One of the difficulties with being President of a seminary is writing 'thank you' letters. It is not that I am ungrateful; I am. But I write scores of 'thank you' letters each month and I want to write in a way that genuinely expresses my gratitude without being trite or insincere. So I am sympathetic with the Apostle Paul, who also wrote many letters. At least thirteen of his letters are included in the Bible, and he began each letter according to the letter writing form of his day. He begins with a description of himself, next he mentions those to whom he is writing, and finally he declares a blessing for them. We are tempted to think that Paul used this form mindlessly, much as we often greet a stranger by asking 'How are you?' Often we do not really want to know how the person is doing; it is simply a formal greeting. When we read Paul's greetings, we tend to skip over them, thinking that there is nothing important in them. If we look carefully, however, at the salutations, we will discover that in each case he personalizes the salutation to fit the needs of the church and to lay the foundation for what he intends to write.

1. Apostolic Authority (1:1)

In verse 1 Paul begins by highlighting the uniqueness of his call: Paul, an apostle (not sent from men or through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead). In nine of his thirteen epistles, Paul begins by referring to himself as an apostle, a simple designation that points to the unique authority with which he wrote. The apostles were the spokesmen for the Lord Jesus Christ; those through whom Christ revealed his will to the church; those who by inspiration wrote much of the New Testament. The apostles—and others such as Luke and Mark who wrote under their authority—wrote with Christ's authority. Therefore, Paul uses this title to demonstrate his divine authority to write scripture.

The term 'apostle' means 'sent one' or 'messenger'. Occasionally the term is used for an ordinary messenger or emissary. Interestingly, in each of those cases in the New Testament the term always refers to 'a messenger of the church'. For example, Paul writes in Philippians 2:25 of Epaphroditis, 'who is also your messenger (apostle).' When biblical writers, however, use the term absolutely, calling such 'an apostle' or relate the person to Jesus Christ and call him 'the apostle of Christ,' they refer to one of the thirteen men (the twelve plus Paul), whom Christ appointed to the office of being his inspired spokesmen and writers, the foundation stones on which he would build his church (Eph. 2:20).

Notice how Paul expands the title by giving an elaborate description of his call. False teachers (I call them shadow apostles, since they followed Paul around) were claiming that Paul was not a true apostle. Therefore, as he begins his letter, he must carefully defend his apostolic office. He expands on his call both negatively and positively. Negatively, with respect to this call, he says he was 'not sent from men, nor through the agency of man.'

First, he asserts that his call is not from men. Every legitimate gospel minister must be able to say with the apostle Paul that he is not called or sent from men. A true minister does not thrust himself into the office; he does not run without being sent. God alone calls into the ministry. And so Paul's first negation applies to all ministers as well to the apostles.

Second, Paul expands his remarks with respect to his call in a way that applies exclusively to apostles: 'nor through the agency of man.' With these words, he describes his call to the apostleship. Paul points out that with respect to this call there was no human agency. In other words, the call was of a supernatural origin. In Paul's case, he received his call on the road to Damascus when God saved him.

The second part of the negation leads to the positive assertion that his call was 'through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.' Here Paul asserts the supernatural origin of his call. Note, in passing, how he joins the Father and the Son grammatically; both the Son and the Father are the objects of the one preposition 'from'. (He uses a similar structure in verse 3.) By combining them in this manner, he expresses the unity of the divine Godhead; he asserts that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, equal with the Father. Observe as well the contrast between the agency of man and the agency of Christ Jesus. If Paul was not called through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, then Jesus Christ is not merely a man; He is the God-man. By these simple expressions, Paul lays the foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity: these divine persons are the same in substance, equal in power and glory. So Paul joins the two persons together to emphasize the divine nature of his call. His call on the road to Damascus was a call from the triune God.

Furthermore, notice how Paul emphasizes the resurrection of Christ. An apostle must have been an eyewitness of the resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:22). Although he was not a disciple during Christ's earthly ministry, Paul could bear witness to the fact of the resurrection because he had been called to be an apostle by the risen Christ when he appeared to Paul in resurrection glory on the road to Damascus.

Paul, therefore, demonstrates that he was called by Christ and not by men. True, Ananias laid hands on Paul (Acts 9:10-19), but he simply repeated what God had already told Paul and done in him on the Damascus road. It is also true the church at Antioch commissioned Paul (Acts 13:1-3), but it was the Spirit of the Father and the Son who instructed them to do so. Hence Paul asserts that he was as uniquely an apostle as the twelve, since his call came directly from God.

Paul further demonstrates the unique nature of his office by contrasting himself with fellow pastors. He includes them in the greeting in verse 2: And all the brethren who are with me. By these words Paul shows his true humility. Paul often referred to those around him as fellow workers, fellow soldiers, and fellow labourers in the gospel. He was not on an ego trip. He had no need to lord it over his companions in order to guard his authority. Moreover, often in his letters, he included the names of those who laboured with him. In doing so he is saying, 'I have consulted with my fellow ministers, and they have heard my doctrine and are in perfect agreement with me.' Here he uses them as witnesses against the Judaizers.

Note, however, that Paul consciously distinguishes himself with respect to office. Although he treated them as co-workers, they did not share in his apostolic authority. His was the apostolic office; he was the inspired writer, not they.

Therefore, with a few strokes of a pen Paul asserts his apostolic authority. Because of this authority, we are studying the book of Galatians almost two thousand years later. The book of Galatians was written by an apostle, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That is why this book, along with the other sixty-five books, is in the Bible. They are not in the Bible because a man or a church council decided they should be included. No! They are self-attesting words of God. They bear the imprint of divine authority. From this very simple apostolic defence, we learn about the authority of the Bible and the confidence that we should have as we study it.

2. The Galatian Problem (1:2)

The recipients of this letter were the churches of Galatia (v. 2). Galatia was a Roman province which covered most of modern Turkey (see the Introduction). The province received its name from a group of Celtic invaders who came across from Europe and settled in the northern part of what is now Turkey, around the city of Ankara. Later those cities, in alliance with Rome, subdued the southern portion of that area and the whole territory became known as the 'Galatian Province.' Hence Paul is writing to churches located in Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium. Note, that although he addresses them in the plural, 'the churches of Galatia,' he writes to them as a unit and deals with them as one church. The New Testament often uses the word, ecclesia, to describe the church located in a geographical area, which some call the regional church. Paul could as easily have written 'the church of Galatia.' In fact, in Galatians 1:13, he uses the term, ecclesia, in this way: 'For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and try to destroy it.' Paul attacked many different congregations, but he refers to them as the 'church of God.' This language reminds us of one of the biblical foundation stones for the Presbyterian system of church government; namely, the Bible uses the term 'church' for both an individual congregation and for a collection of congregations.

Paul's manner of addressing the churches in Galatia alerts them and us to the urgency with which he wrote. When Paul addressed the recipients of a letter, he would add some descriptive phrase. For example in addressing 'the church of God which is at Corinth' (1 Cor. 1:2), he goes on to address them as 'those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.' In fact, in almost every salutation, whether he was writing to a church or to an individual, Paul added certain specific details that personally distinguished the recipient. Yet with respect to the Galatians, he simply writes 'to the churches of Galatia'. Why does Paul alter his style in this one instance? His abruptness expresses the urgency of the letter and the great danger facing the congregation.

The sense of urgency is further expressed by the absence of any prayer or word of commendation. In his letters to all the other churches, Paul, after the words of blessing, would either express thanksgiving, a word of commendation or comfort, or a prayer. However, to the Galatian congregations, after the words of blessing, he immediately issues a warning (v. 6): 'I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel.' His amazement at their backsliding, his fear of their desertion for a different gospel, explains the brevity of the greeting. The very manner in which Paul addresses the Galatians is a blaring siren and a flashing red light. Paul is shouting with his pen, 'Look out! You are in great danger.' The Galatian Church was in serious peril.

The Galatian threat came from those whom I call shadow apostles. They were Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, who followed (shadowed) Paul around and taught his Gentile converts that they must become Jews in order to enjoy the full privileges of the church and the full remission of their sins. I also call them shadow apostles because they claimed a unique relationship with the church in Jerusalem. They alleged they were acting under the authority of the church in Jerusalem, with the authority of the apostles there. In order to discredit Paul's doctrine, they attacked his authority. These false teachers are called Judaizers. They taught that Jewish ceremonies, particularly circumcision, were necessary for a full standing in the church. As we will see later, Paul calls their message a different gospel.

Before we leave this section, let us note as well the subtlety of Satan. This church that was in danger of losing the gospel was founded by the apostle Paul. He was their first teacher. How can it be that an apostolic church could fall so quickly? This defection reminds us of the subtle ways of Satan and it alerts us to be watchful. We tend to think that because we trust Christ and are members of sound churches, both we and our churches are free from the danger of error. Do not forget that Satan never lets up. Paul warned the Ephesians elders in Acts 20:29, 30: 'I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.' We must always be on our guard.

3. The Benefits Of The Gospel (1:3-5)

In verse 3, Paul declares the benefits of the gospel: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. These two terms, grace and peace, summarize these great provisions. Grace is God's attribute of benevolence and kindness by which He shows favour to some sinners, who deserved damnation, and delivers them from their sins.

Flowing from God's gracious character are His gracious acts on behalf of His people. It is the grace of God that regenerates them, justifies them, adopts them, and sanctifies them. Furthermore, the grace of God is the strength and the nurture that He freely gives them for Christ's sake so that they grow in grace and become strong in the Lord. So Paul reminds his readers of the rich benefits which God gave them and of the mercy of God which sustains them and causes them to become increasingly Christlike. The phrase 'grace to you' is at the heart of the gospel. God in Christ gives to His people everything they need to live well the Christian life and then to live with Him in heaven for evermore.

In the gospel, the grace of God is accompanied with the declaration of God's peace. This peace is an objective peace. Christians once were God's enemies, and He looked upon them with a just wrath. Now God's wrath is turned away and He is reconciled to them. In this objective act of reconciliation, God first enables them to turn to Him in repentance, faith and love and then accepts them as His children.

The first fruit of this reconciliation is peace of conscience. Paul says in Romans 5:1: 'Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.' Without Christ our consciences condemn us and remind us of the judgment to come. In reconciliation God quiets the conscience through cleansing it by the blood of Christ (1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 10:22). With this peace of conscience comes a wholeness of life. We understand that God, having given us His Son, will, in Him, freely give us all things. We have contentment and even joy in all circumstances and trials.

Therefore, these two words, grace and peace, summarize the benefits of the gospel. Note that this is a declaration and not a wish. Christians have good wishes for other people. We pray for one another that God will bless us. I often sign my letters 'God bless you' and I really mean that; it is my desire and prayer for that person. Yet Paul here means more than good wishes. In pronouncing grace and peace, Paul states that God is communicating these things to His people.

The Source of the Benefits (v. 3)

We see the surety of the declaration by its source: 'Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.' Paul connects under the one preposition 'from' the first and second Persons of the Godhead and in joining the two names together he shows the full certainty of the declaration of grace and peace. It comes from God, who is reconciled to us as Father and who bestows this blessing upon us and it comes to us on the basis of the mediatorial work of Christ. Paul uses all three of the names of our Saviour, 'the Lord Jesus Christ,' to teach the sufficiency of His work. The title 'Christ' teaches that our Saviour was anointed by God as our prophet, priest, and king. While He was on earth He exercised these offices and, now in heaven, He is exercising them on our behalf (see Shorter Catechism questions 23-26). As prophet He reveals to us God's will for our salvation; as priest He has atoned for our sins and continues to pray for us; as king He rules over us and protects us. The personal name 'Jesus' reminds us that He is the God-man who alone can save us: 'You shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins' (Matt. 1:21). The title 'Lord' establishes that He is Jehovah God, who is now exalted in heaven and before whom every knee shall bow.

The Foundation of the Gospel Benefits (v. 4)

Paul has already anticipated what he would say in verse 4 by declaring in verse 3 that 'grace and peace is from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ'. In verse 4, he spells out the foundation of salvation: (Christ) who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.

Salvation, purposed for His people by God, has been purchased for them by Christ. The phrase 'gave Himself for our sins' refers to Christ's death on the cross. Paul is teaching the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and reminds his readers that the Lord Jesus Christ became their substitute: God 'made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him' (2 Cor. 5:21). As high-priest, He offered His perfect life as the propitiatory sacrifice for their sins. 'Propitiatory' means that Jesus Christ, the pure and spotless Son of God, bore the wrath of God in the place of His people. He interposed Himself between God's just wrath and them. On Calvary's cross He paid the penalty of sin by suffering in His body and soul the eternal punishment due to sinners. God punished His Son so He could justly look with favour on those whose place the Son took and give them grace and peace. In other words, grace and peace are ours because Christ offered Himself up as a sacrifice.

Note that the purpose of this sacrifice is further explained, 'in that' or 'in order that'; namely, 'for the purpose of delivering us out of this present evil age' (v. 4). The Bible speaks of two ages: the present age that stretches from the fall of Adam to the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the age to come when God's people shall live with Him in the glorified eternal state. The present age is an evil age. Some Bible versions translate the word 'age' as 'world'. This translation is acceptable as long as we think of the 'world' in terms of the immoral world system. The physical, created world is not evil. Rocks and trees or food and drink in and of themselves are not evil. The world system is evil because it is under the dominion of Satan (2 Cor. 4:4).

This age is under the prince of darkness and we are in it in the bondage of our sins, the lust of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, children of wrath. But Christ, by His perfect sacrifice, has delivered His people from this evil age. He makes them sons and daughters of God. So not only does God forgive their sins, but also He makes them kings and priests unto God (Rev. 1:6; 5:10). Therefore, Christ in His perfect work has delivered them not only from the guilt and curse of sin, but also from the bondage and dominion of sin. God saved His people not simply to rescue them from hell, but also to conform them to the image of Jesus Christ.

The word 'deliver' or 'rescue' is a very strong word. It means to rescue from bondage and slavery (Acts 7:10, 34). It implies that Christ is a strong Saviour, who has done everything to deliver His people from the clutches of Satan and the power of his dominion. Yet their deliverance, although complete, is not fully realized in this life. In His wisdom, God did not free them completely from sin in this present evil age. He has left in each of them a remnant of sin so that they might work out their salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God at work in them both to will and to do His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12, 13). Christians live in two worlds—in the already and in the not yet. They have begun to participate in heavenly realities; their citizenship is there and it cannot be lost. But they are also here in the midst of this present evil age, although no longer of the world; they have been delivered from it, but still live in it and struggle with the remnants of indwelling sin.

At the end of verse 4, Paul joins the purpose of God the Father to the work of Christ—'according to the will of our God and Father.' Some imagine a conflict exists between the Father and the Son with respect to our salvation. They view God the Father as stern and full of wrath and God the Son as gracious and forgiving. Paul reminds us that Christ has acted according to the eternal will of the Father. In other words, God has eternally planned our salvation. As Paul teaches in Ephesians 1:4, God chose His people in Christ before the foundation of the world. Perhaps Paul mentioned God's unified plan of salvation to demonstrate that the Judaizers were wrong when they taught that the Jews (the old covenant people) were saved in any way other than by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

The Purpose of the Gospel (v. 5)

In verse 5, Paul concludes the salutation by pointing to the purpose of the gospel—to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen. This phase is so typical of Paul. He cannot write about salvation without praising God. He begins his discussion of election in the same manner in Ephesians 1:3: 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.' With the words of verse 5, Paul states the important truth that it was God's purpose, from all eternity, to save a people by sovereign grace, so that He might be glorified in them (Eph. 1:6; Rom. 11:36).

The Galatians needed to be reminded of this truth, because the system of the Judaizers promoted self-congratulation: 'I have done something to contribute to my salvation; I have been circumcised; I keep the Mosaic Law.' The moment we add some aspect of works to our acceptance with God, ceremonial or moral—walking an aisle or answering an invitation, being baptized, and being covenantally faithful—we introduce the element of self-congratulation. Such boasting is contrary to God's purpose in salvation. God saves by grace so that His people might boast in Him and in Him alone (1 Cor. 1:31).

The ultimate purpose of the gospel is that saved sinners should give all glory and honour to the triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches that man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. All of life needs to revolve around this centre. The desire for God's glory is the fountain of all true obedience. The grace of the gospel and the free grace of salvation do not make the redeemed passive. If Jesus Christ has died to deliver us from this present evil age, our concern should be to live in the power of that deliverance. We express our gratitude and we glorify God by seeking to walk carefully according to His law.

Study Questions

  1. How does Paul begin his letters?
  2. What are the three parts of the salutation?
  3. Why is the salutation important?
  4. Give a definition of an Apostle?
  5. Why was it important that Paul defends his apostolic authority?
  6. What two things does Paul say negatively about his call?
  7. What does he assert positively about his call?
  8. What does the salutation teach about Paul's view of church government?
  9. What was the problem that Paul was addressing in the Galatian congregations?
  10. What are some manifestations of this problem today?
  11. What are the great benefits of the gospel?
  12. What is the basis of these benefits?
  13. How does the salutation prove the doctrine of the trinity?