Faith versus works: Galatians 2:15-16 v Matthew 5:17-20

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(A note to the reader: this question is from Pastor Richard Marubi, pastor of the Omoringamu Mainsail Church in Omoringamu, Kisii, Kenya... and the name Mainsail is no coincidence. We have been working together across the globe for several years. But the good people at OMC actually stopped the church service last Sunday because of this question, so I jumped right on it... and you can listen in.)

Question: Hello pastor Evan. 

Last Sunday as we were doing our normal bible study in church we came across an issue which took a lot of our time that day, so I thought I should push it to you for an answer. We were reading from two different bible verses and they seemed as though they had a contradiction. One was Matthew 5:17-20 and the other was Galatians 2:15-16. Is the grace of God sufficient for salvation or we should also follow the law if we need to be saved? Please help. Pastor Richard.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17–20, NIV) 

“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
(Galatians 2:15–16, NIV)  

Answer: Hello Pastor Richard and my brethren at OMC. First, let me say how pleased I am that you are interested in God’s truth — and so much so that its pursuit “interrupted” your service last Sunday! Don’t worry. That’s the Holy Spirit interrupting. You are being like the faithful people of Berea who, after Paul preached to them, diligently searched the Scripture to see if the things he told them were true… so you are in good company (Acts 17:11).

But concerning the two passages you referenced, there is no conflict. We stand with Galatians 2:15-16. We are saved by grace, and you know that very well. So, what was Jesus saying in Matthew 5:17-20? … because it sounds like he was telling his audience to obey the law… and so much so that doing so would determine one’s status in the kingdom of heaven.

The main reason that these passages are not in conflict is that God’s revelation is progressive and its record is collective. What this means is, God reveals himself and his plans in more detail over time… but the older revelation does not get erased; it remains in the record. This is why it’s not a problem that you and I don’t sacrifice a lamb to atone for our family’s sin even though the Bible still clearly states that as a requirement for both of us. (We are both God’s people, and we are both heads of families. Exodus 12:3).

So, although we still have that old information — after all… it’s still in our Bibles! — we have newer information that frees us from that ritual. Jesus Christ died for our sins! (Romans 4:25). So, offering a lamb to atone for them would certainly be a weaker sacrifice in this day and age… I mean, we’re talking about Jesus here. How could that ever be appropriate? It wouldn’t. In fact, making sacrifices after Jesus made his sacrifice would insult him (Hebrews 6:6)…. and we don’t want to do that.

Instead, we respond to the newest information… like that in Galatians 2:15-16. The fact that the temple veil ripped in two when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51) tells us that the Old Testament rituals have no more efficacy… and it also tells us that Jesus’ sacrifice accomplished a complete and final atonement. That’s the freshest revelation we have, and to follow where that leads, we must stop “obeying” a dated version of God’s revelation.

This is no different than working for a company where you have a boss. When the boss gives you new instructions, you obey those… and you trust him that your previous responses to his instructions helped the company to get where it is today. But if you decided that you would also (or instead of) obey some ten-year-old instructions that he gave you, that would be a waste of time at the least… and destructive at the most. People who don’t obey current instructions instead of dated instructions lose their jobs… and that’s the dynamic between the Old and New Testaments.

But (you may argue), isn’t Matthew 5:17-20 in the New Testament? Yes… well… sort of. Positionally, it is… as in its order of the canon. No one doubts that the Gospels are in the New Testament. But just because they are not in the Old Testament canon does not mean that they are not in the Old Testament’s spiritual economy… and that’s what we have. The Gospel narratives are transitional in that they introduced Jesus ushering in the kingdom of heaven by his very person… but they do this on the backdrop of Jewish people doing Jewish things.

So, here’s the shocker: Jesus Christ was not a Christian!… but that’s because there were no such things as Christians in his day. Jesus was a Jew who lived his whole life under the law. In fact, the Gospels contain virtually nothing about Christians… although, knowing how things turned out, we show up in a teaching or two… but they say quite a bit about what it was like to be a first-century Jew.

Don’t get me wrong. The Gospels declared the good news about Jesus Christ — and that’s a “Christian” thing. But they did it in terms of Jesus doing and saying Jewish things… and he did this to the end of his life. Only in the Gospel of John (arguably, the “Christians'’” gospel) do we get a hint of the age to come… where the Helper (the Holy Spirit) will come in his stead.

So, although Matthew 5:17-20 is in the New Testament, it is — spiritually speaking — an Old Testament verse… I mean… just look around. People were doing Jewish things like obeying the law to please God, making sacrifices to atone for sin, keeping the Sabbath to keep the law, asking Jesus law-based questions — and all this was appropriate because the Age of Grace had not yet come… but this was true in spite of the fact that the One who would make that age possible was walking and talking among them… but as a Jew.

So, here’s my guess. If those Matthew verses were in Malachi instead, you would not have batted an eye. So, think of them that way. The Gospel narrative context is Old Testament Judaism, and so is its salvific context. Jesus had not yet died, and the temple veil had not yet ripped (Matthew 27:51), so even though Jesus was walking with us, the way to please God was still through the law.

Jesus said that he fulfilled the law… not that he obeyed it (although he did that also) … and it was how he comported himself as a Jew that qualified him to fulfill the law. Since he was without sin himself, he was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of others. But his death was future to this utterance… as were all the pre-death narratives. Jesus was a Jew all the way to the tomb… but 50 days later, everything changed.

Fifty days after Jesus’ death, the Holy Spirit visited the assembly in Jerusalem, and the Church was born on that day — the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). This was the beginning of the Age of Grace… and after this, the rules changed. Only after there were “believers” in Jesus Christ — people who understood Jesus’ sacrifice for sin — would Paul’s teachings in Galatians make any sense. This is why it is non-sensible to compare “before” and “after” passages for logical contradictions under only one spiritual economy. That’s making a category error.

So, among the early believers, some were Jews who lived their Old Testament lives in good conscience… and then made the transition — and I want you to think of these people when you’re trying to understand this phenomenon. These were always God’s people. It’s just that initially, they had to keep the law to please God. But after Pentecost, they had new information. So they responded to that and became God’s people who were saved by grace… and no longer by the law. These people embodied progressive revelation.

So, congratulations again on being alert to that potential conflict. Knowing about progressive revelation will serve you well… especially because you’ll run into issues with Adam, Moses, Abraham, David… Paul, Silas, Peter, etc. All these people were responsible to respond to the light they were given… and none can be said to be in conflict with the light from another time.

That being said, we Christians cannot just ignore the law…. like it doesn’t exist. Now, we don’t have to obey it to become (or remain) Christians. That would be legalism (which would be decidedly ungracious in the Age of Grace). But we do have to obey its precepts if we want to look like we’re Christians… and we do. Let’s just not put the cart before the horse.

In summary, sin can no longer condemn us (Romans 8:1), but sin can make it look like we do not belong to God. So, make obeying the law (not stealing, lying, murdering, etc.) part of the “good works” that Christ wants you to do in verse 10 below… but note that things like sacrificing lambs and keeping a ritual diet were only useful in the Old Testament spiritual economy, so they are in a different category, and they have run their course.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8–10, NIV)

Pastor Evan

(A note to my readers: There are now 4 churches in Kenya with the Mainsail name. Pastor Richard is always looking to split off to expand the work. We send them some small support monthly, and if you'd like to help, I'll send every penny to Kenya. Contact me and I'll tell you how. EP.)

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)