The New Testament book of Galatians is the charter of Christian freedom. In this profound letter, Paul proclaims the reality of our liberty in Christ – freedom from the law and the power of sin, and freedom to serve our living Lord.
Most of the first converts and early leaders in the church were Jewish Christians who proclaimed Jesus as their Messiah. As Jewish Christians, they struggled with a dual identity: their Jewishness constrained them to be strict followers of the law; their newfound faith in Christ invited them to celebrate a holy liberty. They wondered how Gentiles could be part of the kingdom of heaven.
This controversy tore the early church. Judaizers – an extremist Jewish faction within the church – taught that Gentile Christians had to submit to Jewish laws and traditions in addition to believing in Christ. As a missionary to the Gentiles, Paul had to confront this issue many times.
Galatians was written, therefore, to refute the Judaizers and to call believers back to the pure gospel. The Good News is for all people – Jews and Gentiles alike. Salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus and nothing else. Faith in Christ means true freedom.
After a brief introduction (1:1-5), Paul addresses those who were accepting the Judaizer’s perverted gospel (1:6-9). He summarizes the controversy, including his personal confrontation with Peter and other church leaders (1:10-2:16). He then demonstrates that salvation is by faith alone by alluding to his conversion (2:17-21), appealing to his readers’ own experience of the gospel (3:1-5), and showing how the Old Testament teaches about grace (3:6-20). Next, he explains the purpose of God’s laws and the relationship between law, God’s promises, and Christ (3:21-4:31).
Having laid the foundation, Paul builds his case for Christian liberty. We are saved by faith, not by keeping the law (5:1-12); our freedom means that we are free to love and serve one another, not to do wrong (5:13-26); and Christians should carry one another’s burdens and be kind to each other (6:1-10). In 6:11-18, Paul takes the pen into his own hand and shares his final thoughts.
The Layout of Galatians
Authenticity of the Gospel:
This is concentrated in (1:1-2:21) … In response to attacks from false teachers, Paul wrote to defend his apostleship and to defend the authority of the gospel.
Superiority of the Gospel:
This is concentrated in (3:1-4:31) … The Galatians were beginning to turn from faith in Christ to legalism and the observance of the law. The struggle between the gospel and legalism is still a crisis, as many even today would have us return to trying to earn God’s favor through following rituals or obeying a set of rules.
Freedom of the Gospel:
This is concentrated in (5:1-6:18) … As Christians, we are not boxed in, but set free. To preserve our freedom, we must stay close to Christ and resist any who promote subtle ways of trying to earn our salvation.
Themes: Explanation and Importance
A group of Jewish teachers insisted that non-Jewish believers must obey Jewish law and traditional rules. They believed a person was saved by following the law of Moses (with emphasis on circumcision, the sign of the covenant), in addition to faith in Christ. Paul opposed them by showing that the law can’t save anyone.
We can’t be saved by keeping the Old Testament law, even the Ten Commandments. The law served as a guide to point out our need to be forgiven. Christ fulfilled the obligations of the law for us. We must turn to him to be saved. He alone can make us right with God.
We are saved from God’s judgment and penalty for sin by God’s gracious gift to us. We receive salvation by faith – trusting in Him – not in anything else. Becoming a Christian is in no way based on our initiative, wise choice, or good character. We can be right with God only by believing in Him.
Our acceptance by God comes by believing in Christ alone. We must never add to or twist this truth. We are saved by faith, not by the good that we do. We must place our whole confidence and trust in Christ. He alone can forgive us and bring us into a new relationship with God.
Galatians is the charter of Christian freedom. We are not under the jurisdiction of Jewish laws and traditions, nor under the authority of Jerusalem. Faith in Christ brings true freedom from sin and from the futile attempt to be right with God by keeping the law.
We are free in Christ, and yet freedom is a privilege. We are not free to disobey Christ or practice immorality, but we are free to serve the Risen Christ. We are bidden to use our freedom to love and to serve, not to do wrong.
We become Christians through the work of the Holy Spirit. He brings new life; even our faith to believe is a gift from Him. The Holy Spirit instructs, guides, leads, and gives us power. He ends our bondage to evil desires, and He creates in us love, joy, peace, and many other wonderful changes.
When the Holy Spirit leads us, He produces His fruit in us. Just as we are saved by faith, not deeds, we also grow by faith. By believing, we can have the Holy Spirit within us, helping us live for Christ. We must obey Christ by following the Holy Spirit’s leading.
A Closer Look… Gal. 1:1-24
Paul doesn’t lose a lot of time in getting to his initial point:
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 – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 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! 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! (Gal. 1:6-9)
Paul goes to some length to defend the gospel that was preached to the Galatians as the truth; he defends the gospel as revealed directly from Christ, and proves that by giving an account of his background and the effect of his conversion:
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. 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. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, 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. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me. (Gal. 1:13-24)
A Closer Look… Gal. 2:1-21
Paul gained legitimacy because the church in Jerusalem confirmed his apostolic authority, and his mission to the Gentiles:
As to 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. 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. 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. 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. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (Gal. 2:6-10)
Paul even rebuked Peter over an issue between Jewish and Gentile believers, and his rebuke was accepted as valid, further strengthening Paul’s position as a legitimate apostle. Paul further speaks about justification before God as based solely on faith in Jesus Christ, leaving the law out of the picture:
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 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. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 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? “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 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. “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! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 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. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Gal. 2:11-21)
To be “crucified with Christ” is a central lesson of Galatians… it means death to and separation from the reigning power of the old, sinful life, and freedom to experience the power of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ by and through faith in Him and what He accomplished on the cross. The Christian knows true freedom because of faith in Jesus Christ, and his life is literally unleashed to love and serve the Risen Lord and God’s people.
A Closer Look… Gal. 3:1-29
Paul was distressed over the Galatians… while initially they had received the gospel from him, and had the Spirit working in them, they had somehow migrated to a belief in faith plus works as being somehow easier or more effective:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 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? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (Gal. 3:1-5)
Paul speaks of Abraham, the man who had faith in God, and of all those who are his spiritual descendants, in one of the high points of Galatians:
Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 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.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal. 3:6-9)
There is great comfort for Christians in knowing that the Scriptures foresaw that the hope in Jesus Christ would be offered to the Gentiles. Everyone can come to faith in Jesus Christ, and be justified before God the Father by belief in His only begotten Son.
Paul ably destroys the argument of reliance on the written law:
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.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” 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.” 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. (Gal. 3:10-14)
Paul says what the purpose of the law is:
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. A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one. (Gal. 3:19-20)
The law was added to: 1) make sins known to men, and 2) restrain them. In effect, the law made men conscious of what they were doing when they sinned against God. The Seed, of course, is Jesus Christ. Insofar as the superiority of Jesus Christ versus the law, the law was mediated by angels through Moses, whereas the covenant made with Abraham (which eventually yielded the Seed of Jesus Christ) was given directly by God; hence the inferiority of the law.
Paul explains further:
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. 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. (Gal. 3:21-22)
The law condemns men, because while it points to their sin, the law in its entirety cannot be kept. Paul explains that the law held us as prisoners, and how Jesus Christ freed those who believe:
Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Gal. 3:23-25)
Paul shows the shining glory of what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us, in another high point of Galatians:
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor 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. (Gal. 3:26-29)
A Closer Look… Gal. 4:1-31
Paul uses childhood and adulthood to better explain how we are heirs to what God has promised:
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. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Gal. 4:1-7)
How beautiful this image is… we who believe are sons of God, and co-heirs with Christ!
Paul continues to take the Galatians to task over their wandering away from what they were taught:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 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? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. (Gal. 4:8-11)
Paul goes into detail in his arguments against those who want the rule of the law, citing historical accounts from Genesis regarding Hagar and her son Ishmael (standing for the Mosaic Law, slavery, Mount Sinai, Jerusalem (then under slavery to Rome), and the flesh) and Sarah and her son Isaac (standing for the Abrahamic covenant, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Spirit, and freedom):
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 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. 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. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is writtten: “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.” Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 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. 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.” Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. (Gal. 4:21-31)
A Closer Look… Gal. 5:1-26
Paul states that circumcision (the law) and grace (Jesus Christ) simply do not mix:
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. (Gal. 5:2-3)
Paul summarizes neatly:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Gal. 5:6)
Paul has stated in various writings that Jesus Christ makes those who believe in Him free; they have true freedom. However, Paul is careful to point out what this freedom is for:
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. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:13-14)
Paul explains the benefit of living by the Spirit:
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 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 know what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. (Gal. 5:16-18)
What Paul means is that we should walk through our lives with dependence upon the Holy Spirit to achieve victory over the sinful nature and what it produces. The sinful nature is never gotten rid of in this life, but it can be controlled by the Holy Spirit.
Paul goes on to say what the acts of the sinful nature are; there is an emphasis that these acts are plain, open, and blatant, with overtones of being unashamed of them:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 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. (Gal. 5:19-21)
In one of the high points of Galatians, Paul explains what the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those who believe in Jesus Christ is:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (Gal. 5:22-24)
A Closer Look… Gal. 6:1-18
All people sin because of the sinful nature, but Paul explains what should be done with someone who sins; perhaps this means someone whose sins have come to the attention of the body of believers:
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. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load. (Gal. 6:1-5)
Paul means that mature Christians should assist in returning the sinner to a life of faith in Jesus Christ and of reliance on the Holy Spirit, but it is important to note that Paul indicates that what should be done is to do this in accordnace with the command of Jesus Christ for us to love one another: this means we should help others to carry the excess burdens that they themselves cannot carry.
Paul speaks about giving; note his warning about the omniscience of God, and his instructions regarding being good to others:
Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 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. Let us not become weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Gal. 6:10)