Paul presents a theological condition in [Galatians 2:21, KJV] regarding righteousness associated with the 'law'.

"I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." ( 2:21 οὐκ ἀθετῶ τὴν χάριν τοῦ θεοῦ· εἰ γὰρ διὰ νόμου δικαιοσύνη ἄρα Χριστὸς δωρεὰν ἀπέθανεν )

In contrast to Paul (at first glance), we are told by King David in [Tehillim 119] that righteousness צִדְקֶֽךָ comes from studying The 'Law'.

[Tehillim "Psalms" 119:1, MT]

"Praiseworthy are those whose way is perfect, who walk with [the] Law of YHVH." ( אַשְׁרֵ֥י תְמִֽימֵי־דָ֑רֶךְ הַ֜הֹֽלְכִ֗ים בְּתוֹרַ֥ת יְהֹוָֽה )

[Tehillim "Psalms" 119:142, MT]

"Your-Righteousness is perpetual righteousness, and Your-Torah is true." ( צִדְקָֽתְךָ צֶ֥דֶק לְעוֹלָ֑ם וְתוֹרָֽתְךָ֥ אֱמֶֽת )

If God's Torah is אֱמֶֽת True & Psalm 119 is true, what [law] is Galatians 2:21 referencing?

  • Link.
    – Lucian
    Aug 17, 2021 at 19:48
  • @Lucian, Thanks for sharing additional perspectives to identify behavior in adherence to the 'law' from Galatians 2:21. The issue of people documented as righteous Torah observant humans in the Tanakh causes the question. Aug 17, 2021 at 20:14
  • 1
    My point was that, depending on how one interprets the Torah (spiritually or formally), the same person can be both law-abiding and a law-breaker at the same time (Philippians 3:6, Sermon on the Mount, etc).
    – Lucian
    Aug 17, 2021 at 20:28
  • The whole point in Galatians is that if righteous still comes by the law after coming of the promise, grace then why did Christ died? 2:21, 3:21. Focus on the temporal constraints words until, anymore or no longer in the Epistle. If righteousness never came by the law then God is a liar and satanic deceiver, which is impossible. The change of covenant means change in the criteria of righteousness or justification. The law is finished or done away by Christ, see Hebrews Epistle. See my answer here hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/48985/…
    – Michael16
    Aug 18, 2021 at 9:43

5 Answers 5


Literal Standard Version Galatians 2:21b

for if righteousness [is] through law—then Christ died in vain.

There is no verb in the original Greek if-clause.


for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

The law does refer to the Torah. It's just that no one can keep the whole Torah perfectly.

Ellicott explains:

If righteousness come by the law.--What all men seek is justification in the sight of God. This is given to the just or righteous. But there were two ways of becoming thus just or righteous. The Law professed to make righteous those who complied with its provisions. But this was only a profession, for no one could really keep the Law. The Christian, therefore, rightly falls back upon faith in Christ, which brings him both an imputed righteousness, and also, in part, at least, a real righteousness. A deep and genuine faith in Christ is allowed to atone for the many unavoidable breaches of the Law, and that faith by degrees operates a real and vital change in the character and life of the man.

Considering the righteous Eliyahu (or) John the Baptist. Just because few have achieved righteousness, why claim it cannot be done?

There are two senses of the word righteousness.

Ezekiel 14:

14 even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign LORD.

In the OT, it is often used temporally. E.g., Job was righteous because he acted righteously and displayed righteous behaviors at a certain point in time.

In the NT, it is often used eternally to refer to justification, Matthew 5:

20 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.

This meaning of righteousness is deeper, Matthew 5:

28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Galatians 2:21 is saying that the deeper righteousness, i.e., justification, cannot be accomplished through law.

  • Please clarify - "It's just that no one can keep the whole Torah perfectly." - Considering the righteous Eliyahu (or) John the Baptist. | Just because few have achieved righteousness, why claim it cannot be done? Aug 17, 2021 at 18:49
  • Good question. I added.
    – user35953
    Aug 17, 2021 at 19:06
  • Did Esther not achieve righteousness by keeping Torah? | If Galatians 2:21 refers to Torah as the law. Righteousness from this law has been documented. - Correct? Aug 17, 2021 at 19:56
  • 2
    Sure, but only righteousness in the time-dependent temporal sense and not in the eternal justification sense.
    – user35953
    Aug 17, 2021 at 20:02
  • 1
    Ezekiel 14:14 even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign LORD.
    – user35953
    Aug 19, 2021 at 14:50

One significant event that took place between the two references you take was the cross. This made the difference.

David was ‘under’ the Mosaic covenant. Righteousness came via the Law - which was impossible, so ‘sin’ needed to be covered (Kaphar) in order to protect the Israelites from the consequences.

Prior to the Mosaic covenant, righteousness came via believing God, for Abraham and Lot and all his descendants - until Sinai.

In Galatians, Paul is addressing Jews, telling them that they had been freed (released) from being under the Law, and that now righteousness could come via Jesus.

It’s all about righteousness, but the way that came/comes has changed because of Christ.

However the Law being spoken of in your references is the same. The Mosaic Law that came from Mt Sinai.

  • If the 'law' in Galatians 2:21 is the Torah, and "Righteousness came via the Law - which was impossible"...so the prophets Eliyahu, Yonah, John the Baptist (or) average people like Iyov, Esther never fully kept Torah because they suffered undocumented sin? Aug 17, 2021 at 19:55
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    ‎@חִידָה There was only one who was ever righteous via the Law (Torah). The prophets were not righteous via Torah. (Arguably) According to Yeshua, John the Baptist ‘came closest’. The ‘Law’ is the standard if you want to rely on self righteousness. Jesus showed in the sermon on the mount that this was impossible. Paul was telling the Galatians to accept Gods righteousness in/via Christ.
    – Dave
    Aug 17, 2021 at 20:47

Let us be very clear about a few basic principles here:

  • Gal 3:21 - Is the law, then, opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come from the law.
  • Rom 3:20, 4:6 – atonement cannot be achieved by man by the works of the law
  • Eph 2:5, 8-10 – atonement is a free gift of God, out of His love and grace to do good works and glorify God
  • Gal 2:16 – we are justified not by works but by Jesus’ faithfulness because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified.
  • Titus 3:5 – we cannot atone for our own sin by deeds of the law
  • Isa 64:6 – our own righteousness (right doing or “deeds”) are as “filthy rags”
  • Acts 4:12 – sinners are saved by Christ alone
  • Phil 2:13, John 6:44, Rom 2:4, 5:5, Eph 2:5 all show that salvation and atonement are God’s initiative and that any positive response to God’s invitation is also the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Rom 3:23, 24, 5:6, 8, 10 – the fact that God provided atonement for all sinners, while were still sinners, indicates that atonement is God’s initiative alone.

Thus, atonement/justification for sins is provided by Christ ALONE.

However, there are many many laws in the NT for saved Christians to observe!! (See appendix below). And that is the point - we are saved by Christ alone but that salvation transforms us via a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit to fulfill Christs' promise in John 14:15 -

If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.

Note the important distinction - mechanically keeping the law (any law) does nothing. BUT, love fulfills the law because it makes us keep the law of God:

  • James 2:8 - If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.
  • Gal 5:14 - For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • Rom 13:8-10 - Be indebted to no one, except to one another in love. For he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,”a and any other commandments, are summed up in this one decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
  • Matt 5:43-45 - You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’r and ‘Hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,s that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
  • Matt 5:17-19 - 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 I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not a single jot, not a stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. So then, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever practices and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Christ's miraculous work in us by the Holy Spirit is what frees us from the chafing constraints of the law. Those who are "in Christ" can happily recite Ps 119 about loving the law. Paul and other talked about this a lot:

  • “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one jot of the Law to become void.” (Luke 16:17),
  • the law is essential because “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom 3:21, 7:7, 13),
  • “we uphold the law by faith” (Rom 3:31),
  • “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rom 7:12),
  • “the law is spiritual” (Rom 7:14),
  • “the law is good” (1 Tim 1:8),
  • keeping the law is to do right (James 2:8).
  • “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Certainly not! Instead, we uphold the law.” (Rom 3:31).
  • “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law, but under grace? Certainly not!” (Rom 6:15);
  • “we are now slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:16), or, “slaves to God” (Rom 6:22);
  • “And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the very commandment you have heard from the beginning, that you must walk in love.” (2 John 6)

Thus, the "Law" in both Ps 119 and Galatians is referencing the moral law.

APPENDIX - Laws in the NT are based on the 10 commandments and are more numerous than in the Torah

See https://www.abc.net.au/reslib/201407/r1308729_17984331.pdf and https://www.cai.org/bible-studies/1050-new-testament-commands and https://www.facebook.com/notes/the-real-truth-movement/the-1050-new-testament-commandmentslaws/690826194404882/ and http://www.wholebible.com/NT_commandments.htm and http://www.biblicalresearchreports.com/gods-commands-in-the-new-testament/

  • I do love this answer since it expertly defines the new 'Law' for apostles in adherence to the lost covenant tablets from Mount Horev. | The confusion remains in the phrase of Galatians 2:21 "if righteousness come by the law" since righteousness by 'moral law' alone can be achieved by humans born of man & woman (examples: Chenok, Noach, Yitschaq, Devorah, Yiftach's Daughter, Manoach's Wife, Yonah, Iyov, Channah, Shmuel, Eliyahu, Yoshiyahu, Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Esther, Ezra, Nechemiah, John the Baptist). - Were these lives not examples of achieving righteousness through 'moral law'? Aug 18, 2021 at 0:10
  • @חִידָה - I agree that these wonderful people were righteous, but by their merits, because their "righteousness is as filthy rags" (Isa 64:6) - then there is the series of quotes from the OT in Rom 3:10-18. They were righteous because of the anticipated robe of Christ's righteousness and God's grace (the subject of another question for the OT).
    – Dottard
    Aug 18, 2021 at 0:35
  • Why state : "I agree that these wonderful people were righteous, but by their merits, because their "righteousness is as filthy rags" (Isa 64:6) "? - Since [Yeshayahu 64:6] is only referencing the immoral customs of Yerushalaim. - While [Yeshayahu 64:5] refers to righteous israelites & prophets as saviors (who lived by the law). Aug 18, 2021 at 0:55
  • @חִידָה - my apologies, I should have said, "but NOT by their own merits". The statements of Rom 3:10-18 applied to all people who have ever lived. Even David said they he was sinful from birth, from the time his mother conceived him. Ps 51.
    – Dottard
    Aug 18, 2021 at 1:41

If Psalm 119 is true, what "law" is Galatians 2:21 referencing?

Short Answer: A partial response to this appears here.

First, suppose we observe the N/T passage in question:

Galatians 2:21: "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly."

Paul is here referring to the Law of Moses. To paraphrase: "[If] righteousness comes through the Law of Moses, then Christ died needlessly." That Law paved the way for the perfect Law: the "Law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). To avoid misunderstanding about this:

Galatians 6:2: "Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ" (emphasis added).

God gave the Old Law to the Israelites many centuries before the birth of Christ (Deu. 5:1-5). However, this law was never intended to be permanent; it was formally fulfilled upon Christ's death on the Cross, meaning no more carnal sacrifices ever again needed to be offered (He was the ultimate Sacrifice).

Some may find this unpalatable, however, when Christ cried out from the Cross, "It is finished!" (Matt. 27:50-51), the veil of the Temple was torn in two. What did this mean? Well, because the "veil of the Temple" was a barrier between God and Man, there could never be any direct contact between the two. The veil excluded everyone (but the high priest, and he only once a year) from the Presence of God in the Holy of holies.

The Law of Moses was to be praised, for it was righteous. Unfortunately, no human being (except One) could keep the Law perfectly. Thus, bloody sacrifices (typifying the ugliness of sin) were crucial for salvation as they looked forward to Christ's Sacrifice. Of course, without Christ's Sacrifice, all other sacrifices were meaningless.

[ Note: Throughout the patriarchal period, many men offered sacrifices to God: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Job, etc., because the male head of the household was often considered its "priest", one allowed to do so prior to Moses and the Law.]

Christ's death changed that. He tore the veil from top to bottom, allowing us to speak to God through Him, as our High Priest. He is now our path to God the Father, allowing us "in Christ" to pray and have our prayers heard (and answered) by the Almighty without a physical high priest — and without bloody, carnal offerings.

However we decide to translate the many passages pertaining to the Law of Moses in the N/T, there can be little doubt that the Mosaic order was reinstituted in a more perfect form upon the inauguration of the new priesthood, one in which all saints partake as priests and saints (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9, temples: 1 Cor. 6:19).

No matter how one decides to parse the Greek: plērōsai, the Law of Moses was fulfilled, or completed, or supplanted, or superseded by Christ.

Israel (as with David) rightly held the Law of Moses in the greatest esteem, just as it should have been. Naturally, anyone suggesting otherwise would be met with contempt. Nonetheless, as God, Christ was very deliberate in His announcements early in His ministry of His relationship to the Law of Moses. He would thus fulfill the Law in every respect when, upon His death, He "paid off the debt" by fulfilling it.

He did this through: 1) His perfect obedience; 2) His manifestation as the Messiah; 3) Extending His teaching, thus lifting His Law (Law of Christ) to new heights — thus, superseding Old Testament teachings, and 4) Nailing the Law of Moses to the Cross (Col. 2:14).

In Matthew 5, Christ repeatedly announces: "You have heard it said…" followed by "But I [now] tell you…" Christ is fulfilling the Law while at the same time declaring that His new law is about to supersede the old one upon His resurrection. The rest of the N/T, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would complete all of the New Law, thus supplanting the Old Covenant with the New one, which is how we should understand the great esteem with which the Old Law was held.

  • If Torah of Moshe is the 'law' referenced in Galatians 2:21 which brought righteousness to Eliyahu & John the Baptist, then the Torah can make humans righteous. Aug 17, 2021 at 18:56
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    @חִידָה Well, the Law of Moses was perfect. However, and this is crucial, no one could keep it perfectly. God demands perfection, and we are not perfect. Thus, sacrifices had to be offered to compensate for our infractions of that Law. Christ's Sacrifice abrogated any further need for carnal offerings.
    – Xeno
    Aug 17, 2021 at 19:00
  • When did Eliyahu and John the Baptist cause unintentional sins? - Their righteousness was brought about by Torah. If that Law is the law in Galatians 2:21, why claim it cannot bring righteousness? Aug 17, 2021 at 19:05
  • @חִידָה Allow me to clarify. Suppose we have a 55 mph speed limit. It is good and ~perfect (sort of). The moment we drive 56 mph, we have broken that law. The law doesn't bring righteousness unless it is kept perfectly. Can you do that? What is our solution to breaking the law? It must be paid with eternal suffering; there is no alternative - unless, God offers a solution: sacrifices in our stead. Had Christ not offered Himself on the Cross, the slightest infraction of the law would lead to eternal torture because all physical offerings would be of no avail. We would all be lost forever.
    – Xeno
    Aug 17, 2021 at 19:08
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    So Galatians 2:21 is explaining not one documented human (outside the Tanakh) maintained perfect Torah adherence during their entire life, except for Jesus the Nazarene. - Correct? Aug 17, 2021 at 20:04

In Gal 2:21, as often in Paul's letter, he referred to impossible saving righteousness by perfectly following the Law. James expressed it:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:10, ESV)

In Psalm 119:142 Your is God, i.e. God's righteousness, not human righteousness. Paul would agree with Psalm 119:1, but wrote that no one except Jesus fulfilled this.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21–26, ESV)

The law did reveal righteousness and human failure (sin), quoting Paul:

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. (Rom. 7:7–10, ESV)

  • After establishing the 'law' of Galatians 2:21 refers to the two covenant tablets, the confusion remains in the phrase : "if righteousness come by the law" since the 'moral law' alone was achieved by humans born of man & woman (examples: Chenok, Noach, Yitschaq, Devorah, Yiftach's Daughter, Manoach's Wife, Yonah, Iyov, Channah, Shmuel, Eliyahu, Yoshiyahu, Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Esther, Ezra, Nechemiah, John the Baptist). - Were these lives not examples of achieving righteousness through 'moral law'? Aug 18, 2021 at 0:30

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