Galatians, the biblical epistle written by the apostle Paul around 54AD has been called the Magna Carta of Christian liberty. Because of the powerful truths contained within this book, Luther himself embraced it, saying, “I am wedded to it,” and used the themes contained within its pages to set the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation. These themes, which include the foundational thought that it is only through the basis of Christ is a person enabled to escape the curse of the sin and the law and to live a new life, not in bondage or license, but in a true freedom of the mind and spirit through the power of God, shaped the history of the western world.
Paul himself saw the fundamental thesis of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as the indisputable foundation of the Christian life and conduct, while Luther, by rediscovering and teaching it restored to the church its spirit and core of freedom. We are no longer slaves but free. We are the heirs of God. This Christian message is the turning point of history.
The epistle was written around 54 AD to those in Galatia, another name for Gaul, which was originally France, but the people had spread out to Asia minor. It is thought that Paul was addressing himself to the Celtic people who were from barbaric tribal stock. The infant church had been drifting towards its first great doctrinal crisis. When the Jews had preached solely to the Jews, everything had gone smoothly. However, when the Jews had preached to the Gentiles, questions arose concerning the Christian’s relationship to the law and to Judaism itself. What was the role of the church to be in this matter? Should the Gentiles observe the law of Moses in order to be Christians? Were Gentiles supposed to be circumcised? This is a record of the form this struggle underwent in one area of Asia Minor. It is a reflection of the way in which the issues had been debated and handled in Jerusalem and Antioch.: do Gentiles and Jews eat together? And if they do, do they eat the same food? The orthodox Jews considered it an unclean practice because of the Jewish tradition, desirous of observing the entire ceremonial law. This seemed to be a destructive debate, yet Paul engaged such questions. In addition, he had written the letter to the Galatians in order to counter several charges which had been leveled against him.
Rules and legalisms were taking over this area of the church. Judaizers, or legalizers had moved in, saying that many of these procedures must be followed in order to be a true Christian. Paul refutes these thoughts, saying if that were so, Christianity would lose the whole gist of what makes it distinctive, and it would lose its power. Salvation is never accomplished by any amount of conformity to rules and regulations. The law condemns. The only way of salvation is through Jesus who died for sin. God offers righteousness freely to all who put their trust in him.
The Judaizers called Paul wrong, saying that it was not enough to be a Christian; one must have the law of Moses also. To grace must be added circumcision. If this view prevailed, Christianity would lose all its value and fast become little more than a minor sect of Judaism. In justifiably righteous anger Paul wrote Galatians to reprove these Judaizers and aid the Galatian church in recovering orthodox Christian belief.
The charges leveled against Paul were threefold. Although he had been called by Christ, many considered him not to be an apostle because he had not been part of the original twelve apostles, saying that the gospel he preached was not revealed by God.
Paul answers in chapters one and two by telling the story of his life, revealing that he was indeed called by God.
The second issue is not one of who does or does not keep the law, but rather of the true basis on which God reckons a sinful man to become righteous, which is by faith rather than by works. This imputed righteousness is not from the law or circumcision, as mentioned in chapters three and four, but it derives from the same way as the one in which Abraham was considered righteous before the law or before circumcision. He was righteous because of faith. God makes a person righteous because of faith, not because of what he does.
The third issue concerns the opposition of those who declared that the gospel Paul proclaimed led to loose living; if the law were to be taken away, it would lead to lawlessness and immorality. In chapters five and six Paul states that is not true. Christianity does not lead believers away from the law into nothingness; the change is internal. Life in the spirit sets us free and above religion. We gain true freedom in order to serve God fully unencumbered by the shackles of sin or of regulations.
In Galatians there are two great struggles: the struggle for liberty within the camp and defense against assailants from without. As mentioned previously, when Luther started his attack on the corruption of the medieval church, he chose this epistle as the most efficient mechanism in overthrowing the massive amount of error. (Behr, 65).
In varying translations of Galatians such as King James, RSV, and Phillips, Paul says that he marvels, (is astonished, amazed ) that you have transferred your allegiance from him who called you in the grace of Christ to another gospel.
He continues by saying that the Gospel was “given me by Christ himself, and not by any human agency, as my story will show. (RSV states that it is not man’s gospel).
In chapter two he tells of how he and Barnabus and Titus went up to Jerusalem by divine command (Phillips), while RSV and King James state that he went up by revelation. He states that pseudo-Christians wanted to circumcise Titus. They were fake brethren who wanted to take away their freedom in Christ. Paul even had to stand against Cephas (Peter) because he refused to eat with the Gentiles, worried over what the Jews ( the circumcision party) would think about him eating with the unclean. Paul said to Peter that if he, a Jew, lives like a Gentile, why does he make the Gentiles to live like Jews? A man is not justified not by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. I through the law have died to the law, that I might live unto God. If righteousness (justification) were through the law then Christ died to no purpose. As King James states it, his death was in vain.
In chapter three Paul asks the Galatians who has bewitched (cast a spell) on them? Did they receive the Spirit by trying to keep the law or by believing the message of the gospel? Surely they can’t be so idiotic as to believe that a man begins his spiritual life in the spirit and then reverts to keeping it by outward observances. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned (accounted ) to him as righteousness. They which are of faith the same are the children of Abraham. The scriptures foresaw that God would justify the gentiles by faith, really proclaimed the gospel to us years ago in the words spoken to Abraham, saying “In you shall all the nations be blessed.: So then those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. But those who rely on the works of the law are under a curse. No man is justified by the law before God; the righteous shall live by faith. (RSV- he who by faith is righteous shall live). Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law having become a curse for us. Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree. God’s purpose is plain (Phillips): that the blessings promised to Abraham might reach the gentiles through Jesus Christ, and the promise of the Spirit might become ours by faith.
What is the point of the Law? It was added because of transgressions (RSV). As Phillips states, it was an addition made to underline the existence and extent of sin until the arrival of the seed to whom the promise referred. The law is not a contradiction ( does not nullify) the promises of God. All men are guilty under the law. (RSV – the scripture consigned all things to sin). Thus what was promised to those in faith in Jesus Christ might live. The law was our schoolmaster (tutor) to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Not that faith has come we are no longer under that schoolmaster or tutor.
An heir is under guardians and trustees, even though lord of all, until the time appointed by the father. When we were children we lived under the authority of basic moral principles, but when the proper time came, God sent his son, born of a human mother and born under the jurisdiction (authority, Phillips)of the law that he might redeem those who were under the authority of law so that they might receive adoption as sons. Yet you turn back to the weak and niggardly elements, observing says and months and seasons and years. I am afraid I have labored over you in vain.(Phillips – my efforts are wasted). Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?
O my children, I feel the pangs of childbirth until Christ be formed in you. We are not sons of slavery under the law, but sons of freedom under grace. Plant your feet firmly therefore with the freedom that Christ has won for us, and do not let yourselves be caught again in the shackles of slavery. Or as RSV states: For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. In Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working by love. Christ set us free: to be free men.
You were running well (making splendid progress). What hindered you from obeying the truth? If I were still advocating circumcision, why am I suffering persecution? I wish those who were so eager to cut your bodies would cut themselves off from you altogether. It is to freedom that you have been called. Serve one another in love. The whole law toward others is summed up in this one command: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Walk in the spirit and you shall not fulfill the desires of the flesh. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Bear one another burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. God is not mocked ( you can’t make a fool of God), whatever a man sows, that shall he reap. Be it far from me to glory except in the cross of Christ. Neither circumcision counts anything, not uncircumcision, but a new creation. Henceforth, let no man bother me, for I bear in my body the marks of Christ.
What Paul refers to in these various translations still applies today. We are not saved by the law. We are condemned by the law because we are not capable of keeping it. The law is not an end in itself; rather, it is our teacher to lead us to Christ. Just as Abraham was justified before God because he believed him and had faith, so are we, if we follow Abraham’s example.
Christ did this for us, making all believers righteous before God. If we live by the spirit, we will experience its fruits and live as a new creation in Christ. The same principles apply today just as they did 2000 years ago. Removing the law as the sole condition for righteousness does not make us licentious. It only frees us to see Jesus Christ, the one who hung on the tree for our sins, as the only way we can attain right standing before God. Christianity today as always, is not a matter of keeping rules or of ceremonial observances. Rather, it is a relationship with the living Lord.
Many people, including Ellen White, who liked to tell people what they could or could not do, should read Galatians. It is a book of freedom, not of finger-pointing. By soaking on Galatians we learn that our eyes are to be on the Lord Christ, not on other people’s sins. It is a book that contains pearls of wisdom and explains the basis for Christianity. By feasting on this book, we can learn what the whole experience is truly about. We can learn that we were born to be free, not born to be slaves. As Paul makes the analogy of the two sons of Abraham, the son of the bondwoman and the son of promise, we should claim the fact that we are children of promise. Our sole responsibility is to believe God and it will be accounted to us as righteousness. We do not need the law solely as a basis for the relationship with God. Paul is thinking of the great sinfulness in turning from the savior in order to serve mere ordinances. In coming to Christ we died to the law so completely that we cannot return to it. The law cannot bring us life. No one has ever fulfilled it.
Yet law is necessary because it destroys all hope for salvation by human works. Only when a man dies to his own efforts of achieving salvation can he receive the gift of salvation that God offers. The heart of Christianity lies in the grace of God and in the death of Jesus Christ. If anyone thinks he can earn his salvation by his own efforts, he is undermining the foundations of the Christian religion and making Christ’s death superfluous.
By making the distinction between man-made and supernatural (God made) religion, Paul sums it up with the two sons analogy, which can be applied to the struggle between Judaism and Christianity.
Hagar, the bond woman Sarah, the free woman
Ishmael, a natural birth Issac, a supernatural birth
The old covenant The new covenant
Earthly Jerusalem Heavenly Jerusalem
Thus, the Galatians and also we, must recognize the incompatibility of man-made and God-made religion. The true sons of Abraham are those born of the spirit. Look only to God, not to man-made laws.
- Behr, R.( 1931). Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville, Tn:Broadman.
- Gaebelein, F. (1976). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
- Hogg, V. (1958). The Epistle to the Galatians. Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth.
- Lightfoot, J. (1926). The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- <www. Ellenwhite.com Retrieved 14 August 2006.