Galatians: Witherington on 2.15-21


The story is told of William Herschel. As a young boy he loved military music, and growing up in Hanover in Germany he joined a military band. When his nation went to war, he was one of those leading the military band. As a young man he was totally unprepared for the horrors of war, and the result was that before long he deserted his military unit and fled the battle scene during an intense period of fighting.

He fled to England, and began to pursue further training in both music and science. Thinking he was in the clear, he grew and prospered in his new country. In fact he made various scientific discoveries that made him famous, and he gained renown for his musical abilities. However, after Herschel came to the British Isles, another Hanoverian also came to live there – George who in fact became the King of England. King George knew of Herschel’s past desertion of the army and summoned the great musician and scientist to appear before the royal court. Herschel went with fear and trembling, and when he arrived in the palace he was told to wait a considerable time in an ante-chamber to the throne room. Then, finally, one of the King’s servants came to Herschel and handed him a document and told him to read it. He opened it with fear, only to discover that it read ‘I George pardon you for your past offenses against our native land. George had pronounced the verdict of no condemnation on William Herschel, and in fact the document went on to say that for his outstanding service to humankind as a musician and a scientist, he was not to become Sir William Herschel: he was to be knighted! He had gone from criminal to honored dignitary in an instance, quite apart from what he might have deserved according to German law (the penalty for desertion was death).

Paul is saying that this is what God’s pronouncement of pardon does for all of us who accept it. It not only removes the source of alienation; it places us in a favored relationship with God.

This story perfectly illustrates Paul’s concept of justification – it is a matter of God pronouncing a verdict of no condemnation on the sinner, or, put positively, it is a matter of declaring that the person in question was justified, in right relationship to the Law and the Law giver, even though he was in fact far from perfect. With the legal judgment of no condemnation (cf. Rom. 8.1f) comes the implication that sins have been forgiven, and so one need no longer be estranged from God. Yet estrangement is not overcome merely by a pronouncement from above. One must respond in faith to such a pronouncement. One must accept forgiveness. Forgiveness offered is not the same as forgiveness received.

Grace in Galatia by Ben Witherington; p.195