Background of Galatians
Author, Date, and Recipients
The apostle Paul wrote this letter about AD 48. The Galatians are probably believers in the churches of the southern region of the Roman province of Galatia. Paul is more critical of his audience here than in any of his other letters.
Christ’s death has brought in the age of the new covenant (Galatians 3:23–26; 4:4–5, 24). People do not have to become Jews or follow the outward ceremonies of the Mosaic law in order to be Christians (Galatians 2:3, 11–12, 14; 4:10). To require these things denies the heart of the gospel, which is justification by faith alone and not by keeping the “works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). In this new age, Christians are to live in the guidance and power of the Spirit (ch. 5–6).
False teachers have convinced the Galatians that they are required to be circumcised. The result is division within their church (Galatians 5:15). Paul gives numerous reasons why they should return to the simple truth of the gospel.
1. In his sin-bearing death, Christ is a substitute for all Christians. He brings them into a new realm of freedom and life (Galatians 1:4; 2:20; 3:13).
2. The gospel of Christ comes from God alone—not from any human source. Paul himself is a living example of this. His conversion to Christ and his apostleship were not through human means. They came through direct revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:1, 11–12, 15–20).
3. Salvation comes not by works of law but by faith, which leads to justification (Galatians 2:16).
4. To require circumcision and other Mosaic laws as a supplement to faith is to fall back from the realm of grace and freedom and to come under the whole law and its curse, since perfect observance of the law is impossible (Galatians 2:12–14, 16; 3:10; 4:10; 5:3).
5. Old Testament Scripture itself testifies to the truth of justification by faith (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4).
6. Believers have died with Christ to sin and therefore have renounced the flesh (Galatians 5:24; 6:14).
7. The Spirit is the source of power and guidance in the Christian life. He produces love and faith in the believer (Galatians 5:6, 16, 18, 25).
8. The Christian life is one of pleasing Christ. This requires willingness to suffer persecution for the sake of his cross (Galatians 1:10; 6:12, 14).
I. Opening (1:1–9)
II. Indirect Appeal: Paul’s Ministry and the Gospel (1:10–2:21)
III. Direct Appeals to the Galatians (3:1–5:12)
IV. Life in the Spirit and Love (5:13–6:10)
V. Final Warning (6:11–18)
The Setting of Galatians
The Global Message of Galatians
The global message of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that in Christ the ancient promises to Abraham have been fulfilled. The blessing and favor of God is now pouring out to the Gentiles (anyone not a Jew), because all that is needed to be right with God is faith in Christ.
The Problem Galatians Addresses
Adam and Eve were put on the earth to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with God’s glory, but they rebelled and thus failed to do this. God then called Abraham, intending to do through Abraham’s descendants what Adam and Eve had failed to do. “And I will make of you a great nation,” said the Lord to Abraham, “and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3).
Yet Abraham’s own family proved to be plagued with the same problems as the rest of humanity: family conflict, cowardice, failure to trust in God, violence, and more. What was needed was a deep, massive cleansing not only of the world “out there” but also of God’s own people, the offspring of Abraham, Israel.
The Solution Galatians Gives
In Christ, God accomplished this cleansing. For Christ was the true and final offspring of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). He was the true Son of God (Galatians 1:16). He fulfilled the whole law in himself, yet he also suffered its condemnation when he went to the cross (Galatians 3:13). And he did all this so that “the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). All this took place at the climax of human history: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).
The result of Christ’s work is that the favor of God is flooding out to all nations, as was God’s original purpose through Abraham (Galatians 3:28–29).
Universal Themes in Galatians
Justification by Faith
Anyone can exercise faith, and it is faith alone that justifies (Galatians 2:15–16). Therefore anyone can be part of God’s family. It is not only for insiders. When a sinner exercises faith, trusting in Christ rather than in his or her personal goodness, that sinner is justified—put right with God, declared righteous in the divine courtroom. He or she can no longer be justly condemned. Martin Luther said that this doctrine of justification by faith is the article on which the church stands or falls. Here the gospel is clearest: we are justified only by faith, not by morality and not by ethnicity. This gospel is for the whole world.
Freedom is highly sought around the world today: in politics, in society, in voting, in education. These are all important and worth working to secure. Yet Galatians presents the universal church with a freedom that goes deeper than all of these other important freedoms: freedom in Christ, who has both fulfilled the law in our place and also suffered its curse in our place (Galatians 4:21–5:1). Galatians is a declaration of liberation for all who have been weighed down with their sin and failure and suffering. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Galatians declares not only a radical new freedom but also a radical new equality. Paul is not saying in this text that distinctions of ethnicity, class, and gender are obliterated in an absolute way. Indeed, part of the glory of the new earth will be the beautiful ethnic diversity it displays (Revelation 21:25–26). Rather, Paul is saying that valid human distinctions do not affect a person’s qualification for salvation. God does not judge significance as the world does. Gentiles are just as welcome as Jews to come to Christ; slaves are just as welcome as the free; women are just as welcome as men.
The Global Message of Galatians for Today
The Bible tells us what is wrong with the world today: sin. Yet the Bible also tells us God’s radical, wondrous solution: Christ. And while the problem of sin extends to every corner of the globe and every corner of the human heart, the work of Christ is freely available in just as extensive a scope. Paul sums up the gospel by saying that Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). As a result, “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham [can] come to the Gentiles” (Galatians 3:14)— and has come, to enrich all the world.
Galatians is one of the clearest presentations of the gospel in all of the Bible. God justifies sinners, irrespective of just how sinful they are, if they will simply trust Christ. No self-generated contribution is necessary. This is the glory of God’s grace. It is grace: undeserved, matchless favor for the penitent. It is received, not earned. It comes through God’s promise, not God’s law. It is accessed by human faith, not human works. It is a gift.
This is the glory of God’s grace. It is grace: undeserved, matchless favor for the penitent. It is received, not earned. It comes through God’s promise, not God’s law. It is accessed by human faith, not human works. It is a gift.
And this gift changes us. The last two chapters of Galatians make this clear. For one who has been united to Christ, the fruit of this union will necessarily begin to blossom (Galatians 5:16–25). Those who have been saved are now indwelt by the Spirit and thus are finally able to love God and love their neighbor.
Galatians urges global Christians to radical acts of self-giving love, all fueled by the gospel of grace. Freely we have received; freely we give. Mercy we have been shown; mercy we will show.
Where can we express love? To whom can we show compassion, whether across the street or around the globe? The heart that has been touched by the gospel and indwelt by the Spirit is propelled outward in acts of love (Galatians 5:14). For those who are no longer orphans but sons (Galatians 4:7), it is our delight to love as we have been loved. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).