Studies in Galatians: An Introduction

galatians-mclellanChristians need the gospel too. We often think about the gospel message in terms of evangelistic endeavors. Non-Christians need to hear the “good news” that Jesus died for sinners, and that means them. Once you become a Christian, however, we need the Bible’s other teachings. We need the instruction of the Epistles, the encouragement of the promises, the warnings against sin. Non-Christians need the gospel for conversion, but Christians just need sanctification. Failure to remind ourselves of the gospel regularly, however, can lead even healthy Christians into unhealthy places. That’s what Galatians is all about: reminding believers of the gospel.

Galatians is one of the more unique of Paul’s letters. It is most likely the first epistle he wrote, dated roughly around AD 50, very soon after he first visited Galatia and established the church there (see Paul’s reference to how “quickly” they departed from the gospel he preached, 1:6). The letter is exceedingly harsh in tone. Paul confronts, challenges, and derides the Galatians through the book. It’s “six chapters of 149 verses bristle with passion, sarcasm, and anger” (George, Galatians, 22). The tone is warranted when one considers what is at stake in this letter.

The context of this epistle is one in which the churches which Paul had helped to plant (Acts 13-14) had embraced a “different gospel” (v. 6). A group of Jewish believers in the churches of Southern Galatia had begun to emphasize the importance of keeping the Old Testament law, insisting that the Gentile believers could not be fully accepted by God apart from their keeping of the law. Paul understood this not simply as cultural differences, but as the undermining of the very heart of the gospel. Jesus + anything = a different gospel. Christ alone is our salvation and for these believers to forget that, to add to it, to distort it, would mean the loss of the truth, and the enslavement of these Christians.

Paul understand these Jewish believers and what is motivating them. He was, after all, one of them. Galatians contains some of the most detailed and intriguing features of Paul’s own autobiography. He explains his past, his upbringing, his motivations. He was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5), and zealous for the law and for persecuting of the Christian church. It is likely that Paul was a Jewish missionary, who had zealously sought the conversion of the Gentiles (Jesus makes reference to this missionary work in Matt. 23:15). Paul had studied under Gamaliel, whose surname was “the Glory of the Law.” He was a passionate advocate and champion of the Old Covenant. So when he confronts the  Judaizers, these Jewish converts who were clinging to the law, he knew what they were championing and what it meant for the gospel. He also knew, however, how wrongly they had interpreted and understood that law apart from Christ. While Galatians is not written to these opponents, Paul indirectly confronts them by rightly interpreting the Scriptures.

The Gospel is not just foundational, it is everything! The Christian believer needs to be constantly reminded of this or he is at risk of abandoning the gospel for a Jesus + religion. Such a religion is a departure and distortion of the true gospel of salvation. It will not lead to sanctification and hope, but rather a return to bondage and despair. Paul outlines the limitations of the law in this letter, and as a result emphasized the solid foundation of the one true gospel. We need Galatians as much as the original recipients did.As Tim Keller has said:

The Gospel is not only the way to enter the kingdom; it is the way to live in the kingdom (9) ….The most obvious fact about the historical setting is often the most overlooked. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul expounds in detail what the gospel is and how it works. But the intended audience of this exposition of the gospel are all professing Christians. It is not simply non-Christians but also believers who need continually to learn the gospel and apply it to their lives. (Galatians For You, 11)

Galatians is a book that we all need to read, and re-read. So, I hope you will join me for this brief study in the book and seek to apply its truth and challenge to your own life.

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