A Survey of the Land
In a 2001 survey conducted by the Barna Group, George Barna reported that “only 21 percent of America’s Lutherans, 20 percent of Episcopalians, 18 percent of Methodists, and 22 percent of Presbyterians affirm the basic Protestant tenet that by good works man does not earn his way to heaven.”
Then again in 2003, another Barna survey reported that 50% contend that a person can earn salvation based upon good works. Still another survey comparing the beliefs of those who claimed to be born-again and not born-again, the findings were quite revealing:
Among non-born-again, 75% claimed that the Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves (53% strongly agreed, 22% agreed somewhat). Among those who claimed to be born-again, 68% agreed that the Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves. He affirms this finding in his book, Growing True Disciples, where he reveals that the most widely known “Bible” verse among adult and teen believers is “God helps those who help themselves!”
“The philosophy, “God helps those who help themselves,” resides in the core of every fallen heart.”
In reaction to the survey Barna wrote,
“The fact that most adults, born again or not, believe the Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves shows how post-modern thinking is gaining ground, even in churches. That belief exposes our theological cornerstone – that we are the center of all things, that it is up to us to determine our destiny, and that God is merely our assistant, not our foundation.”
The Foundation not Assistant
While the findings of Barna’s survey are quite revealing, they are not surprising. Though the Judaizers are dead and gone, their conditional gospel is alive and well. The philosophy, “God helps those who help themselves,” resides in the core of every fallen heart. It is nothing more than a modern form of the Judaizer’s conditional gospel.
That God is merely our assistant and not our foundation gets to the heart of the problem in Galatians. The conditional gospel of the false teachers did not deny Christ or faith in Christ. Rather, it simply added works along with faith. In other words, Christ was an assistant not the foundation.
But, as Geoffrey Wilson points out, Paul insists that the true Gospel means nothing to those for whom it does not mean everything (Geoffrey Wilson, New Testament Commentaries, vol. 1, “Galatians,” p. 497).
Wilson commenting on the phrase, “who gave himself for our sins,” in Galatians 1:4a writes,
“This unusual extension of the greeting is an arresting announcement of the theme of the Epistle and the purpose of the gospel. It was to save sinners that Christ freely gave himself up to the suffering and death of the cross. The magnitude of the sacrifice which our sins called forth manifests the supreme folly of looking elsewhere for their forgiveness. It is high time the Galatians made up their minds concerning the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice to save them from their sins, and that without the addition of their obedience to the superseded rites of the Mosaic law. Paul would have them know that his gospel- the free justification of the sinner through Christ crucified- means nothing to those for whom it does not mean everything. For as there were no half-measures in the sacrificial self-giving of Christ, so there can be no half-hearted acceptance of the message of salvation [Gal. 2:21; 3:1],” (Wilson, p. 497).
Paul is adamant through his letter to demonstrate that Christ is the foundation and not just an assistant when it comes to one’s righteous standing before God.
From the opening greeting of his letter, Paul wastes no time in declaring a fundamental theme of his letter, i.e., that our sins were taken care of fully by Christ and not partly by our law-keeping (cf., 1:4).
“…the true Gospel means nothing to those for whom it does not mean everything…”
The conditional gospel of the Judaizers minimized and neutralized the significance and sufficiency of Christ (cf., 2:21; 5:2). As Hiebert writes, “They robbed Christ of His uniqueness by putting other things on a level with Him as necessary to salvation.”
The issue of concern between Paul and the Galatians has to do with the significance and sufficiency of Christ. Salvation comes not through faith plus works but through faith in Christ alone.
For example, Paul writes:
Paul’s declaration and defense of the Gospel in Galatians is directed to a group of churches teetering on the verge of not being a true church.
Betz points out, “Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the historic document which testifies to the first radical questioning of the Pauline gospel by Christians themselves. Hence it presents the first systematic apology of Christianity, not to outsiders, but to Christians themselves. In Galatians Paul defends what he calls ‘the truth of the gospel,’ (Galatians, p. 28).
Thus, Paul laments over the possibility that he may have labored over them in vain (4:11). In 4:20 he states, “I am perplexed about you.” He therefore labors the point that to lose the Gospel and fall back under law as the means by which one is right with God is to come under a curse (3:10) and to be severed from Christ (5:4)! To turn away from the Gospel is damning (1:7-8), foolish (3:1) and enslaving (4:9).
All who seek to supplement Christ with anything inevitably end up denying the Gospel and cutting themselves off from Christ, the only source of righteousness and freedom (5:2, 4). What then is the message of Galatians?
The Message of Galatians
The message that Paul brought to the Galatians and to us today is quite simple:
“The law condemns; Jesus saves! The law enslaves; Jesus liberates!”
Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian liberty, written by Paul the Apostle whose heart had been set free (see, F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free).
In 5:1a Paul writes, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free…”
In Galatians 2:16, he writes, “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”
Taken together, it is clear that Paul intends to show that true Christian liberty is based on justification by faith alone in Christ alone apart from works of the law. This is the message Paul sought to stamp upon the minds of the Galatian believers.
In Galatians, Paul contends for the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel of Christian Freedom (2:5, 14).
He fervently proclaims that his Gospel brings freedom from the bondage and curse of the law (3:13); freedom to live no longer in bondage as slaves but rather as adopted sons of God (3:23-4:7); freedom to live no longer according to the selfish gratification of the flesh (5:13-25) but rather for the sake of others (5:26-6:10); and, freedom to live no longer for the praise of man but for the praise and glory of God (6:11-18).
“True Christian liberty is based on justification by faith alone in Christ alone apart from works of the law.”
The earliest Latin commentator on Paul’s letter (A.D. 303), summarizes Paul’s message thus:
“The sum of the letter is as follows: the Galatians are going astray because they are adding Judaism to the gospel of faith in Christ, observing in a material sense the sabbath and circumcision, together with the other works which they received in accordance with the law. Disturbed by these tendencies Paul writes this letter, wishing to put them right and call them back from Judaism, in order that they may preserve faith in Christ alone, and receive from Christ the hope of salvation and of his promises, because no one is saved by the works of the law. So, in order to show that what they are adding is wrong, he wishes to confirm the truth of his gospel,” (F.F. Bruce, NIGTC, p. 21).
An Early Defense
Galatians is one of the earliest Christian statements and defenses of the Gospel. It documents the painful struggle which the early Christians experienced in separating from Judaism.
From its inception, the 1st century church was met head on with a doctrinal crisis of the most serious nature, one that threatened the very existence of Christianity itself. As one Bible teacher writes, the message of Galatians is “the Magna Carta of Evangelical Christianity. It shows how Paul saved Christianity from sinking to be a mere sect of Judaism, or, as he himself felt, degenerating into a form of paganism,” (Duncan, Galatians, p. xvii).
And so, at the very beginning of his letter, Paul doesn’t hesitate to reveal what is foremost on his mind: the Gospel!
From the opening verses, Paul takes on the false teacher’s conditional gospel and flatly rejects the slightest trace of legalism by asserting that Jesus died on the cross to deliver us from our sins (cf., 1:4).
J.B. Lightfoot wrote, “deliver strikes the keynote of the epistle…The Gospel is a rescue, an emancipation from a state of bondage,” (Epistle to the Galatians, p. 73).
The Source of Life, Vitality and Power
Whenever the Gospel has been recovered, embraced and proclaimed in the church, a resurgence of great freedom and life has resulted.
On the other hand, one of the surest signs of a sinking church is the widespread prevalence of a performance-based culture and ignorance of this Gospel message, which is so clearly articulated in Galatians.
Before coming to an understanding of the Gospel, note how Martin Luther describes his performance-based life,
For I myself was a learned doctor of theology and yet I never understood the Ten Commandments rightly. Yea, there were many highly celebrated doctors who did not know whether there were nine, ten or eleven commandments, and much less did we know the Gospel and Christ. But the only thing that was taught and advocated was: Invoke the Virgin Mary and other saints as your mediators and intercessors; fast often and pray much: make pilgrimages, enter cloisters and become monks, or pay for the saying of many masses and like works, and thus we imagined when we did these things we had merited heaven. (Martin Luther, Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 3, “A Beautiful Sermon on the law and the Gospel,” p. 191).
As hard as Luther worked, his conscience remained troubled by the thought that he was not good enough to be accepted by God.
“…one of the surest signs of a sinking church is the widespread prevalence of a performance-based culture and ignorance of this Gospel message…”
Note carefully, how he describes his breakthrough:
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…
If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face. (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, pp. 49-50).
There is great liberating power in the message of Galatians. Its message became the cornerstone and battle-cry of the Reformation.
Martin Luther, in his commentary on Galatians, writes,
“For, by the preaching of it, the devil is overthrown, his kingdom destroyed, the law, sin, and death are wrested out of his hands, his prisoners are translated from the kingdom of darkness, into the kingdom of light and liberty,” (p. 1).
The Message of Galatians for Today
When understood rightly, the message of Galatians serves as a source of liberation from our ever-present tendency to view Christ as our assistant and not our foundation. When the truth of the Gospel and the believer’s freedom are threatened by legal doctrine, the message of Galatians stands as a bulwark for the church today just as it did in the day of Paul and Luther. It frees the poor, enslaved sinner from the lie that God’s love is conditioned upon his performance, that he is justified by his character.
Sinclair Ferguson writes,
“The glory of the gospel is that God has declared Christians to be rightly related to him in spite of their sin. But our greatest temptation and mistake is to try to smuggle character into his work of grace. How easily we fall into the trap of assuming that we only remain justified so long as there are grounds in our character for that justification. But Paul’s teaching is that nothing we do ever contributes to our justification,” (The Christian Life: A Theological Introduction, pp. 82-83)
Galatians is a strong reminder and warning that Christianity is not about what one does for God. Rather, Christianity is all about what God in Christ has done for sinful man! The message of Galatians teaches us is that we are to trust in and celebrate God’s work not ours (cf., 2:16; 6:14).
If 68% of those professing to be “born-again” believe that what God does for them depends on what they do for God (i.e., that their justification must be based on their sanctification), the importance and need for the message of Galatians is just a great today as it was in the 1st century and the 16th century!
The Good News is that there is a way out for legalists: the Gospel! The Good News is that Jesus does everything for those who cannot help themselves!
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” (Rom. 5:6, 8).
Through faith alone in Christ alone we receive Christ’s righteousness. Consequently, we are no longer slaves but sons (3:23-4:7). We are no longer in bondage to our sin and the curse of the law but are brought into a glorious freedom and inheritance (4:4-7; 5:1).
Through the grace of God we are delivered (1:3-4; 5:1) and subsequently empowered by the Spirit of God to live in neither bondage nor license (5:13-25) but in liberty for the sake of others (5:26-6:10) and the glory of God (1:5; 6:11-18).
“The prison-door,” writes William Hendriksen, “has been opened. The air is exhilarating, invigorating. True freedom at last has been found. The sinner has been reconciled to his God. He is walking by the Spirit (5:16). Not only has he found the blessing, but he has also become a blessing, for it is through him that God blesses the world…,” (Galatians and Ephesians, NTC, p. 4).
Thus, like Paul, we conclude:
“14 But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”