I attended West Texas State University in Canyon, Texas, to study horticulture. I was coming from Los Angeles, and I was seeking to make a fresh start with my life. Several years out of high school and having recently made a real and total decision to follow Christ, I was eager to get involved with other believers, and so began visiting different Christian groups on campus. The choices were limited, and I soon found myself involved with a group that had a very unique and legalistic theology. At a certain point, I became convinced that the members of this church were depending entirely upon their religious works to gain and secure their salvation. They were smooth, good at proof-texting their arguments, and I was soon confused and shaken in my faith.
At first I was not sure I properly understood their teaching, but I gave them too much credit and benefit of the doubt. I met a young lady named Brenda who was working as the campus evangelism coordinator at another ministry. Brenda had grown up within the previously mentioned church. She confirmed my suspicions about their doctrine. Pointing me to key Scriptures, including Galatians, Brenda helped me straighten out my theology and regain peace.
For me, working to clarify my faith while in college, Galatians was a breath of fresh air. Martin Luther was deeply inspired by Galatians, and it was one of the books that guided him as he led the Protestants during the Reformation. I read Galatians at least once a year, and I am always encouraged in my faith by the words of Paul as he puts to rest any argument that challenges the basic Christian principle of free salvation based on faith in the complete work of Jesus Christ. His life, His death and His resurrection are meant to give me peace, not confusion.
The book of Galatians is a letter that is foundational to our understanding of the grace of God. People often refer to Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians as the pinnacle of his theological writing. Galatians has similar themes and thought processes, but it is written to a specific troubled situation. Historically, writers have seen the Galatian letter as an inspiration for the Roman text or maybe even an early draft. There are definitely differences though. In Romans, Paul is writing to a church that he has never visited, but, in Galatians, he is writing to people he knows and has taught. It is a book of correction, restoration and encouragement.
The scene is this: Paul had helped establish a church or several churches in the region of Galatia. The Christians there had received the gospel of Jesus the Christ and the forgiveness of sins with great joy, and apparently many miracles occurred. After Paul and his companions moved on to other places, to continue their task of preaching the gospel, some people came from Jerusalem with different teachings and created turmoil within the church with a different version of the gospel. The basic controversy was this: Does a person receive salvation and the forgiveness of their sins through faith in Jesus Christ alone, or must they first or also do the religious rituals that had been required of the Jewish people under the Mosaic Law? Stated differently, the problem is this: Must you become a Jew before really being a Christian?
Let’s look at the book. Paul typically opens his letters with a greeting, which includes his name and the mention of others with him. He usually mentions his position as an apostle (his qualification and authority), he usually makes a statement about the nature of the gospel message, and he usually names the recipient of the letter. The format (or something similar) is still used today in formal letter writing.
So he greets the church and states the purpose of the letter. Somebody is preaching a different message than what he had taught them! Now he does something unusual. He has already stated his position as an apostle. Apparently the people who were throwing the church into confusion were questioning whether or not he really had the authority to speak on behalf of the church and the leadership back in Jerusalem. In essence, he had been called a fraud. So from verses 1:11–2:14, he details a synopsis of the testimony of his life, his call and his interactions with the other apostles to say, “Yes, I am a legitimate apostle. I have the right message. I have the authority.”
Some people spend a great deal of time examining this first section, putting it together with other references in the New Testament, for the purpose of creating a time line of Paul’s life and the chronology of the early church. While that kind of investigation can be interesting, be careful of several things:
- Paul’s purpose in writing this section is to establish his authority, not to give you a detailed time line of his life.
- In many cultures in the world, and this is seen throughout the Bible, time references are approximate and not nearly as exact as many Western people would like. Storytelling is not always linear. Our culture is different, and Paul didn’t write this following our culture’s norms for recounting time. As noted in the Free Methodist Book of Discipline’s ¶108 (available online at fmchr.ch/fmaor), the biblical authors “wrote, as God moved them, in the languages and literary forms of their times.”
- Do not get distracted. Stay focused on the idea that as an apostle, having been confirmed in his ministry by the church leaders in Jerusalem, his task is to clearly preach the gospel of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. That is the message Paul has given the Galatians and to which they need to hold firm.
In Paul’s writings, he always makes some kind of thesis statement. Depending upon the subject of the book, sometimes it is easier to find than in others, but somehow it is always there. The best to understand — and easiest to find — is his thesis in Romans 1:16–17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
Everything flows from his thesis or purpose statement, and the statement is usually infused with the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The word “gospel” essentially means “good news” and one of the clearest places to find out what Paul means when using this term is 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” The emphasis is mine.
If you read carefully Paul’s greetings, thesis statements and purpose statements, you will find all you need to know about Jesus Christ. God had a plan to allow our sins to be forgiven, He worked it out in history and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Now those who receive this message by faith have their sins forgiven and can enter into a new and free relationship with God the Father, powered by His Holy Spirit and without guilt. So knowing that, if you read something in one of Paul’s books that is not in full agreement with that message, you probably did not understand it right. Go back and read it again, or maybe read it in another version. They must agree.
Now starting in 2:15 until the end of Chapter 2 we get the thesis of Paul’s message. The New International Version and many others put quotes around this section as though it is part of his conversation with Peter. Not all scholars agree. For example, the English Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version do not put this in quotes. I read this part, whether or not in quotes, as Paul’s thesis statement for the book of Galatians, his summary. (The issue of paragraph placements, quotes, commas and other grammatical notations is about making the text understandable to the modern reader, and this is certainly worthy of a different article. However, it is important to note that none of those conventions were used by Greek writers in the first century. They came along much later.)
So, having the thesis statement, I break it up and relate it to the passages that follow in this way:
- “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ” (2:15–16), which relates to 3:1–9.
- “…and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God” (2:16–19), which relates to 3:10–25.
- “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing”(2:20–21), which relates to 3:26-6:18.
The basic messages are these:
- A believer who is Jewish should know that they have not been justified by works, but by faith.
- The ceremonial Law of the Jewish religion had no power to bring about righteousness and salvation. The law teaches us about our sin, and about our need for Christ.
- Now by faith we are freed, so that we can live with and for God.
Paul’s most emphatic and powerful statement is what he says at the end of Chapter 2: “…if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
In the book of Galatians, Paul spends a large amount of time talking about circumcision. There were prescribed ways for a person not born Jewish, who came to believe in God, to come into the faith, circumcision being one. As a practice, circumcision was a painful procedure that often prevented people (men) from fully embracing the Jewish faith. By making people follow the Law and submit to circumcision, it added to the work of Jesus, thereby negating the grace of God, driving people away from the grace that God had offered.
Grace cannot be earned (¶113 at fmchr.ch/fmaor). If grace cannot be earned, then no amount of good religious actions, done for the purpose of earning God’s good favor and His gift of salvation, can be of any benefit. In fact, Paul tells us these types of things cancel out God’s grace for us.
Circumcision and the Law were things that were used to create divisions between people. People are still trying very hard to create barriers to separate each other, and to build themselves up. In contrast Paul clearly says in 3:26–29, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
We should read Galatians and not obsess about anything but the most important points. While it is nice to know something about Paul’s life, or interesting to put forth questions about the relationship between Paul and Peter, the fact is that Paul’s message in this book is clear. God’s grace and salvation are free to those who will trust in Christ Jesus. Read this book as intended, a letter of encouragement and peace.
Dave Mann is a Free Methodist elder currently residing in a South Carolina suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. He has served as a pastor for congregations in Illinois and Africa and as a project manager and curriculum writer for Food for the Hungry International.