To understand Paul's epistles and to fully grasp his meaning, one needs to become familiar with his terminology and the situation to which he was speaking. Some of the issues he addresses are no longer relevant today, but some are alive and well in today's church. This is especially true of Paul's Galatian letter. The issue is one with which every believer struggles, as does every community of believers: the problem of finding the right balance or perspective when it comes to the great twin principles of Christian faith and obedience.
From the start, Paul pulls no punches as he addresses the problem in the churches of Galatia. "I am astonished," he says, "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" (1:6, 7).*
A different gospel, by which Paul means a perverted gospel, is not the gospel at all, he says. Paul is dealing here with the very heart of "the gospel of Christ" itself the relation ship between faith and obedience in terms of human salvation.
He identifies two perversions of the gospel. First, the legalistic perversion of "trying to attain your goal [of righteousness] by human effort" (3:3). It is in our very nature to want to prove our basic goodness. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with good works; it is what we make of them that is often wrong. The subtlety of the perverted gospel is that it rests its hopes of salvation on a "Jesus + obedience" concept. Such a focus shifts inevitably away from Jesus to the efforts of the human to our efforts. This attitude can become quite petty as we decide for ourselves and for others which works have a particular righteousness quotient.
Second, there is the concern of a libertine gospel that makes of the grace of God a dis grace and a license "to indulge the sinful nature" (5:13). Obedience to God has not lost any of its importance in the light of the gospel. Never would Paul call his people, or us, to interpret his enthusiasm for the gospel as mounting some kind of offensive against God's law. He was as concerned for right living as he was for salvation by grace.
Jewish zealot to Christian emissary
So convinced was Paul of the veracity of what he preached that he says, "If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" (1:9). His twice repeated (verse 8) emphatic assertion is founded on two factors.
First, his understanding of the gospel came from a personal encounter with Christ. "I want you to know, brothers," he claims, "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" (1:11, 12). This encounter precipitated a dramatic turn about for him. Till then, he had seen the Jesus revival as a threat to established belief. As a traditionalist Jew, he viewed this new theology with horror and despair, as the ultimate danger. With characteristic zeal, Paul, in defense of that faith, "persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it" (1:13).
His encounter with Jesus, however, led him to interpret the Old Testament in a radically new way in terms of the gospel, that is, in the light of Christ. It became clear to him that "no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (2 Cor. 1:20). His Judaistic framework was shattered by the new revelation which ripped aside the veil through which he had always read Scripture (2 Cor. 3:14). His earlier securities were dramatically displaced, and his assurance of salvation now rested in Jesus Christ alone (Phil. 3:4-7).
The second basis for his conviction came from the church's confirmation of his message. The revelation that came to him from Christ created a major paradigm shift not only for Paul but also for the church. Some Jewish believers were not prepared to make that shift and were convinced that they should contend for historic Jewish practices as the indispensable contribution to their salvation. These concerned brethren felt it was their duty to follow in Paul's tracks and give his converts "the full message." Paul's view of this reactionary development was that "some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves" (Gal. 2:4).
This is why he and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to lay before the church leaders the gospel he preached to the Gentiles. He was willing that they examine it and confirm it. The church, for its part, had to be prepared to expand its understanding and not be held by tradition and established orthodoxy which posed in the garb of unchangeable truth. So the church took the giant step of recognizing that truth is dynamic, not static; that certain Old Testament teachings and practices had, in the light of the gospel, run their course and met their termination point in Christ.
The Paul-Peter confrontation
There was a crucial occasion in Antioch when the church's affirmation of Paul's gospel had to be publicly defended against Peter's duplicity (2:11ff). Peter stood accused of being inconsistent and hypocritical, associating with the Gentile believers at one time, then withdrawing to the company of "certain men [who] came from James." These members of "the circumcision group," the "Jesus plus" people, came with a built in hypercritical attitude, looking for opportunities to criticize those in the church who championed the gospel. In the presence of these people, Peter retreated to the safety of disassociating himself from social contact with the Gentile believers and by implication he com promised the implications of the gospel. He aligned himself thus with the circumcision band. Paul regarded this as sufficient cause for a show down.
His public protest was in defense of gospel principle and practice. Peter's behavior reflected the divisive ultraconservatism of the theologically flawed circumcision group. In Jerusalem, he had spoken decisively in support of the gospel going to the Gentiles unhampered by Judaistic trappings (see Acts 15:10). Now in Antioch Peter appeared to stand with those who would "force the Gentiles to follow Jewish customs." Paul felt that such hypocrisy, if unchecked, would encourage the enemies of the gospel.
For Paul, there was no room for compromise or negotiation with those who felt urged to retain some of the vestiges of Judaism, synchronizing them with the radical paradigm of the gospel. "We . . . 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" (Gal. 2:16).
This verse places faith in Christ and observing the law in contention with each other. The underlying issue is being set right with God through faith in Christ rather than on the basis of obedience to any manifestation of law. The question was and still is, Are we justified by our behavioral attainments, or by accepting the merit of Jesus on our behalf, without any contribution from our obedience? This is not just a question for theological debate or semantic argumentation. It is a question with which we struggle daily as in our actual experience faith and obedience must each find their rightful position and function in our experience.
Three times in this verse (2:16), Paul makes a strong disclaimer against our obedience making any contribution to our justification. We must not think that obedience gives anyone even the slightest advantage in terms of his or her standing with God. That is not the function of obedience. "By observing the law no one will be justified" (verse 17). We struggle to accept this, especially when we regard our selves as law-keeping Christians. Our justification rests on an entirely different basis—faith in Christ. Faith accepts the essential sinlessness and obedience of Christ, as well as His atoning death, imputed to us, as the sole sufficient ground for our being set right with God.
But now the question arises: "If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin?"(2:17). Is Christ, by justifying sinners, allowing them to carry on sinning with impunity? Does this not remove any motivation there might be to keep the law? Paul says, Absolutely not! "If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker"(2:18).
What is it that is destroyed when we turn to Christ? It is what Paul calls "the body of sin" or "our old self" (see Rom. 6:6). He regarded himself as having been nailed to the cross in Christ, condemned by the law to die; he has in fact died and only lives by virtue of the resurrection life of Christ being lived in him. "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Sin and Christ in the same life are incompatible with each other. The motivation to obey is not in order to come into a right relationship with God, but because by faith we live in and through Christ. "For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God" (2:19).
How to make a fool of yourself
Paul is frank and exceptionally stern with the Galatians. "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?" (3:1-3).
The Galatians were not the last fools the church would ever know. Many Christians have the mistaken view that we are justified by faith, but thereafter we are sanctified by some combination of faith and human effort, and that if the latter is lacking we are lost. Having begun with the Spirit (by believing), there have ever been a plethora of those in the church who believe that they must complete the process by perfectly observing the law (by achieving).
Paul advances two arguments, one in favor of the righteousness that comes through faith in the work of Christ and the other, its logical and inevitable companion, which is against righteousness by any kind of human obedience.
Exhibit A in support of salvation by faith is Abraham, who had righteousness credited to him because he believed God before any work could be done by him (Abraham). This was especially significant in the context of the battle over circumcision. Abraham was declared righteous before and without any reference to circumcision. Furthermore, the promise of blessing made to Abraham and his descendants was a gospel promise, and it pertained to the Gentiles as much as to the Jews: "All nations will be blessed through you." As the blessing came to Abraham through faith, it comes to all others on the same basis.
Against the idea of righteousness by law keeping, he makes the claim: "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse" because, according to Deuteronomy 27:26, "Cursed is every one who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Only the self-deceived would claim to fully and continually meet every requirement in the law and remain under such a curse.
The gospel declares, however, that Christ has taken the curse of our spiritual inadequacy upon Himself, thus redeeming us from the consequences of our failure to obey. He has already met the requirement of perfect obedience and has already taken to the cross any penalty that was due us because of our disobedience. When we believe this, the blessing of salvation is ours. By faith we are saved, and by faith we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and every other blessing salvation brings.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible New international Version.