We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also 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 no one will be justified.
~ Galatians 2:15-16
Paul is clearly speaking to the Jews who are reading the text of his letter. To clear up any misunderstanding, he is not calling all Gentiles “sinners”, but is instead referring to those who do not even attempt to even follow the Old Testament laws. These are pagans who willingly refuse to even acknowledge the God who created them. If you’d like more detail on it, Paul has provided a thorough description of them in Romans 1:18-32. He continues his thought by stating that even though they are Jews (who are raised in adherence of the law) they KNOW the law cannot provide for them salvation. Simply put, he’s stating that you cannot DO the law to become saved. Here’s how I explain it to my kids:
First, God knows everything. Jesus said that He knows your thought life and treats it as if you’ve actually acted on it (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28) and James 2:10 says that anyone who keeps the whole of the law but breaks even the tiniest part becomes accountable to the whole law. So, with those two principles in mind, understand that the law of God is not a goal to live your life by, nor is it a guide for life, but instead it’s God’s cosmic measuring stick for entering Heaven. Psalm 24:3-4 describes who it is who can walk freely into Heaven and has provided this handy-dandy list:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall stand in His holy place? He who has:
- Clean hands (you’ve committed no physical act of sin)
- Pure heart (you’ve committed no mental act of sin – lust, anger, etc)
- Not worshipped any idols (you have lived your life trusting that God will save you and you’ve never wavered from that)
- Never lied (self explanatory)
Got that down? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Here’s the deal, if you ever bail on any of those, you can’t get in. Who can live up to that standard? No one. Seriously – Romans 3:23 makes that pretty clear – NO ONE escapes from God’s law and NO ONE, outside of Jesus, has ever lived a life up to that standard above. Even if you happen to have one moment of time, one tenth of a second, where you are wholly worshipping Jesus, your heart and mind are clear of sin and you’re totally dedicated to the glory of God above, you’ve only reached the “you must be THIS holy to enter Heaven” line, but you’re still shy of going over it and attaining salvation. You can never do it. George Whitfield was quoted as saying, “Works! works! A man gets to heaven by works! I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand.”
Paul states clearly and accurately that it’s not by our own works of adherence to the law that we are saved, nor can the law save us at all (since it’s merely a list of regulations) but we must be saved by an outside force. Jesus, who lived the perfect life that neither you nor I could ever live, took our place in the place of suffering so that God’s justice would be maintained and His wrath could be satisfied on him instead of us. By that act, we have been purchased by Jesus, at the cost of His blood and torture, so that we can now enter into the holy place of God. We are now able to ascend the hill of the Lord, free from any fear of punishment or retribution, as we are wholly cleansed by the work of Jesus alone.