Paul did not look back on his past with nostalgia. Paul did not have an amicable break-up with his prior legalistic beliefs, some kind of “agree to disagree” arrangement. Instead, Paul says, “I died to the law.” More specifically, “I have been crucified with Christ.” (vv. 19-20). Our salvation hinges on a death.
Galatians 2:17-21, “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so 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 righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
These five short verses pack a big punch. Verse 21 alone contains the entire gospel! So let’s move slowly and savor this multi-course feast.
Our endeavor to be justified in Christ. After Paul’s conversion, he taught that justification comes by faith, not by keeping the law (v. 16). Justification takes place when God declares that we are righteous – even though we were sinners – based on the righteous works of Christ. It is a little confusing when Paul speaks of his “endeavor” to be justified in Christ, since he also says clearly that justification is not based on our own efforts. I take this phrase to mean the endeavor of faith, and the working out of Paul’s faith in his desire to spread the gospel to the Gentiles. Although we are not saved by our works, God certainly has prepared good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
Found to be sinners. Paul has previously stated that “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” (v. 15). Not only was Paul ethnically Jewish, we know that he excelled in the study of Jewish law (Galatians 1:14). In contrast, the Gentiles – who did not follow the Jewish law — were considered “sinners” and outside of God’s favor. Yet Paul was given a special commission to preach the gospel to Gentile “sinners” (v. 9). In the process, Paul “became as one outside the law” that he might “win those outside the law” (I Corinthians 9:21). It appears that Paul, at a minimum, relaxed the Jewish dietary laws in order to eat with Gentiles, and he encouraged Peter and Barnabas to do the same. This created problems for the legalistic Judaizers, who criticized Paul and intimidated the other apostles into separating themselves from the Gentiles again (vv. 11-14).