(17) But if we who seek to be justified in Christ are ourselves also found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Absolutely not! (18) For those things that I destroyed, if I build them up again I prove myself to be a transgressor.
In the last paragraph of Galatians 2, Paul again seems to be responding (at least in part) to the Judaizer’s attacks against him. Based on passages both in Romans as well as Galatians, it seems that the Judaizers had a two part attack against Paul and his gospel. First, they said, “Paul is not preaching to you the whole gospel, but only its easy and attractive first part. He is doing this because he wants to be highly esteemed among men.” Second they said, “Paul is telling you that all you have to do to be righteous is believe, meaning that you can continue to act however you want afterwards. In fact, Paul says that God is glorified by your sin.” But this is a willful misunderstanding and distortion of what Paul actually says. In this post, we are just going to focus on verses 17-18, because they are pivotal, extremely difficult to understand, and subjects of intense debate among scholars.
But if we who seek to be justified in Christ …
I read this as Paul still speaking in his own voice to Peter, though the concern he is addressing is one that his opponents emphasized. The concern is that some who claim to be justified by faith before God in Christ might use that claim of justification as a license to continue to live in sin. In fact, Paul makes the point in Romans 5 that God is actually glorified by graciously forgiving sins. His opponents attempted to use a reductio ad absurdum argument on this point, characterizing Paul’s theology as one that encourages greater and greater sinfulness as a way to glorify God. Paul does indeed think this idea is ridiculous, but he is forced to address it apparently because this mischaracterization of his theology was gaining some traction.
The “we … ourselves” refers to those who seek to follow Christ. It is no more complicated than that. Many translations will translate the participle zetountes, which means “seeking”, as a separate dependent clause like a temporal clause (“if, in seeking to be justified …” or “if, when seeking to be justified …”). But there is no reason why it cannot simply be an adjectival clause modifying the implied 1st person plural subject of heurethemen (which means “we were found” – so the adjectival clause modifies or defines “we”). To me, that seems to be the easiest way to read this grammatically, and it removes the extra conditions that the more typical reading as a dependent clause inserts (“those of us seeking to be justified in Christ” becomes kind of a subset of a larger, not quite defined group).
… are ourselves also found …
The aorist tense of the main finite verb in this phrase, heurethemen, has led many to try to locate this “finding” in the past (“we were found”). By default, when you come across an aorist, you tend to translate it with a simple past, but it is not simply a past tense. Rather, the defining feature of an aorist is a punctiliar aspect – it describes action that is conceived of as a point rather than as a line. Therefore, it naturally lends itself to uses for which we use the simple past tense in English. However, there are lots of uses for the aorist that are not akin to the simple past tense. The “gnomic” aorist is used for things that are generally true, as in proverbs. In these situations, English tends to use a simple present tense: “A fool utters all his mind, but a wise man keeps it until later.” It is perfectly acceptable in Greek to use an aorist tense in this context.
Moreover, there is a kind of use of the aorist for speech-acts, or utterances whereby the bespoken action is put into effect (as in “I hereby dub thee Sir Knucklehead”). I have seen this called a “dramatic” aorist, but really it is a speech-act aorist. In this vein, there is some evidence that the aorist can be used in the pronouncement of the results of an investigation, as in a court decision, especially with the verb heurisko (which is what we have in Galatians 2:17), and this could be explained either as a what I have called a speech-act aorist or as a gnomic aorist (here again English would use a simple present: “The court finds the defendant not guilty”). In line 411 of Sophocles’ Trachiniae, an aorist passive of heurisko is used when the messenger asks Lichas what punishment he thinks is right if he is found guilty. Clearly a past tense is inappropriate here, and the juridical context of the word is striking when compared with Galatians 2:17.
How do we put this together? Particularly when the legal context has already been established by the word dikaiothenai (“to be justified” which means for the court to find in one’s favor), the word heurethemen, meaning “we are found”, seems very clearly to indicate the findings of a formal legal investigation or trial. “If we who are presenting Christ as our legal defense are nevertheless found to be sinners …”.
… to be sinners …
So, finally, what are “sinners”? Since the word has occurred just two verses earlier, it is important either that our understandings of the two occurrences of hamartoloi (“sinners”) are compatible with one another or else that we have a compelling explanation for why they are different. In 2:15 Paul says to Peter, “We who are Jews by birth and not sinners from the Gentiles …”. There is some debate as to whether this is just a standard way of referring to Gentiles (so it does not necessarily connote special sinfulness, since one would have to admit that there were morally upright Gentiles) or whether “sinners” refers to real and serious sins. My own feeling is that this is not simply a kind of racial slur but it is a part of a larger Jewish-Christian theological idea. For the Jew (and so for the Jewish Christian) Gentiles were sinners because of real and serious sins that were common among them, especially, but not exclusively, sexual sins and idolatry. Jewish Christians saw themselves as having a special advantage, a kind of head start, in having been brought up in a God-fearing tradition that as a whole shunned the sorts of sinful behaviors for which Gentiles were known (among Jews, at least). So Paul’s point in 2:15-16 is that, “Even we, who were raised as God-fearing Jews and have never behaved as the adulterous and idolatrous Gentiles do, even we know that we are not justified before God by the works of the law.”
So when we come to 2:17, the most natural understanding of “sinner” is akin to this. It is not, in my opinion, an acknowledgement that “we Jews have discovered that we too are sinners, just like the Gentiles”. That acknowledgement would be at home with Paul, but the “we” are not Jews without Christ, but specifically “we who are seeking to be justified in Christ”. One who has been reconciled with God in Christ is not a sinner (currently), or should not be, according to Romans 6. Christians were once sinners, but now they walk uprightly through the power of the Holy Spirit. The hypothetical situation of 2:17 is this: those who claim to put forward Christ as our defense or alibi are found to be sinners in the real and meaningful sense, committing sins akin to the worst behaviors among the Gentiles.
… is Christ therefore a servant of sin?
The question raised by this hypothetical situation is whether those who profess faith in Christ but who continue to sin will be actually justified by Christ (I find a lot of alternative understandings of “servant of sin” amongst the scholarly literature, but no better understanding than this). This is, it seems to me, the “loophole” Paul’s opponents seem to feel they had found in his theology. Paul’s answer, however, is, “Absolutely not. Christ did not die to give a pass to wanton sinfulness.” This, I think, is the reason for the description “seeking to be justified” rather than simply “justified.”
How can Paul say this? In short, because, he continues in the next verse, to continue in sin reveals that I have not really been reconciled with God, or if I have, I am violating that reconciliation and proving myself to be a trespasser, not a member of the covenant of Christ. Because here’s the deal: Paul’s gospel is not really one of justification, but of reconciliation. Humanity, because of its sin, exists in a state of rebellion and enmity with God. We have no way of bridging that gap, because despite our best efforts to improve ourselves we find that sin is self-perpetuating and compulsive. Because our problem is not just sinful behavior but really hatred and mistrust towards God, the solution for our problem is not just legal justification but reconciliation. God demonstrates his love for us despite our rebellion. We respond in loving faith and are empowered by the Holy Spirit to love and trust God, to no longer want to rebel.
This is what the Judaizers misunderstood, and indeed this is what many contemporary Christians misunderstand about Paul. For Paul, sin is a by-product of our enmity with God. If we are truly reconciled with God (which involves justification), we will show that reconciliation by exhibiting changed, God-loving behavior that doesn’t need any law or cultural custom to motivate it or give it specific content. To continue in sin after Christ just shows that we have not been truly reconciled to God in our hearts.
If you are familiar with scholarly literature on this passage, you may already see where I diverge from the consensus. But let us take a closer look at Galatians 2:18.