“I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if righteousness come by law [nomou—law; not ho nomos—the law] then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21).
This is one of those mighty, universal statements of eternal principles so frequently found in the writings of Paul. It is the climax of the argument begun in his protest to Peter when “before them all” Paul withstood him to the face because he “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). It will therefore make plainer to the reader the force of this climacteric, if we recall the issue as it was begun in Paul’s words to Peter: —
“When I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, If thou, being born a Jew, art wont to live according to the customs of the Gentiles, and not of the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to keep the ordinances of the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that [in order that] we might be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of law: for by works of law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:14-16).
That is to say: We who are Jews by nature, who have all the advantages that pertain to the Jews, whose are the fathers, and the covenants, and the laws, and the ordinances, all given by the Lord himself directly to the Jews, —we who are Jews by nature and not sinners of the Gentiles, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of law: for by works of law shall no flesh be justified. The very fact that we Jews, with all the native advantages of all the laws of the Jews, have believed in Christ in order that we might be justified by faith—this in itself is open confession that there is no justification by law. When even we cannot be justified by all these laws, laws which even the Lord gave to us, but must be justified by faith in Christ, that is both confession and demonstration that there is no possibility of justification by law.
Nor in this is there any denial or frustration of the grace of God. It is true that it was the grace of God that gave to us all these laws, which are indeed all advantages; but these laws—any of them, or all of them together—were not given that we should be justified or find righteousness by them. The one great object of all these laws was and is Christ. In his great grace God gave to us all these laws that we might more plainly see, more clearly discern, and more fully know, Christ. They were all given that we should be justified—not by the laws but—by Jesus Christ; that we should find righteousness—not by doing the laws, but—by believing in Jesus.
Therefore when we who are Jews by nature, and who, as such, have all the advantages of all the laws ever given to the Jews, —when even we have believed in Jesus in order that we might find righteousness by faith of Jesus Christ and not by works of law, in so doing we do not frustrate the grace of God; for this is the very purpose of all these laws which themselves were given by the grace of God. And since Christ, and righteousness by faith in Christ, was and is the very object of all these laws, then “if righteousness come by law, Christ died in vain.”
And, finally, since Christ has died for our offenses, and is risen again for our justification, now for anybody to seek to be justified by law and not by faith of Christ, is to deny that Christ ever was the object of the laws, and so is to assert that justification is and always was by works and not by faith; and so is, in a word, the utter repudiation of Christ now and ever; because he is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” and “who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world.”
Consequently it is an eternal and universal principle that “if righteousness come by law, then Christ died in vain.”
“And let all the people say, Amen, and Amen.”
[Advent Review and Sabbath Herald | October 31, 1899]