Introduction: What is the Gospel? A Study of the Book of Galatians.
Author: Paul, the author of the Letter to the Galatians, was formerly a Jewish religious leader and zealot who was known as Saul. Prior to becoming a Christian, Saul was infamous for his persecution of the early church and his participation in the death of a disciple named Stephen (Acts 7:58; Galatians 1:13-14, 23). After his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus and subsequent conversion to Christianity (Acts 9:1-19), his name was changed to Paul. During his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul was temporarily blinded, warned to no longer persecute the church, and, instead, he was to preach the gospel and make disciples in the non-Jewish world (Acts 9:1-19). The Lord restored Paul’s sight and then sent him on multiple missionary journeys in which he faced hardship and persecution. Paul traveled throughout modern-day Greece, Turkey, Italy, Syria, and Israel proclaiming the grace of God available through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Audience: The province of Galatia was in Asia Minor, in what is now central Turkey. The three prominent cities of the region were Derbe, Iconium, and Lystra. At the time of Paul’s correspondence with the Galatians, they were under the control of the Roman Empire but were influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) and Roman cultures (ESV Study Bible, 2243). The churches in Galatia were likely predominately made up of Gentiles. Gentiles were people groups who were not ethnically Jewish.
Message: The overarching message of Galatians is that the church must believe the pure gospel of God. “The church” refers to the redeemed followers of Jesus Christ. It is the institution he left to continue his mission on the earth until he returns. “Gospel” is a word meaning “good news,” and within Christian contexts, it refers to the message of the payment and forgiveness of sins provided through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ resulting in a renewed relationship with God and the hope of eternal life in his presence. “Pure” refers to the necessity that the gospel be unadulterated. That is to say, the believer’s faith in what the work of Christ has accomplished is all that is necessary for the payment and forgiveness of sin and the renewed relationship with God. This is precisely what the Galatians and many of the earliest Christian leaders were failing to recognize; they were attempting to add conditions which needed to be fulfilled by the believer in order to be completely accepted by God. Paul’s response is that a person can only be justified by faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16). To add anything beyond this requirement is to discredit the person and work of Jesus Christ and reject the free offer of forgiveness available in him. Although Paul is addressing a specific situation within the churches of Galatia (which means that some elements of the letter can only be understood when read within the specific context he was addressing), Paul did believe that his letters were applicable beyond the specific situations he was addressing (Colossians 4:16). His belief coincides with the early church’s gathering and dissemination of his letters among churches and with the inclusion of this letter collection within what we know as the New Testament. We should not read Galatians only to consider what Paul was telling the churches of Galatia but in order to consider how Paul might be addressing us, both as individuals and as members of Christ’s Church.
Are we, in any way, guilty of adding additional elements to the gospel and nullifying the grace of God (Galatians 2:21)?
The Gospel of God: Paul’s discussion of the gospel is the main topic of the letter. There are a few points about the gospel to be kept in mind as you read through Galatians. First, Paul wants to make clear that the gospel of Jesus Christ originated in the plan and purposes of God, not Paul or any other apostle (Galatians 1:11–2:14). Humanity does not get to determine how they will be accepted by God. They can only discern how they will be accepted by God through his revelation. Furthermore, there are not “gospels.” If the gospel originated with humanity, this would be a possibility since there could be as many gospels as there are people, but since it originated with God, there is only one gospel. Second, Paul clearly believes that the Galatians (probably from the influence of a specific group of people) were deserting the gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:6). Since there is only one gospel (originating in God), any distortion (whether by addition or subtraction, purposeful or accidental, well-intentioned or malicious) of the gospel can only be understood a rejection of the gospel. Third, Paul believes that one’s acceptance or denial has eternal consequences and is the most serious question that humanity faces. Paul does not waste time with his customary thanksgiving introduction (most of his other letters open with a thanksgiving section). He does not refrain from questioning whether the Galatians are even Christians (Galatians 4:11). Fourth, even though Paul will not allow for any distortion of the gospel, notice that he does not have a strict formulaic expression of it (Galatians 3:8; 3:18; 5:1)
Justification through Faith: This is one of the key aspects of the gospel. Paul wants to make it explicitly clear that a person can only be justified from sin in the sight of God through his faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Again, since this is one of the key components of the gospel, any alteration from this teaching is not a mere distortion but a complete desertion of the gospel. Justification is the area of salvation that deals with our standing before God as sinful human beings. How is our sin paid for? Only through our faith in Jesus Christ. None of our “good deeds (works of the law)” are able to mitigate our guilt before God. We cannot be a good enough person to make God overlook our sins. How are we counted righteous before God? Only through our faith in Jesus Christ. Again, none of our “good deeds” are able to gain God’s favor. God loves us because he finds us in his Son through faith. Notice that Paul is completely consistent in this mindset. When Paul’s attention turns to how we should act and what we should do (Galatians 5:16–16:18), notice he does not say we need to act right in order to gain God’s favor or that we need to act right because of what God has done for us. To take this approach would be to throw us back upon the law, which we were not able to keep. Instead, Paul only insists that we be led by the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:18). We are to serve God out of our love and devotion to him, not out of a desire to justify ourselves.
Paul and the Law: One of the most difficult aspects of understanding Paul as a whole is understanding how he viewed the Old Testament laws. There are a few clear points. First, Paul does not believe that anyone can earn God’s favor by attempting to keep these laws (Galatians 2:16; 3:21). Second, Paul does not believe that the law is therefore useless. It has a unique ability to show us how far short we fall from God’s ideal (Galatians 3:19; Romans 6:7). It restrained human depravity until the advent (arrival or incarnation) of Christ (3:23–25). Thus, the Old Testament law is like a double-edged sword: It cannot be used for our justification, but it restrains human depravity; It cannot be obeyed perfectly, but through disobedience, we are made keenly aware of our need for a savior.
The Gospel and Christian Freedom: Under the sin revealed by the law, Paul believes that humanity is held captive. They have no choice but to defy God in their actions. If given two roads, one following righteousness and another following disobedience to God, Paul believes sinful humanity always follows the road of disobedience. However, when accepting the gospel through faith in Jesus, we are freed to be led by the Spirit of God. Again, this should challenge the commonly held perspective that Christians must rigidly obey God’s laws because of what he has done for them or in order to earn his favor. Paul believes that the freedom found in the gospel allows us to follow God not to earn his favor but because we value him most.
Where does Galatians fit in Salvation History?
“Salvation History” is a term used by theologians to describe how God has interacted with His people throughout history. Though salvation always comes through the person and work of Jesus Christ, theologians have recognized that the expression of this faith has looked differently in different periods throughout human history. What is clear, however, from both the Old and New Testaments is the content of saving faith has always been the person and work of God. In the Old Testament, men and women were not saved by works, but by faith. Salvation (justification) has always been the result of one acknowledging their own wretchedness, turning from their sins, and placing their faith in the grace and mercy of God (Genesis 15:6; Psalm 51; Hebrews 11).
Salvation history is the progressive unfolding of God’s plan to redeem humanity that culminated in the person and work Jesus Christ (Galatians 4:4-5). Paul’s letter to the Galatians demonstrates the continuity that exists between the promises made to Abraham, the Law given through Moses, and the New Covenant that was inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul makes it clear that the promises given to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) were not nullified by the Mosaic Law (Galatians 3:15-18). The Law served as a restraining force until the promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:19-29). Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:4-5 demonstrates that in addition to fulfilling the promises of the Abrahamic covenant, Jesus who was “born under the law,” redeems (purchases through his death on the cross) believers from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:23-25; 4:5). This redemption is the basis of God’s acceptance of repentant believers and His subsequent adoption of them into His family (Galatians 3:26; 4:5-7). Paul’s contention, therefore, is that all of salvation history (both the promises to Abraham and the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law) is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the subsequent blessing (the gift of the Holy Spirit, Galatians 3:14) is given to all (both Jew and Gentile) who come to God by faith (Galatians 3:9; 28-29). Providing clarity on the cohesiveness of the covenantal promises and ministry of Jesus Christ, Thomas Schreiner writes, “The gospel of Christ fulfills what was written in the Old Testament scriptures, and believers inherit the promises made to Abraham. Thus, we can only grasp Paul’s mission adequately if we see that he believed that the promises given to Abraham came to fruition in Christ” (Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 73).