“Galatians is a tornado warning!,” so writes Timothy George in his commentary on Galatians (NAC, p. 84).
The letter of Galatians was written to a group of churches teetering on the verge of no longer being a true church. They were in the process of deserting Christ for another gospel (Gal. 1:6).
Soon (1:6) after Paul’s departure false apostles, often called Judaizers and most likely from Jerusalem, crept into the Galatian churches and began teaching the Galatians a different “gospel” (cf., 1:6-7). Paul calls these false teachers “trouble-makers” (1:7; 5:10) and “agitators” (5:12).
This false gospel was causing dissension within the fellowship (5:15; 6:3-5). The Judaizers were seeking to subvert both Paul’s apostolic authority and teaching among his Gentile converts.
Zealous for the glory of God (1:5), Paul sets out to defend “the truth of the Gospel” (2:5, 14) over against the false gospel being espoused by the “trouble-makers.”
What was this false gospel? What was the problem in Galatia?
The False “gospel” in Galatia
The Judaizers were teaching the Galatian believers that the observance of OT ceremonies was integral to the Gospel and to accept a doctrine of justification by personal merit (see Bruce, NIGTC, p. 22).
To be specific, they were insisting that the Galatian Christians had to be circumcised (5:2-4) and to observe Jewish days and seasons (cf., 4:10) in order to be saved (again, see Bruce, NIGTC, p. 29).
Though Galatians was most likely written before the Jerusalem Council, Acts 15:1, 5 provides a helpful summary of the false teachers’ “gospel” that was disrupting the Galatian churches. Luke writes,
“1 Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved…5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
For Paul, in and of themselves, the observance of religious ceremonies or special calendar days was a matter of indifference (cf., Rom. 14:5). Paul even sought to accommodate his own ministry according to Jewish and Gentile customs in order to maximize his gospel ministry to both Jews and Gentiles (cf., Acts 16:3; 1 Cor. 9:19-23).
However, the problem with the false gospel of the Judaizers was that they were making religious observances to be of the essence of the Gospel. Such a notion, Paul insists, is to “turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world…” (Gal. 4:9) and forfeit one’s freedom (5:1) for spiritual bondage (4:9; 5:1).
“The Judaizer’s false gospel was Christ plus the Law of Moses; grace plus works.”
The Galatian’s defection from the Gospel of grace for another “gospel” was no small matter! For Paul, this false gospel struck at the heart of the true gospel of grace and freedom (Gal. 2:16). John Calvin writes,
“He had purely and faithfully instructed them in the Gospel; but false apostles had entered, during his absence, and had corrupted the true seed by false and erroneous doctrines. They taught that the observation of ceremonies was still necessary. This might appear to be a trivial matter; but Paul very properly contends as for a fundamental article of the Christian faith. It is no small evil to quench the light of the Gospel, to lay a snare for consciences, and to remove the distinction between the Old and New Testaments. He perceived that these errors were also connected with a wicked and dangerous opinion as to the manner in which justification is obtained. This is the reason why he fights with so much earnestness and vehemence…” (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXI, pp. 14-15).
Thus, Paul’s purpose in writing Galatians was to persuade the Galatians that Gentiles did not have to observe the law of Moses (i.e., to accept circumcision or follow the Jewish religious calendar) in order to be justified, to be considered a true son of Abraham (see Gal. 3:1-4:7). To be a true son of Abraham does not consist of genealogical descent but rather through faith in Christ alone (3:26).
“It is no small evil to quench the light of the Gospel, to lay a snare for consciences…”
Paul unyieldingly maintains that the true Gospel (2:5, 14) teaches that salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ alone apart from the works of the law (cf., 2:16).
J. Gresham Machen notes,
Certainly the point of difference between Paul and the Judaizers…was no trifling difference, no matter how trifling it may seem to the modern Church. It was the difference between a religion of merit and a religion of grace. The Judaizer’s teaching required a man to earn at least part of his salvation by his own keeping of God’s law. Paul saw clearly that to follow such teaching was to do despite to the cross of Christ. If we have to fill up even the slightest gap by our own works, then we are still lost in sin; for the awakened conscience sees clearly that our own works are insufficient to bridge even the smallest gap. We must trust Christ for nothing or for all; to trust Him only for part is the essence of unbelief. There are two ways of being saved, according to the Apostle Paul. One way is to keep the law of God perfectly. That way is closed because of sin. The other way is to accept the gift of salvation which Christ offers us freely by His cross. The two ways cannot both be followed- that is the burden of the Epistle to the Galatians. A man must choose as the way of salvation either the law or grace. In bidding men choose the latter way the Apostle was contending for the very heart of the Christian religion,” (Notes on Galatians, p. 53).
The subtle yet damning error of the false teachers consisted not in the fact that they denied Christ or faith in Christ. Rather, they simply added works along with faith.
Concerning the Judaizers and their false gospel, Donald Hiebert writes,
“They worked within the framework of the Christian church and claimed to be Christians, acknowledging Jesus as Messiah. But while they professed to accept Christ, yet in theory and practice they tended to minimize and neutralize Him. They robbed Christ of His uniqueness by putting other things on a level with Him as necessary to salvation,” (Introduction to the New Testament, p. 81).
“We must trust Christ for nothing or for all; to trust Him only for part is the essence of unbelief.”
The subtlety of their error increases the danger of their false gospel. The Judaizer’s false gospel was Christ plus the Law of Moses; grace plus works.
If anyone demands even a hint of law-keeping, any such demand, Paul argues, involves acceptance by God on the principle of justification by works of the law.
Paul makes it unequivocally clear that such a teaching is totally contrary to the Gospel of justification by faith (cf., 2:16; 3:10-12)
Any attempt at joining works with faith for justification renders the Cross of Christ needless (2:21), obligates a man to keep the whole law (5:3), which is impossible, severs him from Christ (5:4), removes the offense of the cross (5:11, cf., 6:12) and places him under a curse (3:10).
For, if justification could come about by any measure of works (e.g., circumcision) the cross is unnecessary.
The problem with the Galatians is that they were seeking to base their justification on their sanctification. They were in danger of exchanging God’s grace in the Gospel for performance-based Christianity (Philip Ryken, Galatians, p. xiii).
Any form of works-righteousness is hostile to the good news of salvation (cf., Gal. 1:8-9; Gal. 2:16). Thus, the Galatians needed to hear again the liberating news that they are justified not by observing the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Problem in Galatians Then and Now
In Paul’s day and in all times, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians, mixing works with faith for justification, will always be a threat to the Gospel and to the Church.
“For,” as Martin Luther writes, “the devil cannot but furiously impugn this doctrine, neither can he rest so long as any spark of it remaineth…,” (Galatians, p. 1).
The great preacher of free grace, Ralph Erskine writes,
“Hence see the reason why the devil opposes the doctrine of grace so much, and cares not though the law, as a covenant, be never so much preached up, because it is the gospel-doctrine that tends only to true godliness, while the law and legal doctrines tend to keep men strangers to the life of God.
The devil cares not how much you be in duties, providing you keep off from Christ, who is the end of the law, for righteousness: for then he knows you would be holy also: but he is an unholy devil; and therefore he opposes the gospel, and its doctrine. The devil knows that he hath fast hold of you, so long as you cleave to the law; but that he hath lost you, if once you have laid hold on Christ:
for, if once you get Christ for justification, as having fulfilled the righteousness of the law for you, then you will also get Him for sanctification, to fulfill the righteousness of the law in you.
The devil knows, that though in seeming holiness, you should be transformed to an angel of light, like himself, yet you lie under the heavy vengeance of God, and curse of the law, and under the power of sin too, so long as you are under the law,” (Ralph Erskine, “Law-Death, Gospel-Life,” pp. 59-60.)
The problem in Galatians stands as an ever-present reminder to all of us at how quickly and easily we can turn from the Gospel of Christian Freedom for a “gospel” of personal merit.
Like Paul, we must be vigilant to proclaim the truth of the Gospel and guard it against all who seek to minimize, neutralize or rob Christ of His uniqueness by putting other things on a level with Him as necessary to salvation.
The hope of every believer is based upon the merits of Christ alone. Any attempt, however subtle, to base our righteous standing with God on our own personal merit is contrary to the purpose for which Christ died.
Christ died in order to set believers free from the tyranny of self-justification so that they might walk in the glorious freedom which belongs to the sons of God!