Why should we study Galatians?

The human heart longs for salvation. Though we are good at numbing this desire with comfortable housing, prestigious jobs, and pleasurable distractions, in our most honest moments we are certain that things are not right. Life is not as it should be. This has always been mankind’s dilemma. The history of humanity is one on bended knees and outstretched arms; we’ve been busy trying to invoke, appease, and satisfy whoever and whatever we deem as god.

The Christian message offers truth and hope to the human despair. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that eternal life with the only true God is available. God’s good news is an offer of eternal life with him. It comes by his grace through faith in Jesus Christ as a gift to be received. However, it’s only available on his terms. God alone determines how he will be pleased. Only then is his holiness upheld.

Yet, another dilemma remains and plagues Christianity across the globe. Why are Christians prone to live as if God’s gift of salvation is insufficient? Why do we act as if we must purchase his ongoing love? Why do we drift into living the Christian life as though acceptance before God can be earned? We affirm that salvation comes from him alone, but our daily walk suggests his gift is incomplete until we step in. We think he needs us to finish the job. Sadly, too many Christians live as though God can be bought with actions—it’s as though he is continually for sale. The Christian must live responsibly and morally because God desires this lifestyle. Going to church, taking communion, and tithing are God-honoring Christian practices, but not if we think they earn us favor before him. Living the Christian life as if God can be satisfied by a combination of faith in Jesus plus good works signals an ignorance or rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is an old problem, which the letter of Galatians dealt with a long time ago. The gospel according to God had been under attack among the churches of Galatia, that is, among Christians. It is the same today. Too many believers live life as though Christ’s work on the cross is not enough. We accept the gospel of God’s grace, yet mix it with our own merits. However, God will not accept this and Galatians makes it very clear. We long for God but despite our repeated attempts, he cannot, and need not be bought, bribed, or earned.

The book of Galatians clearly defines God’s gospel terms. In doing so, we are offered much needed guidance on how to live the Christian life. Let’s now explore this work together. We will not only learn what the gospel is but also how to live it out as God intended.

What is the background to our story?

It is essential for us to do a brief study of the history of humanity and its tendency to add to the gospel. This will highlight for us how ancient this dilemma is and it will set us up for understanding its manifestation in Galatians.

Mankind’s longing for salvation has always been matched by attempts to attain it on our own. Our efforts at self-salvation run deep, as early as the account of our first ancestors Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. When the first man and woman sinned, they instantly became aware of their condition and tried to cover their shame by stitching a few leaves together. Moreover, their son Cain was no different. He thought he could satisfy God with a basket of fruit despite the condition of his heart.

When it was time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. But Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock. And the LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering but with Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain became very angry and his face was downcast. (Genesis 4:3-5)

The greatest example of this self-saving mindset was sustained for centuries by God’s chosen people, Israel. They lived as if they alone, among the nations, deserved God even though he called and rescued them from bondage by his grace. God granted them the law, the feasts, and the sacrificial system but these were gifts that were to remind Israel to live by faith in him. They wrongly used these as though by them they earned a right to God. It was a mindset that assumed God’s salvation could be earned, impressed, and satisfied by man’s own efforts or good deeds. God had reached out by grace to save a powerless humanity. However, the Israelites came to believe that through their religious efforts they had the power to buy life with God. It appeared as if God rewarded man’s lifestyle with salvation. God did expect Sabbath observance, circumcision, and obedience to the law in Israel but only as expressions of a heart of faith in anticipation of the Messiah.

The law is but a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and therefore is completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered up continually, year after year, to make perfect those who draw near to worship. (Hebrews 10:1)

For the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)

And every priest stands daily ministering, repeatedly offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. (Hebrews 10:11)

In the New Testament, the Gospels also testify to man’s longing for deliverance as well as his tendency toward self-salvation. Jesus walked in a Jewish world that understood that only a religious lifestyle would satisfy God. It was believed that perfect obedience to the law made one a good Jew—one who could hold his head high before God. Non-Jews or Gentiles could be right before God as well, but only by becoming Jews!

Who wrote this book?

The apostle Paul wrote the letter of Galatians. The authorship of the letter is so well established that it is often used by scholars as a gauge to determine whether other epistles are from Paul.

The apostle played a significant role in the early church. God used him like no other man in the spread of the gospel to gentile lands as God stated in Acts 1:8. He was also the divine instrument chosen to interpret and explain all that was previously promised by God in Scripture and the way it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Paul was first introduced in the Bible as Saul. He was a Jew born in the gentile city of Tarsus; a Pharisee trained by the best teacher, Gamaliel, and a man unmatched regarding his zeal and devotion to the Jewish faith. In God’s sovereign providence however, Christ called him when on route to persecute the church in the city of Damascus. From that point on, he devoted his life to Christ with even greater zeal and passion. The law-abiding Pharisee was reborn and eventually became known as the apostle Paul. His life is a perfect example of the message he sought to communicate in the letter to the Galatians.

What was going on at the time?

The Christian church sprung from Jewish roots in the first century. Once Christ came, Christianity emerged as the natural offspring of a Jewish faith awaiting his arrival. As the gospel of Jesus Christ spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, the church transitioned from a predominantly Jewish to a Jewish-Gentile constituency just as God had desired. It was a period of excitement and some confusion as a baby church learned about life with God within the framework of a new age.

Acts 13–14 record the account of Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas. They traveled throughout Cyprus and into the southern areas of Asia Minor in modern day Turkey. Visiting town after town, they preached the gospel and planted churches.

Upon return to their home church in Antioch, Paul received news that other teachers had visited these churches after him. They confused the Gentile believers with a different message. These false teachers proclaimed a gospel with Jewish conditions attached—after all, Christianity had Jewish roots. The law had played a major role in the history of God’s dealings with man so far. These Judaizers argued salvation was incomplete if one did not embrace the Jewish lifestyle. They taught that faith in Jesus was essential, but only in partnership with adherence to the law—particularly circumcision. These Judaizers would even quote the Hebrew Scriptures to support their position. To advance their point, Paul’s character and credibility was undermined. These false teachers claimed Paul left the Galatians only partly evangelized! Their strategy was effective. The Galatian believers were rapidly deserting Paul and his gospel. This false teaching set human works on equal footing with God’s work in Jesus Christ on the cross. It was a subtle deviation from the true gospel coated in biblical language; a contemporary expression within the church of that age-old tendency for man to try to save himself. Even in the early days of the church, the tendency toward self-salvation quickly emerged. Paul knew this was insulting to God and dangerous for man.

Who was the audience?

The letter of Galatians is written to a group of churches located in Galatia. The most important thing to note is that the letter is written to Christians. The identity of the Galatians, however, is a disputed issue. The problem is that the term Galatia or Galatian was used in two distinct ways in ancient society. At times, it was used in the ethnic sense, referring to a specific people group living in a very specific region in northern Asia Minor. This ancient Celtic Kingdom had been under Roman rule since Pompey had captured it in the mid-first century B.C. On other occasions, Galatia was used in a political sense by the Romans, referring to a much larger political province and all peoples within it. This province of Galatia included southern regions of Asia Minor, which was home to many different people groups.

If the term Galatians is being used in the ethnic sense, then the letter was written at some point after Paul’s second missionary journey to allow for his visit to this specific region. This is after Acts 16:6 or Acts 18:23, but is not recorded in detail in the book of Acts. In this case, the writing would be after the Jerusalem Council’s decision in Acts 15. This is called the North Galatian Theory.

On the other hand, if Galatians is used in the political sense of the Roman province, the letter could have been written immediately after Paul’s first missionary journey to the Galatian cities recorded and detailed in Acts 13–14. This is known as the South Galatian Theory. In this case, the letter was written before the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15 and would explain why Paul never mentions it.

Good arguments are made for either option and the matter is not settled. Our study follows the South Galatian Theory particularly because of the decision made at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. There the church leadership unanimously declared and disseminated the same position Paul advances in the letter of Galatians. It is hard to believe Paul would not appeal to the Council’s decision when his letter deals with the very same issue. It certainly would have helped settle the matter.

When did this happen?

The date of the writing of Galatians is clearly based on the location of these churches. If we follow the North Galatian theory, this would imply a date sometime around A.D. 53–57. On the other hand, if Galatians was addressed to the Roman province of Galatia, it would have been written around A.D. 48. The latter seems most likely since it appears from the letter that the Jerusalem council, which occurred around A.D. 49, had not yet convened.

How should we read this type of book?

There are three additional issues you need to be aware of before opening the book of Galatians. Understanding these matters will equip you to dig through this ancient yet timeless document. Consider them tools that will help you frame your thinking in areas that allow you to appreciate what God is declaring in this letter.

First, the book of Galatians is a letter. Ancient letters like ours today had set features. Letters are situational; they deal with specific issues that arise in a particular context. Galatians is no different. In it we see only half of a conversation and must build an understanding of the undisclosed other half. We will do this in our study as we go through it. Letters are also very personal. They are filled with emotion. Paul wrote knowing that Galatian congregations would listen to the letter as it was publicly read. It is emotionally packed. Paul does not shy away from confronting these churches with truth! Therefore, read the letter as a passionate, personal letter from God to your situation. The problem it addresses remains relevant today.

Second, you need to understand the broader Christian teaching concerning salvation. Salvation is a broad term which when opened up reveals three aspects: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Understanding these concepts will not only help you stay on track with Paul, it will also help you understand your own Christian walk.

Justification is being declared righteous. The instant someone believes in Jesus Christ that individual is justified before God. He is declared saved and set free from the penalty of sin. Justification is the past tense of salvation—that point in time when you first believed.

Sanctification is the process of being made righteous. As a justified sinner grows by faith in Christ-likeness throughout life, he or she becomes more and more holy. That is, the Spirit of God makes that individual more like Jesus. In this way, the one declared saved is being saved by learning to live free from the power of sin. This is the present tense of salvation—the Christian life.

Glorification is what occurs when one becomes perfectly righteous. It will occur when the believer stands before God in heaven and is actually made holy. The one declared saved who was being saved is now experiencing the culmination of salvation—a sinless life with God. The believer is free from the presence of sin. This is the future tense of salvation.

It is crucial that you understand these categories. Central to the letter of Galatians are the justification and sanctification aspects of salvation. They are part of the outline of the book.

Third, it is important you understand what legalism is and how it relates to Christianity. Legalism is living according to certain standards of conduct in an attempt to gain God’s favor. Israel’s faith was not intended to be legalistic but it became so in practice as the Jews misused the law. According to the Jewish interpretation of the Mosaic Law, what one did or did not do determined one’s standing before God. This mindset entered the church from the start. Galatians is testimony to it. Christian legalism arises when believers live life as though what they do and don’t do in some way earns them favor before God. In God’s plan of salvation, good works are not to be used as a currency to buy rights to him. Galatians is addressing this specific issue—legalism. Paul will address legalism by demonstrating that both justification and sanctification function through faith. Make sure you read this letter with this in mind.

Why did God give us this message?

So, why does God want us to explore this letter? It was a letter written by Paul to a particular group of churches long ago. While Paul had no knowledge of us, God does. He wrote Galatians. How he addressed the Galatian problem through Paul’s letter, is how he addresses the same issue today. The Galatian problem is a Christian problem. Your heart is inclined toward living as if God’s salvation needs to be supplemented with your own good works. It shows that same old tendency toward self-salvation that is so offensive to God. Galatians is crucially important to you. With this in mind, here are a few areas of application to think about before going deeper in this letter. Take some time to answer them personally.

How do you understand the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Think about this question. How have I understood the gospel? Misunderstanding it is a dangerous mistake. Resting on anything other than the true terms of salvation offered by God is to live with false hope. Eternity is at stake! What is the true gospel? Have I believed a counterfeit? Am I ignoring God or even supplementing his provision with my own terms? These are important questions for you to wrestle with. How you have understood the gospel affects the manner in which you live it out. Our study in Galatians will help you.

What role do good works play in your life?

You are a believer—a Christian—just like the Galatians. So, what drives your Christian lifestyle? Why do you dress up, go to church, and tithe when the offering plate passes by? Why do you serve in Christian ministry? What role do godly, Christian practices like baptism, communion, and tithing play in your life? Why do you do the Christian things you do? Is there any sense in which they make you feel like you deserve God—like you are earning a right to him? Living by a list of do’s and don’ts as if this achieves holiness is not God’s will for your life. There are many things he wants you to do or avoid, but only on his terms. There is such a thing as a Christian lifestyle but how is this lived? We will deal with this in our study. For now, think about whether you are in bondage to a lifestyle that you assume impresses God—as though you’re buying life with him. It’s easy and subtle to live like that. Are there traces of legalism in your life?

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Studying the Bible is much like heading off into an unknown land to dig around the ruins of an ancient civilization. You need to know where to dig, what you are discovering, and what is important about what you find. This is the purpose of our Field Notes. They will guide you on a journey of ancient discovery: the discovery of the meaning of the biblical text.