence by works of law.

Third, Paul associates justification with believing in Christ — not doing works of law (2:16, 21). For Paul in Galatians, faith is not simply acknowledging the veracity of facts. Instead, faith in Galatians is closely associated with an obedient walk in the Spirit (Gal. 3:1-29; 5:16-26). This is why Paul emphasizes those who walk in the Spirit (i.e. those who have been justified by faith) will inherit the kingdom of God (5:16-21; esp. 5:21). In Galatians, faith refers to one’s commitment to God’s saving action in Christ, a commitment that places one in the Spirit-empowered age (3:2-5; 5:16-26), by yielding to him in faithful obedience until the end of one’s life or until the end of this present evil age (cf. 5:16-24).

Faith and obedience are not the same for Paul (cf. 2:16; 3:2-5 with 5:16-24), but they are closely connected in Galatians (cf. 2:16 with 3:1-5:24). Faith and obedience are inseparable (cf. 5:16-24). Without obedience, faith is absent (cf. 5:16-21). And without faith, walking in the Spirit is impossible since Jesus died to deliver Jews and Gentiles from the present evil age (1:4) and to bestow upon them the Spirit (3:14), which is the blessing of Abraham (3:14).

Fourth, justification in Galatians is a future verdict that has invaded this present evil age. In 2:16, Paul mentions justification with a present verb (dikaioutai) and with a future verb (dikaiōthēsetai). In my view, the present indicative might refer to the already nature of justification. The future verb could affirm that justification is ultimately a future verdict declared at the end of history—with current realities in this present evil age (cf. 1:4; 2:19-20; 5:4)—that God will pronounce in the judgment upon those who are united to Christ by faith (2:17, 21; 5:5). This interpretation seems right since Paul speaks of both a present (3:29) and a future inheritance in Galatians (4:1, 7; 5:21) and a present (2:16) and a future justification (2:16; 5:5) in Galatians.

The future nature of justification is supported by the future verb in Gal. 2:16 (“will be justified”) and Paul’s remarks later in the letter that “we await by the Spirit the hope of righteousness” (5:5). This hope of righteousness refers to the future certainty of justification, in which we participate now in this present evil age by faith in Jesus and by the indwelling power of the Spirit because of his death and resurrection (1:1, 4; 2:16; 3:1-4:7; 5:5, 16).

Fifth, in Galatians, Jesus’ death and resurrection achieve justification for those who believe in Christ. Gal. 1:1 states that God raised Jesus from the dead. Gal. 1:4 explicitly states that Jesus gave himself “for our sins” to deliver us from this present evil age. Gal. 2:16 emphasizes that Jewish and Gentile sinners are justified by believing in Jesus instead of by doing works of law. Gal. 2:17 states that Jewish and Gentile sinners are seeking to be justified in Christ. Gal. 2:21 affirms that Jesus’ death requires righteousness to come by faith instead of by law. Gal. 3:2-5 asserts that the Galatians experienced spiritual blessings by faith instead of by works of law. Gal. 3:13-14 suggests Jesus died to redeem Jewish and Gentile sinners from works of law so that both groups would inherit the Abrahamic blessing of the Spirit.

Sixth, in Gal. 3:10-14, Paul argues Christ died to redeemed “us” from the law’s curse by becoming a curse for “us.” The curse of the law should be understood in association with transgression of the law since Paul cites specific verses from Torah in 3:10-13, versus that promise life for those who obey Torah and a curse for those who disobey (cf. Leviticus-Deuteronomy). Later in Gal. 5:3, Paul says those who embrace circumcision obligate themselves “to do all the law.” In light of Paul’s Deuteronomic background in Gal. 3:10, 13, it seems reasonable to conclude that failure “to do all the law” is another way of talking about transgressing the law. And transgression of the law would result in receiving the curse of the law (cf. Gal 3:10-12). But faith in Christ results in justification in God’s law court.


This Reformation season, may we Protestants rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and in his resurrection by faith. Because of the cross and resurrection, God declares sinners to be innocent and counts them righteous in Christ by faith. Happy Reformation!

3 thoughts on “Justification by Faith in Galatians 2:16

  1. Pliadisfoto

    Kaip idomu!

  2. Ken Wigley

    This is good, thank you.

  3. g

    When I am feeling misunderstood and defeated, I can be brought back to humility in the smallness of my humanity by being reminded of the meaning of the sacrifices in the Reformation woven into these truths you have described here. Thank you for your persistent voice of biblical reason. Please be encouraged by one who looks to men like you for encouragement. Praying for us now.

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