We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.
When Peter and Barnabas and the rest of the Jews cut off table fellowship from the Gentile Christians in Antioch because they weren't keeping Jewish dietary laws, Paul rebuked Peter, and said that this behavior amounted to compelling Gentiles to keep the Jewish laws as a means of full acceptance with God and the church. It was out of sync with the gospel and inconsistent with Peter's own deep convictions.
A Shared Theology and Faith
In verses 15 and 16 Paul continues his argument with Peter. In a nutshell, what Paul does in verses 15 and 16 is show Peter (and us) how unified they are in theology and in the experience of faith and, therefore, how inconsistent Peter is to suggest by his behavior that the Gentiles (or Jews!) have to keep the dietary laws in order to enjoy full fellowship with Christ. He says, "We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ . . . " Notice the word "know" ("who know that a man is not justified by works of law"). That's where I get the idea that Peter and Paul share the same theology of justification by faith. "Peter, you and I both know, we agree, justification does not come when we work for God but when we trust Christ to justify us freely. So stop acting as though Gentiles have to do works for God in order to get right with God."
One minor point in this verse is going to be crucial when we get to verse 17; so let me clarify it now. The word "sinners" in verse 15 ("we are Jews . . . not Gentile sinners") is used in a limited sense. Paul does not mean that Jews aren't sinners, but Gentiles are. He means that he and Peter, as kosher Jews, were not guilty of the flagrant and constant neglect of the Jewish dietary laws. Gentiles, on the other hand, were all automatically in the category of "sinners" in the sense that they neither knew nor kept the rigorous legal requirements of Jewish life. It is going to be very important in verse 17 to remember that the term "sinners" (as in Luke 7:34, 37; 15:1, 2; Mark 14:41; Luke 24:7) may not refer to real wrongdoers since many of the Jewish laws no longer stand in force. So what Paul is saying in the first part of verse 15 is that he and Peter were brought up as law-keeping Jews not as law-neglecting Gentiles, but now both he and Peter have come to "know" that no one can gain a just standing before God on the basis of efforts to keep laws. On the contrary, God has taken the whole affair into his own hands, sent his own Son to die for our sins, and accomplished our justification, without our help, at Calvary. That is the theology Peter and Paul share according to the first half of verse 15.
Now the verse continues and shows that they share not only a theology but a faith as well. " . . . even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no flesh be justified." The point is this: even though we are natural, law-keeping Jews and not Gentile "sinners," still we both have come to stake our lives on Jesus Christ. We have trusted him. We have shown not just with our heads but with our hands and lives that if you try to work your way to heaven, you will fail. "By works of the law no flesh shall be justified!" We have ceased to hope in ourselves at all. We find no basis of justification in us. God has done it all in Christ on the cross. And in that we believe. In Christ we trust, not in ourselves and our works. The silent implication, then, of verse 15 is: Peter, since we share this glorious theology and have even endorsed it with our own faith, you dare not compel the Gentiles to live like Jews. You dare not imply that keeping the dietary laws is a work by which they can show themselves more worthy before God.
Is Christ the Agent of Sin?
Now in verse 17 we can hear the echo of an argument that the Judaizers or the men from James (2:12) probably used against Paul. They probably said: By encouraging Jews to neglect the laws of God (e.g., the ones Peter neglected when he ate with Gentiles) and thus to act like Gentile sinners, you are making Christ the agent of sin. Paul answers in verse 17, "But if in our endeavor to be justified in Christ we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not!" It is utterly crucial that you see what Paul is admitting and what he is denying. He is admitting, first, that he and Peter and other Jewish Christians are seeking justification not in works of law but only in Christ. And he is admitting, second, that in doing this they become "sinners." Now here is where we must remember the limited meaning of "sinners" from verse 15. Paul means that when a Jew trusts Christ for justification, he is free from the Jewish ceremonial regulations and may, if he chooses, neglect the dietary laws in order to eat with Gentile brothers and sisters. But people who live like that are called "sinners" by the Judaizers. So Paul accepts the term in that limited sense. Yes, we are found to be "sinners" in this sense. That's what he admits.
But he denies emphatically that this makes Christ an agent of sin. Why? Because it is not sin to be a "sinner" in this sense. It is not sin to free yourself from the ceremonial Jewish laws in order to walk in love toward Gentile Christians. It is not sin to stop depending on works. Christ is not the agent of sin. He is the agent of freedom. Freedom for God, and freedom for love. That's Paul's answer to the Judaizers: Yes, Christ frees us from the works of law; no, he is not thereby an agent of sin.
What Paul Has Torn Down
Now in verses 18–20 Paul supports his answer. Verse 18 begins with "for" in Greek (RSV: "But"; NIV omits; NASB and KJV: "For"), being Paul's argument for why Christ is no agent of sin when he frees us from dependence on law. "For if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor." What had Paul torn down in the preceding verse? It's clear, isn't it? In seeking to be justified in Christ, Paul had torn down the law as a means of justification. But mind you, the law of Moses never taught justification by works. What Paul tore down was not the law as Moses preached, but as many Pharisees used it.
A picture may help. God gave the law originally as a railroad track to guide Israel's obedience. The engine that was supposed to pull a person along the track was God's grace, the power of the Spirit. And the coupling between our car and the engine was faith, so that in the Old Testament, like the New Testament, salvation was by grace, through faith, along the track of obedience (or sanctification).
But this way of salvation is so uncomplimentary to the human ego (since God is having to do everything for us) it has never been very popular. The Pharisees, and many other Jews with them (as well as many people today), did an amazing thing. They took the railroad track—rails, ties, nails, and all—lifted it up on end, leaned it against the door of heaven, and turned it into a ladder to climb. This is the essence of legalism: Making the law into a long list of steps which we use to demonstrate our moral fitness to attain heaven. While the track is on the ground, some of the ceremonials ties could be pulled out from under the rails without ruining the track. But as a ladder, every rung is crucial, or you may not be able to climb the next.
This ladder is what Paul tore down. He tore down the legalistic misuse of the law. And he says (v. 18), "If I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor." You transgress the law of God when you try to erect the law as a ladder to heaven on which you will demonstrate your moral fitness for salvation. So the connection between verses 17 and 18 is this: When Christ leads us to trust him for justification instead of trusting our own legal (climbing) efforts, he is not an agent of sin, for what really makes a person a true transgressor of the law is not the neglect of its ceremonial statutes, but the horrible prostitution of the law of God which turns it from a railroad track of grace into a ladder of works. The transgression against God is to presume that you can climb your way up a ladder of morality into his favor.
Verse 19 gives additional support for verse 18 (note the "for"). Paul says, "For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God." If you must die to the law in order to live to God, then clearly it is a transgression to try to build the law again. That's the connection between verses 18 and 19. Verse 19 makes the amazing point that as long as you are trying to earn your way to God by works of law, you cannot have a close relation to God. The closer you try to get to God by works, the farther you drive him from you. There are two possibilities in religion: you can think of your ability, God's demand, and the ladder of law; or you can think of your inability, God's demand, and the free gift of justification by faith. Paul had learned through his own long experience with the law that in order to live in close communion with God and have his power, he had to simply give up on legalism and die. The old self that loves to boast in its ability to climb ladders must die.
Life After Dying to the Law
Verse 20 spells out for us what this experience of death to law and life to God is like. "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." What does it mean to be crucified with Christ? I think it means this: First, that the gruesome death of the all-glorious, innocent, loving Son of God for my sin is the most radical indictment of my hopeless condition imaginable. The crucifixion of Jesus is the open display of my hellish nature. And, second, when I see this and believe that he really died for me, then my old proud self which loves to display its power by climbing ladders of morality and intellect and beauty and daring dies. Self-reliance and self-confidence cannot live at the foot of the cross. Therefore, when Christ died, I died.
What then remains? Verse 20 puts it two ways. First, "Christ lives in me." Christ remains. He rose from the dead, and he took over where the life of pride and self-direction had died. The great and awesome mystery of the gospel is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). Brothers and sisters, this is conversion. A Christian is not a person who believes in his head the teachings of the Bible. Satan believes in his head the teachings of the Bible! A Christian is a person who has died with Christ, whose stiff neck has been broken, whose brazen forehead has been shattered, whose stony heart has been crushed, whose pride has been slain, and whose life is now mastered by Jesus Christ. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!"
But verse 20 puts it another way, too: "And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." There is a new "I"—I do still live. But look who it is. It is no longer an "I" who craves self-reliance or self-confidence or self-direction or self-exaltation. The new "I" looks away from itself and trusts in the Son of God, whose love and power was proved at Calvary. From the moment you wake in the morning till the moment you fall asleep at night, the new "I" of faith despairs of itself and looks to Christ for protection and the motivation, courage, direction, and enablement to walk in joy and peace and righteousness. What a great way to live!
So to the Judaizers who say Paul makes Christ an agent of sin when he tears down the ladder of law, Paul responds: you who are so concerned about the honor of Christ, just think what you make of his cross when you erect the law as a ladder of justification. As verse 21 says, "If justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose." No, I do not make Christ the agent of sin, but you make him the agent of folly. I take my stand beneath the cross of Jesus. I do not nullify the grace of God.