An Important Beginning
A study of the beginning of Paul’s letters is a profitable enterprise. One might mistakenly assume that because the apostle at the outset closely follows the style of letter-writing of his day and uses stereotyped phrases and prescriptive formulas the first verses can be advantageously skipped or, at least, run through quickly. As a matter of fact, however, his letters do not all begin the same way. The descriptive phrases Paul uses to introduce himself, the initial tone with which he addresses his readers, and the contents of the greeting vary a great deal from letter to letter. Paul follows a stylized form, but with such variety that the reader can often get a clue as to what is coming in the body of the letter and can find in the Introduction phrases and clauses rich with theological import.
The structure of the Introduction to the Galatian letter is no different from the structure of the other Pauline letters: from Paul (sender); to the churches of Galatia (readers); grace to you and peace (greeting). And yet the manner in which these three components are elaborated (or not elaborated, as in the case of the readers) makes the Galatian Introduction like no other. For example, Paul’s apostleship is affirmed first by a denial. Not from a human source or through a human mediator does he claim the apostolic authority to write as he does to the Galatians, but through Jesus Christ himself and God, “who raised him from the dead” (1:1). Immediately an issue surfaces. The opponents in Galatia have either deliberately set out to undermine the authenticity of Paul’s message by declaring his apostleship an inferior one, or, more likely, they have implied as much by the manner and content of their own preaching. Paul departs from the self-designations most familiar to us from his other epistles, for example, “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle” (Rom. 1:1; cf. Phil. 1:1), “an apostle of Jesus Christ” by the will of God (II Cor. 1:1; cf. I Cor. 1:1). Instead he sets about right away to engage his opponents by clarifying the source of his authority, a concern which occupies much of the first two chapters. One cannot, then, hastily bypass the Introduction without missing an integral piece of the argument.
But the Introduction bears careful scrutiny for a more important reason. The elaborated greeting provides the theological starting point for Paul’s thinking in this letter and summarizes the message which occupies the end of the second and most of the final four chapters. Jesus Christ is identified as the one “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (1:4). The reason Paul so vehemently attacks the agitators who operate in the Galatian communities with their message of circumcision lies in his conviction that there is no salvation except in the crucified Christ. The legalist, whether of the first century or the twentieth, errs precisely in presupposing, consciously or not, that the death of Christ is insufficient and must be augmented. Paul contends that “if righteousness comes by law, then Christ died for nothing” (2:21, NEB). The apostle starts, then, not with an analysis of the world with its dire needs nor with individuals and their self-consciousness but with Christ and his saving act.
Look at the various components of this identification of Christ. First, he “gave himself for our sins” (v.4). Normally Paul uses the singular “sin” and so may in this verse (as in I Cor. 15:3) be following a traditional formula; but in any case he clearly relates the self-giving of Christ to our dark past, both as a community and as individuals. Christ’s death has an expiatory character, and that means, to change the metaphor, freedom from the dismal shadow which yesterday so often casts over today.
Frankly, talk of “sins” today often seems archaic. The word in certain contexts takes on the character of jargon as the user carefully avoids the difficulties of serious moral discussion about concrete issues. In like manner, the language of expiation seems quaint and unrelated. Perhaps the problem lies, in part, in the failure to grasp the extraordinary radicality in the phrase, “Christ died for our sins.” This implies, among other things, that as our representative he has actually taken our place and assumed the responsibility for our irresponsibility, our complicity in the oppression of the weak, all our personal failures. We need no longer languish in our guilt nor pummel ourselves or one another with recriminations or remorse. Karl Barth has put it this way:
But the great and inconceivable thing is that He acts as Judge in our place by taking upon Himself, by accepting responsibility for that which we do in this place.... And as he does that, it ceases to be our sin. It is no longer our affair to prosecute and represent this case. The right and possibility of doing so has been denied and taken away from us. What He in divine omnipotence did amongst us as one of us prevents us from being our own judges, from even wanting to be, from making that senseless attempt on the divine perogative, from sinning in that way and making ourselves guilty. In that He was and is for us that end is closed, and so is the evil way to that end. He is the man who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer (Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, Part 1, p. 236).
Christ died for our sins, and thus we need no longer cling to them. Whatever guilt has done for us—protect us or haunt us—in the face of the gospel it is no more than a fleeting fantasy. “It is no longer our aifair to prosecute and represent this case.” Jacques Ellul comments, “Thus the past lives, not in the hell of my unconscious, but in the holiness of God” (The Ethics of Freedom, p. 140).
But the basic human question is not only what to do with our past sins, but how to cope with the conflicts of the present and the future. How can one be changed so that yesterday’s errors are not repeated? Can the cycle of irresponsibility, complicity, and failure be broken? The salutation goes on to say that Christ died “to deliver us from the present evil age.” Paul employs the eschatological language of Judaism to describe the current situation under the domination of evil in contrast to the (implied) age to come, characterized by freedom and hope (cf. I Cor. 2:6, 8; 3:18; Rom. 12:2; Eph. 1:21; 2:7). The stress here lies not on the chronology of the ages—when one begins and the other ends—since both exist simultaneously, but on the controlling power of the one from which rescue is needed. Whereas the language of “sins” suggests an expiatory view of the atonement, deliverance “from the present evil age” reflects the movement from one control to another based on participation with Christ in his death. It is the most prominent imagery in Galatians for the salvation-event (2:19–20; 3:23–26; 4:1–7, 8–9; 5:1; 6:14; cf. Rom. 6:5–11; 7:1–6; Eph. 2:1–10, etc.).
Though from an ancient thought-structure, Paul’s language here has a more familiar ring. The feeling of being trapped, of being the pawn in the hands of a despotic chess player, of being caught by a power, whether experienced as an internal compulsion or an external force, is not strange. Such an enslavement prohibits a facing, much less a coping with, the moral dilemmas of present and future. It assures the repetition of yesterday’s cycle. Its deterministic patterns can be broken only when a more potent authority steps in to deliver those who are hopelessly caught on a vicious treadmill. The death of Christ, Paul says, performs just this rescue operation and sets the liberated in the service of a new Lord (1:3). Not only is the past dealt with, but Christians are now under a control which empowers them for the present and future.
The elaborated greeting includes a third component. Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” The phrase “the will of God” appears in the salutation of a number of epistles (I Cor. 1:1; II Cor 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; II Tim. 1:1), and yet in all other instances it relates to the writer’s status as apostle, whereas in Galatians it defines the saving work of Christ. In light of the controversy Paul addresses, it is important that he make clear that Christ’s death was neither an accident nor a tragedy in the line of the martyr’s sacrifice; it had to do with a larger, divine plan. The gospel had been announced beforehand to Abraham (3:8); only “when the time had fully come” did God send forth his son (4:4). Paul’s own relationship with God began long before his birth (1:15). God had a purpose in the events of Good Friday to bring about the planned deliverance. To suggest, then, as the agitators at Galatia were doing, that Christ’s death was insufficient and needed to be supplemented with further rites and rules was to advocate a position contrary to the will of God.
The foundation on which Paul builds his case is laid in the Introduction to the letter. Theologically, the fault with the Galatian heresy and any other expression of legalism is what it assumes, whether stated or not (and of course usually not), about the meaning of the death of Christ. Is he adequate to cure the paralysis resulting from human sins or is he not? Does he liberate from the domination of evil, or does he not? Is the death of this one man really the means for dealing with the network of broken relationships and the recurring cycle of destructive behavior which for so long have been a part of the human condition? This is the basic issue of the letter and one to which the apostle will return in a variety of ways throughout the six chapters.
It is significant that nowhere in the beginning of this epistle does Paul express his gratitude for or make a word of affirmation about his readers. Galatians is the only Pauline letter in which the traditional prayer of thanksgiving is omitted (cf. Rom. 1:8–15; I Cor. 1:4–9; Phil.1:3-11). At the point where such a prayer would normally have come in the outline, Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ” (1:6). When believers are abandoning the gospel for a perversion of the truth, the situation leaves him little for which to be thankful. There is no reason to pretend that things are better than they are. The issue is frankly grave.