The resurrection provides the basis for the true definition of God’s people. God has vindicated Jesus as Messiah, and has thereby declared that those who belong to him, who in the Heb. idiom are ‘in Christ’ (cf. 2 Sa. 19:43–20:2), are the true Israel. The marks of new covenant membership are the signs of the Spirit’s work, i.e. faith in Jesus as Lord, belief in his resurrection, and baptism as the mark of entry into the historical people of God (Rom. 10:9–10; Col. 2:11–12). ‘Justification’ is thus God’s declaration in the present that someone is within the covenant, a declaration made not on the basis of the attempt to keep the Jewish law but on the basis of faith: because faith in Jesus is the evidence that God has, by his Spirit, begun a new work in a human life which he will surely bring to completion (Rom. 5:1–5; 8:31–39; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thes. 1:4–10). The present divine verdict therefore correctly anticipates that which will be issued on the last day on the basis of the entire life of the Christian (Rom. 2:5–11; 14:10–12; 2 Cor. 5:10). This double verdict is thus based on two things—the death and resurrection of Jesus and the work of the Spirit: Christ and the Spirit together achieve ‘that which the law could not do’ (Rom. 8:1–4). ‘Justification’ thus redefines the people of God, and opens that people to all who believe, whatever their racial or moral background.
The Paul of Romans is thus a deeply Jewish thinker, rethinking his Jewish categories around his belief that the crucified and risen Jesus is Israel’s representative Messiah. Within this scheme of thought, the key focal points stand out. Jesus’ obedient death is the central covenant action, revealing God’s love and grace in decisive and climactic action, dealing with sin by condemning it in his flesh (8.3). Justification by faith is the juridical declaration in the present time which anticipates the verdict of the last day: faith that Jesus is Lord, and that God raised him from the dead, is the result of the Spirit’s work through the gospel – and what God has thus begun, he will certainly complete. Justification is not merely lawcourt language, however; if it were, it would be isolated from the life of the church and from Christian morality. Justification is also covenant language, as in Romans 4 (a sustained exposition of Genesis 15, where God establishes his covenant with Abraham), and has to do precisely with God’s setting up of the single family, consisting of Jews and Gentiles together, characterised by faith rather than by possession or keeping of Torah.
The letter makes clearest and fullest sense if we see it as a response to a challenge from Christian-Jewish missionaries who had come to Galatia to improve or correct Paul’s understanding of the gospel and to ‘complete’ his converts by integrating them fully into the heirs of Abraham through circumcision and by thus bringing them ‘under the law’.The problem thus comes directly into focus as Paul states his Propositio (Gal 2:15-21):
We are Jews ourselves, by birth, and not Gentile sinners; nevertheless we know that a person is not justified by the works of Torah but through the faithfulness of Jesus, the Messiah. And we have become faithful to the Messiah Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of the Messiah, and not by doing the works of Torah, because ‘no one will be justified by the works of Torah’. - But if, in our effort to be justified in the Messiah, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is the Messiah then a servant of sin? Absolutely not! But if I build up again the very things that I once destroyed, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. - Because through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah; and it is no longer I who live, but it is the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if covenant membership comes through the Torah, then the Messiah died in vain.Despite the history of interpretation and tradition surrounding this pericope, there is still much confusion and debate. The pivotal question that must remain in our minds as we grapple with this passage is, “what makes most historical sense within the argument that Paul presents to the Galatians?” In verse 15 Paul starts his section with “we”. The importance of this word cannot be overemphasized. It forms a direct connection with the preceding section that outlines the incident in Antioch between Paul and Peter. In the section 2:1-10, Paul has noted that both Peter and himself were entrusted with the ‘gospel’. Paul for the Gentiles and Peter for the Jews. We also have the incident of Titus, ‘not being compelled to be circumcised’. The implication is that Titus was not asked to be circumcised by the Jerusalem leadership. But what does this have to do with the issue at Galatia? It is our contention that Paul once again faces the same issue that he faced with Cephas. Peter, while not sanctioning circumcision for the Gentiles, nevertheless felt compelled to obey other “works of Torah” such as food laws and possibly festival observances (cf. 4:10). For Paul, this was unacceptable. No “works of Torah” were required in being part of the true people of God. For this reason, Witherington writes:
The issue raised in the propositio is – What should the role of the Mosaic Law be in the life of a Christian believer, whether Gentile or Jew, and as a subset of that question, should the Galatians submit to circumcision and the various other boundary-marking rituals of Judaism? Lying beneath all of this is the question – Who are the people of GOD, and what constitutes them as such?You see, the Jewish faction had persuaded Peter, and ‘even Barnabas’, that they should revert back to their Jewish praxis based on their observances of Torah. The Gentiles were not doing the “works of the Torah” which was required for full/complete membership in the people of YHWH and thus were excluded from table-fellowship. According to Paul, this was both a misunderstanding of the Gospel and inconsistent too. They seemed to have held that to be faithful to YHWH meant being faithful both to Jesus and the “works of Torah”. These two were the ‘identity markers’ of the people of YHWH. Being faithful to these two elements showed that one was a member of the people of God, it showed that one was ‘justified’. However, Paul’s contention is that justification came through faithfulness to Jesus, because Jesus had been faithful to them (2:16). Wright defines justification as:
Justification is the recognition and declaration by God that those who are thus called and believing are in fact his people, the single family promised to Abraham, that as the new covenant people their sins are forgiven, and that since they have already died and been raised with the Messiah, they are assured of final bodily resurrection at the last.The only requirement for full membership in the people of God, according to Paul, was loyalty towards Jesus. This is the crux of the issue. Verse 16 is directly concerned with the issue of “covenantal nomism”. The corollary of this is that loyalty towards Jesus does away with any need for being faithful to the ‘works of Torah. It renders their purpose invalid. As Dunn rightly comments:
If we have been accepted by God on the basis of faith, then it is on the basis faith that we are acceptable, and not on the basis of works. Perhaps for the first time, in this verse faith in Jesus Messiah begins to emerge not simply as a narrower definition of the elect of God. From being one identity marker for the Jewish Christian alongside the other identity markers (circumcision, food laws, Sabbath), faith in Jesus as Christ becomes the primary identity maker which renders the others superfluous.This in turn leads to Paul’s anticipative comments on the problem with such ‘freedom’ from covenantal obligations. Without the boundaries of the ‘works of Torah, will the Galatians merely become Gentile sinners? “Absolutely Not!”, says Paul. Our freedom in Messiah is freedom from that slavery to the “law of Messiah” (6:2). Just because one has given up those boundary-markers as signs of being part of the people of YHWH, does not therefore necessitate that they will not live distinct lives as the marked and chosen people of God. On the contrary says Paul, their lives will be evident by “faith working through love” (5:6) and their praxis stained by the boundary-markers of the ‘life’ and ‘fruit’ of the Spirit (5:16, 22). This is the whole point of Paul’s comment in 2:17, which he later unpacks and defends in chapter 5 and 6 of this letter. We are free says Paul, free to love and follow Jesus in the power and presence of the Spirit, who will lead and guide us as the people of God. This is where the distinctive pivsti"` Cristou` debate comes to the fore. The faithfulness of Jesus to God becomes the new paradigm by which those who are faithful to Jesus, shall live. 2:16 shows that Jesus has been faithful and 2:20 is our response: “I no longer live, but the Messiah lives in me.” This phrase must refer to the intimate relationship one has with Jesus and also the life of faithfulness one lives by following the clear example that Jesus is. This is what it means to be found and to “live” in the Messiah (2:19-20). If the Galatians are not faithful to God, then there are huge implications. Finally, Paul wishes to charge, both Peter and the missionaries, actions with obstructing the very grace of God that they are trying to maintain. This is how the grace of God has been revealed, through the faithfulness of Jesus. To still hold to covenantal nomism is to invalidate what Jesus has done. “We are a new creation, behold the old is gone, the new is come.”