Galatians has been called the “Emancipation Proclamation for Christians.” Just as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed all American slaves free, so Paul sets free those who have been enslaved to the Law. Twelve times in this letter Paul uses the word “freedom” or “liberty”
Paul initially visited the region of Galatia (part of modern Turkey) during his first missionary journey. He went to the cities of Pisidia, Iconium, and Lystra in order to encourage the churches there (Acts 14:20-21). Paul’s second missionary journey took him once more through the province of Galatia on the way to Mysia and Troas (Acts 16:7-8). Galatians was written either during or just after this second missionary journey.
In Galatians, Paul addresses people who are already believers. The Galatians were saved but they were wondering what they had to do to be sanctified. In the book of Romans, Paul fights legalism; in Galatians he fights a slightly different battle, a battle against what might be called “soft-legalism.”
What is the difference between the two? Legalism essentially says you have to keep the Law to be saved. On the other hand soft-legalism says you are saved by grace…but you stay saved through your good works. Some theologians have tried to separate justification and sanctification. (Traditionally, justification is the point in time when you are made righteous in God's eyes and sanctification is the process of becoming holy.) They say you are saved by faith, but that you become more sanctified over time through your actions. This is simply not true. Jesus does the work of both salvation and sanctification. If you cannot save yourself through your own efforts, how can you stay saved through your own efforts? You do not earn salvation by your works, so how could you lose it by them? According to Scripture, you are redeemed, you are righteous, and you are sanctified because of who you are in Christ Jesus: “You are in Christ Jesus, who became for us…righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Galatians was written because Paul was angry. The Gospel of grace was in danger. Paul had personally led many of the Gentiles from the region of Galatia to the Lord. He taught them that salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ. But a group of Jewish believers began teaching the churches in Galatia that Gentile believers must be circumcised and must observe Jewish holidays (Galatians 4:10; 5:2; 6:12). The antagonists that Paul combats in Galatians are likely from the same group that Paul dealt with in the Jerusalem Council, the “Judaizers.” Paul calls them “the circumcision party” (Galatians 2:12). The Galatian Christians, who had started out by trusting Jesus for salvation, were now, because of the urging of the Judaizers, turning to the works of the Law in order to “improve” their Christian walk.
After his greeting and introduction, Paul launches into a rebuke of the Galatians for forsaking his original teaching on grace: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). He writes, “If anyone (even an angel from heaven) preaches any other Gospel to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8 paraphrase). If his audience didn’t get the message, Paul emphatically repeats himself in the very next verse: “…if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). Paul calls the Galatians “foolish” and “bewitched” (Galatians 3:1) for believing that legalism could save them or anyone. He explains that if anyone tries to keep even one part of the Law, then they must keep the whole Law (Galatians 5:3). Moreover, if someone wants to try to be justified through the Law, then Christ has no effect in that person’s life and they have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4).
In the book of Galatians, Paul defends grace with penetrating logic and Scriptural proofs. Let’s look at some of his main points.
You set aside the grace of God when you try to be righteous through the Law rather than faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:21). Other versions of this passage help us understand what Paul is saying in this verse. The Amplified version says “I do not treat God’s gracious gift as something of minor importance and defeat its very purpose.” This is what Paul is charging the Galatian believers of doing—of making the sacrifice of Christ, His death on the cross, and the gift of salvation that His death paid the price for, something of little value. In fact, Paul says, Jesus death was to no purpose if you can be right by your own work of keeping the Law.
It is foolish to try to be right with God through the works of the Law. Paul questions the Galatians: “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). Trying to improve your walk with God by the works of the Law is foolish for many reasons:
- No one is justified by the Law to begin with (Galatians 2:16, 3:11). The Law was never a means of being made right with God—so it is foolishness to think that it could ever become part of that experience. Paul points out that Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, was not made righteous through the Law. Abraham lived four hundred and thirty years before the Law was given to Moses and Israel on Sinai. He was righteous without the Law solely because he “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Galatians 3:6).
- You actually put yourself under a curse by trying to keep the Law. “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’” (Galatians 3:10). If you do not obey the whole Law perfectly then you are subject to the curses that are part of disobeying the Law. What foolishness then to make the keeping of the Law part of salvation. It actually undoes the work of Christ who died on the cross to set us free from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13).
- Under the Law you are a slave, but under grace you are a child of God and an heir with His Son, Jesus Christ (Galatians 4:1-8). What foolishness to choose slavery over sonship, to choose bondage over freedom. But this is what the Galatians were doing, and something that believers today are often tempted to do.