Paul begins Galatians identifying himself as the author. There is no serious doubting that Paul was the author.
Paul’s opening words are more than a simple identification of authorship. Paul, in this letter, is like a prizefighter that comes out swinging from the opening bell.
Paul, the preacher of free grace, was driven to assert the truth of the Gospel against everyone who was not in step with the truth of the Gospel, even Peter (cf., 2:14).
The Judaizers were seeking to invalidate the truthfulness of the Gospel by denying the authenticity of Paul’s authority as an apostle. Thus, the first three words of this letter are “Paul, [an] apostle, not…” (Note: The term Judaizers refers to Jewish men who sought to persuade Gentiles to “Judaize,” that is to adopt the Jewish manner of life.)
The Judaizers, most likely from Jerusalem, were teaching the Galatian believers that the observance of Old Testament ceremonies was integral to the Gospel and to accept a doctrine of justification by personal merit (see Bruce, NIGTC, p. 22). Their false gospel insisted that salvation is attained partly by grace and partly by works.
Paul, on the other hand, proclaimed that a man is justified before God by free grace and not by the observance of ceremonies (i.e., works of the law; cf., 2:16). For all who seek to be circumcised are obligated to keep the whole law (cf., 5:3). Because ceremonies do not have the power to justify a man, they are unnecessary. Free grace sets aside not only ceremonies but also every other kind of law keeping as a method of obtaining salvation.
“Paul was driven to assert the truth of the Gospel against everyone who was not in step with the truth of the Gospel.”
Because Paul’s Gospel excluded any kind of works as necessary to salvation, the Judaizers sought to diminish his status in the eyes of his converts. Being unable to gain an audience for their false gospel, the Judaizers sought to discredit and undermine Paul’s authority.
Paul, it was suggested, received an inferior commission, perhaps from an inferior church (i.e., Antioch) and was thus at best a second rate apostle. He had not been a part of the original Twelve. He had not received his commission directly from Christ. Only the Jerusalem leaders, Peter, James and John, possess the authority to define the true gospel. Thus, Paul’s apostolic office was not of divine calling but mediated through men.
In response, Paul, immediately confronts this slander and denies that the source of his apostleship came from men or through a man (cf., 1:1, 12). He then proceeds in the first two chapters to offer extensive arguments for the authenticity of his apostleship in order to counter the slander of his enemies in order to safeguard the Gospel of Christian freedom.
Paul’s main concern in the autobiographical section of this letter (1:10-2:21) is to safeguard the Gospel for the well-being of man (1:6-9; 3:10, 13; 5:4) and the exaltation of God’s glory (cf., 1:5, 25; 6:14).
Paul’s bold assertion as an apostle should not be misunderstood as a self-defense response because his ego had been hurt (i.e., “I am a true Apostle and I am going to let everyone know how important I am. I am going to set the record straight.”). Paul’s defense is no thinly, veiled, subtle form of pride. As Chrysostom writes, “Indeed his great object was, not to establish any superiority for himself, but, to overthrow the foundation of their error,” (“Commentary on Galatians,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 13, p. 2).
Two Important Lessons
There are some insightful lessons to be gleaned here for all believers, especially ministers.
First, we should respond to slander when the usefulness of our Gospel ministry to others is threatened not our egos.
Gossip and slander are grievous sins and often accompanied with disastrous consequences. All who have been in the ministry long enough are well acquainted with the damaging effects of slander and gossip.
When we are falsely accused or slandered, our general tendency is to want to assert our rights, to make a self-defense so as to counter act the false and damaging accusations. Because we have been wronged, there is an inevitable desire to retaliate. We want to “set the record straight.”
Such a spirit of self-vindication runs counter to the gospel and is more in keeping with a legal spirit. In reality, a spirit of self-vindication is nothing more than self-righteousness, a subtle form of pride (“I’m not going to let them get away with this. I’m going to set the record straight!”).
Before responding, it is prudent to consider our motives and to seek to understand why we desire to offer a self-defense.
Is it because our egos have been hurt? Is it because we desire personal gain of some sort? Is it because we desire the satisfaction of personal vindication? Or perhaps we desire to subtly take revenge and hurt others who have hurt us by making our accusers look really bad so that we look really good?
“…a spirit of self-vindication runs counter to the gospel and is more in keeping with a legal spirit.”
To be sure, there are times when it is appropriate to respond to false charges and there are times when it is appropriate to remain silent and entrust ourselves to Him who judges justly (cf., 1 Pet. 2:23).
John Brown, in his commentary on Galatians, writes,
Christians, and especially Christian ministers, out not to be ambitious of distinctions, nor very forward in claiming, in every case, the respect which properly belongs to them; but when their usefulness is endangered by men endeavoring to rob them of the authority which belongs to their office or character, it is a false modesty which would keep them back from asserting their rights. Paul was a modest man; but he would not silently allow any man to deny or extenuate the official authority with which Jesus Christ had invested him, (p. 19).
A second lesson we learn is this: All who preach a Gospel of grace and Christian freedom will be slandered.
False accusations such as license and novelty will always accompany a Gospel-driven ministry. Such charges arise from a legal spirit, from those who are ignorant of the mystery of the gospel.
The Marrow Men, for example, were no strangers to the charge of license and novelty. These Gospel-driven preachers of grace were falsely accused of giving people license to sin by reason of their “antinomian” (against law) teaching. They were publicly maligned and misrepresented.
Principal Hadow of St. Andrews, a chief opponent of the Marrow Men, claimed the controversy tended, “to harden the profane, and foment divisions among weak Christians, and raise in them a dislike at pure Gospel Ordinances,” (David C. Lachman, The Marrow Controversy, pp. 407-408). Hadow falsely accused the Marrow Men of drawing honest people into “dangerous opinions,” and lessening “their esteem of, and regard for the authority of the Church,” (Lachman, p. 408).
“All who preach a Gospel of grace and Christian freedom will be slandered.”
Ralph Erskine, one of the twelve Marrow Men, was no stranger to the charge of novelty and license in his day. In response to these charges, Ralph Erskine wrote,
“Now-a-days (1726) the gospel is brought under much disparagement, under much suspicion, as if it were some new dangerous scheme of doctrine, as the Athenians said of Paul, Acts xvii. 19. Yea it was said of Christ, What new doctrine is this? Such is the natural bias towards the law as a covenant, and so natively does a church and people fall into it, even after and under profession of sound principles, that when evangelical doctrine comes to be revived in any measure, it is still branded with novelty,” (John Brown of Whitburn, Gospel Truth, p. 69).
All who are strenuous and zealous advocates for gospel-truth need not despair over the charges of novelty or license. For as one zealous gospel-advocate declared, “Let us not be deterred from gospel principles…it is better to be under the reproach of men for following Christ, than to be under the curse of God for forsaking him.”
Three False Accusations Against Paul
There were three specific attacks the false teachers used to discredit Paul and thus the gospel he preached:
First, they claimed Paul was a rebel who had disregarded his superiors, the Jerusalem apostles.
The false teachers had convinced some of the Galatian church members that Paul was a self-appointed apostle with no divine commission.
Paul immediately begins his letter by asserting his authenticity as a true Apostle (1:1) and then goes on to elaborate this point in 1:11-2:10.
Second, the false teachers claimed Paul argued with Peter over whether the gospel required Gentiles to become Jews in order to become Christians.
Paul responds to this charge in 2:11-14. Here, Paul demonstrates his authority as a true Apostle and the authenticity of his Gospel by his correction of Peter, one of the three “Jerusalem Pillars.”
Third, the false teachers claimed Paul flip-flopped on circumcision according to his audience.
Originally, they said Paul preached circumcision (5:11) but had recently changed his gospel so that he might more easily accommodate Gentiles (1:10).
Paul preached the necessity of circumcision for salvation when the Jerusalem apostles were present but doesn’t require it for Gentiles.
In other words, Paul preached an easy Gospel. Paul disregarded the law because he did not require circumcision or obedience to the Sabbath laws and dietary restrictions (4:10; 5:11).
Initially, the Galatian’s attitude toward Paul had been warm and welcoming (4:14-15). However, as a result of the personal attacks by the Judaizers, the Galatians were coming to think disparagingly of Paul and calling into question his apostolic authority (1:1; 2:1-11; 4:16).
The false teachers had endangered the usefulness of Paul’s Gospel ministry among the Galatians. Therefore, Paul had to respond and demonstrate that the false charges and rumors about him were indeed false.
“Let us not be deterred from gospel principles…it is better to be under the reproach of men for following Christ, than to be under the curse of God for forsaking him.”
Paul’s defense of his apostleship reveals how zealous he was to uphold the truth of the Gospel and to defend it against the false teachers who had crept in to teach a false gospel.
Paul understood that his opponents were making a personal attack on him in order to advance their false gospel. If they could succeed in discrediting the man, Paul, then they could discredit his Gospel.
If Paul had not received a divine commission then his Gospel could not be trusted, for it was of human rather than divine origin. The false teachers, then, attacked Paul so that they might destroy his Gospel.
Hence, at the outset of his letter, Paul dispenses with his customary greeting and immediately begins by establishing the fact that his Gospel and his authority to preach the Gospel came from God Himself (1:11-2:14; cf., 5:11; 6:17).
Paul asserts that his Apostleship was not from men, nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father (cf., 1:1, 10-2:21; cf., Acts 9:1-16; 26:14-18).
Ultimately, it was the Gospel not Paul’s reputation that was threatened. Paul’s concern was the salvation of sinners and the glory of God, not his ego! And so Paul boldly sets forth his apostolic authority, calling and ministry in order to defend the gospel!
From the opening verses of this letter, Paul leaves no doubt as to the main subject on his mind: The Gospel of Christian Freedom!
Though chapters 1-2 are autobiographical, the point is not so much a reflection and defense of Paul’s apostleship as it is a defense of the Gospel of Christian freedom.
This is in fact what Paul deals with in the rest of Galatians, the Gospel of Christian freedom, or more specifically, the heart of the Gospel, justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.