To journey into the book of Galatians is to venture into a hostile and confused mob, where outbursts of anger, jealousy, and bitterness are vented in a chaotic cacophony. One voice cuts through the bedlam—“Back to the gospel.” All stop to listen, but will all hear?
That voice is Paul’s, and his announcement is broadcast to us no less than to the churches in southern Galatia, churches in the region of modern-day Turkey, nearest the Mediterranean Sea, that he had planted on his first missionary journey. Galatians may well be Paul’s earliest letter, written about 15 years after Jesus’ ascension, and it’s charged with an emotional intensity we can’t afford to miss. While the letter is profoundly pastoral, Paul isn’t trying to be particularly “pastorally sensitive.” He’s confronting something extremely dangerous.
Agitators, likely Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, had entered the churches he’d already gained for Christ—avoiding unreached fields and the hardships of such work—undermining his authority, persuading the believers that Paul hadn’t known Christ or been commissioned by him. As a consequence, they argued, Paul’s message wasn’t to be believed; his gospel was at best deficient, at worst heretical. Their line of attack might be imagined: “Who is Paul anyway? Wasn’t he one of the last converted, if indeed he’s been converted at all? We, however, are pupils of the true apostles. We saw Jesus perform miracles, we heard him preach. We’re ministers of Christ. We’ve got the Holy Spirit—it’s impossible we should err. Moreover, we’re from the mother church; Paul is a rogue itinerant whose message undermines God’s law and erodes holiness.”
Like attorneys trying to discredit a witness, the personal attack was aimed at discrediting Paul’s testimony: justification by grace alone, through faith alone. These agitators insisted that in addition to faith in Jesus, God required circumcision, kosher eating, and Sabbath observance. In other words, salvation required Christ plus the law of Moses. This was no mere difference of opinion. Paul’s aim, then, is to take the Galatians back to the true gospel, to liberate them from the agitators’ lies. Their message might have sounded good, but it actually led to a devilish combination of thought and action that would have negated grace and established Pharisaic legalism at the heart of the church.
Therefore, as Philip Ryken has astutely noted, “Galatians is a letter for recovering Pharisees. … The Pharisees were hypocrites because they thought that what God would do for them depended on what they did for God.”1 So they diligently pursued worship, orthodoxy, and morality, but failed to grasp that God’s grace can’t be earned. The way out of Pharisaism is the gospel—that is, rejecting our own righteousness and trusting the sufficiency of Jesus’. This alone can transform the Galatians, and us, into “ex-Pharisees.”
Ex-Pharisees, however, struggle to leave legalism behind. “God loves us,” we say, yet we secretly feel his love and our salvation are contingent on how we are doing in the Christian life. We constantly want to base justification on sanctification, to take what is free and slap a surcharge on it. Our abiding tendency is to performance-based religion, not knowing how to live by grace. Or we fear a message solely of grace will devalue God’s standards.
The attack on Paul’s authority, therefore, was an attack on the gospel. In reply, Paul lifts his voice with passion, not simply to defend his apostolic calling but to preach the gospel again to his beloved Galatian converts. Liberation from legalism lies in seeing God’s grace not only as completely sufficient for salvation, but also as the wellspring for every facet of life.
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Adapted from Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians by Daniel Bush and Noel Due. This title is shipping February 1—pre-order your copy today!