Galatians 2:15-16 "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
Verse 15 seems full of sarcasm. After pointedly addressing Peter’s blatant hypocrisy, regarding Peter’s failings in observing the law, Paul continues by referring to himself (included rhetorically within the entire Jewish people) as a “Jew by birth” as opposed to a “Gentile Sinner,” as if Paul is also playing into the Judiazing heresy. But Paul is merely setting up his continued attack on Peter’s hypocrisy, as well as the hypocrisy of all those who advocated the Judiazers' position.
Verse 16: Paul lays out the truth of the matter by emphasizing it in triplicate. First he points out the truth of the matter from the time the law had been given to Moses (“we who are Jews by birth”), that is, that justification does NOT come via “observation of the law.” This is not to say that the law is a failure, or inherently bad (see Romans 7:12, where Paul says the law is “holy, righteous, and good”). Rather, the law cannot be used for an improper purpose. Here, that improper purpose is the effort to try and prove that following the law is the grounds for acceptance by God, or implying that the law is the plumb line used to exclude all non-Jewish people from the kingdom of God simply because they are indeed not Jews.
Paul’s emphasis changes as he restates the concept three times. First, its stated as “not the law, but faith.” Second, he states it in the framework of placing our faith in Jesus, so we are justified “by faith, and not by the law.” He changes it into a positive statement. Faith in Jesus supercedes all else, all other efforts. His last statement doesn’t mention faith at all, but simply re-emphasizes the fact that the law cannot serve to make us acceptable to God.
This, of course, is the essence of the Gospel. Verse 16 could almost serve as the thesis statement for the entire book. But in keeping with the underlying concept we have been emphasizing (racism and ethnicity) it speaks to the sincere Christian who struggles as the Galatians obviously were. The ancient Jews did actually believe in grace, and salvation by faith – the book of Genesis speaks of Abraham being justified by faith – but they gradually developed a sense of distinctiveness and exclusivity based on their own concept of nationhood and community. This was not entirely a bad thing – it helped preserve the sanctity of God’s people, and protected them against the wickedness of the world. When Jesus came, the sincere Jewish believer recognized that the faith that justified Abraham was fulfilled in Christ. Yes – Jesus was the one they had waited for, and in order to enter God’s Kingdom, you had to believe and have faith in Him. But what about this question of the Gentiles?
The practical reality for the Galatians as Paul argued was the truth that everyone is justified by faith on the same terms. Everything else is “extra.” Today, we use cultural plumb-lines to define what is “acceptable,” and we demand that outsiders be “justified” by a similar standard. This is the great sin of our modern age and our American society, and is no different than the hypocrisy of Peter discussed here in Galatians Chapter 2.