Friday, June 01, 2007

Reflecting on Galatians

This past Sunday, I finished going through the book of Galatians with my adult Sunday school class. We started studying it in September, and have not really deviated from it except on a few occasions. I have personally been thoroughly blessed both through studying and teaching this book. I do not fully understand all that there is to know from the book of Galatians (I won’t ever on this side of eternity), but I feel as if I am more equipped to articulate, defend, and incorporate what Paul wrote than I was a few months ago. I became very excited to cover the final eight verses (Galatians 6:11-18) this past week because I found that it was a very…satisfying conclusion to the book.

I say that it was a satisfying conclusion of the book because it appealed to my thought structure in a different way than others of his letters end. Basically, it ends with, what seems to me, Paul firing off a final statement to cover each of the major themes of his letter. Let me also say that my mental appreciation of the form of this letter does not elevate it above any other Scripture, it is just one of those passages that just…clicks with the way that my mind works.

As I look back over the book, I see many themes that Paul covers. He begins by defending the singularity of the gospel (i.e. there is only one message), the intention of the Law, the believer’s sonship in Christ, the allegory of the bond and free women (this is very cool, by the way), the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, bearing of one another’s burdens, and boasting. However, the two primary themes (as I see it, and I am willing to be corrected) that are woven throughout the others are salvation by faith apart from works of the Law and the authentic nature of Paul’s apostolic ministry.

The lesser (by emphasis in the book, not necessarily by importance) of the two themes is Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry. We see it begin in chapter two where Paul recounts his visit to Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15) and submits his teaching to the other apostles in private out of fear that he “might be running, or had run, in vain” (Galatians 2:2) regarding the gospel of grace and faith that he was preaching. He was utterly convinced of the truth of what he was preaching, and he seems to have wanted the issue resolved once and for all. However, you will notice that the dissention caused by those false teachers in Acts 15 is similar to that of the teaching of “certain men from James” (2:12) that Paul encounters later in Antioch.

The specific issue of the Jerusalem council was to determine if Gentile converts to Christianity had to follow the Jewish laws, particularly if the male converts had to be circumcised. Paul brought Titus to Jerusalem to, as it seems, show off a gentile man, who was not circumcised and did not follow the dietary laws and regulations, as an example of a non-Jewish Christian. Well, the conclusion of the Jerusalem council was to say that converts to Christ did not, in fact, need to undergo circumcision or follow the ceremonial and dietary laws that God gave to Israel.

Unfortunately, the issue didn’t stop at Jerusalem because it seems that men went out from there claiming to have been sent “from James,” who seems to be the elder of the Jerusalem church. Also, it seems that these false teachers, these “Judaizers” (they were called Judaizers because of their desire to put new converts under the burden of the Jewish system), lied when they claimed to have been sent by him because it was James who articulated the judgment of the apostles against this heresy.

19 "Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood." (Acts 15:19,20)

So, the result of the council is that Paul’s doctrine is recognized as the true gospel1 and that the other apostles had been preaching this same message as well. Paul also contrasts how it was when he initially came to the Galatian church and that he came in need proclaiming the gospel, whereas the false teachers “shut you out so that you will seek them.” (Galatians 3:17) In other words, because of the teaching of the Judaizing false teachers, the followers would be compelled to seek after these teachers instead of going to others (like Paul or the other apostles).

The pinnacle of his argument in favor of his apostleship as presented in this book is found in the second chapter where Paul confronts, opposes, and rebukes Peter (Galatians 2:11-21). One of the messages conveyed here is that Paul shows how Peter was lulled into going along with this hypocrisy, and calls him on it. Peter was always the front man for the disciples of Jesus as well as the apostles. So for Paul to use this account of the confrontation with Peter, he was not pulling any punches. Remember, the readers could have, with relative ease, checked to see if this had in fact happened.

So, in a final way to punch his point across about how his ministry and message is authentic, Paul says this as one of the final statements of his letter:

“From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.” (Galatians 6:17)

Case closed.

Whereas I see Paul’s defense of his own ministry to be a key issue here, it is, by comparison, dwarfed by the subject and the amount of material presented relating to the main theme of the book. This theme is that salvation is by faith apart from works of the law. In other words, Paul here is saying that salvation, or more specifically I believe that he is referring to the process of justification, is applied to the believer on the basis of faith, and faith alone. Now I realize that a common objection to the doctrine of Justification is that the exact phrase “faith alone” only appear in James when he writes, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). The short answer to this objection is that Abraham and Rahab (both referenced in the context of James 2) both did actions showing their faith in and allegiance to God after they had “believed God, and it was reckoned to [them] as righteousness]” (James 2:23). In other words, the justification that James speaks about is how we are seen before men’s eyes, and not through God’s. Here’s what John Gill had to say about this verse and the controversy and apparent contradiction that it presents,

“Moreover, the Apostle Paul speaks of justification before God; and James speaks of it as it is known by its fruits unto men; the one speaks of a justification of their persons, in the sight of God; the other of the justification and approbation of their cause, their conduct, and their faith before men, and the vindication of them from all charges and calumnies of hypocrisy, and the like; the one speaks of good works as causes, which he denies to have any place as such in justification; and the other speaks of them as effects flowing from faith, and showing the truth of it, and so of justification by it; the one had to do with legalists and self-justiciaries, who sought righteousness not by faith, but by the works of the law, whom he opposed; and the other had to do with libertines, who cried up faith and knowledge, but had no regard to a religious life and conversation; and these things considered will tend to reconcile the two apostles about this business, but as effects declaring it;”2

Paul’s issue here in Galatians is against those whom Gill referred to as legalists and I have referred to them as Judaizers. Legalism is, in its most basic and correct understanding, a system that adds anything to the process of salvation above faith in Christ. In other words, the circumcision that the Judaizers were pushing did just that. And because of this heresy, those who followed in their teaching would be led astray, never to hear the true gospel of grace through faith alone.

It is most excellent that Paul’s defense of his apostleship and his defense of the gospel merge in the council of Jerusalem and the following hypocrisy of Peter and Barnabas in Antioch. Both of these instances show the truth of his calling and office and the truth of the gospel. Paul hammers on this doctrine throughout every chapter of this book. In Chapter one he refers to the fact that there is only one gospel, not two or more, and he makes a very clear and stern condemnation of any deviation from that gospel,

8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8,9)

In chapter two Paul shows the nature of the false teaching that he is confronting at the same time as he is asserting proof for his apostleship. The primary issue was that of whether or not there is a required Jewishness in Christians, and it seems to be focused around the dietary laws and circumcision. Paul sets up his argument, that he lays out throughout the rest of the book, about the inadequacy of the Law and adherence to it as a means of being made righteous when he says,

19 "For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. 20 "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. 21 "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." (Galatians 2:19-21)

Chapter three opens up with a few rhetorical questions where he basically asks if the Galatians received the Holy Spirit and experience miracles “by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2 & 5) The answer is, of course, that it was all received through faith and not by performing a religious ritual. He then concludes the chapter with an argument for the proper place for the Law given by God to Moses.

23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.
24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:23-25)

The picture here is that before the gospel of faith was revealed through Jesus Christ, we were bound to keep the Law of Moses even though it was impossible to do. In other words, we were bound to this system that we could not fulfill and therefore could not redeem us. This system and standard of God’s holiness that also shows our inability to measure up is the “tutor” that helps us and, by God’s grace, shows us that we need a substitute. Therefore, once Christ came, He fulfilled the Law; He “redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.” (Galatians 3:13) This is pictured beautifully in the prophetic words of Isaiah and in the doctrinal statement of Paul when they said, speaking of Christ’s punishment on our behalf,

“But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being {fell} upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Therefore, Paul’s letter to the Galatians goes on to say that the reason for why God set it up this way is “so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (v. 14), not through observing and keeping the law or performing deeds, but “by means of a promise.” (v. 18) We would be saved by Christ’s work on the cross, but we would not and cannot contribute anything to our justification. If we attempt to add to that finished work on the cross, we in effect say that Christ’s righteousness is not enough and that He was unable to deal with all of my sins. This type of legalistic addition is blasphemy and heresy, and it is a doctrine of devils that cannot save.

The fourth chapter’s contribution is primarily contained in the allegorical way that Paul uses Hagar and Sarah to show the different outcomes from the law and from the promise. Ishmael was born according to the flesh, through Hagar, and Paul shows how Ishmael and the rest of Hagar’s spiritual offspring came about by the flesh, and they are not the chosen of God. However, Isaac, and the rest of Sarah’s spiritual offspring, are born according to God’s promise. This is an excellent portion of Scripture that took me quite a while to wrap my head around.

Paul’s argument here is hitting the false teachers and those under their sway on a level that is at the very root of their attempts to achieve full “Jewishness”. The descendants of Ishmael were outside of the covenant that God made with Abraham, and therefore they were not allotted any inheritance with the nation in terms of the physical land or in terms of the Spiritual promises. Paul equates the Judaizers with those born from Hagar, and that they are likewise outside of the covenant relationship with God. He also shows the similarity of Isaac’s mistreatment by Ishmael and that of Christians who are mistreated by imposters, posers, as well as pagans.

Chapter five is most known for its teaching about the fruit of the Spirit, and that is as it should be, because that is a great section of this chapter. However, one must note that this whole chapter is a contrast between the same things; flesh and spirit. The beginning of the chapter sets the stage for how we are to understand the teaching that follows as well as how it connects back to the previous statements about faith contrasted to law keeping.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

All of the discourse in this chapter is rooted in the teaching that we are not saved by any human work. Whether Paul is writing about the deeds of the flesh as being the evidence of an unsaved person and that this leads to destruction (Gal 5:16-21), or when he contrasts it with the fruit of the Spirit that is evidence that those who display this fruit live and walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:22-25), he is explaining that our salvation is based on grace and mercy, not merit and wages.

This leads us to the conclusion of the book, and what Paul says near the end of Chapter six. Paul summarizes the issue that was at hand for the Galatians, those in Antioch, and those at the Jerusalem Council with the definite summary of the conflict and the doctrine that resolves it when he wrote,

15 For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15,16)

We need to be created anew by Christ, and we can have that done by God’s grace through our faith in Christ Jesus. And for those of us who place our faith in Christ’s completed work in his life, death, and resurrection, we will be granted salvation, or “peace and mercy”, and inherit the blessings of God.

The truth of this great doctrine is the same today as it was for those to whom Paul initially wrote it. The difference is that there is no contemporary movement (or at least not a notable one) demanding circumcision and dietary adherence for attaining salvation. We do, however, have many different forms of this type of legalism that will not save.

This legalism takes the form of all non-Christian religions in their requirements to attain any higher enlightened state or their perception of heaven. This also takes many forms inside of Christendom. From the Mormon cult that requires baptism (whether you are living or dead) for salvation to the cult of the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose works-righteous system appears very crass and less cloaked in Christian terminology.

The distorted teaching that baptism is required, or a prerequisite, for salvation is rampant throughout more main-stream portions of Christendom; from Catholic to Methodist, and Lutheran to Easter Orthodox, this is a gross misunderstanding of baptism and it is a heretical teaching. Do Christians need to be baptized? Yes. But we don’t need to do it in order to attain salvation as it is an act that is done after faith, and we have seen how we are saved through faith apart from works of the Law. However, it is also true that a continued refusal to be baptized when the command of Christ is preached and known could very well be a sign of an unregenerate heart. The rebellion that shows in relation to one of Christ’s simplest forms of obedience is an ominously telling sign of the probability of a greater rebellion and condemning rebellion that has never bent the knee of faith to Christ alone.

Paul refers to this teaching in his letter to Titus when he said of Christ and our salvation,

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5)

May we hold fast to the truth of God’s word and never prostitute ourselves for a counterfeit that cannot save. Soli Deo Gloria.

1 It was always the true gospel, and that is why I don’t say that it was “declared” true or “made” true or something along those lines. Paul’s doctrine was affirmed against the growing apostasy and heresy that was taught by the Judaizers and those caught in their sway.

2 Gill, John. "Commentary on James 2:24". "John Gill's Exposition of the Bible". 1999.

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