[We] 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 2:16 NIV
What must I do to be saved? The Philippian jailer asked Paul this question. And Paul responded that he needed to believe in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:30-31). But some in the early church did not think that was enough. They taught that a person must also keep the law given through Moses (Acts 15:5). This letter to the Galatian churches was written to refute this claim.
Justified is a legal term issued by a judge, declaring a person to be not guilty. A trial was held, and the accused would be declared innocent if the evidence presented was insufficient to prove guilt.
But the justification Paul refers to here is not a declaration from a human judge. And it is not the result of an earthly trial. Instead, God is the judge, and I stand in his courtroom, accused of sin, of rebellion against God himself. And I am guilty. The evidence is overwhelmingly against me. What hope do I have?
Those Paul opposed presented one alternative. To receive a declaration of righteousness by faithfully observing the requirements of the law. To somehow earn my justification. But Paul was clear that justification would never come through the law. I could never do enough to overcome my sin and earn my salvation.
The other alternative is to put my faith in Christ Jesus, trusting him with my life and surrendering to him as Lord. And when I do, I am justified—by faith in Christ. God declares me righteous before him. Not because of anything I have done. But because of what Christ has done for me.