NLT - 21 "I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die."
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Understanding Paul's words requires digging into the social and religious background of the Judaisms of his day, as well as allowing for special nuances on words like "law" and "circumcision" (to name a few). This verse is no exception. Even though he uses the word "law" (greek=nomos) in this verse, he doesn't necessarily mean the Torah proper (the 5 books of Moses). Although, it is true theologically that "keeping the law" cannot make one (forensically) righteous before God. In other words, keeping the law cannot save you. However, Paul would not have to make such a disclaimer because Judaism has never taught such a concept. To be sure, Paul's Judaisms were not teaching this either. So what was Paul's nuanced use of the word law in this verse referring to? Bringing his arguments of the previous verses, and indeed the chapter as we have it, to a close, Paul was again reinforcing the truth that the “righteousness of God” is attained for an individual at Christ’s expense and not through the rubrics of a man-made conversion ceremony (read here as “through the law”). The “law” in question is the Oral Tradition and popular social belief that only Jewish Isra'el can inherit blessings in the World to Come, a belief formerly held to by the apostle himself. To be sure, if being declared righteous (understood to be primarily forensic, but including behavioral as well) could be achieved via the flesh (that is, being born Jewish or converting to Judaism) then truly what need would there be for a Messiah to come and provide it later for anyone? Paul would have the reader to understand that such righteousness is altogether outside of human achievement and therefore must be procured by surrendering to the power of the Anointed One of God. So in summary, Paul is not really talking about any law of God (per se). What he is arguing against is the 1st century Jewish misunderstanding that covenant membership into Israel (tantamount to salvation, since Jews believed they were the only ones going to heaven) was granted only to those with legally identifiable Jewish identity, thus granting such a person access to and responsibility of maintaining obedience to the Torah (a document they believed was given only to Jews). As shocking and wrong as we may find it today, the 1st century Jew basically believed in religious and social superiority in God's eyes based on Jewish identity and access to the Torah. If a Gentile wanted "in" he had to convert to become a Jew and take his place among the ranks of other good-standing, Torah-keeping Jews. In a word, Jewish identity "saved" him (got him into the covenant), and Torah keeping kept him in. So, frequently when Paul uses the word law in Galatians he often does not simply mean the 5 books of Moses, but rather, a form of Jewish nationalism and devotion that was based on and grounded in the 5 books of Moses.
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