‘But when I saw that they were not walking uprightly, according to the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, why constrainest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? 15. We by nature Jews, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16. Knowing, however, that a man is not justified by the works of the law, [not justified] except through the faith of Jesus Christ, we also put our faith in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified out of the faith of Christ, and not out of the works of the law, because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. 17. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves also were found to be sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? God forbid. 18. For if the things which I pulled down, these I again build up, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19. For I through the law died to the law, in order that I might live to God. 20. I have been crucified with Christ; but no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me; and that which I now live in the flesh I live in faith that [namely] of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. 21. I do not make void the grace of God; for if righteousness [come] through the law, then Christ died without cause.’
There is not much of difficulty in this passage considered exegetically. nor will it call here for any lengthened exposition; but it is of importance as being, in point of time, the first recorded statement of a mode of representation by the apostle, respecting the relation of believers to the law, which was afterwards more than once repeated, and with greater fulness brought out. The historical occasion of it, as related in the preceding verses, was the vacillating conduct of Peter during a temporary sojourn at Antioch, of uncertain date, but probably not long after the council which met at Jerusalem concerning circumcision. (Act_15:2) At first he mingled freely with Gentile believers, in food as well as other things, in token that all legal distinctions in this respect were abolished; but on the arrival of some of the stricter party of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, he again withdrew, as afraid to offend their religious scruples and meet their censure. For this he was generally condemned (κατεγνωσμένος ἦν, ver. 11); and St Paul, with Christian fidelity, brought the charge distinctly against him, and, in the verses just cited, shewed how fitted his conduct was to prejudice the truth of the Gospel.
In this he, first of all, points to what, by their very position as Christians, they had acknowledged as to the way of salvation—that they had attained to it, not by what properly belonged to them as Jews, but by having become believers in Christ. By assuming even for a time the Gentile mode of life, assuming it as a thing in itself perfectly proper and legitimate for a Christian, Peter had confessed that salvation had come to him otherwise than by conformity to the Jewish law; and how, then, asks Paul, ‘dost thou constrain the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?’ (literally, to Judaize). He uses a strong expression—ἀναγκάζεις, constrain—to indicate the moral force which the conduct of one so high in authority as Peter was sure to carry along with it. With many it would have the weight of a Divine sanction while yet, as he goes on to shew, it was in the very face of their Christian profession and hope: ‘We by nature Jews, and not sinners of the Gentiles’—that is, not sinners after such an extreme type, the expression being used much as in the phrase publicans and sinners in the Gospels; their birth within the bonds of the covenant had saved them from such a state of degradation. ‘Knowing, however (such plainly is the force of δὲ here, introducing something of a qualifying nature, materially different, though not strictly opposite, Winer, sec. 53, b), that a man is not justified by the works of the law, except (ἐὰν μὴ, the two particles, have no other sense, but, as εἰ μὴ in Mat_12:4, Rev_9:4, perhaps also Gal_1:19, refer only to the predicate in the preceding clause, which must be again supplied, ‘not justified except’) through the faith of Jesus Christ, we also put our faith in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified.’ The meaning is, that though they were not sinners like the Gentiles, still they were sinners, and as such conscious of the impossibility of being justified with God on the ground of any works of law; hence had sought their justification by simply believing in Christ. By the works of the law here, as at Rom_3:20, and elsewhere in Paul’s writings, are undoubtedly to be understood the works required generally by the law of the old covenant—not ceremonial as contradistinguished from moral, nor moral as contradistinguished from ceremonial—but whatever of one kind or another it imposed in the form of precept—the law, in short, as a rule of right and wrong laid in its full compass upon the consciences of men; but pre-eminently, of course, the law of the ten commandments which lay at the heart of the whole, and was, so to speak, its pervading root and spirit. By deeds of conformity to this law they knew they could not be justified, because they had not kept it; they could be justified only through the faith of Jesus Christ. The apostle purposely varies the prepositions—not ἐξ ἔργων, out of works as the ground, or formal cause of justification, but διὰ πίστεως, through faith, as the instrument or medium by which it is accepted. Coming through faith, it is acknowledged and received as God’s gift in Christ, whereas, had it been of works of law, it had possessed the character of a right or claim. In the closing part of the passage, however, he uses the same preposition in respect to both modes of justification: ‘that we might be justified out of (ἐκ) the faith of Christ, not out of the works of the law.’ The words resume, with a personal application to Peter and Paul, what had just been affirmed of men at large; they knew the general truth, and for themselves had sought justification in this way—the out of or from being here put in both cases alike, either as a formal variation, or rather perhaps because faith and works are contemplated merely as the diverse quarters from whence the justification might be looked for. And the reason of their seeking it simply of faith follows, ‘because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.’ Neither here, nor at Rom_3:20, where it is again repeated, is this weighty utterance given as a quotation from Old Testament Scripture—though substantially it is so, being to a nearness the words of the Psalmist, (Psa_143:2.) ‘For in thy sight shall no man living be justified;’ and there can be little doubt, that the apostle uses it in both places as a word which all who knew Scripture would readily acknowledge and acquiesce in. The no flesh (οὐ … πᾶσα σάρξ) in the one passage is, according to a common Hebrew usage, (Gen_6:12; Num_16:22; Psa_65:2; Isa_12:5, etc.) substantially equivalent to the no one living (οὐ … πᾶς ζῶν) of the other. So that here we have the great truth of the Gospel as to the way of salvation announced both in its positive and its negative form: through faith because of grace not of works of law, because then necessarily on the ground of merit, which no one, be he Jew or Gentile, possesses before God.
Ver. 17. The apostle now proceeds to draw a conclusion from the preceding, taken in connection with what was involved in the inconsistent conduct of Peter : ‘But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ (ἐν Χριστῷ, to be taken strictly, in mystical union with Him, as the ground or element into which faith brings us), we ourselves also were found to be sinners (that is, found still to be such; the fact of our seeking justification in Christ implied that we knew ourselves to be sinners prior to our coming to Him; but if still found to be so, and therefore failing—as your conduct would seem to betoken—to get justification, left as before in the condition of sinners, and needing to resort again for a ground of justification to works of law), is Christ therefore a minister of sin?’ Is this really the character in which we contemplate Him, and are going to present Him to the view of men? Such appears to be the natural sense of the words, and the train of thought they suggest. The apostle brings out, with a kind of ironical surprise in the mode of doing it, what was fairly involved in Peter’s behaviour, and would be its inevitable impression upon others; namely, that having gone as a sinner to Christ for justification, and still finding himself in the condition of a sinner, he had fallen back again upon observances of law for what was needed. Could Christ possibly in such a way be a minister of sin? for, if failing thus to remove its guilt, in the behalf of those who trusted in Him, He necessarily ministered to its interests. The question is indignantly answered by the apostle, ‘God forbid:’—the thought is abhorrent, and nothing must be done which would tend in the least degree to countenance such an idea. The expression (μὴ γένοιτο), as used by the apostle, always imports this, and is always, too, preceded by a question; so that the ἆρα of the received text is rightly accented, and must be taken interrogatively. In substance, the view now given is concurred in by the best recent commentators—Meyer, Alford, Ellicott, Lightfoot, and indeed by the great majority of commentators of every age, with only such minor shades of difference as do not affect the main ideas.
Ver. 18. In this verse the apostle confirms what was involved in the denial (μὴ γένοιτο) in respect to Christ, and shews where the real ministration of sin in such a case lies: ‘For if the things which I pulled down, these I again build up, I prove myself to be a transgressor.’ It is Peter’s doing that is actually described, but out of delicacy Paul speaks in his own name. In repairing to Christ, he virtually pulled down the fabric of law as the ground of justification (formally did so, under the Divine direction, in the house of Cornelius); but in now returning to its observance as a matter of principle, he was again building it up; and in this he proved himself to be a transgressor—but how? Was it merely by the inconsistency of his conduct, which, if right in the first instance, must have been wrong in the second? Or, if right in the building up, involved his condemnation for previously pulling down? This is all that some commentators find in it (among whom are Alford and Lightfoot), and who regard the act of transgression as chiefly consisting in the previous pulling down that is, deemed to be such by the person himself, as proved in his again attempting to build up. This seems to be an inadequate view of the matter, and to fix the idea of transgression on the wrong point—on the pulling down instead of, as the context requires, on the building up again; it would make the proving or constituting of the person a transgressor turn on his own mistaken view of the law, not on the relation in which he actually stood to the law. The conduct in question, however, was plainly chargeable as an act of transgression under two aspects—one more general, and another more specific: first, such vacillation, playing fast and loose, in so palpable a manner, with the things of God, was itself a grave error, a serious moral obliquity; and secondly, in the retrogression complained of, there was involved a misapprehension of or departure from the very aim of the law, which was (considered in its preparatory aspect) to lead men to Christ. The law was not given to form the ground of men’s justification, but to make them see that another ground was needed; and, after this had come, to return again to the other was, in a most important particular, to defeat the intention of the law, to act toward it the part of a transgressor. That this last idea was also in the view of the apostle may be inferred, not only from the nature of the case, but also from what immediately follows, in which this very idea respecting the law is brought prominently into view.
Ver. 19. ‘For I through the law died to the law, in order that I might live to God’—the emphatic position of the ἐγὼ at the commencement is evidently intended to individualize very particularly the speaker. ‘I for myself;’ it is Paul’s own experience that he relates, and relates for the purpose of shewing how the law, when rightly apprehended, recoils as it were upon itself, renders an escape from its dominion necessary for the sinner. And the proof contained in this declaration, for the purpose more immediately in hand, lies, as noted by Meyer, specially in the result being said to have been reached διὰ νόμου; ‘for he who through the law has been delivered from the law, in order that he might stand in a higher relation, and again falls back into the legal relation, acts against the law.’ There can be no reasonable doubt, that the law through which the death is accomplished, is the same as that to which the death is represented as taking place—not, as Jerome, Ambrose, Erasmus, Luther, Bengel, etc., the Gospel law, the law of the spirit of life in Christ in the one case, and the Mosaic law in the other; for even if it were admissible to take the term law in such different senses, the point of the apostle’s argument would be lost. It was the law itself in its accusing, condemning power upon his conscience, which made him die to it as a ground of justification and hope; so that it was in the interest of the law that he died to it (νόμῳ ἀπέθανον, dat. commodi), (See Ellicott here, and Fritzsche on Rom_14:7.) the object and result being that he might live to God. It is the same thought which, at greater length, is unfolded, also in connection with Paul’s own experience, in Romans 7. But the process is briefly indicated also here, in what follows.
Ver. 20. ‘I have been crucified with Christ’— συνεσταύρωμαι, the perfect, pointing therefore to the past, but extending also to the present time, and so may be understood indifferently of the one or the other. It gives the explanation of his death to the law without defeating, but rather promoting the law’s interests. Realizing that through sin he had fallen under the curse of the law, and that Christ died to bear its curse for them that believe on Him, he entered in the spirit of faith into Christ’s death, and became partaker in the benefits of His crucifixion. As put by Chrysostom, ‘When he said I died, lest any one should say, How then dost thou live? he subjoined also the cause of his life, and showed that the law, indeed, killed him when living, but that Christ taking hold of him when dead quickened him through death; and he exhibits a double wonder, both that He (Christ) had recalled the dead to life, and through death had imparted life.’ This higher kind of life, growing out of his fellowship with Christ’s crucifixion, the apostle describes as one not properly his own, not belonging to his natural self, but flowing into him from Christ his living Head. It is difficult to render his words here, so as to give them the precise point and meaning of the original. The authorized version, adopting a punctuation formerly common (ζῶ δὲ· οὐκέτι ἐγώ, ζῇ δὲ ἐν ἐμοὶ Χρ.), translates, ‘Nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me,’—which, however, would have required an ἀλλὰ before οὐκέτι, and is now, therefore, wisely abandoned. The apostle assumes that his crucifixion with Christ was, as in Christ’s case, but the channel to a higher life, and so he does not simply tell us that he lives, but whence he has the source and power of life: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; but no longer is it I who live (or, a little more paraphrastically, thus: but as for living, it is no longer I that do so), but Christ liveth in me.’ It is the appropriation of Christ’s own words: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ ‘As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me;’ (Joh_6:51-57.) it is expressed also by others of the apostles, as by John,—‘He that hath the Son hath life.’ (1Jn_5:12; compare 1Pe_1:2-3.) Christ dwelling by faith in the heart has become the principle of a new life—a life hid with him in God, from which, as an inexhaustible fountain-head, the believer ever draws to the supply of his wants and his fruitfulness in well-doing. And so, the apostle adds, ‘that which I now live in the flesh (so far, that is, as I now live in the flesh) I live in faith—that of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.’
What he now regards as his life in the flesh, what properly distinguishes and makes it what it is, is its being in the faith of Christ, finding in such faith its proper element, and being thereby kept in perpetual fellow ship with the fulness of life and blessing that is in Him. And recognising again the great truth, that it was as the dying and atoning Saviour that Jesus thus became the new source of life for mankind, he allows his faith to run out into the touching expression of appropriating confidence, ‘who loved me and gave Himself for me.’
Ver. 21. I do not make void (ἀθετῶ, set at nought, or rather, render nought) the grace of God,’—namely, as manifested in the gift and death of Christ, for our deliverance from sin and justification by faith in His blood; then follows the reason, ‘for if righteousness [come] through the law (through this, that is, as the ground or medium of attaining to justification), then Christ died without cause:’ not in vain, or to no effect (for δωρεὰν never bears that sense, but always that of the Latin gratis], though this too might have been said; but the exact meaning is, there would have been no occasion for his death, or, as Chrysostom expresses it, the death of Christ would have been superfluous (περιττὸς ὁ τοῦ Χριστοῦ θάνατος). Thus ends the argumentation, which throughout magnifies the grace of God in the salvation of men through the sacrificial death and risen life of Christ, and depreciates, in comparison of it, works of law but depreciates them simply on the ground that they are, in the proper sense, unattainable by fallen man—that the law’s requirements of holiness only reveal man’s sin and ensure his condemnation—and that, consequently, obedience to these can never be made the ground of a sinner’s confidence and hope toward God, but to his own shame and confusion.