Galatians: the Christian message on trial

When Paul writes this letter, the people of Galatia seem to have moved Christ from their religious centre and are replacing him with allegiance to the law and structures of Judaism.

After division and problems in Corinth we might wonder if any other of the churches caused Paul as much trouble and worry. Definitely, yes—the Galatians!

Galatians: the Christian message on trial Archdiocese of Wellington When Paul writes this letter, the people of Galatia seem to have moved Christ from their religious centre and are replacing him with allegiance to the law and structures of Judaism.

At least in Corinth Paul could be thankful that most remained faithful to Christ. But Paul found nothing to be thankful for in the Galatians and this is the only letter in which he deliberately omitted a thanksgiving section.

The problem called for more than corrective warning. Practically speaking, it meant starting over again because the Galatians had abandoned the foundation of the gospel altogether.

The abandonment of Jesus as centre and source of salvation was a disturbing defection; it brought out of Paul his most passionate outbursts—Senseless Galatians, cursed be those who proclaim another gospel, false brothers, would that they would castrate themselves. How could you so quickly turn away from the one who called you by the grace of Christ, to a different gospel? (1:6).

Paul’s own authority as an apostle was challenged when the Jesus he proclaimed as all-sufficient saviour was questioned. It was so tempting to seek to do the works of the law to earn one’s personal salvation; but the salvation Jesus offers the world is a salvation of grace, God’s graciously and freely offered gift of love available through faith.   

The letter
All of Paul’s letters thus far have been written to city churches, but this one is to several churches in an extensive region of Asia Minor, possibly a group Paul converted on his first journey (46-49 CE). These would be mostly Gentile converts from paganism.

After some years of remaining faithful to Paul’s Christ-centred gospel, they later abandoned their faith in Christ under the influence of persuasive Jewish missionaries. Their major allegiance was now to the law and structures of Judaism.

But this missionary group were Jewish Christians who did not see Jesus as ‘the whole gospel’, but rather they saw the law and its structural expressions, including circumcision, as important elements, too.

The Jesus they proclaimed was the champion and advocate of the law for all. Paul could not be a genuine apostle if he lacked the approval of the original apostolic group, for (they said) he gave the Galatians only half the story.

The Jewish scriptures show that God gave the law as the means of attaining salvation and has now opened up this law to the Gentiles.

But what Paul sees as radically incomplete in all this presentation is its omission of the Jesus who died and rose for our salvation. This is spectacularly lacking in the law that Paul himself had so zealously followed. It was in his own encounter with the dying and risen Christ that Paul was commissioned as apostle and it was this freely given gift that Paul proclaimed as the central aspect of Christianity.

Insults and fierce comments give the impression of a letter dashed off in a moment of anger. Chapter 2 verse 4 begins with a sentence that wanders through verse 5 but never seems to go anywhere. Actually, the letter is a carefully organised judicial argument, a defence speech designed to win the support of the listeners to the writer’s point of view.

It is a Greco-Roman form of speech that is supposed to have five parts:
1. Introduction (1:6-10): to state the case and gain the listeners’ attention. Paul tries to win the Galatians’ loyalty by presenting his own life and character and putting down his opponents.
2. Narrative (1:11-2:14): to review the facts of the case and put them in an historical context.
3. Argument (2:15-21): to clarify the issues by showing the points agreed on by both sides and those that separated them.
4. Proof (3:1-4:31): to establish the truth of the speaker’s position by arguing from the strongest to weakest point. This would be the longest and most important section. Sometimes the opposition proofs would be refuted (5:1-6:10).
5. Conclusion (6:11-18): to sum up the earliest argument and make an impassioned plea to persuade the listeners to accept the speaker’s point of view.

Justification by faith
In arguing about the role of the Law of Moses, Paul stresses his now famous image of God’s saving action as justification. Borrowing images from what happens in a law court, Paul recognises that, although we are indeed guilty and deserving of punishment, God justifies us instead: God acquits us and frees us.

God’s justification frees us from obligation to the Jewish Law for a new life in Christ. Just as Abraham in the Jewish tradition was set in right relation to God by his faith long before there was any Mosaic Law, so Christians are saved by their faith in Jesus Christ rather than by keeping the Jewish Law.

Paul’s response
This lengthy rebuttal runs from 3:1 to 6:10. Paul offers six proofs:
1. The argument from past experience: the Spirit (3:1-5). Paul uses rhetorical questions: Did you begin by keeping the law or experiencing the Spirit? Are miracles worked among you by keeping the law or through the power of the Spirit?
2. The argument from scripture: Abraham (3:6-14). Scripture attributes righteousness to Abraham on the basis of faith, before any circumcision at the age of 99; Gentiles are to be blessed through him. Other scripture arguments are used to show faith and law as opposites.
3. The argument from common human experience: Wills (3:15-22). A will cannot be altered once put into effect, so God’s promise to Abraham cannot be altered by giving the law 430 years later. (Digression: why, then, the law? It was a temporary restraining order until the Messiah came. It was instruction for children until the time they became adults in Christ.)
4. The argument from Christian tradition: Baptism (3:23-4:11). Paul compares the situation before the Messiah to that of minor children who, although heirs to the estate, are controlled by slaves. Baptism makes us children of God, but these children must not now turn back to the old time of subservience as ‘weak and beggarly’ slaves to the world’s hostile, demonic powers (4:8-9). The sign of adoption and liberation from pagan gods is possession of the Spirit. Through the crucified one and the gift of the Spirit, liberation from pagan gods is offered.
5. The argument from friendship: Love (4:12-20). Paul defends his character, reminding them of their welcome to him (v.14), presenting himself as a model for imitation (v.12), as a mother in childbirth (v.19).
6. The argument from story: Allegory (4:21-31). These last two are not, strictly speaking, arguments. This is a convincing story designed to move the feelings of the audience already (hopefully) persuaded by earlier arguments. The story of Abraham’s two wives is symbolic of two ways of serving God: relying on the Law (Hagar, whose son did not inherit) or relying on the promise (Sarah, whose son became heir).

Paul then launches a tirade on the dangers of keeping the law (5:1-12). Against their logical argument that his position leads to lawlessness he warns about ‘the flesh’ (5:13-24), contrasting living by the flesh and living by the Spirit. He appeals for spiritual freedom as freedom from the law, freedom for mutual love and service.

Other articles in this Paul series

The year of St Paul pilgrim and missionary

Philemon: baptism changes everything

Paul: alpha and omega the beginning and the end

Paul to the Corinthians: get the body right

Second Corinthians Paul’s most personal letter

Paul to the beloved Philippian community

The complex question of the Deutero-Pauline letters