‘More than any other book in the New Testament, including perhaps even Romans, Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been the source of theological teaching for the church in the midst of its deepest crises. Already in the original context of the letter, the Judaizing heresy threatened to undermine the work of the gospel among the Gentile churches and thus destroy the unity of God’s people. In the second century, as the Christian church struggled with the Marcionite heresy, Galatians played a central role in the controversy. Much later, at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Protestant leaders identified in this letter the key to the fundamental theological problems facing them.’ (EDBT)

Authorship and destination

Few scholars have any difficulty in accepting this letter as having been written by Paul himself. There is debate, however, about who the recipients were. Many scholars today identify the recipients of this letter as the churches founded by Paul and Barnabas during the 1st Missionary Journey in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. (Ac 14:1-23 ) They were located in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia, in the interior of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).’ (NBC)

Reason for writing

‘Galatians was plainly written to converts of Paul’s who were in imminent danger of adulterating the gospel of Christian freedom which he had taught them with elements of Jewish legalism. Among these elements circumcision took a chief place; they also included the observance of the Jewish calendar (Gal 4:10 ) and possibly Jewish food-laws. The ‘churches of Galatia’ had evidently been visited by Judaizers who cast doubt on Paul’s apostolic status and insisted that, in addition to the faith in Christ which he inculcated, it was necessary to be circumcised and to conform in other respects to the Jewish law in order to attain salvation. When news of this reached Paul he wrote this letter in white-hot urgency, denouncing this teaching which mingled grace and law as a different gospel from that which he had preached to them in Christ’s name – in fact, no gospel at all – and entreating his readers to stand fast in their new-found liberty and not place their necks again under a yoke of bondage.’ (NBD)

Principal arguments

‘If a logical analysis of the Epistle as a whole defies us, we can at least recognize the leading arguments which Paul uses in defence of true gospel liberty. Nine of them may be briefly stated as follows.

1. The gospel which Paul preached was the gospel which he received by direct commission from Christ; it came to his hearers with Christ’s authority, not with Paul’s. (#Gal 1:11 ff. )

2. Against Paul’s claim to unmediated commission from Christ, some argued that all valid apostolic authority must be mediated through Jerusalem, and that Paul’s teaching or practice therefore was invalid if it deviated from the Jerusalem pattern. Paul replies by describing his visits to Jerusalem between his conversion and the time of writing, showing that the Jerusalem leaders had no opportunity of commissioning him but that, on the contrary, they acknowledged the apostolic commission (to the Gentiles) which he had already received from Christ. (Gal 1:15-2:10 )

3. If acceptance with God could have been obtained through circumcision and the other observances of the Jewish law, Christ’s death was pointless and vain. (Gal 2:21 )

4. Christian life, as the Galatian converts knew from their own experience, is a gift of the Spirit of God; when they received it they received at the same time unmistakable proofs of the Spirit’s presence and power in their midst. But if they began their Christian life on that high plane it was preposterous to imagine that they should continue it on the lower plane of legal works. (Gal 3:2 ff. )

5. The Judaizers justified their insistence on circumcision by appealing to the example of Abraham: since circumcision was the seal of God’s covenant with him, they argued, no uncircumcised person could have a share in that covenant with all the blessings which went with it. But the true children of Abraham are those who are justified by faith in God, as Abraham was; it is they who enjoy the blessings promised to Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled in Christ, not in the law; therefore the blessings bestowed by that promise are to be enjoyed not through keeping the law (which came long after the promise and could not affect its terms) but through faith in Christ. (Gal 3:6-9,15-22 )

6. The law pronounces a curse on those who fail to keep it in every detail; those who place their trust in the law therefore put themselves in danger of that curse. But Christ, by his death on the cross, bore the divine curse in his people’s place and delivered them from the curse which the law pronounces; his people therefore ought not to go back and put themselves under the law with its attendant curse. (Gal 3:10-14 )

7. The principle of law-keeping belongs to the age of spiritual immaturity; now that Christ has come, those who believe in him have attained their spiritual majority as responsible sons of God. To accept the arguments of the Judaizers would be to revert to infancy. (Gal 3:23-4:7 )

8. The law imposed a yoke of slavery; faith in Christ brings liberation. Those whom Christ has emancipated are foolish indeed if they give up their freedom and submit afresh to the dictation of those elemental powers through which the law was mediated. (Gal 4:8-11 5:1 3:19 )

9. This freedom which the gospel of grace proclaims has nothing to do with anarchy or licence; faith in Christ is a faith which works by love and thus fulfils the law of Christ. (Gal 5:6 5:13-6:10 )

These arguments are presented in a more systematic form in the Epistle to the Romans, written 8 or 9 years later.’


Machen on the ‘Galatian problem’

‘What was it that gave rise to the stupendous polemic of the Epistle to the Galatians? To the modern Church the difference would have seemed to be a mere theological subtlety. About many things the Judaizers were in perfect agreement with Paul. The Judaizers believed that Jesus was the Messiah; there is not a shadow of evidence that they objected to Paul’s lofty view of the person of Christ. Without the slightest doubt, they believed that Jesus had really risen from the dead. They believed, moreover that faith in Christ was necessary to salvation. But the trouble was, they believed that something else was also necessary; they believed that what Christ had done needed to be pieced out by the believer’s own effort to keep the Law. From the modern point of view the difference would have seemed to be very slight. Paul as well as the Judaizers believed that the keeping of the law of God, in its deepest import, is inseparably connected with faith. The difference concerned only the logical – not even, perhaps, the temporal – order of three steps. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God’s law. The Judaizers said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God the best he can, and then (3) is justified. The difference would seem to modern “practical” Christians to be a highly subtle and intangible matter, hardly worthy of consideration at all in view of the large measure of agreement in the practical realm.

… Paul saw very clearly that the difference between the Judaizers and himself was the difference between two entirely distinct types of religion; it was the difference between a religion of merit and a religion of grace.’ (Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 23f.)