Sunday, September 10, 2023

Flyover Country: Galatians

Justification before God is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. Any requirement beyond the exercise of faith reduces the Christian gospel to the level of the world’s false religions, making salvation to whatever degree a work of man rather than a work of God.

In Galatians, Paul argues that to import even the smallest human work into salvation is to be severed from Christ and to desert God. Christ-plus-anything is a recipe for spiritual disaster and eternal loss.

That makes Galatians one of the most important letters ever written. It is literally a life-saver.

It was also one of the first. Most scholars feel Paul wrote Galatians prior to AD50, and that it was the apostle’s first letter preserved for us in scripture. Only the book of James may precede it, which speaks to its urgency and importance. Galatians has been called both the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty and the Christian Declaration of Independence.

One Sentence Summary: Paul’s definitive argument against works-based salvation.

Most of Paul’s letters contain arguments made in order to persuade the reader of some important truth. From the middle of its second chapter right through its fifth, Galatians is one long argument in favor of Paul’s gospel over the legalistic counterfeit preached by the Judaizers in Galatia. The force of Paul’s treatise is not just that salvation by law-keeping is inferior to salvation by grace through faith; it’s that law-keeping can never save at all.

Background and Purpose

Chapter 1 reveals Paul’s purpose in writing. He had heard that the churches he had planted in Galatia were being led away from the gospel he had preached to them and in which they had trusted. In response, Paul first establishes that his own spiritual authority is superior to that of those who preached a gospel requiring the work of circumcision, then goes on to compare his faith-based gospel to the works-based gospel of the Judaizers in four different ways, each of these demonstrating its superiority.

Organization and Content

The four-part argument in favor of Paul’s gospel pits faith against works, promise against law, freedom against slavery and Spirit against flesh. As obscure as I may find some of the evidence Paul adduces to make his case (I am thinking particularly of the figurative use of Hagar and Sarah in chapter 4’s discussion of freedom and slavery), we should recognize that these arguments were made primarily for Paul’s original audience. They were as persuasive to the first century religious mind as a logical argument made to Aristotle. Nevertheless, if we find some of Paul’s thought flow “hard to understand”, as Peter put it, we can at least grasp the main points he is establishing.

Here is an outline of these:

  1. Introduction (1:1-5)
  2. The importance of orthodoxy (1:6-9)
  3. Authority of Paul’s gospel
  1. It came directly from Christ (1:10-23)
  2. It was confirmed by the apostles (2:1-10)
  3. It was authoritative enough to rebuke an apostle (2:11-14)
  1. Paul’s gospel versus legalism
  1. Faith trumps works (2:15-3:14)
  2. Promise trumps law (3:15-4:7)
  3. Freedom trumps slavery (4:8-5:15)
  4. Spirit trumps flesh (5:15-26)
  1. Christian living in light of Paul’s gospel
  1. Restoration (6:1)
  2. Community (6:2-3)
  3. Personal responsibility (6:4-5)
  4. Taking care of teachers (6:6-10)
  1. Warning and blessing (6:11-18)

Seen in its proper context, the anecdote in chapter 2 in which Paul “bests” Peter turns out to be a whole lot more than male posturing. The point of including it is to drive home the truth that Paul’s gospel is so authoritative and final that it can be used to correct the errors of a “chief” apostle.

Value to Modern Readers

Much in every way. First, Paul establishes once and for all the authority of his apostleship and the divine origin of his gospel. He is not just writing a learned opinion. He is writing scripture received “through a revelation of Jesus Christ”. It is not “man’s gospel” and even man’s most prudent, logical and judicious reasoning cannot stand against it. The authority established when Galatians circulated applied to everything Paul would write subsequently, making him the premier interpreter of Christian theology and practice. Those who reject Paul’s teaching fail to understand its origin. Peter himself understood and calls what Paul has written “scripture”, on a level with the much-revered and thoroughly authoritative Old Testament. It is no exaggeration to call Paul the Moses of the New Testament, though he would probably have disclaimed the honor.

Second, Paul’s arguments demolish any attempt to synthesize Judaism with Christianity. The specific issue at hand was circumcision, but Paul’s arguments apply equally to any form of law-keeping as a means to salvation, either ancient or modern. It’s Christ and Christ alone, always and with no exceptions. Don’t like that, and you’re not saved.

Third, Paul’s tone in Galatians is direct, aggressive, full of strong language and even humor (“I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”). His intensity here helps us interpret Paul’s later commands to Christians about the way in which we speak of the things of God. It should be understood from Paul’s own example in Galatians that instructions like “Let your speech always be gracious”, “speaking the truth in love”, “speak evil of no one” and “be gentle, show perfect courtesy toward all people” do not exclude forceful rhetoric or potentially hurtful statements from Christian arguments, provided they are necessary and intended with love.

Fourth, seen in their proper setting, verses like “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked” and “let us do good to everyone”, which are often reduced to generalisms or bromides, are revealed as compelling reasons for being generous with those who have shared the truth of God with us. Context is always the final answer to any question about intended meaning.

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