It has been said that the letter to the Galatians is like a sword flashing in the hand of a great swordsman. Both Paul and the gospel he preached were under attack. If the attack succeeded, Christianity would become another Jewish sect, with souls depending for salvation upon a ritual of circumcision and keeping the Law. The gospel of free grace would be dismissed. In the providence of God, Paul was chosen as a champion for Christ. He would destroy the arguments of the enemies of the Cross-by the power of the pen. Before an examination is made of the contents of the letter of Paul to the Galatians, some general observations are in order concerning the form of the epistle. According to the custom of the day, the letter Paul wrote had five distinct sections.
- There is a greeting.
- There is a prayer for the health of the recipients.
- There is a thanksgiving [to God].
- There are special contents [the main body of the letter].
- There are special salutations and personal greetings.
Almost all of Paul’s letters reflect the same exact sections. The significance of these observations is that Paul was a man of culture and civilization. He was also a man of his era, dealing with the emergencies of the hour. It is easy to forget that Paul wrote to ordinary people in an ordinary way, from a human perspective. The wonder of wonders is that God takes ordinary activities and makes them extra-ordinary by His grace and mercy.
An Apostle of Jesus Christ
As Paul began his epistle, he declared of himself that he was an apostle. That was a bold statement for any man to make because it could be challenged. In Acts 1:21, 22 the basic definition of an apostle is given. “Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. To be an apostle a man must have accompanied Christ during His earthly ministry and have witnessed His Resurrection.”
Paul did not meet the traditional qualification. In addition, he was an archenemy of the early disciples. Paul was someone whom the Church feared. How can he claim the highest honor of the church? Paul answers such concerns in the opening verse. He insists that his message was dependent on no man. To prove this point, in chapters 1 and 2 he is careful to describe his visits to Jerusalem. In the City of Peace, Paul was received by the church leaders who recognized his conversion and calling by Christ to take the gospel. (2:6-10)
The Gospel under Siege
But the gospel was under siege. There were Jews who had come into the church by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ; but they came into the church believing that the promises of God and the gifts of God were for the Jews alone. Racial prejudice remained rampant. A conservative Jew would not hesitate to say some startling things.
“God loves only Israel of all the nations He has made.”
“God will judge Israel with one measure and the Gentiles with another.” “The best of snakes crush; the best of the Gentiles kills.”
“God created the Gentiles to be fuel for the fires of Hell.”
This was the spirit that made it illegal by Law to help a Gentile mother bring a child into the world in the hour of her labor for to do so was to populate the earth with the ungodly. When such a Jew saw Paul bringing the gospel of redeeming grace to the Gentile world, there was anger and fury.
A Return to the Law
There was a way to soften the attitude of the converted Jewish believer to the Gentile and that was for the Gentile convert to become a Jew. What did this mean? It meant to be circumcised and agree to abide by the works of the Law. That, for Paul, was unacceptable. It meant that the way of salvation was ultimately attained by the human ability to keep the Law apart from grace. For Paul, salvation was entirely a matter of grace. No man can ever earn favor with God. All that a person can do is to receive the love God offered by an act of faith. The mercy of God must be trusted. The Jew might go to God saying, “Behold! Here is my circumcision and here are my good deeds. Give me the salvation I have earned.” Paul would say,
“Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy Law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy Cross-I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me Savior, or I die.”
For Paul the essential thing was not what a man could do for God, but what God had done for him. Certain Jews disagreed. The greatest thing which God had done was to give Israel the Law. They would argue that God gave to Moses the Law on which life itself depended.
And Paul would answer, “Wait a minute. Who is the founder of the nation? And to whom were the greatest promises given? Not Moses but Abraham. God gave to Abraham promises according to the principle of grace. How did Abraham receive the promises? By works? No. By faith alone. Abraham believed in God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Therefore, by the works of the Law, no flesh can please God.”
If all of this is true, and it is, then of value is the Law? The biblical answer is that the Law has its own place in the divine economy. For one thing, the Law defines sin. The Law crystallizes the essence of sin in its outward expression and in its inward transgression. Sin is both overt and covert; it has an external and an internal dimension. Not only does the Law define sin but it drives a sinner to seek salvation from a Savior.
The Law commands, but gives no strength to obey. The Law condemns, but it cannot cleanse. The Law slays but gives no grace to heal. The Law shows us that we have nothing to offer God as it convinces us of our own insufficiency to be good, and righteous. The Law is an essential component in pointing people to the only Person who can help the soul survive the penalty of death, which the wages of sin demand.
In the epistle to the Galatians, the apostle Paul sets forth the glory of the grace of God, and the necessity of realizing that individuals can never save themselves by good works.
I commend to you a prayerful and thoughtful study of Galatians.