What is the nature of St. Paul's letter to the Galatians?
Galatians 1:1 identifies the apostle Paul as the writer of the epistle to the Galatians. Galatians is the first New Testament book to be written, composed sometime soon after AD 49.
The churches in Galatia were comprised of both Jewish and Gentile converts. Paul’s purpose in writing to these churches was to confirm them in the faith, especially concerning justification by faith alone, apart from the works of the Law of Moses.
Galatians was written because the churches of that region were facing a theological crisis. The essential truth of justification by faith rather than by human works was being denied by the Judaizers—legalistic Jews who insisted that Christians must keep the Mosaic Law. In particular, the Judaizers insisted on circumcision as a requirement for Gentiles who wished to be saved. In other words, convert to Judaism first, and then you are eligible to become a Christian. When Paul learned that this heresy was being taught to the Galatian churches, he composed an epistle to emphasize our liberty in Christ and to counter the perversion of the gospel that the Judaizers promoted.
The fact that we are justified by grace through faith means we have spiritual freedom. We are not under bondage to the dictates of the Old Testament Law. Paul condemns anyone who would denigrate the grace of God and attempt to change the gospel (Galatians 1:8–10). He gives his apostolic credentials (Galatians 1:11–2:14) and emphasizes that righteousness comes through Christ not the works of the Law (Galatians 2:21). The Galatians were not to get “entangled again with a yoke of bondage (that is, the Mosaic law)” (Galatians 5:1). Christian freedom is not an excuse to gratify one’s sin nature; rather, our freedom is an opportunity to love one another (Galatians 5:13; 6:7–10). The Christian life is to be lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, not the flesh (Galatians 5:16–18). The flesh is crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20); as a consequence, the Holy Spirit bears His fruit, or His nature, in the life of the believer (Galatians 5:22–23).
In the end, the issue is not whether a person is circumcised but whether he is a “new creation” (Galatians 6:15). Salvation is the work of the Spirit, and we must be born again (see John 3:3). External religious rites such as circumcision are of no value in the realm of the Spirit.
Throughout Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, saving grace—the gift of God—is juxtaposed against the Law of Moses, which cannot save. The Judaizers urged a return to the Mosaic Law as the source of justification, and they were prominent in the early church. Even Peter was temporarily drawn into their deceit (Galatians 2:11–13). The themes connecting Galatians to the Old Testament center on Law vs. grace were: the inability of the Law to justify (Galatians 2:16); the believer’s deadness to the Law (2:19); Abraham’s justification by faith (3:6); the Law’s bringing not God’s salvation but His wrath (3:10); and love as the fulfillment of the Law (5:14). Believers are the spiritual children of Sarah, not Hagar—that is, we are children of the freewoman, not children of the slave; we have more in common with Isaac, the son of promise, than with Ishmael, the son of human effort (4:21–31).
The books of Galatians and James deal with two complementary aspects of Christianity. Galatians highlights the gospel of grace that produces righteous living (Galatians 3:13–14). James highlights the righteous living that proves faith. There is no conflict; James, too, emphasizes the new birth through the gospel (James 1:18), and Galatians spends its final two chapters applying the doctrine of sola gratia to practical Christian living.
One of the main themes of the book of Galatians is found in Galatians 3:11: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Any compromise with legalism or the mixture of human effort and the grace of God for salvation leads to heresy. If we could be saved through the keeping of the Law, then Jesus did not need to die (Galatians 2:21). Trying to save ourselves nullifies grace.
Not only are we saved by faith (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8–9), but the life of the believer in Christ—day by day, moment by moment—is lived by and through that faith (Galatians 2:20). Not that faith is something we conjure up on our own—it is the gift of God, not of works (Ephesians 2:8–9)—but it is our responsibility and joy to exhibit our faith so that others will see the work of Christ in us and to grow in our faith by the application of spiritual disciplines (Bible study, prayer, obedience, etc.).
Jesus said we would be known by the fruit of our lives (Matthew 7:16), which should give evidence of the faith within us. All Christians should be diligent in striving to build upon the saving faith within us so that our lives reflect Christ.