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Galatians 2:16

Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

Knowing that a man is not justified - See the notes on Romans 1:17; Romans 3:24; (note), Romans 3:27; (note); Romans 8:3; (note). And see on Acts 13:38; (note) and Acts 13:39; (note), in which places the subject of this verse is largely discussed. Neither the works of the Jewish law, nor of any other law, could justify any man; and if justification or pardon could not have been attained in some other way, the world must have perished. Justification by faith, in the boundless mercy of God, is as reasonable as it is Scriptural and necessary.

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

Knowing - We who are Jews by nature, or by birth. This cannot mean that all the Jews knew this, or that he who was a Jew knew it as a matter of course, for many Jews were ignorant of it, and many opposed it. But it means that the persons here referred to, those who had been born Jews, and who had been converted to Christianity, had had an opportunity to learn and understand this, which the Gentiles had not. This gospel had been preached to them, and they had professedly embraced it. They were not left to the gross darkness and ignorance on this subject which pervaded the pagan world, and they had had a better opportunity to learn it than the converts from the Gentiles. They ought, therefore, to act in a manner becoming their superior light, and to show in all their conduct that they fully believed that a man could not be justified by obedience to the Law of Moses. This rendered the conduct of Peter and the other Jews who “dissembled” with him so entirely inexcusable. They could not plead ignorance on this vital subject, and yet they were pursuing a course, the tendency of which was to lead the Gentile converts to believe that it was indispensable to observe the laws of Moses, in order to be justified and saved.

That a man is not justified by the works of the law - See the notes at Romans 1:17; Romans 3:20, Romans 3:26; Romans 4:5.

But by the faith of Jesus Christ - By believing on Jesus Christ; see the Mark 16:16 note; Romans 3:22 note.

Even we have believed in Jesus Christ - We are therefore justified. The object of Paul here seems to be to show, that as they had believed in the Lord Jesus, and thus had been justified, there was no necessity of obeying the Law of Moses with any view to justification. The thing had been fully done without the deeds of the Law, and it was now unreasonable and unnecessary to insist on the observance of the Mosaic rites.

For by the works of the law … - See the notes at Romans 3:20, Romans 3:27. In this verse, the apostle has stated in few words the important doctrine of justification by faith - the doctrine which Luther so justly called, Articulus stantis, vel cadentis ecclesioe. In the notes referred to above, particularly in the notes at the Epistle to the Romans, I have stated in various places what I conceive to be the true doctrine on this important subject. It may be useful, however, to throw together in one connected view, as briefly as possible, the leading ideas on the subject of justification, as it is revealed in the gospel.

I. Justification is properly a word applicable to courts of justice, but is used in a similar sense in common conversation among people. An illustration will show its nature. A man is charged, e. g., with an act of trespass on his neighbor‘s property. Now there are two ways which he may take to justify himself, or to meet the charge, so as to be regarded and treated as innocent. He may:

(a)Either deny that he performed the act charged on him, or he may,

(b)Admit that the deed was done, and set up as a defense that he had a right to do it.

In either case, if the point is made out, he will be just or innocent in the sight of the Law. The Law will have nothing against him, and he will be regarded and treated in the premises as an innocent man; or he has justified himself in regard to the charge brought against him.

II. Charges of a very serious nature are brought against man by his Maker. He is charged with violating the Law of God; with a want of love to his Maker; with a corrupt, proud, sensual heart; with being entirely alienated from God by wicked works; in one word, with being entirely depraved. This charge extends to all people; and to the entire life of every unrenewed person. It is not a charge merely affecting the external conduct, nor merely affecting the heart; it is a charge of entire alienation from God; a charge, in short, of total depravity; see, especially, Romans 4:5. We are not innocent; we never have been; we never shall be; and it is not the design of the scheme to declare any such untruth as that we are not personally undeserving. It will be always true that the justified sinner has no claims to the mercy and favor of God.

(3) it is not that we cease to be undeserving personally. He that is justified by faith, and that goes to heaven, will go there admitting that he deserves eternal death, and that he is saved wholly by favor and not by desert.

(4) it is not a declaration on the part of God that we have worked out salvation, or that we have any claim for what the Lord Jesus has done. Such a declaration would not be true, and would not be made.

(5) it is not that the righteousness of the Lord Jesus is transferred to his people.

Moral character cannot be transferred. It adheres to the moral agent as much as color does to the rays of light which cause it. It is not true that we died for sin, and it cannot be so reckoned or imputed. It is not true that we have any merit, or any claim, and it cannot be so reckoned or imputed. All the imputations of God are according to truth; and he will always reckon us to be personally undeserving and sinful. But if justification is none of these things, it may be asked, what is it? I answer - It is the declared purpose of God to regard and treat those sinners who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as if they had not sinned, on the ground of the merits of the Saviour. It is not mere pardon. The main difference between pardon and justification respects the sinner contemplated in regard to his past conduct, and to God‘s future dealings with him. Pardon is a free forgiveness of past offences.

It has reference to those sins as forgiven and blotted out. It is an act of remission on the part of God. Justification has respect to the Law, and to God‘s future dealings with the sinner. It is an act by which God determines to treat him hereafter as a righteous man, or as if he had not sinned. The ground or reason of this is, the merit of the Lord Jesus Christ; merit such that we can plead it as if it were our own. The rationale of it is that the Lord Jesus has accomplished by his death the same happy effects in regard to the Law and the government of God, which would have been accomplished by the death of the sinner himself. In other words, nothing would be gained to the universe by the everlasing punishment of the offender himself, which will not be secured by his salvation on the ground of the death of the Lord Jesus. He has taken our place, and died in our stead; and he has met the descending stroke of justice, which would have fallen on our own head if he had not interposed (see my notes at Romans 4:5; see especially the note at Romans 4:3, in which it is observed, that almost every objection against the imputation of righteousness may be traced to two sources. The first of these is the idea that Christ‘s righteousness becomes ours, in the same sense that it is his, namely, of personal achievement; an idea continually rejected by the friends, and as often proceeded on by the enemies, of imputation. The second source is the idea that imputation involves a transference of moral character, whereas the imputing and the infusing of righteousness are allowed to be two very different things. Now, in this place, the commentator manifestly proceeds on these mistaken views. What does he mean by “transference of the righteousness of Christ” when he says, “justification is not that the righteousness of the Lord Jesus is transferred to his people?” What follows, at once explains. “Moral character,” he continues, “cannot be transferred. It adheres to the moral agent, as much as color does to the rays of light which cause it.” But this is quite aside from the subject, and proves what never had been denied. The same remarks apply with equal force to what is said about our being “always personally undeserving,” and never regarded as having ourselves actually “wrought out salvation.” These objections belong to the first source of misconception noticed above.

It has been asked a thousand times, and the question is most pertinent, How can God treat believers as innocent, if there be not some sense in which they are so? “The imputations of God are according to truth,” so is his treatment. The author tells us, that the ground of justification is the “merits of the Saviour,” which phrase he prefers throughout, to the more scriptural and more appropriate one of the righteousness of Christ; more appropriate, because the subject if forensic, belonging to judicature and dealing in matters of law; see Hervey‘s reply to Wesley, vol. iv. p. 33. Yet if these merits, or this righteousness, be not imputed to us - held as ours - how can we be justified on any such ground? “I would further observe,” says Mr. Hervey, replying to Wesley in the publication just quoted, “that you have dropped the word ‹imputed,‘” which inclines me to suspect you would cashier the thing. But let me ask, Sir, how can we be justified by the merits of Christ, unless they are imputed to us? Would the payment made by a surety procure a discharge for the debtor, unless it were placed to his account? It is certain the sacrifices of old could not make an atonement, unless they were imputed to each offerer respectively. This was an ordinance settled by Yahweh himself, Leviticus 7:18. And were not the sacrifices, was not their imputation, typical of Christ and things pertaining to Christ, the former prefiguring his all-sufficient expiation; the latter shadowing forth the way whereby we are partakers of its efficacy?

The language of President Edwards, the prince of American clergymen, indeed of theologians universally, is decisive enough, and one would think that the opinion of this master in reasoning should have its weight on the other side of the Atlantic. “It is absolutely necessary,” says he, “that in order to a sinner‘s being justified, the righteousness of some other should be reckoned to his account; for it is declared, that the person justified is looked on as, in himself, ungodly: but God neither will nor can justify a person without a righteousness; for justification is manifestly a forensic term, as the word is used in scripture, and a judicial thing or the act of a judge; so that if a person should be justified without a righteousness, the judgment would not be according to truth. The sentence of justification would be a false sentence, unless there be a righteousness performed, that is, by the Judge properly looked upon as his.”

Nor are we sure, if our author‘s distinction between pardon and justification be altogether accurate. By those who deny imputed righteousness, justification is frequently said to consist in the mere remission of sin. In a recent American publication, the views of the “new school party” are thus given: “Though they retain the word justification, they make it consist in mere pardon. In the eye of the Law, the believer, according to their views, is not justified at all, and never will be throughout eternity. Though on the ground of what Christ has done, God is pleased to forgive the sinner upon his believing, Christ‘s righteousness is not reckoned in any sense as his, or set down to his account. He believes, and his faith or act of believing is accounted to him for righteousness; that is, faith is so reckoned to His account that God treats him as if he were righteous” - Old and New Theology, by James Wood. Now Mr. Barnes does not exactly say that justification and pardon are the same, for he makes a distinction. “The main difference between the two respects the sinner contemplated in regard to his past conduct, and to God‘s future dealings with him.” “Pardon is a free forgiveness of least offences. Justification has respect to the Law and to God‘s future dealings.”

But this difference is not respecting the nature of the things. It is simply a matter of time, of past and future; and justification, after all, is neither more nor less than pardon of sins past and to come. A criminal is often pardoned while his guilt is still allowed. To exalt pardon to justification there most be supposed a righteousness on the ground of which not only is sin forgiven, but the person accepted and declared legally righteous. And in this lies the main difference between the two. In the case of the believer however these are never found apart. Whoever is pardoned is at the same time justified. Earthly princes sometimes remit the punishment of crime, but seldom or never dream of honoring the criminal; but wherever God pardons, he dignifies and ennobles.

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
Paul, having thus shown he was not inferior to any apostle, not to Peter himself, speaks of the great foundation doctrine of the gospel. For what did we believe in Christ? Was it not that we might be justified by the faith of Christ? If so, is it not foolish to go back to the law, and to expect to be justified by the merit of moral works, or sacrifices, or ceremonies? The occasion of this declaration doubtless arose from the ceremonial law; but the argument is quite as strong against all dependence upon the works of the moral law, as respects justification. To give the greater weight to this, it is added, But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ the minister of sin? This would be very dishonourable to Christ, and also very hurtful to them. By considering the law itself, he saw that justification was not to be expected by the works of it, and that there was now no further need of the sacrifices and cleansings of it, since they were done away in Christ, by his offering up himself a sacrifice for us. He did not hope or fear any thing from it; any more than a dead man from enemies. But the effect was not a careless, lawless life. It was necessary, that he might live to God, and be devoted to him through the motives and grace of the gospel. It is no new prejudice, though a most unjust one, that the doctrine of justification by faith alone, tends to encourage people in sin. Not so, for to take occasion from free grace, or the doctrine of it, to live in sin, is to try to make Christ the minister of sin, at any thought of which all Christian hearts would shudder.
Ellen G. White
This Day With God, 208.2

God has given to every man talents in trust. To every man He has given his work. There can be no idlers in His vineyard. Each has most earnest, sacred, solemn work to do for the Master. To everyone is committed some work to do, and none are excused. The day of final account will come, when the Lord reckons with His servants. The Chief Shepherd is Judge and illustrates the great principles which are to regulate the proceedings of the reckoning with His servants who are justified by faith, judged by their works. Faith works by love and purifies the soul of moral defilement that it may become a temple for the Lord. TDG 208.2

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Ellen G. White
In Heavenly Places, 156.7

We are enlightened by the precepts of the law, but no man can by them be justified. Weighed and found wanting is our inscription by nature. But Christ is our mediator, and accepting Him as our Saviour, we may claim the promise, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). HP 156.7

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Ellen G. White
The Faith I Live By, 78.1

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. Galatians 2:16. FLB 78.1

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Ellen G. White
Faith and Works, 95.3

While we are to be in harmony with God's law, we are not saved by the works of the law, yet we cannot be saved without obedience. The law is the standard by which character is measured. But we cannot possibly keep the commandments of God without the regenerating grace of Christ. Jesus alone can cleanse us from all sin. He does not save us by law, neither will He save us in disobedience to law. FW 95.3

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