Not Through the Law (Gal. 2:15-21)

by Joseph M. McShane, S.J.

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 7-14, 1989, p. 587. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A theology of grace does not negate the law, but it seeks to transform those aspects of human relationships which the law cannot touch and which may even make law a vehicle for hatred and sin.

Not Through the Law

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 [Gal. 2:15-21].

Paul’s rejection of the law as the source of righteousness before God (Gal. 2:11-21) and the story of the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s house (Luke 7:36-50) have often been taken by Christians as evidence of a Jewish legalism, which has been replaced by the superior Christian gospel of grace. Yet the same people who applaud Christianity’s break with the law may be found demanding tougher laws, more rigorous enforcement and longer prison terms to deal with the social evils of our own day. We want to clean up our society. We expect the laws, courts and law-enforcement officers to be the agents of such social purification. Are we not Pharisees at heart?

Consider the conflict between Peter and Paul reported in Galatians 2:11-15. We must remember that Paul, the narrator, is a biased party in the dispute and that he uses the event to bolster his argument against persons in Galatia who would like gentile converts to adopt such Jewish customs as circumcision, religious holidays and dietary restrictions. As far as we can tell from Galatians 2:1 - 10, Peter, James and other Jerusalem leaders had agreed that the gentile converts of Paul’s churches did not have to join the covenant of Abraham through circumcision and adoption of a Jewish lifestyle to be saved by faith in Christ. This agreement did not change the status of Jewish Christians, who presumably continued to adhere to their traditional religious practices. Nor did it address the problem of Christians in a church like that in Antioch, which included both Jewish and gentile Christians. Paul describes the agreement in terms that presuppose a separation of mission, though we cannot tell what that division meant in practice.

Paul writes that Peter, Barnabas and other Jewish Christians had been willing to break the boundaries that separated Jew and gentile and share table fellowship with gentile Christians. But the arrival of Christians associated with James, who apparently insisted that the "Jewishness" of Jewish Christians forbade such association, led these prominent men to separate from the fellowship With gentile believers. Paul calls such behavior hypocritical. His elaboration on the episode (vv. 16-21) even views it as a blasphemous denial of Christ, making Christ an agent of sin -- the sin being the breaking down of the barriers between Jew and gentile which had preserved the Jewish people from assimilation. Grace stands opposed to works of the law, which Paul’s dualistic symbolism often puts in the same group as sin and death.

Paul eventually carried the day. His view of faith, grace and salvation apart from the law has become the lens through which episodes like the story of the sinful woman and the Pharisee are read. Yet in practice many Christians might find themselves more like Peter. Peter, Barnabas and the others were evidently attempting to accommodate diversity in religious practice.

Can we tease out from these stories what the human and religious problems with the law really are? Notice Paul’s lapse in v. 15b, "We, ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners," and the Pharisee’s words, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner" (Luke 7:39). The issue is not the Jew-gentile or Jew-Christian division, but the human desire to separate oneself from the "sinner," those whose behavior threatens the norms of a social or religious group. In order to be "let in," such individuals must repent and conform to the norms of the group.

The woman who intrudes on the Pharisee’s home engages in a scandalous action. But the story reveals that the real scandal lay not in the woman’s sinfulness, in her intrusion upon the "holy" visitor, Jesus, or in the sexual overtones of unbound hair, but in the Pharisee’s narrow love and lack of hospitality. The law can protect us to some degree from the sinner and the outsider, but it cannot create hospitality, love or charity.

As with so many of the gospel stories, we are left with unfinished business. We know that the woman’s gesture brought the assurance of God’s forgiveness. Neither God nor Jesus will push her away in the name of holiness. But we are left with a question about Simon. His response to Jesus’ parable about the debtors shows that he is able to speak accurately about love and forgiveness. But like Nathan confronting the evil of David through the parable of the poorman’s lamb (II Sam. 11:26-12:6) ,the point is not in the parable but in its application to the situation.

David is convicted of violating his trust as king. Simon is convicted of failing in the obligations of hospitality. The woman’s actions are shown to supply what Simon lacked. The narrator of II Samuel resolves the tension created by Nathan’s parable and application by portraying David’s repentance and God’s judgment. Simon’s case is left open. He never speaks again in the story. We are told that others at the table wondered who Jesus is to forgive sins -- though announcing God’s forgiveness or punishment is clearly an element of the prophetic vocation, which had been tentatively ascribed to Jesus by Simon.

These readings all picture human failures which make it impossible for the law to satisfy the demands we make of it. A theology of grace does not negate the law, but it seeks to transform those aspects of human relationships which the law cannot touch and which may even make law a vehicle for hatred and sin.