Sola Fide and Galatians 2:16
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
As we have noted in the previous article on sola fide, our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters quote this verse to demonstrate sola fide. Paul says in Galatians 2:16 that, "a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." They are convinced that Paul is separating a system of salvation by works (which, they say, Catholics believe in) from a system of salvation by faith alone.
However, is that truly the case? I believe that, from the context to Galatians 2 and the larger background to Paul and Peter, Paul is separating a system of salvation by the Mosaic Covenant against the system of salvation by the New Covenant.
The Gentiles were understood to be unclean when the Church initially started to grow. This was because all of the converts to Christ were Jews, and even the apostles had only been sent to the Jews by Jesus in Matt. 10:5-6. In Acts 10, however, Peter is told in a vision to eat various unclean foods and to visit a Gentile. This is revolutionary to Peter! Imagine living your whole life avoiding unclean food; imagine the deep-seated habit that is being called to be broken. Peter goes to visit the Gentile man named Cornelius, and proclaims,
"You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Ac. 10:28).
It is at this point that the first Gentile in the early Church was told the Gospel. After this crazy experience, Peter goes to Jerusalem where everybody else avoids Gentiles, and immediately was criticized, "The circumcision party criticized him, saying, 'You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.'" (Acts 11:2-3). This probably had a scary effect on Peter, for when he encounters other men from Jerusalem again in the future, he distances himself from associating with Gentiles out of fear (Gal. 2). But, in this first moment of Acts 10, Peter stays strong and tells them what has been revealed from God.
After this bold new teaching by Peter, some Christians were directed to start a mission to Gentiles in Antioch and give them the Gospel (Acts 11:20). So Antioch becomes the first place that Gentiles and Jews are present together in a mixed community. A Christian leader named Barnabas is then sent to help that community in Antioch out, for the Jews have avoided non-Jews (Gentiles) all their life! Somebody has to be present to ease the tensions.
Barnabas then seeks out Saul. Both of them teach the community in Antioch for a whole year before going on a missionary journey throughout the Mediterranean world. At a later time, when Saul is in Antioch, Peter is there with him.
In verses 11-16, Saul speaks to the Galatians about how, when he was ministering to the church in Antioch, he had had a public confrontation with Peter. It was because Peter made a serious mistake as a leader: when some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem had arrived in Antioch, Peter became afraid of them and would only eat with the Jewish Christians in Antioch, instead of with the Gentile Christians. Imagine the shockwaves.
Why would Peter do this, when the community in Antioch was made up of Jewish and non-Jewish Christians? Why would the great leader Simon Peter suddenly split up the church at Antioch? Surely everybody would follow his example. But Peter, it seems, had already moved beyond the "uncleanliness" of the Gentiles way back in Acts 10 when he preached the Gospel to the Gentile Cornelius. He had stayed strong against criticism from the Jews in Jerusalem in Acts 11 who immediately criticized that decision to preach to Cornelius. What happened, Peter?
In Antioch the Jewish and Gentile Christians were eating together as united Christians, free from the demands of the Mosaic Law. Peter, though, suddenly put up a boundary between the two groups for fear of what the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would think, for they were sent by James, the bishop of Jerusalem. Jews from Jerusalem would be like having Muslims from Mecca coming to visit, they would be much more strict.
Somebody needed to stand up and unify the shattered church at Antioch, and praise God Saul confronted Peter to end the division.
Now, due to his status as leader of the flock, Peter's action implied to the Gentile Christians that, for someone to be a true Christian, they had to get circumcised and live like a Jew, obeying all of the laws of that Covenant to reach heaven. Paul rebuked that action and it's implications, stating that he, and even his fellow Christians in Galatia who are “Jews by birth,” realize that living like a Jew (following the “works of the Law”) does not justify (Gal. 2:15-16).
Galatians 2:16, which our Protestant brothers and sisters say condemns the Catholic understanding of salvation, is specifically in its context about the ritual purity of the Mosaic Law. The verse says, "a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." Living like a Jew under the old Mosaic Covenant has become outdated. The Messiah has come and has instituted a New Covenant, prophesied about in Jeremiah 31:31, which is characterized by faith. There are "two covenant" (Gal. 4:24), and only one brings salvation.
After this, Saul expands upon this episode with Peter, pulling out all the implications from it. He states why he (Paul) associates himself with these “Gentile sinners” in opposition to the Law: The Mosaic Covenant has brought forth the fulfilled New Covenant (Mt. 5:17). That New Covenant unites Jews and Gentiles, and because of that, Paul cannot “build up again those things which I tore down” (Gal 2:18). Paul, as a former Law-abiding Jew, cannot rebuild a wall of division between himself and the Gentiles again, for the Messiah has demolished it. Peter sadly did exactly that, and seems to have forgotten this briefly.
Paul’s identity is no longer found in the Mosaic Covenant, on only one side of the wall. He has a new one, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20).” When Paul was baptized, he “died with Christ,” that is, he was united to Jesus (Rom. 6:8). The Messiah lived in Paul, for the two became one. Paul then acted like Jesus who destroyed the wall dividing Jews and Gentiles when he died on the cross. Paul had “died to the Law” (Gal. 2:19), he had left the Mosaic Covenant for its fulfillment: The Messiah’s "new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20).
From this text, we see that membership in the family of God (justification) is no longer based on the Mosaic Law-system, for Jesus established a new boundary for membership through His death. Galatians 2:16’s point, then, is that Gentiles do not have to become Jewish! Peter and the other Christians will consider you brothers whether you are Jewish or Gentile! Rather than following the Jewish way of life, such as receiving circumcision, avoiding shellfish, not wearing polyester, or following feast days (ex. Passover), all Christians have to follow Christ and His way of life.
Galatians 6:2 says we have to obey the "law of Christ." Paul speaks of not being "under the Law" in 1 Cor. 9:20, and says that he is under the "Law of Christ" in 1 Cor. 9:21.
Galatians 2:16 is not about Catholics working their way into Heaven and receiving the sacraments. Rather, it has to do with what defines our relationship with God: Jesus and His Covenant of faith, or Moses and his Covenant of Laws.
This article is a more mature version of Luke Lancaster's previous article for Catholic Answers: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/galatians-216-and-sola-fide