It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
Few documents have had the impact of this short letter, a tract on Christian freedom. It stunned those in early church who insisted that for salvation believers must add keeping of the law to faith. It stunned the medieval Catholic Church, as the teaching of justification by faith alone was articulated by Martin Luther. And it continues to pulse with life-changing vitality, communicating its message of freedom. In the freedom fro law that Galatians proclaims, you and I find the key to a life of true goodness and holiness.
Date and Author. Paul wrote this short letter. It is best dated just prior to the Jerusalem council of A.D. 49 which death with this same issue of the relationship between the believer and the law.
Background. Paul and Barnabas have finished their successful first missionary journey, which established many new churches in Asia and the Phrygian (southern) region of the Roman province of Galatia. When the missionaries returned to Antioch they found that some “men came down from Judea to Antioch, and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved'” (Acts 15:1). These men were converted Pharisees from Judea and wanted to impose more than circumcision: they actually insisted that Gentile Christians must be “required to obey the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). In essence these Judaizers, or legalists, insisted that the gospel was a message of grace and law; of salvation by faith and works.
Paul and Barnabas realized this was a critical distortion of the gospel, which “brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them” (15:2). Soon after a delegation went to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders there. This led to the council reported in Acts 15. And to the discovery that the Judaizers had not been sent by the apostles or the Jerusalem church! The conclusion of the matter was agreement that Mosaic law and Jewish lifestyle should not be imposed on Gentile Christians (15:19).
Galatians 2 does not mention this council, so it seems the letter was written before it. Paul had to move quickly to counter the influence of the Judaizers who had already infiltrated the newly planted churches in southern Galatia. This brief letter, confirmed by the council decision, underlines justification by faith alone and a freedom to live for the Lord which is found with release from law.
Theme. Like the Book of Romans, Galatians explores righteousness and the problem of how a people not under law can experience personal holiness. To the Jews, who relied on the law as both the way to salvation and the way to holiness, the announcement of freedom from law was frightening. Liberty was viewed as a license, and Paul’s call to freedom seemed to them an invitation to abandon morality. But the law of Moses had never produced righteousness in any human being. And no one had ever been justified by keeping that law. The NT insists that what law cannot do God is able to accomplish through personal relationship with Jesus Christ and through faith in him.
In Romans Paul explains how God has provided righteousness in Christ. In Galatians Paul exhorts believers to hold firmly to the principles through which we find salvation and holiness. We have exchanged law for a personal relationship with God, and it is that relationship which provides freedom and true goodness. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul announces. “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Structure and Outline. The Judaizers who demanded Christians live under law attacked by Paul’s gospel of freedom on three rounds. *They attacked Paul personally. “This man is not really an Apostle,” was their argument. *They pointed out that God authored the law. How then could Paul say it should be set aside? *They accused Paul of licensing sin. How could an “outlaw” people have morality? Each attack is answered in Galatians, as reflected in the outline below.
Paul’s Apostleship 1:6-2:21
Justification by Faith Alone 3:1-4:31
The Morality of Freedom 5:1-6:10
Concluding Remarks 6:11 -6:18
Before Reading. For background to this book, study the following Theology in Brief articles: Law, OT; Law, NT, and Righteousness.
Here are several questions answered in the Book of Galatians.
- Is the Christian life summed up in moral do’s and don’ts? Should I feel boxed in as a Christian or free? How do I learn to feel free? Since the Mosaic law is in the Bible, how can it be wrong to try to keep it? What does it mean to “fall away from grace”? How can I tell if God is really working in my life? How do I tell if I am among something morally wrong? What does it mean to “do good”?