Galatians 2:15–21: If We Were to Paraphrase Paul

As a follow up to last week’s post, here is my attempt at a paraphrase of Paul from Galatians 2:15-21.

Though we are Jews and not Gentile sinners (2:15), even we know that justification is not by works of the law but by faith in Christ Jesus (2:16).

But if we seek justification through faith in Christ, does Christ become a servant of sin by justifying us apart from the Law? Of course not (2:17). Actually, I myself am the sinner if I return to the law (2:18).

In fact, it was through the law that I realized I could not fulfill the law’s demands but had to pay its penalty of death and find justification some other way. So, you could say that I died through the law to the law, and the law was intended to teach me this very thing (2:19a; cf. 3:19–25). I had to die to the law in order to live to God (2:19b).

In fact, thanks to my sin, I failed to live according to the law and realized that I could not fulfill its demands and therefore had to die as punishment for my failure. This realization was actually a purpose of the law (cf. 3:19–25). In being united to Christ, I was united to Him who undeservedly died according to the law’s penalty for sin. So, you could say that I died through the law, to the law (2:19).

As to how my penalty was paid, I was crucified with Christ (2:20a). The “old me” who was under the power of sin is no longer alive, and who I am now in this body is so fundamentally different that you could say it is Christ who lives in me (2:20b). This kind of life is possible because of my faith in the Son of God, which is compelled by how He lovingly sacrificed Himself for me (2:20c).

Having clarified the role of the law, I do not nullify the grace of God by saying it is not necessary for my justification. If I say that righteousness can be found through obeying the law, then I effectively claim Christ to have died for no purpose (2:21).

Justification by Faith Alone in Jesus Christ in Galatians 2:15–21

As Providence would have it, I’ll be preaching through Galatians 2:16–21 for a couple of Sundays this month on the doorstep of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. So, to the glory of God, and in honor of the Reformation, I’ll do my best to work through this passage for a couple of weeks and uphold the great gospel doctrine that we are justified by faith alone.

In leading up to this passage, Paul has given an introduction (1:1–5) and a strong rebuke to the Galatians for so quickly running to a false gospel (1:6–10), namely, that one’s righteousness before God depends upon one’s adherence to the Mosaic law, or more generally, what one himself does rather than what Christ has done for him. In responding to this problem, Paul explained that his gospel came from Christ (Gal 1:11–17) and not from Peter, the apostles, or anyone in Jerusalem or Judea (Gal 1:18–2:14). This explanation builds up to Gal 2:15–21, which seems to be the rest of what Paul said to Peter in Antioch in Gal 2:14 (cf. Gal 2:11–14) and rehearsed here for the sake of upholding the gospel to the Galatians.

Here, then, in 2:15–21 is more or less the heart of the letter to the Galatians. Many important concepts are introduced or brought to a head in such a way that Paul can develop them further in the rest of his letter. And if Paul said nothing else to the Galatians, he could have left them with Galatians 2:16 to solve their doctrinal dilemma: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

But rather than just leaving that tremendous statement as it is, let’s look at the whole passage and see it for all its glory.

The Heart of the Message: Justification by Faith in Christ (2:15–16)

Our passage comes off the heels of Paul telling Peter he was wrong to withdraw from eating with the Gentiles (Gal 2:11–14). Peter’s problem was to imply through his behavior that the Gentiles needed to add obedience to the Mosaic law to their faith in Christ in order to be seen as righteous before God. In clarifying the matter further, Paul pointed out to Peter that even their privileged ethnicity as Jews in receiving the law did not make the law effective in bringing about their justification: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

To be justified is to be declared by God as righteous, and the works of the law are not works produced by the law but works done in obedience to the law. And while we know that Jesus was perfectly faithful in His obedience to the law, “faith in Jesus Christ” is just that—the believer’s faith in Him and should not be translated as “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” The difference between the two options would be that our own faith is left unmentioned in the matter of justification if we speak only of the righteousness of Christ, not to mention we would be speaking of Christ in way that would be altogether unique in the NT.

Our faith in Jesus Christ is to have faith in who He is and what He has done for us. Not only did He as both God and man live perfectly according to the law, but He also suffered its penalty of death that you and I deserve. To believe, trust, and have faith in Him is to believe in a number of truths: (1) we have violated God’s law and stand condemned before Him; (2) Jesus lived out the law sinlessly and perfectly and merited a righteousness that we could never gain for ourselves; (3) Jesus died an undeserved death on our behalf and was vindicated as sinless at His resurrection (cf. 1 Tim 3:16); (4) His death and righteousness are our own when we believe in Him.

So, in putting these things together, our faith in Christ unites us to Christ and His righteousness becomes our own. The Father obviously approved of His Son when He raised Him from the dead, and we are thus approved and declared righteous by virtue of our standing in Christ. What a truth! 

The Hindrance to the Message: The Sin of Adding the Law to the Gospel (2:17–18)

But there was a problem for the Jews struggling through the implications of this message. They had lived (imperfectly) according to the law for 1,500 years up to this point and found it hard to let it go. In fact, they were gripping to the law so hard that they may have actually accused Christ of being the servant of sin by justifying Jews apart from the law (2:18). That would make Jews sinners (2:17) in just the same way as Gentiles (cf. 2:15).

Paul says it like this: “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!” (2:17). In other words, if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, they were found out by others to be sinners just like the Gentiles, does Jesus then become a servant of sin by justifying apart from the law, a supposedly most egregious sin indeed? Obviously not (2:17).

To clarify, it is not that they are denounced as supposed sinners after conversion for having set the law aside. They accept that they are actual sinners before their conversion and claim as much by seeing themselves just as hopeless as Gentiles when it comes to having a right standing before God. The law is no good, only the righteousness of Christ will do, and trusting in anything else results in something less than God’s approval.

So, when it comes to accusing someone to be a sinner, it’s the other way around. It is not Christ who has sinned in setting the law aside. Rather, the one who has found justification though faith in Christ will become the sinner by adding the law to his faith when only faith was necessary at the beginning of salvation. Paul states, “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (Gal 2:18).

Paul is not a transgressor for having torn down the law. Neither is the idea in this particular setting that he would again be shown a transgressor by once again failing to live up to the demands of the law, true as that would be. Rather, the idea here is that the law was torn down when Paul believed in Christ, and to build it up again would make him a transgressor by effectively denying the righteousness of Christ, which is quite the opposite of calling Christ the servant of sin for setting the law aside.

The Help to the Message: The Role of the Law in Leading to Life (2:19–20)

Before we throw out the law altogether when it comes to justification, we must remember that the law is not useless. After all, is it good when used in a lawful way (cf. 1 Tim 1:8–11). When someone attempts to live according to the law, his sin will show him time and again that he cannot live according to its demands and must suffer its penalty of death. Coming to this realization is actually one of the good purposes of the law. It shows one just how much he cannot attain his own righteousness by keeping the law because he can never perfectly keep it (cf. Gal 3:19–25). In this way he dies to the law, through the law, and is led to live to God in another way (Gal 2:19). Or, as Paul put it, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (Gal 2:19). That other way is justification by faith in Jesus Christ.

Remember that Christ lived out the law perfectly under the era of the law. And remember that He died the lawbreaker’s penalty of death without ever having broken the law. And remember that faith unites us to Christ. So, when we believe, we are united to Christ in His death, and thus we can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20). And it is who we were under sin as exacerbated by the law that died with Him at the cross.

Moreover, our union with Him is to be united to Him in life, so much so that we could even say again with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Even now, while in our physical bodies, we can have be justified by faith in Jesus Christ: “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal 2:20).

And for those who have faith, we are compelled to love the Savior all the more because it is He “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

The Hope of the Message: Righteousness through the Death of Christ (2:21)

Having said the above, we can claim that is actually us who do not deny God’s grace in salvation because we are not seeking God’s declaration of righteousness by living according to the law (cf. Gal 5:4). Were we to try such a thing, we would effectively dismiss the purpose of the death of Christ—to sinlessly die the sinner’s death so that all might live through Him (2:21). As Paul stated, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21).

Parting Words

The Jews’ struggle then is the struggle that so many in our world have today—“Let me do something to gain God’s approval when I one day stand before Him.” For the Jew, they attempted God’s approval through the law. For people today, the principle is the same—doing good works and finding false assurance in what we have done instead of the work of Christ on the cross. May we find our justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone, and may we always see the best of our works for what they are—something infinitely less than the work the Christ did for us on the cross.


When Did Paul Confront Peter in Antioch?

In previous studies, we matched the events of Galatians 1–2 to the book of Acts and concluded the following: Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary endeavors are recorded in Acts 9:1–25 and Gal 1:11–17 (cf. 2 Cor 11:32–33); Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion and departure to the Gentiles are recorded in Acts 9:26–30 and Gal 1:18–24 (cf. Acts 22:17–21); and Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem is recorded in Acts 11:27–30 and Gal 2:1–10.

After describing his first and second meetings with Peter and others (Gal 1:18–21; 2:1–10), Paul recounted one more episode involving Peter in order to demonstrate that Peter was not the source of his gospel. In Gal 2:11–14, Paul confronted Peter in Syrian Antioch because Peter’s “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” that he had previously affirmed (Gal 2:14; cf. 1:18–2:10).

If “then” (Gal 1:18, 21; 2:1) and “when” (Gal 2:11) lay out for us a chronological series of events, Gal 2:11–14 occurred after Gal 2:1–10, which means that Gal 2:11–14 occurred sometime after Acts 11:27–30. And, if Galatians was written before Acts 15, our window for confrontation is somewhere in Acts 12–14.

Peter was imprisoned in Acts 12, released, and “went to another place” (Acts 12:17; cf. 12:1–17). Paul was in Antioch in Acts 13:1–3 before his missionary journey in Acts 13:4–14:25 and returned to Antioch to report about his journey in Acts 14:25–28. Peter could have visited Paul in either Acts 13:1–3 or 14:24–28 or even sometime between Acts 14:24–28 and the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

As to the last of these options, Luke records, “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1 ESV).

“Some men” in Acts 15:1 are not the “certain men” who “came from James” in Gal 2:12 because James held to the same gospel as Paul (cf. Gal 1:19; 2:9; 1 Cor 15:7, 11). If anything, based upon Peter’s agreement with Paul in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7–11), we could conclude that Peter responded positively to Paul’s rebuke (cf. Gal 2:11–14) and headed back to Jerusalem. “Some men” then “came down from Judea” to respond with their false gospel in light of what they heard about the matter (Acts 15:1). Then, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2), and Paul sent his letter to the Galatians at this time, having heard that they were experiencing this same debate. Then Paul went with Barnabas “up to Jerusalem…about this question” to settle the matter once and for all (Acts 15:2 ESV).

While we obviously cannot be certain about this timeline, it gives a possible explanation for how to coordinate and match the timing and events between Galatians and Acts.

Wrapping up what seems to have turned into a mini-series on matching the events in Galatians 1–2 to the book of Acts, here is a snapshot of conclusions that were made with tentative dates:

AD 34–37: Acts 9:3–25 = Gal 1:11–17

AD 37–45: Acts 9:26–30 = Gal 1:18–24

AD 45: Acts 11:27–30 = Gal 2:1–10

AD 46–47: Acts 13:1–14:28 – Galatian churches planted

AD 47: Gal 2:11–14 – Paul confronts Paul in Syrian Antioch

AD 47: Acts 15:1–2a – Judeans arrive, debate follows, Galatians written

AD 48: Acts 15:2b – Paul and Barnabas head to the Jerusalem Council


The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 18:4–8)

This entry is part 47 of 52 in the series Revelation and Its Connections to the OT

Passage Summary

John heard another angel calling the people of God to abandon Babylon in order to avoid a share in her judgment (18:4). She exhausted God’s patience with her sins, and He recalls them all at this time (18:5). Her judgment would be in proportion to her sins (18:6). Her self-glorification would be repaid with torment and mourning, her luxury with famine, and her avoidance of widowhood with death (18:7–8). These judgments and fire will suddenly consume Babylon and show the Lord God’s might (18:8).

Old Testament in the New

Revelation Old Testament Connection Between the Two
18:4 Isa 52:11; Jer 50:8; 51:6, 45 God’s people are commanded to flee the place of judgment.
18:5 Jer 51:9 Babylon’s sins are so many they have reached heaven, provoking her judgment.
18:6 Ps 137:8; Jer 50:15, 29 Judgment would be given in proportion to Babylon’s sins.
18:7 Isa 47:7–9; Zeph 2:15 Judgment comes upon the one who avoided suffering and engaged in sin.
18:8 Isa 47:9; Jer 50:31-32 Sudden judgment with fire would consume the one who sinned.

 A Parting Thought

We are not gods who are entitled to live arrogantly and lavishly while others suffer at our expense. If we were ever to find ourselves part of a group of people that promotes such a life, we must pull away, knowing that God will judge them. Rather, may we be humble and generous, shouldering and sharing whatever burdens come our way.


Where Does Galatians 2:1–10 Fit in Acts?

Many equate Paul’s description of his meeting with Peter, James, and John in Galatians 2:1–10 with the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1–29. Both meetings were provoked by Judaizers (Acts 15:1, 24; Gal 1:7, 22; 6:17), attended by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:2; Gal 2:1), and concerned with whether or not Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law in order to be saved (Acts 15:1; cf. 15:5). And, in both passages, the outcome was to deny that neither circumcision nor keeping the Law were necessary for salvation (15:10; Gal 2:6)—salvation was by faith (Acts 15:9; Gal 2:16). Fellowship with saved Gentiles was formally recognized (Acts 15:23; Gal 2:9).

Though this equation is a very tempting option, it is possible Gal 2:1–10 refers to a meeting distinct from the one in Acts 15. Paul does not mention the letter from the Jerusalem church to the Galatians (see Acts 15:23–29), and Paul clarifies that his meeting in Gal 2:1–10 was private (see Gal 2:2), unlike the public nature of the meeting in Acts 15 (see Acts 15:6, 12, 22). It is not surprising that a meeting like this happened more than once in the early church. An ongoing theme in Acts and beyond in the NT was how believers worked through the practical differences of the Law-free Gentiles and Law-abiding Jews (see, e.g., Rom 14:1–15:7).

A plausible parallel to Gal 2:1–10 may be found in Acts 11:27–30. As we have seen, Acts 9:3–30 may be matched to Gal 1:11–24, and it works in the timeline of Acts to match Galatians 2:1–10 to Acts 11:27–30 as well. As in Galatians 2, this visit in Acts involved Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:30; Gal 2:1). Also, we could identify the request to Paul and Barnabas to remember the poor (Gal 2:10) as their giving help to those who were suffering famine (Acts 11:29–30), the very thing they were eager to do. We could even further identify the revelation that prompted Paul to go to Jerusalem (Gal 2:2) as the one given to Agabus who predicted the famine (Acts 11:28). Moreover, Paul told the Galatians that the result of his meeting was “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal 2:5), which could mean that, looking back at how things unfolded, the gospel was faithfully upheld and came their way in Acts 13–14.1

If Gal 2:1–10 can be matched with Acts 11:27–30, what Luke does not tell us, however, is about the meeting that transpired between Paul and Barnabas and Peter, James, and John. Neither does he mention Titus. (Actually, he never mentions Titus.) But each writer has his own purposes, faithfully giving us the details necessary for each purpose, and comparing Scripture to Scripture helps us to answer questions that might leave us guessing if we had only one text or another.

  1. See Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 118–30, and Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians (ZENCT; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 115–31. []

The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 18:1–3)

This entry is part 46 of 52 in the series Revelation and Its Connections to the OT

Passage Summary

An authoritative angel illumined the earth with his glory (18:1) and announced with his mighty voice that Babylon was fallen (18:2). It was now a home for demons, unclean birds, and beasts (18:2). The reasons for this judgment were her global immorality and gross materialism (18:3).


Old Testament in the New 

Revelation Old Testament Connection Between the Two
18:1 Ezek 43:2 Both God and His angels shine their glory upon the earth.
18:2 Isa 21:9 Babylon is announced to have fallen.
18:2 Isa 34:13-15; Jer 51:37 Judgment is shown through the resultant desolation.
18:3 Jer 51:7 The nations drink from the cup of Babylon, partaking of her sin.

A Parting Thought

Just as all the kingdoms then will fully live for immorality and materialism, so also do the kingdoms now do so to a lesser but obvious degree. May we be cautious to see our culture’s tendencies along these lines and live in a way that is not in keeping with the judgment that will fall upon Babylon in time to come.


The Early Years of Paul’s Ministry in Galatians 1:18, 21 and Acts 9:26–30

Luke generally describes a meeting between Paul and the apostles in Acts 9:26–27. Paul gave more details as to this meeting in Gal 1:18–19. Paul mentions that he then left for Syria and Cilicia in Gal 1:21. Luke mentions this departure as Paul leaving for Tarsus in Acts 9:30 (Tarsus is a city in the region of Cilicia) and records his time in Antioch in Acts 11:25–26 (this was the Antioch in Syria; cf. Gal 1:21). Acts 22:17–21 records Paul’s recollection of a vision from Jesus during this time as well. What follows below is more detailed and chronological description of this time in Paul’s life. The passages above are cited, approximate dates are provided, and an explanation is given for why the accounts differ between Luke and Paul.

Three years after his conversion (AD 34), Paul came to Jerusalem for the first time as a believer (Gal 1:18; AD 37) and was rejected in his attempt to join the disciples―they were fearful that he was not truly one of them (Acts 9:26). But then Barnabas brought him to the apostles―Peter and James in particular―for a private, fifteen-day visit that, after an explanation by Barnabas of Paul’s ministry in Damascus, resulted in Paul’s fellowship with the brothers in Jerusalem (Acts 9:28a; Gal 1:18–19).

Having been granted this fellowship, Paul then preached boldly in Jerusalem and disputed against the Hellenists (Acts 9:28b–29a). As a result, these Hellenists sought to kill Paul (Acts 9:29b). At some point during this time, Paul was praying in the temple when Jesus appeared to him in a vision, warned him that the Hellenists would not accept his testimony, told him to leave Jerusalem quickly, and said that he would go far away to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17–21).

Whether knowledgeable of Paul’s vision or not, the brothers in Jerusalem learned of the Hellenists’ plot to kill Paul, took him to Caesarea, and sent him to Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 9:30), where Paul would begin to fulfill Jesus’ instructions. Paul was there for what may have been roughly eight of what many call his “silent years” (AD 37–45), ended by Barnabas retrieving him and bringing him to Syrian Antioch where he stayed for a whole year (Acts 11:25–26; cf. Gal 1:21; AD 45–46).

As to why Luke and Paul differ, Paul’s burden in Gal 1:11–2:14 was to explain that his gospel was from Christ and not Peter, the apostles, and Jerusalem. Paul explained the primary significance of his visits to Jerusalem along these lines but did not need to recount all of the details of his ministry during this time. As to Paul’s preaching in Jerusalem, Luke wanted to provide his readers with the reasons as to why Paul left for Tarsus (in Cilicia) and described how he eventually came to Antioch (in Syria).


The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 17:11–18)

This entry is part 45 of 52 in the series Revelation and Its Connections to the OT

Passage Summary

As earlier in Revelation (13:3, 12, 14), the beast can be one head or the whole creature. Seeing the future, John saw how the antichrist was (rose to power), is not (was slain), is an eighth (by being raised from the dead), and is eventually thrown alive into the lake of fire (17:11; cf. 19:20). Ten kings follow the antichrist in a brief exercise of power in attempting to overthrow the Lamb but will fail miserably when He and the saints overcome them (17:12–14). The angel identifies the waters as the people of the world (17:15). The ten horns follow the antichrist in overthrowing Babylon and its false religion, unwittingly led by God in doing so, undoing the dominion she once had over them (17:16–18).

Old Testament in the New 

Revelation Old Testament Connection Between the Two
17:12 Dan 7:7–8, 20, 24–25 Both prophesy of kings pictured as ten horns.
17:14 Dan 7:21–22 There will be war between the antichrist and his kings and the Lamb and the saints.
17:15 Isa 17:12–13 People are pictured as waters.
17:15 Jer 51:13 Babylon dwells by the waters.
17:16 Lev 21:9; Ezek 23:25, 47 The prostitute is punished with fire.

A Parting Thought

In God’s providence, He uses evil against evil (while never being its Author) to carry out His sovereign will. The kingdom of darkness will be divided, its house will not stand, and the King will descend to destroy it in the end. Victory is coming!


Adventures in Arabia: What Was Paul Doing in Galatians 1:17?

In Gal 1:11–17, Paul defended the divine origin of his gospel by recounting when and how he received it from Christ. Along the way, he stated that “he went away into Arabia” (Gal 1:17) but not what he did while he was there. A parallel passage for Galatians 1:17 is Acts 9:10–25, but Luke only tells us a bit of what happened to Paul in Damascus and mentions nothing of Arabia. Here are some suggestions as to what kept Paul busy in Arabia during this time.1

Option 1: Once a zealot for Judaism, the newly converted Paul went to Arabia to study the Scriptures to understand how Jesus was the Messiah and how his life in Judaism had been misguided.

Option 2: Building upon the suggestion above, maybe Paul went to Mount Sinai because he mentions it later as being in Arabia in Gal 4:25 in the midst of a discussion on the Law of Moses (cf. Gal 4:21–31).

Option 3: Wherever Paul stayed in Arabia, Christ personally revealed to him the gospel just as He had done so with the other apostles. If we see two distinct revelations in Gal 1:12 and 1:16―God revealing Jesus as the Christ to Paul (1:16; cf. Acts 9:3–9) and then Christ revealing the gospel to Paul (Gal 1:12)―then this revelation by Christ could have been during Paul’s stay in Arabia. The revelation in Gal 1:12 thus takes place in Arabia in Gal 1:17.2

Option 4: Rather than studying, Paul preached the gospel. This preaching could have been when “many days had passed” (Acts 9:23) between his preaching in Damascus (Acts 9:20–22) and escape from arrest in that city (Acts 9:23–25). If so, Paul preached in Damascus (Acts 9:20–22), continued to preach when he “went away into Arabia” (Gal 1:17), and then “returned again to Damascus” (Gal 1:17), only to flee from being arrested (Acts 9:23–25). Comparing Scripture to Scripture, Paul records this same escape in 2 Cor 11:32–33 and adds that it was overseen by the governor of Damascus who was carrying out the orders of the King Aretas who was, notably, king of Arabia. If the king of Arabia was seeking to arrest Paul in Damascus (2 Cor 11:32–33 with Acts 9:23–25), it was likely because Paul was preaching the gospel while in Arabia in Gal 1:17.

The last option seems best. It matches the timeline of Galatians 1 with Acts 9 and finds support in 2 Cor 11:32–33. Paul probably studied the Scriptures during this time just as he did later in life (cf. 2 Tim 4:13) and maybe even had one or more visions. We are not told one way or the other. But if Acts 9 and 2 Corinthians 11 give us any clues, his primary purpose seems to have been a trip to preach Christ until the threat of Aretas chased him back to Damascus.

  1. Options 1 and 2 are summarized as the views of others by Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 106–07, and Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians (ZENCT; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 102–03. Schreiner and Moo both suggest the last option in this post for the reasons that are given below. []
  2. Morris V. Klock, “Ten Appearances to Paul,” Central Bible Quarterly 18 (1975), 26–27. []

What God Thinks about Transgenderism

This post originally appeared on Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary’s blog and has been reposted here with permission.

Former Olympian and gold medalist Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner. A once-decorated army soldier who leaked classified data, Bradley Manning transitioned to Chelsea Manning, who is again in the news for recently being hired by Harvard as a visiting fellow. Despite what seems to have previously been men among men, each of these men now claim to be women. What are we to think of those who “transition” from one gender to the other and thereby become “transgender”?

Bringing it closer to home, I was asked by a junior higher in my church about how to think of her classmate who had allegedly chosen to switch genders. I found out along the way that her older brother has to suffer having a girl change in his locker room’s bathroom stall to prepare for gym class since she claims to be a boy. He doesn’t see her change, but she is apparently free to access the locker room, come to the stall, and leave while everyone else changes in the same locker room, making for an uncomfortable situation.

Have you ever had to personally face these questions? What do you think of the Jenners and Mannings of the world? Who is changing in your child’s locker room? And how do we define transgenderism anyway? Is it something natural, morally acceptable, and maybe even fluid?

As uncomfortable as the topic may be, we face it more and more every day in our society and are pressed for biblical answers. But before getting too mired in modern notions of transgenderism, let’s ground ourselves first in Scripture.

God Created Man as Male and Female

In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve in such a way that sexual orientation, birth gender, gender identity, and sexual behavior were altogether male or female (Gen 1:26–28; 2:18, 23–24). To claim that God intended a masculine and feminine mix of the above characteristics is out of accord with what God Himself states in in His Word.1 And if we are forced to use the modern vernacular of having a “gender identity” that corresponds to our anatomical “physical sex,” a male gender corresponds with the male sex, the female with the female, and never the twain should switch or mix in any way.

Unfortunately, however, Adam and Eve sinned, bringing death and suffering into our world, physical defects included. God stated to Moses, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Ex 4:11). These defects may extend to other parts of the human anatomy as well. As Jesus told His disciples, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth” (Matt 19:12).

But defects in general and especially those that pertain to anatomy that is distinctly male or female were not to be sought or encouraged. In the case that a male’s distinct anatomy was marred by defect or mutilation, he was forbidden to offer sacrifices or participate in Israel’s formal worship of God (Lev 21:20; Deut 23:1). The idea was to not imitate pagan worship that involved the mutilation of one’s genitalia in order to change one’s gender.2 Cross-dressing was explicitly forbidden as well (Deut 22:5). Thus, the presence of a defect, by birth or mutilation, is not seen positively in Scripture. Moreover, defect or not, presenting one’s self as the opposite of one’s sex was explicitly forbidden.

In principle, anything that strays from God created order for man as male or female is not what God intends it to be, and anything that man intentionally does to present himself or herself as the opposite sex of what God has anatomically ordained is sin.

Can Someone Suffer a Truly Transgender Situation?

Having this biblical understanding in hand, let’s consider the possibility of an anatomical defect that makes it genuinely difficult to identify the sex and gender of an individual. The Mayo Clinic describes ambiguous genitalia, the situation in which true transgenderism occurs: “Ambiguous genitalia is a rare condition in which an infant’s external genitals don’t appear to be clearly either male or female. In a baby with ambiguous genitalia, the genitals may not be well-formed or the baby may have characteristics of both sexes. The external sex organs may not match the internal sex organs or genetic sex.”3

Given this difficult situation, is it morally permissible for a true transgender (or intersex) individual to choose his or her gender? Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell notes, “True hermaphrodites are often raised as males (about 75%), but 80% of them are XX, genetically female.”4 If “the true prevalence of intersex is seen to be about 0.018%,”5 then perhaps 18 people out of every 100,000 will be born with intersex conditions, and 14 or 15 of them will be raised as males.6

A pressing moral question, then, seems to be this—is it proper for a true intersex individual to choose a sexual orientation contrary to what his or her family has raised the individual to be? Can an intersex individual “trans” from one gender to the other and glorify God?

Such an individual would have to be convinced that to do so would be correct and honoring to God and just so in face of undoing what his or her social norms have come to be.7 Or perhaps this individual should see his or her suffering this situation as something described by Jesus and glorify God through celibacy (Matt 19:12; cf. 1 Cor 7:6–7, 32).

Applying God’s Word to Modern Transgenderism

Having considered Scripture, it becomes fairly easy to navigate our way through the issues that present themselves today, though society is increasingly hostile to our biblical conclusions. If transgender is defined as it is commonly used today, to “those whose psychological self (‘gender identity’) differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with,”8 then this kind of transgenderism is sin. It claims that an individual who is anatomically male could be psychologically female, and vice versa, something forbidden in Scripture. God’s Word does not allow us to make false distinctions between sexual orientation, birth gender (based on anatomy), gender identity, one’s sex role in society, or sexual behavior.9 God intends these characteristics to be altogether male or female in keeping with how He created them to be.

And, if transgender is so elusive as to be “an umbrella term for transsexuals, cross-dressers (transvestites), transgenderists, gender queers, and people who identify as neither female nor male and/or as neither a man or as a woman,”10 then we stray from God’s created and intended order all the more. The fact that we even have to address these kinds of matters today shows that God has given our society over to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (Rom 1:30).


For the vast majority of humanity that is clearly male and female, we should live as God created us to be and not attempt to transition from one physical sex to the other or land somewhere in between. Transgenderism as it is commonly defined today is sin.

While we may not know why exactly God allows some individuals to be in a genuinely transgender or intersex state, God’s truth is sufficient to guide these individuals, and may such a one glorify God through this suffering and live with the hope that He will one day glorify the bodies the redeemed, anatomical defects included (Isa 35:5–6; Phil 3:20–21; 1 John 3:2).

  1. Cf. Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 191. []
  2. Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy (NAC 4; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 307. []
  3. Mayo Clinic, “Ambiguous genitalia.” Online: Accessed 14 Aug 2017. []
  4. Elizabeth Mitchell, “Feedback: Hermaphroditism.” Answers in Genesis; 4 Dec 2009. Online: Accessed 14 Aug 2017. []
  5. This statistic comes from Leonard Sax, “How common is intersex? A Response to Anne Fausto-Sterling,” Journal of Sex Research 39 (2002): 174–78. Online: Accessed 14 Aug 2017. Sax understands intersex to refer to “those conditions in which chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female.” []
  6. Mitchell, “Feedback: Hermaphroditism.” []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. I originally found this definition from “Definition of Terms” by the Gender Equity Resource Center of Berkeley University of California. Online: Accessed 25 Apr 2015. Though this webpage is no longer available today, a quick internet search of this definition shows that it is commonly used by many institutions. []
  9. John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (2nd ed.; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 310. []
  10. Ibid. []