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Brad's Blog

Understanding The Context And Meaning Of Galatians 2:20

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20

Galatians 2:20 is one of the most loved verses of many people...and rightfully so! Yet, even though it is one of the most loved verses of many, many do not understand its context. Therefore, they cannot fully appreciate its meaning. It is my goal in this article to shine light on the context of Galatians 2:20 so people can more fully appreciate its meaning and experience its transforming power.

The immediate context of this verse is a set of verses beginning with Galatians 2:11 and ending with Galatians 2:21.  In these verses, Paul is confronting Peter, the disciple of Jesus, over the issue of Peter's hypocrisy centering around Peter's return to the law to be justified before God after learning about and living under grace as the means of justification. In this return to the law for justification, Peter was leading many away from the truth of grace and back to the works of the law. His influence was so great on people, that even Barnabas (Barnabas was the one who put his arm around Paul and introduced him to the believers in Jerusalem after he placed his faith in Jesus. See Acts 9:26-27) was persuaded to return to the law (Galatians 2:13). To fully understand this confrontation, let's dive a little deeper into the meaning of the term justification. Then we will return to Paul's confrontation with Peter over justification.

Justification was the major theme of Paul when proclaiming the gospel of grace. It is important to know Paul's teaching on justification came directly from the ascended Jesus himself (see Acts 20:24 and Galatians 1:11-12). Here are several verses which give insight into Paul's teaching on justification. 

But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known to which the law and the prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.
Romans 3:21-24

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from obeying the law.
Romans 4:28

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith 
into this grace in which we now stand.
Romans 5:1-2

So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
Galatians 4:24-25

You who are trying to be justified by law, you have been alienated from Christ; 
you have fallen from grace.
Galatians 5:4

We learn in these verses from Paul that being justified before God comes by grace through faith in Jesus, not by the law. But what does it mean to be justified before God?

Romans 3:10 says that everybody in the whole world is alike under sin. We are all unrighteous or guilty before God. There is not even one person who is innocent or righteous before God.

According to Romans 3:19-20, the law of God convicts all people of sin. We have all broken God's law in our heart (attitudes), with our head (thoughts), are with our hands (actions). Consequently, we are all guilty or unrighteous before God, making us deserving of death.

However, God in his love made a way for us to be innocent or righteous before him apart from the law. This way to innocence or righteousness before God is by grace. Grace is the payment of our sin penalty by Jesus Christ. 

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8

To the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
Ephesians 1: 6-8

Now, those who place their faith in Jesus Christ will be declared innocent or righteous before God. This act of God, when he a declares a person to be innocent or righteous before him at the moment of belief, is called justification.

Justification is the act of God whereby he declares a person who is guilty of breaking his law and who is deserving of death to be innocent or righteous before him at very moment of belief in Jesus' gracious payment for his sin. This declaration of innocence and righteousness by God upon the guilty person has nothing to do with the person's obedience to God's law, but has everything to do with the the person's acceptance of God's grace through faith. Take a look at these verses one more time. 

But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.
Romans 3:21-24

Paul was very clear in his teaching that justification before God came through faith in Jesus not through obedience to the law of Moses. While proclaiming the good news of God's grace in Acts 13:38-39, Paul spoke the following;

Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed  to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses..

According to these verses, Paul reveals that justification is the total forgiveness of all our sins through faith in Jesus Christ. In addition to being declared righteous or innocent before God for those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus, we have also been declared by God to be totally forgiven! Therefore, justification is the act of God whereby he declares those who place their faith in Jesus' gracious payment for their sins to be totally forgiven, fully innocent, completely righteous at the moment of belief.

How a person was justified before God was a hot topic during the time of Paul. The following three opinions were heavily debated:


  • Opinion #1: Justification is through obedience to the Mosaic Law.
  • Opinion #2: Justification is by grace through faith in Jesus alone apart from the Mosaic Law.
  • Opinion #3: Justification is through a mixture of law and grace. This means a person desiring to be justified would need to place his faith in Jesus plus obey the Mosaic Law.

Paul held confidently to Opinion #2. This can be seen in Romans 3:20, 4:28, and Philippians 3:7-9.


Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.

We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing  the law.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

Furthermore, Paul taught the following concerning a believer's relationship to the law:

Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for those who believe.
Romans 10:4

For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace.
Romans 6:14

So my brothers, you died to the law...
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we died to the law...
Romans 7:4-6

Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
Galatians 3:25

It is obvious the revelation of grace given to Paul by Jesus, which is justification by grace through faith, was passionately and clearly taught by Paul. Paul, in Galatians 1:10-12, reminded his readers that his message of grace came from Jesus, and as a result, he did not care if men were pleased with his message or not.

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God (with what I preach)? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ . I want you to know brothers that the gospel I preach is not something man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

Paul, in Acts 20:24, says that the message of grace, justification by faith alone in Jesus alone, came directly to him from Jesus.

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if I only may finish the race and  complete the task the Lord Jesus has given to me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.

The only person Paul wanted to please with his preaching on grace was Jesus. This will be important to remember in Paul's confrontation about justification with Peter.

With this understanding of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone, and Paul's passion to proclaim the truth of God's grace to as many people as possible (2 Corinthians 4:15), let's take a look at Paul's confrontation with Peter, and in doing so, have a fresh and transforming understanding of Galatians 2:20.

Remember, Paul confronted Peter because Peter had joined with those who were of the opinion that justification was through faith in Jesus plus obedience to the law of Moses. They held to Opinion #3 written about previously. 

So let's put this in historical context. Paul's previous way of life was to seek justification in the sight of God, meaning forgiveness, innocence, and righteousness, through the law of Moses. However, Jesus appeared to Paul, saved him by grace, and revealed the message of grace directly and fully to Paul. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul eventually returned to Jerusalem (Acts 9:18-31). 

Barnabas, the one who introduced Paul to the other believers when Paul returned to Jerusalem, soon took off for Antioch sometimes after Paul's arrival in Jerusalem because so many people were placing their faith in Jesus. Many people responded to the message of Jesus in Antioch. So many people responded that Barnabas needed help teaching the new believers in Jesus. So who did he get to help him? Paul! Paul and Barnabas spent much time in Antioch teaching great numbers of people (Acts 11:19-26; 14:26-28). 

According to Galatians 2:11, Peter came to visit Paul and Barnabas during their time in Antioch. Evidently they must have had an enjoyable time together until certain men were sent by James to Antioch (Galatians 2:12). Let's stop here. What does it mean that certain men came from James?

James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13; 21:18). At this time in church history, as the message by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone took root, the church in Jerusalem continued to hold on to the law of Moses plus faith in Jesus as the means for justification. The debate over the means of justification was a hot topic, as stated before. So much so, that Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James, and other church leaders met in Jerusalem to settle the debate. The outcome was that justification or salvation was by grace through faith in Jesus alone (Acts 15).  

Take note, however, that Paul's confrontation of Peter concerning the means of justification (Acts 9) took place before the debate over justification was settled in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

Now, back to the confrontation. Peter had come to visit Paul and Barnabas in Antioch. They enjoyed great fellowship together until the men sent from James arrived (Acts 15:1). These same men had previously caused Paul great problems in Jerusalem by secretly infiltrating the groups he was proclaiming the gospel of grace to, meaning justification apart from the law.These religious leaders opposed Paul's teaching on grace. Yet, he stood up to them. He did not back down so that the good news of God's grace, justification through faith in Jesus apart from the law, might remain with the people (Galatians 2:1-5).

It made no difference to Paul that those who were opposing his message of grace in Jerusalem were heavy hitters in the religious world of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:6). He continued proclaiming the message of grace despite their opposition. Remember, Paul did not care about pleasing men when it came to preaching grace, only Jesus (Acts 1:10).

Now, these same men were stirring up trouble for Paul in Antioch (Acts 15:1; Galatians 2:11-12). These men sent from James had now convinced Peter that following the Mosaic law, in addition to faith in Jesus, was necessary for justification. Because of Peter's backsliding from grace into law, Barnabas himself, who participated in the outreach of grace in the city of Antioch, was convinced to mix law and grace as the means for justification as well! Together, Peter and Barnabas were now forcing these new believers in Antioch to follow the Mosaic law as a means to justification in addition to faith in Jesus (Galatians 2:14). 

Paul could not believe what he was seeing! And he definitely wasn't going to stand for it. So, in front of all those seemingly important religious leaders sent from James to Antioch to impose the law on the new believers in Antioch for justification, he confronted Peter himself. And within that confrontation over justification, the words of Galatians 2:20 are found. Before we get to Galatians 2:20, let's start with Galatians 2:14.

When I (Paul) saw they (Peter and Barnabas) were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (that we are declared righteous before God because of grace not through the law) I said to Peter in front of them all (the heavy religious hitters sent from James to the church in Antioch to impose the law on the new believers), "...How is it you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified...For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, (I do not live according to an external set of religious laws anymore to be justified now that I have come to faith in Jesus, not the Mosaic Law, not any law) but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith (not obedience to the law) in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (grace). I do not set aside the grace of God (for justification, as Peter and Barnabas were doing by imposing the law on the new believers in Antioch), for if righteousness could be gained through the law then Christ died for nothing!"

Paul did not hold back his words when defending and confronting Peter about the message of grace, meaning faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus as the way to become completely righteous, fully innocent, and totally forgiven before God. Nor, was he was intimidated by the heavy religious hitters from the Jerusalem church. Rather, boldly and confidently, he exposed the hypocrisy and error of Peter, claiming that if righteousness before God could be gained or achieved through the law, then Jesus died for nothing (Galatians 2:21)!

But to Paul, Jesus' death was not in vain. Paul understood there was no way following the Mosaic law, or any law, could make a person righteous before God. He knew the only way to ever be righteous before God was through the grace of God poured upon him through Jesus' death on the cross. Apart from grace, he had no hope. Therefore, there was no way he was going to set aside grace and pick up the law, as Peter did, to be justified or declared forgiven, innocent, and righteous by God. 

The fact that Jesus would lovingly and willingly give up his life for Paul compelled Paul. This abundant grace poured out upon him changed his life! The life he lived after experiencing grace was much different than the life he lived trying to obey the Mosaic law. The life he now lived was the life of Galatians 2:20...a crucified life. By this, he meant he died to seeking to make himself righteous before God through the works of the law. Because of grace, the resurrected Jesus now lived in him. Life was no longer about seeking to obey the law, but allowing Jesus to live his life in and through Paul. The life Paul now lived was not lived according to the law, but according to the grace, love, and sacrifice of Jesus revealed at the cross.

The good news of grace for us is this: We do not have to achieve forgiveness, innocence, and righteousness before God by any religious works of our own. Instead, we simply place our faith in Jesus and we are freely given the gifts of forgiveness, innocence, and righteousness by God himself. This is called justification. Justification is when God declares YOU to be totally forgiven, fully innocent, and completely righteous before him the moment you place your faith in Jesus because of the payment of grace Jesus made for you (Romans 3:21-24). You can now live your life confident in his grace, having to never seek to gain the righteousness that is a gift received through faith (Romans 5:17).

The life you now live is no longer seeking to make yourself righteous, innocent, or forgiven before God. You have been crucified with Jesus. When Jesus died to the law died, you died to the law. The life you now live is by faith in Jesus who through grace and love gave himself for you and now lives in you. You never have to set this grace aside.

Enjoy the grace life! This is the meaning of Galatians 2:20.

Oh yeah...so what happened to Peter? Well in Acts 15:11, at the meeting of Paul, Barnabas, James, and the religious heavy hitters from Jerusalem when debating the means of justification, Peter is the one who stated the good news that those coming to faith in Jesus should not have the yoke of the Mosaic law placed around their necks. He said that salvation, or justification, is by grace alone. Peter finally got it! 

It is my prayer this teaching has helped you understand the context and meaning of Galatians 2:20. If it has been helpful, please join with me in sharing the good news of God's grace with others by clicking the Share button at the bottom of this blog. Also, if you would like to be updated when I post a new blog, simply complete the form on the Contact page and you will be sent an email when each new blog is posted.
















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