So Glad I’m Not a ‘Sinner’ (Galatians, Part 19)
This week we continue exploring the book of Galatians using a question-and-answer format.
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 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.
Paul was just telling about how he rebuked Peter for refusing to eat with the Gentiles, and giving the impression that Gentiles were not truly welcome in the people of God. Did he just change the subject all of a sudden?
No. What Paul is doing now is undermining the reasons why a Jewish Christian like Peter would try to continue to put a wall between Jews and Gentiles. (In fact, some commentators argue that 2:15-21 are part of Paul’s response to Peter begun in 2:14. Since there are no quotation marks in the Greek manuscripts, that is certainly possible, but there’s really no way to know for sure. Either way, these two sections are definitely related to one another.)
Why does Paul refer to the Gentiles as “sinners” in v. 15? Doesn’t that derogatory term kind of reinforce the perceived separation between Jews and Gentiles that he is fighting so hard to eradicate?
Well, it definitely is a derogatory term, and it does suggest that the Jews are superior to the Gentiles in some way—and that’s kind of Paul’s point, I think. It seems to me that he is using this term in an ironic way, by referring to Gentiles in the way that certain Jewish Christians (who thought that Gentiles should be kept separate from them) thought of them and treated them. We might imagine a conversation in 1919, before women were granted the right to vote in America, where someone argued for women’s suffrage by saying ironically, “Well, of course we can’t allow weak and feeble-minded women to decide the fate of our nation, can we?” The person saying this doesn’t actually believe that women are weak and feeble-minded; the point of making that statement is to expose the foolishness of the person who does believe women are weak and feeble-minded and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
I think Paul is doing something similar here by referring to the Gentiles as “sinners”. He is exposing the foolishness of excluding Gentiles because they do not keep the Jewish law. If not being able to keep the law disqualifies one from the people of God (and it does!), then what makes the Jewish Christians think that they are excluded from the category of “sinner”? Recall again what Peter himself confessed in Acts 15, that “neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” the weight of keeping the Jewish law. As Paul says in v. 16, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” So the idea that only some people (i.e., the Gentiles) are “sinners” while others (i.e., the Jews) are not is ridiculous–and Paul is right to mock it.
The only way to enter the kingdom of God is through faith in Jesus Christ. No amount of rule-keeping–either on the part of Jews or Gentiles–gives us a place in God’s family. Only Jesus can do that!