Does Galatians 2:21 deny Righteousness?
For if justice is through tradition then Mĕssiah died needlessly (Gal. 2:21). Before Messiah came, much of Jewish tradition did not have a legitimate way of explaining how transgressions would be ultimately forgiven. The tradition resorted to the teaching of doing good works as a substitution for a lacking means of atonement. We may also render the text “For if justice is through the norm (or status quo) then Messiah died for nothing.” In this latter sense, Paul could mean that if the norm of the sinner dying for their own sin is the only form of justice, then Messiah’s alternate form of satisfying divine justice is for nothing.
Here are some anti-Law translations:
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (NIV).
I do not misapply God's grace, for if righteousness comes about by doing what the Law requires, then the Messiah died for nothing. (ISV).
I do not set aside the favour of Elohim, for if righteousness is through Torah, then Messiah died for naught (ISR).
I do not reject God's gracious gift; for if the way in which one attains righteousness is through legalism, then the Messiah's death was pointless (CJB).
Paul does not mean personal righteousness or righteous behavior according to the Law when he uses the term justice δικαιοσύνη. According to the BDAG Lexicon, 3rd edition, definition number 1, this word means justice. Paul is thinking here of the satisfaction of the judicial penalty such as is demanded by God. Now the second definition of this word is righteousness. Even if we use the term righteousness Paul is speaking about the satisfaction of divine righteousness, defined as God seeking the righteous penalty. When the penalty is paid, then the divine righteousness is satisfied.
Now Paul uses the word νόμος in its full range of Greek meanings in his writings: <,>custom, rule, principle, norm, usage, tradition, status quo, habit, law, Law,>. In this verse he means it in at least two different ways. The first is that if divine righteousness must be satisfied by the normal penalty, i.e. the norm, the status quo, or what the Torah normally demands, then Messiah’s death could accomplish nothing. The second is that if justice may be satisfied by any one of a thousand traditional teachings contrary to Messiah, then also Messiah would not have needed to die.
The satisfaction of divine righteousness for forgiveness is purely the payment of the punitive penalty by Messiah, which is the exception to the norm, and the correction to the false traditions. There is no need for a positive imputation in a forensic sense, because there is no way that the Most High can be compensated for sin. The punitive penalty is an expression of God’s wrath and anger against sin. It does not actually repair the damages due to sin. Those he simply forgives in his mercy, and then he sanctifies us, giving his righteousness to us. This does not repair sin damage to those ultimately lost, but it does restore us who turn to Him. This righteousness we receive is not to be viewed as compensating God on an equitable basis. In view of sin, it can be no more than a consolation.
The reason the anti-Law Churches want righteousness to be “forensically imputed” is that they are viewing God as one who needs to be perfectly fully compensated for all sin in the equitable sense. In such a case forgiveness is not really forgiveness. All wrongs would be paid off, as if someone hit the big undo button (Ctrl-Z) in the universe and undid all the damage. That’s the net effect of having perfect righteousness legally stamped into the judicial balance sheet. God then sees no wrong, and no need to issue a guilty verdict. This, my friends, is not the gospel. It is pure legalism, and as philosophically crass as those who would attempt to compensate God with their own works. The truth is that only a punitive penalty is being demanded by God, eye for eye, limb for limb, burn for burn, life for life. Messiah’s death paid this punitive penalty on behalf of the repentant. There is no demand for perfect compensation. God simply forgives that demand because it is impossible, and because he is both just and merciful. Justice must be tempered by mercy, and mercy by justice. Giving place for mercy requires less than 100% compensatory justice. Sin cannot be made as if it never happened. Perfect equity is unattainable. Therefore, God forgives outright what must be forgiven, and only demands a punitive penalty to be paid, an expression of his wrath against sin. In his mercy he allows Messiah to substitute for this, taking his life for our life, according to the punitive demand of Torah.
Righteousness, therefore, is according to the Law, and is fulfilled by obedience and faithfulness to the commandments of God. In this life, it is not 100% perfectly kept, but it is the only definition of personal righteousness, and social justice. This status quo does not restore one under a death sentence to life. Only Messiah satisfying justice on behalf of the sinner can accomplish the transfer from a death sentence to life. But then Messiah’s resurrection life is imparted in the process we call sanctification, so then the faithful shall have lived by their obedience. In other words, one abides, or remains in the divine favor through obedience (John 15:10; 14:21). Yeshua plainly said that if we keep his commandments then we will remain in his love.
21Was not Abraham our father made righteous by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22You see that the trust was working with his works, and as a result of the works, trusting faithfulness is complete; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, And Abraham was trustingly faithful in Yăhweh, and it was counted to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of the Almĭghty. 24You see that a man is made righteous by works, and not by trust alone.
There is no way to get around these words,
You see that a man is made righteous by works, and not by trust alone. By quoting Gen. 15:6, and extracting this application from it, Jacob is telling us that Abraham had righteousness in the sight of God through his works. Paul conceeds this point in Romans 4, and merely adds that such righteousness is not a matter to boast about as if God owed us something. Anti-Law Christians have excised what James really said here from the canon. And this is the only place in Scripture where the words faith alone or better trust alone accually occur. And they only occur where James is denying that one is made righteous by faith alone! Many have tried to explain this way by saying that James means righteousness before men, and that Paul means righteousness before God. This explanation will simply not work since James has here invoked Gen. 15:6, which explicitly says what God thought of him for his faithfulness: he counted it as righteousness.
Don’t expect most Christians, theologians, or bible students, to be able to figure this out, or even to understand it. The Church has long been in the business of teaching heresy to make the unsaved nominal Christians in their ranks feel comfortable and not to leave the Church. The guilty person can never feel like God’s justice is satisfied against them so long as the remain guilty. Being freed from guilt requires repentence, and then Messiah satisfying the penalty of the sin. But if someone will not repent, then they will want a false messiah who pays for their sin while unrepentant and also compensates God fully for their sin, so that they don’t have to think that God or they themselves loose anything by continuing in rebellion. God calls any sacrifice that is brought to atone for this kind of attitude a vain sacrifice.
So there are myriads of Christians who do not know the real good news of divine pardon. They view it as an acquittal. They have deceived themselves into thinking that God is paid off for everything bad they do, and that there are no conditions on grace. After so many centuries, the Church is just as much a mission field as those few left who have never been exposed to the message. Only they have becomed hardened in their heresy, and most do not want to listen.
All hope is not lost though, because where two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be with them. And in the last days, the sons of Israel will be gathered together with the sons of Judah, and the kingdom will be restored according to the promise in Deut. 30.