Gal 2:16 says “a man is not justified by the works of the law.” This verse has been used by a number of my religious debate opponents to say that we are not under any law today, and therefore obedience to God is not required for salvation.
But Gal 2:16 is not talking about any law. The whole context of the book has to do with the what the debate in Acts 15 was about – the Jewish Christians were saying Gentile converts had to be circumcised and “keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
You can tell Galatians is talking about the law of Moses specifically by looking at several passages in the book. For example Gal 3:17 reads “the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” So the law being talked about in Galatians is not divine law in general, but the law that came 430 years after God’s covenant with (promise to) Abraham – which would of course be the law of Moses.
Gal 4:21-31 also lets us know the law under consideration in Galatians is the law of Moses in particular. The conclusion of Paul’s argument there is “Cast out the bondwoman” (verse 30), the bondwoman being identified as the law/covenant from “mount Sinai” in verses 22-26. The law of Moses is the law that came from Mt. Sinai, not just any law. The law of Moses then is the law that the book of Galatians is talking about.
Gal 3:19 also pinpoints the law under consideration in Galatians as the law of Moses (not just any law) when it says “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come …” That would have to be the law of Moses as it is the only law that completed its purpose at the time of Jesus’ first coming.
So the point of Gal 2:16 is not that we are not under any divine law today, but that we are not under the law of Moses. Notice Gal 3:24-25 teaches we are not under the law, but I Cor 9:21 says we are “under the law to Christ.” This would mean we are under divine law today, but it is the New Testament law, not the Old Testament law – the law of Christ as opposed to the law of Moses. Quite a number of Bible passages teach that very thing – that we are not under the law of Moses today.
As a matter of fact, Gal 5:2-4 teaches that if we try to be justified by such law (of Moses), we lose our salvation. Notice I Cor 7:19 (“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.”) confirms Paul was not teaching no law (works) are necessary to salvation, but circumcision and the law of Moses that circumcision represents. Circumcision is said to be nothing, but other commandments are said to be important. So that would mean the law of Moses is not binding anymore, but the law of Christ is.
When we talk about being justified by law, we are not talking about as the earning basis for our salvation (Rom 4:4); the death of Christ is that. We are simply talking about the fact that God expects us to keep His law, to be obedient to Him if we expect to be saved. James 2:24 confirms this as it reads “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” That is not saying faith and works supplant the necessity of the death of Christ to our salvation, but that faith and works are necessary conditions we must meet in order to be saved by the blood of Christ. That’s kind of like the fact that it was necessary for the Israelites to walk around the walls of Jericho thirteen times in Josh 6 in order for God to knock those walls down. God is the one who did it, but the Israelites had to walk. Similarly when it comes to our salvation, God is the one who saves (forgives) us, but we have to “trust and obey.” Mark 16:16a puts it this way – “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” Heb 5:9 puts it this way – “he (talking about Jesus) became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.”
If we believe God desires that we live a certain way, then it should be axiomatic that we are under divine law today. That’s what is meant by “law” – instructions from God about how He wants us to live. We see a simple but stern example of that right in Galatians, in chapter 5 verses 19-21. There Paul lists the works of the flesh and says “they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Isn’t God saying there He wants us to abstain from said activities / sins? If yes, then that is equivalent to saying these verses represent law from God that we are expected to keep if we want to inherit the kingdom of God (i.e., go to heaven).
This past Sunday my SiriusXM radio program was on this same topic. If you would like to listen to a recording of it, go here: