Galatians is undoubtedly the most controv-ersial, the most polemical, and the most personal of all of the New Testament books. Because of its vigorous defense of justification by faith and the Christian’s freedom from the curse of the law, Galatians has been called the ‘Magna Carta of Christian liberty.’ Many of the church fathers wrote commentaries on it (e.g. Chrysostom, Augustine, Victorinus, and Jerome). James Montgomery Boice calls it ‘the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation.’ (Vol. 10, ed. F. E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 409. Its influence upon Luther was particularly profound. His expositions of Galatians at the University of Wittenburg, begun on October 27, 1516, preceded the publishing of the Ninety-Five Thesis which launched the Reformation by one year almost to the day (October 31, 1517). Luther’s commentary on it, published in 1519, exerted enormous influence then and repeatedly since. Charles Wesley and others during the Great Awakening were converted while reading it. Luther said of Galatians, ‘I am wedded to it,’ calling it his ‘Katie von Bora.’
Why is it so important? Because in the context of adirect challenge by legalists, the Apostle Paul defends the gospel against the encroachments of its most persistent enemy, the religion of merit. Nowhere in the Bible is it clearer that one can only be saved through faith alone in Christ alone apart from works. Galatians is from beginning to end dealing with the answer to the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Given that all of us must one day die and stand before God, there can be no more important question, and none on behalf of which we ought to exert ourselves to be sure that we have answered it correctly.
We must begin by looking at the background to this epistle. What issues were the occasion of its writing? The basic issue was the relation between law and justification. Around ad 50 the church faced its first doctrinal crisis. More and more the gospel was taking root in Gentile communities around the Mediterranean. As these non-Jews came to believe in Christ and enter what here-tofore had been largely a Jewish Christian church, the question naturally arose regarding their relation to customs and traditions of Judaism. Would Gentile believers be required to keep the Law of Moses, particularly its ceremonial aspects, in order to be Christians? The defining issue was circumcision. Some were teaching, as Luke reports, that ‘unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1). Another important question was that of ceremonial cleanliness (2:11 ff.). Could Jewish and Gentile Christians enjoy table fellowship together? Could they share a meal, or would a practicing Jew (though now a Christian) be contaminated by contact with Gentiles, as Jewish traditions taught? Apparently the issue of observing the Jewish sacred calendar also was raised (4:10). ‘In short,’ says Lightfoot, ‘nothing less than submission to the whole ceremonial law seems to have been contemplated by the innovators.’ (1890, London: Macmillan, 1986), 27. Thus both the unity of the church and the graciousness of the gospel were being threatened. The ‘Judaizers,’ as they came to be called, were insisting that the Gentile believers also perform the ceremonial rites and observe the religious festivals of Judaism, and be, in effect, practicing Jews as well as Christians. Membership in the community of God’s people as well as salvation itself were said to depend upon it.
Please note that no one was denying that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. No one was denying that Jesus had been raised from the grave. No one was denying that His commands must be obeyed. No one was denying that He must be believed in if one is to be saved. This was affirmed by all. Indeed the manner in which the Apostle Paul contrasts his call to be an apostle as being ‘not sent from men…but through Jesus Christ,’ implying as it does that Jesus stands on God’s side of the line that separates God and man, assumes agreement even at this point. As Machen points out, ‘even the Judaizers, so far as we can see, had no quarrel with the Apostle Paul’s lofty view of Christ.’ Paul, he notes, ‘does not argue about it,’ and ‘seems to be under no necessity whatever of defending it against attack within the Church.’, ed. J. H. Skilton (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1977), 15. But they were adding to Christ these ceremonial ordinances as necessary, at least, if mutual fellow-ship between Jews and Gentiles was to be enjoyed, and probably for salvation as well. As Bruce summarizes, ‘even if they demand only a token measure of law-keeping from the Galatians, any such demand involves acceptance of the principle of justification by works of the law.’ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 19.
The second issue was the apostleship of Paul. More clearly and more forcefully than anyone else, the Apostle was teaching that Gentile Christians were free from the ceremonial requirements of Mosaic Law. Consequently, along with this attack on the gospel came an attack on the chief emissary of that gospel, the Apostle Paul himself. It is easy enough to see how the two are related. The Apostle Paul was watering down the gospel, they were saying. He was altering the gospel as the Twelve had preached it in order to make it more appealing to Gentiles. Consequently, they denied that he was authorized to preach such a message. They denied that he was a true apostle at all. Whatever authority he had, they may have said, it was less than that of the Twelve who, in fact, disapproved of his departure from Jewish ancestral traditions. Thus there was a two pronged attack: one against the message, one against the messenger. One denies the sufficiency of grace; the other denies the authority of the Apostle Paul. On these two fronts, Paul will counterattack.
Amongst whom and when were these issues swirling? The Apostle addresses himself to ‘the churches of Galatia’ (v. 2). Who are they? The term ‘Galatia,’ can be used to refer to two separate regions in present day Asia Minor or Turkey. The scholars debate whether or not it indicates ‘northern’ or ‘southern’ Galatia. The former was the homeland of amigratory Celtic people who also settled in present day France (and later Britain) and were called ‘Gauls,’ and came to be distinguished from the West-European Gauls by the term ‘Gallo-Graecians,’ from which the term ‘Galatians’ was derived. Or it could refer to the ‘southern’ Galatian region which carried the Roman provincial name of ‘Galatia,’ and included such cities as Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium, that is, major cities of the empire to which Paul was inclined to visit, and indeed did visit, as we read in Acts 13 and 14. Most modern scholars take the latter view though the matter cannot be resolved with certainty. Whichever is the case, Paul himself had brought the gospel of grace to the ‘churches of Galatia.’ He was, in some respects, their ‘founding pastor.’ He refers in 4:13 ff. to a ‘bodily illness’ of an especially repulsive nature which detained him in Galatia, leading to his ministry among them. They responded to his proclamation as though Paul were ‘an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.’ He had a deep affection for them. Consequently, when they began to listen to the Judaizers, he reacted with righteous indignation. ‘You foolish Galatians,’ he says, ‘who has bewitched you?’ ‘I fear for you,’ he complains, ‘that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.’ ‘Would that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves’ (3:1; 4:11; 5:12). The Apostle sees in their changing views a supreme crisis for the church, one which is undermining the gospel itself. About this he is clear and dogmatic. Those who add works to grace preach ‘a different gospel,’ they ‘distort the gospel of Christ,’ and are ‘accursed’ (1:6–9).
It is difficult to date the precise time of writing. It is fairly certain that it lies between the eve of the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, usually dated at ad 48–49, and the Apostle Paul’s imprisonment recorded in Acts 21, approximately ad 58. Paul’s lengthy stay in Ephesus, about ad 52, is often cited as a likely possibility. F. F. Bruce and R. Y. K. Fung argue for the earlier date. It is typically regarded as the earliest of the New Testament books, indeed the earliest extant Christian document, and therefore provides us with our first glimpse of the primitive church.
Finally, we may broadly outline the epistle as follows.
1:1–10 Salutation and Introduction of Issues
1:11–2:21 Defense of Paul’s Apostleship
3:1–5:12 Defense of the Gospel
5:13–6:10 Practical Exhortations
Paul begins with an introductory defense of his apostleship.
Paul, an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead). (Gal. 1:1)
This unusual introduction shows Paul’s under-standing of the importance of the issues.
Let us remember that the Apostle Paul is one of the primary authors of the New Testament. He was once aviolent persecutor of the church, but was dramatically converted on the Damascus road, was called by Christ to be an apostle, and went on to be the greatest missionary in the history of the Christian Church. Paul’s introduction contains all of the usual elements found in the letters of antiquity and his letters to the other churches: the writer’s name, the name of those to whom the letter is written, and an expression of good wishes (‘grace and peace’). But unlike his other letters, there is no expression of praise for the Galatian churches. Instead, he plunges directly into the matters of concern which will be addressed throughout the letter. Immediately he defends his apostleship and his gospel from those who had attacked it. I am ‘Paul,’ he says, ‘an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father.’ Compare this, for example with the opening lines of Philippians:
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. (Phil. 1:1–5)
The tone is entirely different. He is obviously pleased with the Philippian believers. He has deep affection for them. His thanksgiving overflows. There is a complete absence of the defensiveness of Galatians, even as Galatians is devoid of the affectionate and thankful tone of Philippians. Listen to him again with the Ephesians:
For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers.(Eph. 1:15–16)
Similarly he says to the Colossians:
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: grace to you and peace from God our Father. We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints. (Col. 1:1–4)
With both the Ephesians and the Colossians, he identifies himself, his readers, offers grace and peace, as in all his correspondence. But then he overflows with thanksgiving and praise for them. The same is true for Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians. But, uniquely, in the letter to the Galatians, there is an urgency that is missing in all the rest of letters. He foregoes the niceties. He gets right down to business. He is urgent, even indignant, and he will not be deflected even for a moment from his task of defending the gospel from those who threaten it. This means initially that he must defend his authority to preach his gospel. This is not personal defensiveness on his part. He defends himself because it is crucial to his defense of the gospel itself. If he is discredited, his gospel is discredited.
In what sense could he claim to be an ‘apostle’? An ‘apostle,’ in the non-technical sense, means a‘sent one,’ a messenger, a missionary (Acts 14:14; Rom. 16:7; Luke 11:49; 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25). But it is also used in the New Testament in a restrictive sense, designating a special office in the Christian church. The ‘Apostles’ were those set apart by Christ for the purpose of building the foundation of the church. The first chapter of Acts lays down two requirements for apostles: that they had been eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus from the time of His baptism by John, including the resurrection, and that they had been chosen for the office by the risen Lord Himself. These criteria were fulfilled by the original Twelve and others who may have joined their ranks, including Barnabas, James, and Silvanus (1 Cor. 15:7; 1 Thess. 2:7). But the Apostle Paul obviously did not. He is an exception in this, and many other ways. He had not been a witness of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Boice points out, ‘undoubtedly he considered his Damascus experience to be the equivalent of this.’, 425. He had witnessed Christ and been called by Him only after the resurrection. Yet this was more than enough. No man or group of men had called him to be an apostle. Not even the apostles had asked him to be an apostle. ‘Paul, an apostle,’ he says, ‘(not sent from men nor through the agency of men, but through Jesus Christ).’ His call was a divine call. His gospel, consequently, was a divine gospel. ‘Am I not an apostle?’ he will later ask. ‘Have I not seen the Lord?’ (1 Cor. 9:1). We should note that the apostles’ authority came to them directly from Christ. It was not given to them by the church. The church was subject to them, not they to the church. The church did not commission them, rather they, through the gospel that Christ gave to them, called the church into existence.
So Paul makes this initial point. He just touches on it in the salutation. He will spend the rest of the first and second chapters elaborating the point. But from the outset he lets them know that he is on to them and defends the legitimacy of his apostleship.
And all the brethren who are with me, to the churches of Galatia. (Gal. 1:2)
Now Paul begins to introduce his defense of his gospel. First, he appeals to the brethren. He does not name who the ‘brethren’ are who are with him, as he does in his other letters. This may be, as Boice guesses, because he does not want ‘to give the impression that his gospel requires additional support.’, 425. At the same time, he cites the brethren in order to remind the Galatians that his message was more than a ‘Pauline oddity,’ but was indeed ‘the received doctrine of all the Christian church and its missionaries.’, 425. He writes to the ‘churches’ or ‘congregations’ of Galatia (ekklesiai). Note that first century Christianity assumes that the churches have a collective identity. It is generally recognized that ekklesia ‘refers primarily to the entire community of believers and only secondarily to the community of believers living in a specific area,’ says Fung. ‘A corollary of this truth,’ he goes on to say, ‘is that the Church as the total community is not a mere aggregate of individual congregations; rather the local church is the universal Church in its local manifestation.’ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 38. The universal or catholic church, what Paul calls ‘the church of God’ (v. 13), is understood in the New Testament to be divided into local churches, or congregations. The Christian churches in a given region could be referred to collectively by either the plural (‘churches’) or the singular (‘the church’). John Stott sees in this usage ‘some biblical warrant for the concept of a regional church, the federation of local churches in a particular area.’ (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1968), 12.
Second, he reminds them of grace and peace, the essential elements of the gospel.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:3)
‘Grace’ is the unmerited favor of God to us in Christ Jesus. ‘Peace’ is the state of well-being we are brought to in our relationship with God, with others, and within our own hearts. These are God’s gifts to us.
Third, he summarizes the message of the cross.
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. (Gal. 1:4)
Already the Apostle Paul has mentioned the doctrines of God and Christ, and the reality of the resurrection, grace, and peace. Now he affirms the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement. Notice the emphasis on the sovereign will of God, implicitly contrasted with the part played by man as imagined by the Judaizers. Christ ‘gave Himself for (hyper, ‘because of’ or ‘on behalf of’) our sins,’ he says, ‘that He might deliver us...according to the will of our God and Father.’ As Boice comments, ‘It is hard to imagine a statement better calculated to oppose any intrusion of the will or supposed merits of man in the matter of attaining salvation.’ ‘He’ delivers us according to His ‘will.’ He died as our substitute, on our behalf, in our place. He became ‘a curse for (hyper again) us’ (3:13). The message of the cross is packed here in Paul’s greeting because he wanted to make the point quickly and firmly. Salvation is the result of God’s work, not man’s. God willed it, He sent His Son to accomplish it, and by His Spirit He applies it, giving us grace and peace, resulting in our deliverance ‘out of this present evil age.’ This is the same ‘age’ to which we are not to be conformed in Romans 12:2. The gospel is a ‘rescue’ (NEB). The same word is used of Peter’s rescue from prison and of Paul’s from a lynch mob (Acts 12:11; 23:27). His point is that Christ has set them free, and so they are not to return to the bondage of works religion.
Fourth, he underscores the great purpose of the gospel.
To whom be the glory forevermore. Amen. (Gal. 1:5)
Doxologies are not ordinarily found in the Apostle’s introduction. He places one here in order to emphasize the great end which the doctrines of grace serve. It is not to honor man’s will and man’s works. The gospel of salvation by grace gives all the glory to God.
Thus in these four ways, the Apostle Paul begins the debate even before he completes his salutation. He is so eager to defend the gospel that he’s arguing on the envelope. Let’s ask ourselves again about why Paul is so urgent. We begin to answer our question when we ask, ‘Who is Paul?’ The Apostle Paul is the man of all men who knew the insidious, self-deceiving power of self-righteousness. If ever anyone might have succeeded in saving himself through works, it was he. Paul was born in Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, the son of Jewish ex-patriots. Paul’s father was aRoman citizen making Paul a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:28). Since they were Roman citizens, his family was likely to be a leading family and, indeed, were substantial enough to send Paul to Jerusalem to be trained. Further, his was a religious family belonging to the strictest sect of Judaism, the Pharisees (Acts 23:6). Because he was reared in a Gentile city, Paul grew up speaking not only the Greek of Tarsus but the Aramaic of Palestine. His training in Jerusalem was under the famed Gamaliel, the leading rabbi of his time. The picture that emerges from the New Testament of Paul’s pre-conversion life is that of a sincere, devout, zealous practitioner of first century Judaism. He was, by his own testimony,
Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless. (Phil. 3:5–6)
Paul was an admirable man, even exemplary in many respects. He was a man of impeccable moral character. His religious practice was one of exceptional devotion. No doubt he was always present in worship services, he tithed his money, and he practiced charity. We would have admired and honored the man if we had known him.
If ever aman might have been saved through moral and religious conduct, it was Paul. How many of us can say that we are blameless in relation to the requirements of the law? How many of us, in a day of religious zealotry like his, could claim to have advanced beyond our contemporaries ‘being more extremely zealous’ for our religious practices than the rest (Gal. 1:14)?
But of what use was his self-attained right-eousness? He acknowledges that he had more of amoral leg to stand on than others.
Although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I have far more. (Phil. 3:4)
He was a Hebrew! A Pharisee! Blameless! Of what value was it?
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ. (Phil. 3:7–8)
What counts is being ‘found in Him.’
And may be found in Him, not having right eousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. (Phil. 3:9)
For Paul to be saved, grace had to overcome monumental barriers to the gospel. It had to overcome his self-righteousness, spiritual pride, and works-based confidence in his good standing with God. It had to overcome his violent hostility to Jesus and his followers. Paul was not just indifferent or uncaring. Neither was he one who is simply ignorant of the truth. He was a ferocious opponent and, humanly speaking, the least likely candidate for conversion in all the world.
Consequently, the Apostle Paul knew what the grace of God was and what it wasn’t. He knew the insidiousness of any theology which would reintroduce works as necessary for salvation. He knew how subtle self-righteousness could be, and how blinding.
Is this remote for us today? It is true, we are not dealing with Phariseeism. It’s true, we’re not battling Judaizers. But do we still struggle with afalse gospel of self-righteousness? Are our churches still filled today, nearly 2,000 years after Paul wrote this letter, with those who think that salvation is achieved through human merit? I’m afraid the answer to that question is, ‘Yes.’ Even today, in the popular mind, it is thought that going to heaven is just a matter of being nice. Typically it is said that just so a person is sincere, just so they do good, just so one tries hard, just so one doesn’t hurt anybody else, that’s all that matters. These sentiments may sound benign, but they, in fact, shift the ground of our salvation from the grace of Christ to human merit. They undermine the gospel and turn it into a works religion, just like all the rest. They destroy the grace of Christ.
Beyond what we might identify as the wide-spread thinking of the person in the pew, there are theological challenges to the gospel today arising from the most surprising places. Among conservative Presbyterians there is the ‘Federal Vision,’ reformulating the doctrine of justification so as to accommodate a greater role for covenant obedience in salvation. Among evangelical scholars the ‘New Perspective’ theologians (e.g. E. P. Sanders; N. T. Wright; J. D. G. Dunn) are also redefining the Pauline doctrine of justification so as to underscore its corporate dimension, namely membership in the covenant community as the key to a right relationship with God. As unbelievable as it may seem nearly 500 years after the Reformation, the personal, forensic, imputational dimensions of justification are at risk. Today it is as important as it was 2,000 years ago that we understand the gracious nature of Christ’s gospel, lest we find ourselves without a gospel to preach. No one will help us more to do so than Paul in this letter to the Galatians.