Understanding Galatians

A Brief Commentary by Alan Marshall
(First Edition -  January 2004)


Paul's Greeting
The Historical Context
Paul's Statement of the Gospel
Lessons From Abraham
Living by the Spirit
How Does the Book Relate to Jesus Teaching?
Law, Sin and Grace

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Paul’s epistle to the Galatians takes up a mere four pages in most bibles, yet it is of profound importance to a right understanding of the christian faith. In God’s providence, the task was given to Martin Luther at the University of Wittenburg to teach on Galatians, together with Paul’s epistle to the Romans. This led to his own spiritual breakthrough, and to the Reformation which followed. That wondrous phrase “the just shall live by faith”, which Luther said enabled him finally to grasp the gospel, is found in both books (3:11, Rom 1:17).

Having said this, I believe we must reject the notion that Galatians is the key book in the bible. There is no scriptural justification for making it what some theologians call the “hermeneutical centre”. It is Jesus who is the “cornerstone” (Matt 21:42) It is his words which are our foundation (Matt 7:24). We should understand that the role of Paul and the other apostles was to preach Jesus’ message, by the Spirit, in the light of his death and resurrection (Matt 28:10, John 16:12-13).

My purpose, in this first edition, is not to comment on every verse, but rather to attempt to grapple with the major questions raised by the book, and to ponder how Paul’s answers fit with his other letters and with Jesus’ teaching.

There are many conceptual parallels between Galatians and Romans, so I will cross frequently to the latter, and to other epistles. References to verses in Galatians appear without any prefix, eg. (3:11). Verses from other books will be prefixed by the book name, or by a three letter abbreviation.


Paul’s Greeting (1:1-5)

Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—  2 and all the brothers with me, 

To the churches in Galatia: 

3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,  4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,  5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Paul begins his letter with a bold declaration of his authority, reminding readers that he was commissioned by Jesus himself, and placing his teaching not above, not below, but alongside and in harmony with the teaching of our Lord.

I noticed that three times he refers to the Almighty as “God the Father”, rather than simply “God”. This allows him to twice use the phrase in tandem with “Lord Jesus Christ”, recognising the authority and the divinity which Father and Son share.

In the name of the Father and the Son he will present the gospel afresh to the Galatians, a gospel of grace and peace. This gospel is grounded solely in the sacrifice of Christ for our sins. It is a gospel that rescues us “from the present evil age”. As we reflect on the world today in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001, we can apply these words as much to our own time as to the world that Paul knew.

The Historical Context (1:6–2:13)

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—  7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.  8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!  9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

10 Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.

11 I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.  12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.  14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.  15 But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased  16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man,  17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days.  19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.  20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.  21 Later I went to Syria and Cilicia.  22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.  23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  24 And they praised God because of me.

 Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also.  2 I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.  3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.  4 This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.  5 We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.

6 As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message.  7 On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.  8 For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles.  9 James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.  10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.  12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.  13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 

For those of us think of the bible as God’s textbook, as a clearly written monolithic work, free from the disputes and confusion we encounter in everyday church life, these early chapters of Galatians must come as something of a shock.

I am not being disrespectful here. I fully accept the authority given by Jesus to Paul and the other apostles. But we have here a vibrant, dynamic young church, where their understanding of the mysteries of the gospel is growing, and where differences of emphasis, even differences of understanding within the leadership is possible. Jesus did not intend that any apostle be self-sufficient. Revelations given to individuals (1:12, 2:2) were meant to be shared with all. Jesus’ promise that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13) was given to the body of Christ, and it was the unity of the body, guided by the Spirit, that resolved disputes and ensured access to the truth for all. I am by no means down-playing the seriousness of the dispute here in chapter 2 (the gospel was at stake), but it was resolved fairly smoothly. There are clear lessons here for today’s church. Differences between leaders, though they have each been called by God, are normal. These differences can be dealt with when they come together confident in Jesus’ promise.

It is interesting to note that the ministry of Paul and his associates is put on an equal footing with that of Peter, James and the Jerusalem church. It is true that Jesus said of Peter, on this rock I will build my church (Matt 16:18), but he was a rock that, like you or me, could begin to crumble under pressure. Peter had denied Jesus before the crucifixion, and he comes close to denying him again in the incident at Antioch (ultimately Peter dies a heroic death). Paul describes Peter as “an apostle to the Jews” (2:8). I would suggest that Jesus’ words referred to Peter as the future leader and foundation of the Jewish church in the first wave of the great commission (Luke 24:47), but not as one who would wield authority over the Gentile church.

I also find it interesting that after agreeing on the principles of the gospel, and agreeing on a division of ministry, the only other thing Peter and Paul needed to agree on was the importance of caring for those believers who were poor (2:10). Pastors who today ignore the poor, in their pursuit of wealth for themselves and their churches, would do well to reflect on the apostolic priorities.

The confrontation at Antioch, alluded to above, is detailed in 2:11 and the verse which follow. Antioch was a Greek-speaking coastal city a few hundred kilometres north of Jerusalem. While Peter was with Paul at Antioch, a group of comes from James, one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. James was “the Lord’s brother” (1:19), though biologically only a half-brother. He was the author of new testament book of the same name. These men from James were apparently still thinking of Christ’s kingdom as Jewish, and in violation of the previous division of ministry, were telling the Gentile converts they needed to be circumcised in order to be saved (2:12, 6:13, cf. Acts 15:1). Paul’s response is his teaching that the Gentiles do not become children of Abraham through circumcision, but through faith in Christ.

I believe this incident occurred before the council at Jerusalem that we read about in Acts 15, though I know this is contentious. It is summarised in Acts 15:1-2:

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." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.

In the verses which follow, we read that Paul and Barnabas go up to Jerusalem to resolve the question with the “apostles and elders”. At this council, Peter speaks first and affirms Paul’s teaching. Peter’s words in Acts 15:10-11 are worth quoting:

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” 

Next James speaks a word of wisdom. Presumably he is speaking as an elder as he was not an apostle chosen by the Lord. His word is that the Gentiles be required to observe only four of the law’s precepts. The first two are essentially moral precepts. Idolatry and sexual immorality were regarded as very serious sins in the old testament, as well as in the early church. They are specific sins from which Paul tells us to flee (1 Cor 6:18, 1 Cor 10:14), and which he warns us against in Gal 5:19-20. The other two precepts are generally regarded as being there so that believing Jews living among the gentiles are not offended. I tend to agree, but it is interesting to note that these precepts are included or implied in the command to Noah and his descendents (Gen 9:4). The council agrees with James suggestion, which is put in a letter to the churches in Antioch and surrounding regions.

The people of Antioch were “glad for its encouraging message” (Acts 15:31), and the question was settled, at least for a time. However, Paul was still warning of the dangers of submitting to Jewish ceremonial law and regulations when he wrote to the church at Colossae from, so scholars think, his prison cell in Rome (Col 2:6-23). Colossae was a few hundred kilometres to the west of Antioch.

It seems Paul’s conducted missionary work in the general region of Galatia during all three of his missionary journeys. The first specific reference to Galatia by his companion Luke is in Acts 16:6, just after the Jerusalem council. In his introduction to his epistle, Paul is shocked that “some people are throwing you into confusion” (1:7).
It seems plausible to me, given his previous trouble with Jews in the region (Acts 13:44-52, 14:19), that this refers to some fresh trouble from local Jewish christians, dating the epistle to the Galatians to some time after the incident with Peter and the council in Jerusalem, and before his epistle to the Colossians.

Paul’s Statement of the Gospel (2:14-3:5, 3:10-14)

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’  16 know that a man is not justified by observing 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 and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

17 “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!  18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker.  19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.  20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

          You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.  2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?  3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?  4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing?  5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? ....

10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”  11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”  12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.”  13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”  14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Paul is perplexed by the Galatians. He remembers his first missionary contact with them was accompanied by powerful miracles and an impartation of the Spirit that made it obvious that God was among them. If God had blessed them in this way, simply through their glad reception of the good news that Jesus had died for their sins so that they might have eternal life (cf. Acts 13:48), why do they now act as though these blessings were something they had to attain through compliance with rules and rituals?

During his ministry to them, Paul would have called the Galatians to repent of those things they knew to be wrong, and I expect he would have given them some basic instruction about the kind of lives God wanted them to live. But he certainly would not have presented them with a rulebook, for he knew from personal experience that rulebooks were impossible to keep (Rom 7:7-10).

Paul understood that if Jesus perfectly obeyed the ethical requirements of the law for us in his life, and fulfilled the ceremonial (ritual) requirements of the law in his death, then there was no reason for believers to be anxious about either aspect. The ethical law brings righteousness only as Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us (Rom 5:18-19). The ritual law, or “Jewish customs” (2:14) were to prepare the descendants of Abraham to understand Christ’s mission (3:24-25).

I am aware that Paul’s explanation of justification is briefer here than in his later treatment of the subject in Romans. But as he makes the same points, in the same order, I think it is reasonable to interpret the two epistles together. Hence just as Paul’s teaching in Romans on justification (Rom 3:21 – 5:21) is followed by teaching that it does not give us a licence to sin (Rom 6:1-2), so here in Galatians his teaching on justification (2:15-16) is followed by a cautionary note on sin (2:17-18). Lest we be discouraged by the challenge of overcoming sin, Paul assures us in both epistles that this is not our work, but Christ’s work in us (Rom 6:5-7, 6:14, 8:3-4; Gal 2:20).

While the issue of gentiles and the Jewish law was settled at the Jerusalem council to the satisfaction of Paul, James and Peter, differences in emphasis are still evident in their teaching. Paul can write here in chapter 2, that “we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law” (2:16). Yet James can write, not long after, that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). We need not pick on James. His exposure to Paul’s teaching has been limited to a couple of meetings. He has probably not seen a copy of Galatians, and Romans has not yet been written. In reality, the heart of their teaching is the same. They both agree that the law is summed up in the command “love your neighbour as yourself” (5:14, James 2:8). When James says “faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did”, the meaning is little different from Paul when he says “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6).

Lessons from Abraham and his Family (3:6-9, 3:15-5:12)

6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.  8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”  9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. .....

15 Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case.  16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.  17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.  18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

19 What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.  20 A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one.

21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.  22 But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

23 Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.  24 So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.  25 Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,  27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate.  2 He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.  3 So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.  4 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law,  5 to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.  6 Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”  7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.  9 But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?  10 You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!  11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

12 I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong.  13 As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.  14 Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.  15 What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.  16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

17 Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them.  18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you.  19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,  20 how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?  22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.  23 His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.

24 These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.  25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.  26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.  27 For it is written:

“Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”

28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.  29 At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.  30 But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  31 Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

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.

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.  3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.  4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.  6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?  8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.  9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”  10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.  11 Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.  12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

Paul now takes Abraham as a role model of how a right relationship with God works. God’s favour rests upon those who believe him (3:9), those who, like Abraham, are not afraid of him and his purposes but rather welcome him, those who regard him as trustworthy, who look to him as a father, who love him.

I believe that God’s promises to Abraham, and two aspects of the promises in particular, had profound theological significance to Paul. Firstly, Paul would have been struck by the unambiguous but extraordinary promise that “all nations would be blessed” through Abraham (3:8, Gen 12:3). While Israel, at its best, had been a model of one people under God to the nations around it, this promise of blessing had not till now been fulfilled. The second thing that strikes Paul is that the channel of this blessing to the nations was through on particular descendent of Abraham, the Messiah. Paul’s argument for a particular descendent based on the use of the word “seed” in Genesis 12:7 and 13:15 is, to say the least, questionable. But in terms of the overall prophetic message of the scriptures, he was right (cf. Rom 16:25-26). I feel that the nexus of these two aspects of the promises to Abraham, understood in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection, was the means through which the Holy Spirit revealed to Paul the “mystery of the gospel”. This concept, which Paul expands upon in Eph 3:1-9, is expressed susinctly here as “neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

Now if the inheritance of the promise made to Abraham does not pass steadily down through the generations, then it has no association with the culture and law of those generations.  Rather, the inheritance passes directly to the “seed”, Christ, and those who are his offspring through faith. Paul declares “if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise” (3:18). Let us grasp the full weight of this statement. Our inheritance, including our favour with God, his provision and blessing, and most importantly, the security of our eternal relationship with him, does not depend on laws or our observance of them.

Paul is not claiming that justification by faith is some new principle that overturns the law (3:21). His position is that God’s original covenant, in which he first called a people to himself, was based on faith, and that although it was hidden for a time, it was never rescinded. In fact he says no covenant, human or divine, can be set aside. Covenants, including the law of Moses, can only terminate when the purposes for which they are made are fulfilled.

As we have touched on above, the law can be divided into a number of broad categories. The basic division, between the moral and ceremonial streams of law, was first clearly made by Origen in the 2nd century AD, and most christian scholars have followed him. Paul does not make such a clear distinction, so we must ask whether is referring only to such things as circumcision, food regulations and the sacrificial system, or whether his use of the word “law” includes also the ethical teaching of the Old Testament, and in particular, the ten commandments. This is a huge issue, and I have always seen it as pivotal in understanding the epistle. While a full treatment is beyond the scope of this essay, we can start by observing that the immediate issue was circumcision, clearly part of the ceremonial law. Indeed, the letter begins and ends with this issue (2:3-5, 6:15). However Paul gives us enough to demonstrate clearly that the moral law is also included. The phrase “added because of transgressions” (3:19) points to the moral stream of law, though this is made more clear in Rom 7:7-13. Again, when Paul says “if a law had been given that could impart life” (3:21), he has the moral law in mind, and the “righteousness which would certainly come by the law” is righteousness which would come through obedience, not through ceremonial cleansing.

So, having allowed Paul to clarify for us what he means here in using the word “law”, we are now led by him to an extraordinary consideration. He teaches us “now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law (3:25). He expresses this even more dramatically in Col 2:14 where he says the written code is “cancelled” and “nailed to the cross”. Both these passages include the ten commandments. In neither passage is Paul suggesting that we are free to do evil, but he is saying that we do not need the law to supervise us, constrain us or burden us. It is not a book of rules that we are required to follow. Its value, as we shall go on to see, is in showing us what behaviour, if done with the right motive, has pleased God in the past. As God’s character does not change, his Spirit will lead us, free from any fear of falling short of the law’s requirements, to similarly seek to live, like his Son, in a way that pleases him.

In chapter 4, Paul continues to describe the law in temporary terms, comparing its function to that of a legal guardian whose role is finished when the heir comes of age (4:2). Again it would be prudent to note that his focus in these middle chapters (4:10, 5:1-6), as elsewhere in the epistle, is on the ceremonial aspects of the law. Yet we have a further indication that the moral law no longer binds us in his reference to the covenant “from Mt Sinai”. Remember that at Mt Sinai the law given was that which is recorded in Exodus and Leviticus. It begins with the ten commandments, written on stone tablets by the finger of God. These are explained in more detail by sundry moral laws, and interspersed with other instructions on the construction of the sanctuary, the sacrificial system, and preparation of food. Now Paul is certainly maintaining that these latter laws are swept away. Is he saying the ten commandments are also swept away?

This is perhaps the most difficult question in interpreting the book and we must be very careful in how we answer it. We must note that Galatians is a short epistle written at an early date, and directed at the specific question of whether Gentile christians were required to obey the law. And the dispute was not over whether the Galatians should abstain from such things as idolatry and sexual immorality, corresponding to commandments 2 and 7, which Paul himself affirms in 5:19-20. Rather the dispute was about those outward things that made Jews different, and which would be burdensome for the Gentiles.

What takes the question beyond the ceremonial law is Paul’s concern about any sort of burden, whether based on the ceremonial or moral law, that would cause his readers to lose their joy (4:15). It was after all, the moral law (commandment 10) which Paul says took away his joy (Rom 7:7-8). Paul is adamant our confidence must not be in the law, but in Christ.

There is a point where the law and the gospel meet, and that is the principle of love. Jesus teaches us that it is the two commands to love God and love our neighbour which summarise the ten commandments. Paul is effectively quoting Jesus when he says the same thing with regard to our neighbour (5:14). It was Jesus love for God and for his neighbour that took him to the cross. It is our receiving of God’s love for us in Christ that frees us from reliance on law to please God, and which opens the way for us to serve him as Jesus did. Truly, this is the “only thing that counts”  (5:6).

Living by the Spirit and Dealing with Sin (5:13-6:10)

13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.  14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.  18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;  20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions  21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.  24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.  2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else,  5 for each one should carry his own load.

6 Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.

7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.  8 The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. 

Freedom from law does not mean freedom to sin. Is there a tension here? I am sure there was no conflict in Paul’s mind, but the question is one that comes to many readers today, just as it did in Paul’s time. He was wrongly understood, by some who heard him, to be promoting sin. Peter warns us against such an understanding, describing it as a distortion that leads such persons to destruction (2 Pet 3:16). What these people failed to understand was that the law of Moses had been replaced by a new law, which Jesus called his “new commandment” (John 13:34), and which Paul calls the “law of Christ” (6:2).

This law, of course, is the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” (5:14). It is what James refers to as the “royal law”, the “law that gives freedom” (James 2:8,12). It is the instruction that comes to us through the Spirit, through what I term an “enlightened conscience”. The conscience of the sinful man is corrupted, but the man who is “led by the Spirit” (5:18) will know what God desires and will be pleased to do it. Of course the moral law, including the ten commandments, can be used by the Spirit to show us what pleases God in a particular situation. But the Spirit also speaks the same principles to us directly. He speaks through our inherent knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17, 3:5). That is why Abraham knew what kind of life pleased God before the law of Moses was given. It is why Paul can say that “the acts of the sinful nature are obvious” (5:19).

Paul seems to be saying that the person who receives the instruction of the Spirit and acts on it does not need the law of Moses (5:18). The instruction of the Spirit is superior to the former, and will not lead us outside the “spirit”, as opposed to the “letter” of those laws.

The instruction of the Spirit is also different from the instruction of the law because it does not condemn. When Paul talks about restoring gently one who is “caught in a sin”, he is meaning a sin serious enough to be noticed. One need only read the list in 5:19-21 to see what I mean. Because there is ample forgiveness for such failings where there is heartfelt repentance, and because the requirements of the Spirit are not burdensome (cf. Matt 11:30), one’s heart is free to produce the fruit of the Spirit, beginning with love, joy and peace (5:22). These are the fruit of knowing the love of Christ (2:20), and they promote patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness, which are the fruit of extending this love we feel to others, especially to those who also have come to know Christ’s love (6:10).

Paul sums up his teaching on the sinful nature and the Spirit with the law of sowing and reaping (6:7-8), which brings us back to the question above. Is there a conflict between this law and the gospel of grace? Do we need to seek to please the Spirit rather than the sinful nature if we are to “reap eternal life”? I answer “yes” unhesitatingly, because that is what Paul says. That no-one doubt this, Paul also states the converse. Those who are content to live lives controlled by the sinful nature will “not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21).

Does this contradict 2:16 where, to recap, Paul says we are “not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Christ Jesus”? To answer “no” to this question I need to compare and contrast the law of Moses and the leading of the Spirit. I explained above that the moral law and the Spirit are in step in giving us understanding of what pleases God, and what displeases him. In fact the “law of Christ” goes much further than the ten commandments, teaching us to not just avoid harming our neighbour, but to love him and pro-actively help him, to share his burdens (6:2, 2:10, cf. Acts 2:44, Matt 25:31-46). However the law of Moses and the leading of the Spirit contrast in this – the former condemns us for a single failure (Rom 7:9-10), while the latter is full of mercy. In fact failure is part of christian experience (5:17, cf. Rom 7:15). But if you have your “minds set on what the Spirit desires”, then “the Spirit of God lives in you” (Rom 8:5,9). Faith in Christ connects us to a source of bountiful forgiveness in Christ’s death for us (Rom 8:3-4), and a powerful source of transforming grace in Christ’s resurrection (Rom 8:11).

Paul’s Concluding Remarks (6:11-18)

11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! 12 Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.  13 Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh.  14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.  16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.

17 Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

Paul’s own hand-written Greek conveys the seriousness of his message. His love for the Galatians is obvious, but he must call them to return to the truth that leads to eternal life. The message that has been confusing the Galatians focuses on outward purity. Pauls message on the other hand was that true purity in God’s sight could be found only through the cross of Christ.

The Big Picture

How does Galatians relate to Jesus’ teaching?

In protestant circles there seems to have been a tendency, in defining what it means to become a christian, to emphasise Paul’s teaching over that of Jesus. This is something I think we have inherited from Luther, and something Paul himself would rebuke (1 Cor 1:12-13). Remember, the great commission is to take Jesus’ commandments, not Paul’s commandments, to “all nations” (Matt 28:20). Paul would have received instruction from those who were christians before him, and he received revelation of the nature of the gospel from Christ himself. Yet he had to check his understanding with the other apostles (2:2), and at the time he wrote Galatians, he may not have read a full account of Jesus teaching.

In fact the teaching of Jesus, Peter and Paul is consistent, even if their language is different. All three refer to the Jewish regulations of the time as an unbearable “load” or “yoke” (Matt 23:4, Acts 15:10, Gal 5:1). All three invite us to remove it, but not so that we may then do as we please. Jesus invites the weary to rest, and then to take upon themselves his “yoke” which is “easy”, and his “burden”, which is “light” (Matt 11:28). Paul exhorts us to grow in the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-26). Both teachers are commanding us to love.

Jesus ate with sinners. He healed and collected grain on the Sabbath, ignored rules about washing hands, and taught that no food was unclean. In his death he fulfilled “once and for all” the burdensome requirements of the sacrificial system. However, he did not abolish the moral teaching of the old testament as summarised in the decalogue (Matt 5:17). In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he affirms the commandments against murder and adultery (Matt 5:21,27), enlarging their literal meaning to cover matters of the heart.

In his encounter with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-23), Jesus is asked what must one do “to inherit eternal life”. Jesus answers by first specifically listing all the commandments that are summed up in “love your neighbour as yourself”, and then deals with an issue (greed) close to the young man’s heart. Jesus is not saying “love your neighbour in what ever way seems right to you”. He is saying “love your neighbour as it is defined in the commandments”. Jesus of course also taught that we saved by faith in him (John 3:16-18, 5:24). There can be no contradiction here with either his own, or Paul’s teaching. We must have a heart that desire’s to live God’s way, or we “will not enter the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21), but with genuine repentance, “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men (Matt 12:31). In other words, through Jesus, believers are free from what Paul calls “the curse of the law” (Gal 3:13).

Perhaps Jesus’ most profound statement on the relationship of the new testament to the old is this:

“Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matt 13:52)

Jesus is bringing a new message about the kingdom of God, and how we enter it by faith, but he is building on what God has previously revealed. The old testament does indeed contain much treasure. Paul commanded it be read, and valued it for its promotion of godliness (1 Tim 4:13, 2 Tim 3:16).

Law, Sin and Grace

The controversy that surrounded Galatians at the time of the Reformation was concerned with what Paul meant by “law”, and what freedom from the law meant for christians.

Paul really was making a break with law as an instrument that ruled people’s lives. He was writing at a crucial time in the development of the christian church. It was a time when followers of Jesus needed to break with Judaism as a means of attaining righteousness, while they still needed to respond to God with the devotion the law was meant to encourage. In Galatians, when Paul uses the word “law”, it is whole system of law he is referring to. As a system, the law proved to be a burden in its unrelenting demands and ultimately it brought judgement, demonstrating man’s sinfulness and his need for redemption.

When Paul uses the word “sin” in Galatians, he is in a sense also referring to law. The rule of law has come to an end because he it has done its job in bringing God’s people to Christ. Yet “no one can set aside” the moral principles within it, because it is the moral principles of the law that reflect God’s unchanging character and which define sin. The Spirit of God enables us to understand these principles, even when we do not have access to the written law (1 John 2:27). Christ’s perfect obedience to these principles means that the law has been fulfilled for us, and therefore that as a system, the law has no power to condemn us. It still has value in making us wise as to what pleases God, which is summed up in the command to love one another.

The epistle to the Galatians forcefully proclaims an inheritance that is ours apart from the law. Through Christ’s sacrifice we are children of God and children of Abraham. Our relationship with God, untroubled by our failures, is that of children loved by their father. We become his children through faith in Christ – that is through believing in who he is, through gratefully receiving all he has accomplished for us, and through accepting both the privileges and the responsibilities of living as his children. Nothing depends on our strength, for everything flows from Christ’s death and resurrection for us. As Paul knew, and as Luther discovered, the “just shall live by faith!”

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