February 10, 2005

Introduction to Paul's Letter to the Galatians

(This is adapted from a Sunday school lesson originally delivered on September 9, 2001.)

Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;) and all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia: Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.

So begins Paul's epistle to the Galatians, a short, but very important part, of the New Testament canon. I want to start here with an overview of the letter before walking through it start to finish.


There is no doubt that this letter is from the apostle Paul. Of all Paul's letters, this is the one that is deemed the most certainly authentic - that is, it was actually authored by the Apostle and not someone using his name to lend his words credibility. The few cranks that have doubted its Pauline authorship have never been taken too seriously. On the contrary, where the authorship of other Pauline letters was less certain, it was by comparison with Galatians that their authenticity has sometimes been established.

Date and location

What is less certain, however, is where, when, and to whom this letter was written. Whom Paul was writing - and therefore when he was writing, and where the letter was going - is is one of the great debates of New Testament studies. There are two competing theories about this.

The North Galatian theory says that Paul was writing to the churches in the Roman province of Galatia, in the northern and central part of Asia Minor. He had visited that region twice, on his second and third missionary journeys, and established churches there. North Galatian theoirsts hypothesize that Galatians was written no earlier than AD 50-52, following his third missionary journey, during which he had had time for a second visit (cf. Acts 18:23). Paul wrote from Corinth, or possibly (as the subscript in the King James version says) Rome. Until the 17th century, the North theory was taken for granted.

But later, when the science of archaeology began to shed some new light on the Bible and the dating of significant historical events, conservative Bible scholars began to argue that it wasn't the northern political district of Galatia that Paul was addressing, but the southern ethnic district, named after the Gauls who had immigrated there from Europe in the third century BC. Paul had travelled through this region during his first missionary journey, retracing his steps on his way back to Palestine. Predictably, this is known as the South Galatian theory, and it hypothesizes that Paul wrote Galatians earlier, sometime between AD 46-50, probably from Syrian Antioch or somewhere else relatively close to Jerusalem.

Today the South Galatian theory is favoured by most conservative scholars. The North Galatian theory still has its proponents, but they tend to be the sort of liberal scholars that question the historical reliability of the New Testament in the first place. Stephen Mitchell writes:

The most authoritative champion of the South Galatian theory was the great explorer of Asia Minor, W. M. Ramsay, and although the North Galatian Theory still finds many supporters, his work should long ago have put the matter beyond dispute.1

(I find it interesting, however, that the next article in Anchor [on the Epistle to the Galatians] is written by a North Galatian proponent.)

The South theory resolves a number of dating and harmonization problems that the North theory poses. For example, according to the South theory, Paul would have written the letter prior to the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). If this council had already occurred, why would Paul have to formulate a complex theological argument in favour of justification by faith alone and against justification by works of the Law? Could he not simply have appealed to the apostolic letter on this subject drafted by the apostles and delivered to Antioch? The South theory also explains why Barnabas was able to travel with Paul to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1); they had travelled together during the first missionary journey, but by the time of Paul's second journey, they had already had a falling-out over John Mark.

Major themes

When you read the Epistles, remember that you are reading someone else's mail. At some point Paul must have received word of some crisis that provoked this response. Although we don't have that first message, we know what the crisis was about: legalism.

Compare the situation in Acts 15: while Paul and Barnabas were teaching in Antioch, some men had come along and started to teach that unless the Gentiles were circumcised according to the Law of Moses, they could not be saved. This resulted in controversy, and the issue was brought before the twelve apostles in Jerusalem. There again, these same people, who were converted Pharisees, insisted: "[I]t was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). After some debate, the apostles sent out a letter declaring that it was not necessary for Gentiles to observe the Jewish Law to be saved.

Obviously, the same sort of people had gone into the churches in Galatia and started spreading the same teaching around. We call these Pharisees and troublemakers "Judaizers," because they were Jews who were trying to turn Christianity back into Judaism. But for my purposes I prefer a more generic term: legalists. Simply put, they were claiming that faith in Christ was not enough to save, but you also had to meet some other legal requirement as well.

Apparently, the legalists managed to persuade a lot of the Galatians. A number of them had been led astray. This was a major crisis, and it was urgent that Paul respond. His letter reflects this urgency: it's brief, terse, forcefully written, and strongly worded. Paul knew the true gospel: justification by faith alone. Sola fide. The Galatians were turning away from the truth. To Paul, the gospel of faith alone was crucial. To abandon it and go back to the Law of Moses was tantamount to being a free man and turning back to a life of slavery!

This, then, is the major theme of Galatians: a defense of the true Gospel. Paul wrote to defend the good news that man can be put into a right relationship with God by faith in Christ alone, and not by accepting circumcision or following the dictates of the Law.

The commentator H. A. Ironside notes in his commentary on Galatians that Habakkuk 2:4 - "the just shall live by faith" - is quoted three times in the New Testament, each emphasizing a different aspect of this saying. (Ironside takes this recurring theme as strong evidence for Pauline authorship of Hebrews.)

Romans emphasizes the just. The purpose of this long letter is to show us how it is that we are justified by God.

Hebrews emphasizes faith. The author of Hebrews quotes Habakkuk at verse 10:38, which is only a few short words before the great "faith chapter" that holds up the faith of the Old Testament saints as an example worthy of following.

And in between them lies this little letter to the Galatians, emphasizing that the true saints of God shall live according to faith in Christ, and not the dictates of the Law. "[I]f ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law" (Gal. 5:16).

Another theme we see in Galatians is the unity of believers. Paul describes three different kinds of unity.

First, we are all the same before God despite our rank or social status or whatever authority we might have. When Paul recalls his interview with the apostles at Jerusalem, and he says that although they were of high reputation, nonetheless "whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person" (Gal. 2:6): that is, he doesn't play favourites. Perhaps Paul's detractors were claiming that he was only some kind of second-rate apostle, compared to the original Twelve. But Paul, aware of the authority the Twelve held in the church at Jerusalem, respected their position but was not in subjection to them because in the eyes of God, he was their equal. James says that we ought not to favour the wealthy over the poor in church (Jas. 2:1-9). We see it also in the sayings of Jesus, who said that "many that are first shall be last; and the last first" (Mark 10:31).

Second, Paul says that we are all the same before God despite our nationality. The whole purpose of the letter is to demonstrate that Jews and Gentiles both stand righteous before God because of faith. He writes:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:28-29)

Again, we see this thinking elsewhere in the Bible, such as Acts 10, where the Gentiles first receive the Gospel and Peter says,

Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. (Acts 10:34-35)

Third, we are all the same before God despite when we lived. Justification by faith has always been the means by which we are made God's people. Abraham was justified by faith 430 years before the Law. And the Law itself was never intended by God as a means of earning his favour; when Paul writes, "if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law" (Gal. 3:21), he is implying that the law had no ability to save. Instead, he says,

the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:24)

A third major theme in Galatians is liberty. This is a recurring theme in Paul's letters. In Romans and 1 Corinthians, for example, he argues that where issues of conscience are concerned, such as the eating of meat, drinking wine, or observing certain holidays, Christians are free to make their own decisions as an act of faith. In Colossians he says that we are free of foolish philosophical reasonings and man-imposed rules and regulations. But here in Galatians, our liberty is from the works of the Law as a means of gaining favour with God.

It is important to remember that in the Bible, Christian liberty is never an excuse to do whatever we want, although some false teachers have portrayed it that way. Liberty is the freedom from law as a means of salvific merit - that is, trying to earn our way into heaven. We are saved through faith in Christ, and it is only because of his righteousness that we are enabled to be righteous at all! We have been freed from slavery to sin, and freed to obey God. Whenever Paul speaks of liberty, he always qualifies what he says by enjoining believers to "[b]ear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2); and, "[a]s we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10).

Galatians' significance to us

Of course, I don't believe that explaining all this is an end unto itself. The purpose of theology is to change lives or to equip saints. It has practical value. What, then, is the significance of Galatians to a contemporary reader?

First, there are still Judaizers with us. This error didn't just die out in the first century. There have always been fringe elements that have insisted that keeping the Law is a necessary prerequisite to salvation. Arguably the best known group of this type today would be the Seventh-day Adventists. Their theology is based on the premise that the rest of Christendom obeys only nine of the Ten Commandments, and that only they (and like-minded groups) observe all ten by observing God's Sabbath on the seventh day, Saturday, instead of the first day as we do. (According to official SDA doctrine, Sunday observance is the "mark of the Beast.") Practically speaking, the Adventists go even farther than this, because their moral standards extend beyond the Ten Commandments and into the minutiae of the Law.

Second, other so-called Christians want to return us to the bondage of works. It's no surprise that Galatians was a key text for the Reformers; it has been called the "Magna Carta of the Reformation." Luther once said that he was betrothed to Galatians, that it was his "Katy von Bora." His commentary on Galatians is a classic, arguably the magnum opus of his written work, apart from the German Bible. To the Reformers, this letter was not merely an apologetic against Judaizers, but the very "Christian" system that they sought to reform. Martin Luther wrote:

The papists quote the words of Christ: �If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments� (Matt. 19:17). With His own words they deny Christ and abolish faith in Him. Christ is made to lose His good name, His office, and His glory, and is demoted to the status of a law enforcer, reproving, terrifying, and chasing poor sinners around.

The proper office of Christ is to raise the sinner, and extricate him from his sins. . . .

With their doctrine these lying sects of perdition deface the benefits of Christ to this day. They rob Christ of His glory as the Justifier of mankind and cast Him into the role of a minister of sin. They are like the false apostles. There is not a single one among them who knows the difference between law and grace. . . .

Paul's argument has often comforted me. He argues: "If we who have been justified by Christ are counted unrighteous, why seek justification in Christ at all? If we are justified by the Law, tell me, what has Christ achieved by His death, by His preaching, by His victory over sin and death? Either we are justified by Christ, or we are made worse sinners by Him."2

Here is another pithy quote from John Calvin:

Hence it appears with what silly trifling the Papists of our day dispute with us about the word, as if it had been a word of our own contrivance. But Paul was unacquainted with the theology of the Papists, who declare that a man is justified by faith, and yet make a part of justification to consist in works. Of such half-justification Paul knew nothing. For, when he instructs us that we are justified by faith, because we can not be justified by works, he takes for granted what is true, that we cannot be justified through the righteousness of Christ, unless we are poor and destitute of a righteousness of our own. Consequently, either nothing or all must be ascribed to faith or to works.3

Knowing the enemies of truth was far easier in earlier times, when heresy was a capital crime and opposing Rome could have cost you your life. Today, the methodology is a lot more subtle, and therefore more persuasive. There have been a number of books published in recent years by Protestant converts to Catholicism, and an increase in the intensity of Catholic apologetics in general, that have had as their goal promoting the Roman church as Christ's true church on earth, by casting doubt on traditional Protestant beliefs such as sola Scriptura and portraying the Roman church as rich in history, tradition, and authority. Of course, the real issue isn't these things, but truth - what is the true Gospel? Knowing true doctrine is the first line of defense against false doctrine.

All the cults, to some extent, deny that faith in Christ is sufficient to save you. These groups are especially pernicious because they actively and aggressively recruit new members. Often they target campuses for "evangelism." Ten years ago as a student living in Toronto, I had frequent run-ins on the subway or in the malls with members of the "Toronto Church of Christ," who saw my school jacket and invited me to attend church or a Bible study. (One such person, after hearing that I already had a church I attended regularly, becameq quite antagonistic.) Controversy would ensue when the International Churches of Christ (ICOC) attempted to establish some sort of presence on campuses. The old Cult Awareness Network received more complaints about the ICOC than any other group except Scientology. (A word of warning: In 1996 the Church of Scientology actually took over CAN after an aggressive lawsuit designed to silence criticism.). The major error of the ICOC is twofold: First, they believe in the Campbellite error of baptismal regeneration; second, they believe in an extreme form of "discipling" in which a "discipler" has the authority to micro-manage virtually every aspect of members' personal lives. Is this not works added to faith, exactly the error Galatians refutes?

Third, other world religions seek God's favour through works. We cannot afford to ignore other religious movements - particularly Islam. It is the fastest growing religion on the planet, and some of its sects target students very aggressively. The Muslim student associations at my old school used to bill Islam as the fulfillment of Christianity. Islam is pure works-righteousness, and if you've ever seen one of those "ask the imam" sites on the Web, you know their form of legalism is often taken to the point of sheer superstition.


That is a very superficial treatment of a very complex letter for its size, but I hope it at least sets the stage for the the closer examination that it deserves. Starting next week I will start working through it from start to finish.


1 Stephen Mitchell, "Galatia," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 871.

2 Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, tr. Theodore Graebner, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 10 February 2005 <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/galatians.htm>.

3 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, tr. William Pringle, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 10 February 2005 <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.htm>.

Works Cited

Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians. Tr. William Pringle. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 10 February 2005. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.htm>.

Luther, Martin. A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. Tr. Theodore Graebner. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 10 February 2005. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/galatians.htm>.

Mitchell, Stephen. "Galatia." The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 870-72.

In addition to the above, my series on Galatians makes regular use of the following commentaries:

Barclay, William. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

George, Timothy. Galatians. The New American Commentary. Vol. 30. Nashville: Broadman, 1994.

Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 41. Dallas: Nelson, 1990.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of Galatians. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester: InterVarsity, 1986.


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