Controversy and confrontation are not comfortable companions of grace and peace. Yet this epistle shows that the gospel of His grace and peace must be defended vigorously, whether against “false brethren” and their deceptive preaching, or in spite of unfaithful brethren and their defective practice. Ironically, while the false teachers remain anonymous, Paul names two influential brethren whom he had openly confronted with their hypocrisy, one being his own preaching partner, the other a leading apostle! The intensity and forcefulness of his words reveal a deep concern for “the truth of the gospel” (2:5), and recovery of the saints for whom he “travails in birth again…” (4:19).
Who are the Galatians? Even the background of the epistle is tinged in controversy! Some scholars suggest that the churches of Galatia were the assemblies planted during Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey (Acts 13&14) in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia, including Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Others suggest that Paul had later evangelized among the Gauls of northern Galatia (Acts 16:6; 18:23), and that the crisis indicates a later development somewhat removed from the same issues resolved in Acts 15: Are Gentile converts required to be circumcised and to keep the Mosaic law for salvation?
What has so alarmed the apostle? Zealous teachers had managed to influence the Galatians toward embracing circumcision and law-keeping as a necessary addition to the gospel preached by Paul. In confronting this error once again, Paul reveals the true relation of the law to redemption and grace in Christ for believers (3:21-26). In stark contrast, the proposed combining of law and grace would render His death meaningless (2:21), and actually nullify the grace of Christ (5:1-4).
There are several key verses in each chapter, as the thesis of “grace in Christ” vs. “works of law” progresses through the epistle. However, two verses seem to stand out as providing the essential foundation for the theme of the epistle:
- The Blessing of His Death for Us and
- The Beauty of His Life in Us
Chapter 1:4: “Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world (age) …” This expresses both power and purpose: His death delivers us from the condemnation of sin, and provides the righteous foundation for true freedom from the evil, including the religious world, still rampant in the world.
Chapter 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself for me.” The key elements of true spiritual life and fruitfulness are introduced here, and developed in chapters 3-6. It has been said that “every Christian is born crucified.” Paul recognized that it was really he himself who was under God’s judgment at Calvary; yet in being identified with the crucified Christ, we also by faith grasp the hope inherent in His resurrection. There is now a new life and relationship to God as sons, united by faith to the living Christ in the power and ministry of the indwelling Spirit.
The epistle brings out with clarity that nothing is need or can be added to the gospel: the Spirit is the earnest of the inheritance, the firstfruits of the blessing of Abraham being dispensed. It is the Spirit in us Who produces the fruit which is pleasing to God. The law was only brought in to reveal the need of man of these blessings from God, and what it has to do with the flesh can only produce corrupt fruit. The end result is left in no doubt: “He that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting” (6:8). As we see the tremendous consequences of either road, we begin to appreciate the intensity and rigidity with which Paul, in the power of the Holy Spirit, stood for the truth of the gospel.
Galatians: On Guard Against Distortions of the Gospel
- Ch 1: Defending the Gospel of Christ
- Ch 2: The Purity and Practice of the Gospel
- Ch 3: Under the Curse, or Heirs of the Promise? Works of Law, or Faith in Christ?
- Ch 4: The Two Covenants – Who Is the Heir?
- Ch 5: True Freedom in Christ by the Spirit
- Ch 6: Fruitful Living in the Precepts and Power of the Spirit
In future articles, we will look at three vital questions highlighted and answered in the epistle: