Several years ago a friend of mine was working in his garage. He was the kind of person who did not like to be interrupted while engaged in a project. Knowing this, his wife walked into the garage and stood quietly at his side for several minutes, waiting for the proper time to speak. At last her husband looked up, the signal that she was free to say what was on her mind. Very calmly, and without a trace of panic, she said, “The house is on fire.”
There definitely is a time to forsake the customary, polite, social graces and bluntly state the problem. The burning house was a time for immediate communication. Likewise, the desertion of the churches of Galatia from the teaching of Paul and from the gospel of God’s grace was the time for the sounding of the alarm. Paul had little time to waste in polite introductions, for the problem facing these churches could have had devastating results.
It is possible that this epistle to the Galatians is the first letter of the Apostle Paul. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to compare the way Paul begins this letter with his customary introduction. The way you and I begin and end our personal letters is quite similar in form, if not in content. As customary in the letters of that day, Paul’s letters had a predictable form.25 There was an initial greeting, a prayer or petition for grace and peace, thanksgiving to God, the body of the letter, personal greetings, and a farewell.
In this letter the thanksgiving section, present in Paul’s other epistles (Rom. 1:8; 1 Cor. 1:4; 2 Cor. 1:3; Eph. 1:3; Phil. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:2), is missing. Instead, Paul bluntly expresses his dismay: “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). Something was seriously wrong in the churches of Galatia to prompt such a sobering introduction. A careful reading of the entire epistle confirms this observation. The gospel which Paul had preached and which these Christians had accepted was somehow quickly set aside for other teaching.
The study of the Book of Galatians is of critical importance to Christians today. Not only do we learn of a departure from the gospel in ancient days, but we shall see that there is similar error being proclaimed today. Many Christians have accepted this divergence from the gospel, not knowing the seriousness of their error. It is important for us to understand what the Galatian error was so that we can recognize similar false teaching today. God-willing, we will reject false teaching for what it is—a departure from the gospel by which we have been saved.
Before we begin our study there are two introductory matters which we need to discuss at the outset. First, we must understand where “the churches of Galatia” were located. Secondly, we must agree upon the date of the writing of the epistle, for it helps define the region of “Galatia.”
The difficulty in determining what Paul meant by the term “Galatia” results from the fact that “Galatia” can be used in two ways: first, it can refer to the whole Roman administrative district (especially the southern part of this district), such as we find on the map in the back of many Bibles, or secondly, it can designate ethnic Galatia (only the northern portion of this district). Older scholars tended to support the latter view, while more recent scholars26 seem inclined toward the former. Let me summarize the reasons why the evidence for the South Galatian theory seems to outweigh that for the North Galatian theory:
(1) In his epistles Paul used the Roman provincial names, while in Acts Luke used the ethnic designations.27 We would therefore expect Paul to be speaking of the larger territory, which included the southern portion of Galatia.
(2) Acts 14 describes the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas (who is named in the Galatian letter) to “South Galatia,” while any missionary efforts in ethnic Galatia are much more hypothetical. We have no evidence of any churches being established by Paul in the north, while ample evidence exists of the establishment of churches in the south.
(3) Since the Jewish populace was greater in the south than in the north, a problem with Judaizers would be more likely in that region. In Galatians Paul assumes his readers have a fair knowledge of the Old Testament and of Judaism, which would have been more likely in the south. We also know from Acts 14 that there was considerable opposition to Paul’s preaching in the cities of “South Galatia.”
I have to smile to myself as I share these arguments in favor of the “South Galatian theory” with you. As a seminary student, I was sick when I took the final exam for New Testament Survey. Naturally, the professor asked us to defend one position or the other. I was not able to defend either, and I always felt badly about that. At least now I can answer the question. Having done so, let me emphasize that godly men have taken both positions, and the true scholars are those who give careful thought to both sides and who cautiously express a preference for one or the other. In the final analysis, much thought is given to this problem only because of its bearing on the dating of this epistle.
We have already studied the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as background for the study of the Book of Galatians. Based upon what I have already said, it might appear that Galatians was written after the Jerusalem Council. Indeed, some scholars believe this to be the case. I am still of the opinion, however, that the Book of Galatians was written sometime shortly before the Council.
Understanding this epistle to be written to those churches in “South Galatia,” we can tentatively outline the events leading to the Jerusalem Council. Paul and Barnabas had gone forth in their first missionary journey, traveling to the “South Galatian” cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Paul and Barnabas then returned to Syrian Antioch, where they spent a considerable time (Acts 14:28). Peter had come to Antioch to see how this church was doing, and fell into hypocrisy when some other Jews from Jerusalem arrived. Paul thus rebuked Peter publicly (Gal. 2:11-21). While in Antioch, Paul must have received word that some of the saints were already falling prey to the teaching of the Judaizers. The arrival of Judaizers in Antioch would have intensified Paul’s concern. A letter to the Galatian churches was then written some time before the Jerusalem Council. Naturally, no mention of the Council’s decision would be included in the letter.
“Paul, an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead),”
When the mailman comes, I have a quick and easy method of sorting through the mail to determine what to open and what to discard. I look for the tell-tale signs of what we commonly refer to as “junk” mail—these are not personal letters but actually mass mailings designed to appear personal. Another key I use in recognizing important mail is to look at the return address; occasionally, we receive a letter from Dallas County summoning either my wife or myself to jury duty. Such an official letter always gets my attention, whether I like what is inside or not. The same could be said of still another kind of letter—the three words, Internal Revenue Service, on the outside of a letter always get my attention!
The word “apostle” in verse 1 hardly takes us by surprise. After all, Paul was an apostle. No orthodox Christian today questions that. Furthermore, Paul almost always opened his epistles with a reference to his apostleship. Paul’s claim to apostleship in verse 1 had far more meaning to the Galatian recipients. If his apostleship was taken seriously, the letter would carry a greater impact. To write a letter as an apostle is tantamount to saying that the author of the letter is God Himself. If you and I read letters which come from the IRS or the government, surely we should pay careful attention to a letter which originated from God.
If this is Paul’s first epistle, his claim of apostleship in verse 1 was unexpectedly authoritative, since such an introduction was not yet customary.28 There were, however, different kinds of apostles, for the Greek word conveys the idea of one who is sent. An apostle is one who is sent out with authority. This raises the question, “By whom was Paul sent as an apostle, and with what authority?”
We have already seen from Acts 15 that the Judaizers implied, if they did not say it directly, that they had come with the authority of the apostles who resided in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Council very flatly denied this in their letter to the Gentile churches (Acts 15:24). At best, the Judaizers could have claimed to be apostles of the church at Jerusalem. In a similar way, Barnabas and Paul were “apostles” of the Antioch church to the church in Jerusalem, for they were sent by the church with the collection to be taken to the elders in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30).
Paul’s apostleship was of a different and very limited order. He was an apostle of Jesus Christ, commissioned and sent out by Him. This is Paul’s thrust in verse 1: “Paul, an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead).”
The structure of the Book of Galatians is the outflow of the claim of apostleship which Paul has made in this first verse. Chapters 1 and 2 contain Paul’s defense of his apostleship, a fact denied by the Judaizers and now doubted by some of the Galatian saints. Having defended his authority in the first two chapters, Paul reiterates the message of the gospel in chapters 3 and 4. Paul’s gospel exposes the error into which some have fallen, by placing themselves under the Law after having been saved by grace. Chapters 5 and 6 spell out the practical outworkings of the gospel of God’s grace, which enable the saint to live a godly life in a fallen world.
6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.
Imagine yourself as a member of one of the Galatian churches which had just received this letter from Paul. The first four verses would not have been hard to accept. If this letter followed the style of any of Paul’s other epistles, we would expect a word of thanksgiving, commendation or encouragement. No such word is found here. Instead, Paul comes out of the chute, as it were, with his guns blazing. The severity of the error is signaled by the urgency of Paul’s tone and by the stinging words he chose to diagnose the disease of the Galatian churches. Paul indicts the false teachers for preaching another gospel and pronounces sentence upon them by damning them. Paul accuses those who have fallen for such teaching of deserting the God who called them in Christ Jesus. Paul could not have stated the problem in more shocking terms. He meant to jar these saints. This was no time for diplomacy or subtlety.
Paul is not trying to be theatrical. He is doing the only thing that can be done in such circumstances. It would hardly seem appropriate for me to yank one of my girls about by her hair. Yet suppose that one of my daughters was about to step into the street in front of a speeding car. This would be no time for a casual talk about cars and streets. Neither would there be any alternative other than to grab her as quickly as I could and yank with all my might, in the hope of preventing injury or death. In a time of crisis, severe action is not only appropriate, it is mandatory. The severity of Paul’s words alerts us to the seriousness of the situation in the Galatian churches. Let us consider the danger more carefully.
Several years ago I had an emergency appendectomy and while recovering, a friend came to visit. He was obviously uneasy and he nervously fidgeted with my I.V. bottle hanging from a rack next to him. The precious fluid flowed from the tubing into my arm. Suddenly with no warning the bottle plunged downward, loosened by his tampering. At that moment, that little bottle was very important to me. That bottle was my life. It was vital to my well-being. Tampering with it could have cost me my life.
If tampering with that glass bottle of fluid was so distressing to me, you can understand why Paul is so concerned about those who were altering the gospel. To change the gospel is to jeopardize the basis of the eternal well-being of every Christian. The problem which Paul raises could not have been more critical. His words are well chosen to convey this fact.
Verse 6 conveys Paul’s shock and horror at what has occurred. When the Galatians turned to a different gospel, they deserted the Father, who called them through the Son. In verse 7 Paul clarifies his reference to a “different gospel” in the previous verse. In reality there is only one gospel, and no other. What may at first have seemed like a minor adjustment in doctrine to the Galatians was an alternative to the gospel. Worse yet, it was an abandonment of the gospel, for there is only one gospel. This abandonment was instigated by false teachers who disturbed some in the church by distorting the gospel.
Verses 8 and 9 are Paul’s words regarding these false teachers, or any others who would distort the gospel of God’s grace. The gospel is that which Paul had previously proclaimed to the Galatians. No matter who it might be, no matter how spectacular they might be, any deviation from the gospel previously proclaimed would be worthy of God’s most severe judgment. To reemphasize, Paul repeats in verse 9 what he has said in verse 8. However, verse 9 is more than a mere repetition of the previous verse. I believe that Paul reiterates not only what he has just said (in verse 8), but also what he had previously said29 while still with the Galatians. Thus the apostle was amazed at how quickly the Christians had turned aside from the gospel. They had not only quickly turned aside, but they turned aside after having been warned.30
There is, I believe, a considerably greater condemnation pronounced upon those who further a false gospel than that which will befall those who only follow such teaching. This is not to say that believing such error is to be taken lightly, for Paul spoke of it as forsaking God (v. 6). The false teacher, however, is even more severely cautioned; he is doubly cursed. The text may imply that while there are those who could fall into such error unwittingly—that is, not knowing its full implications—those who teach another gospel do so consciously. These false teachers “want to distort the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). Because the false teacher leads others astray, and because he does so willfully, he is worthy of a much more severe penalty (cf. James 3:1).
Our study of the Book of Galatians will reiterate the true gospel and will reveal that which is false. Let us briefly preview what we shall discover as we continue in this great book by considering the definition of the gospel found in verses 3-5.
The true gospel is outlined in verses 3-5 of chapter 1. Just as Paul’s apostleship is summarized in verse 1 and defended in chapters 1 and 2, so the gospel is given a preliminary definition in 1:3-5, only to be expanded upon throughout the rest of the book. The results of the gospel, “grace” and “peace,” are mentioned in verse 3. The gospel is grace. The gospel bestows grace and peace to those who receive it by faith. When men turn from the gospel, they turn from grace (cf. 5:4) and from peace (cf. 5:20,26).
The gospel is the result of the finished work of Christ on the cross of Calvary (1:4). His death was for the forgiveness of our sins and our “deliverance from this present evil age,” according to the will of God and for His glory (1:4b, 5). We may be inclined to think of our deliverance from “this present evil age” as our eschatological (future) hope, but this is not the principle thought here, at least in my opinion. The work of Christ on the cross is sufficient to forgive us of our sins, and to finally and fully sanctify us in His presence, but for the time being it is also adequate to free us from our slavery to sin here and now. Thus, it is to our present (as well as our future) sanctification that Paul refers. This is especially significant in the context of the whole book, for the Judaizers taught differently. They believed that putting men back under the Law would sanctify them, and that faith alone was not sufficient.
The “other gospel,” or the “un-gospel” to which Paul referred in verses 6-9, finds the finished work of Christ inadequate to sanctify men in a sinful world. As a result, they seek to add Law-keeping to faith, and thus nullify grace altogether. The false gospel which is countered in this epistle is man-made and man-pleasing (1:10-11). It seeks to put men under bondage by compelling them to be circumcised and to keep the Old Testament Law (2:3-5; 4:1-31; 5:1-12). It implies that those who fail to live under the Law are second class citizens, thus denying the gospel (2:11-21). The false gospel forgets that divine power is manifested through God’s Spirit, given through faith. The false gospel makes men return to a reliance on the flesh (3:1-5; 5:16-26; 6:8). The false gospel fails to remember that the Old Testament Law condemned men, and that salvation was always a matter of God’s promise, not men’s performance (3:6-29; 6:12-16).
Paul’s introduction to the letter to the Galatians underscores one truth which is not only central in the epistle but is crucial to every Christian: the preservation of the purity of the gospel. In following the teaching of the Judaizers, the Galatians had turned from the truth of the gospel, and thus from God Himself. To have circumcised Titus, or for any Gentile to have been circumcised, would have been to turn away from the gospel of God’s grace (2:3-5; 5:1-4). When Peter severed himself from the Gentile Christians to eat with the Jewish believers, he ceased to live consistently with the gospel (2:11-21).
For Paul, the gospel was not just a message which, if believed, led to salvation; it was a guiding principle which governed men’s lives. Actions which seemed inconsequential to others (such as making concessions to the legalism of the Judaizers) were abhorrent to Paul because they were a violation of the gospel. To Paul, the gospel was the one truth which must never be altered, not only in credal confession, but in practice.
I would hope that every one of us would agree that our church needs to be a church soundly committed to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. What does this mean in very practical terms? In a number of churches it means that every sermon is evangelistic, with an invitation given. I have attended some churches where I was unknown to the congregation. There I found that every eye seemed to be looking in my direction during the evangelistic message, and especially as the invitation was given. I knew what these people were thinking. They assumed I was probably an unbeliever, and thus the target of the sermon, but they were not implicated since they were already saved. What possible application could a “gospel message” have for them, since they had already believed?
Paul says that the gospel has everything to do with those who are saved. It is the standard by which our every act and attitude must be judged. It is the central truth which must be practiced and preserved in its purity. To Paul, the gospel meant not only an invitation to unbelievers, but the spelling out of its implications to Christians. The gospel is not something we face once (at conversion) and then leave behind. It is the message we believe to be saved, and the message by which we are to live. This will become more and more clear as we proceed through the Book of Galatians.
The Lord’s Table is observed each week at our church. The message of the Book of Galatians helps me to understand one of the practical reasons for doing so. The elements which are placed before us on the communion table are representatives of the essence of the gospel. Not only are we reminded of the salvation we have obtained once for all through the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord, but we are also reminded of the essence of the gospel, to which our daily lives must conform. The gospel reminds us of the basis for our salvation, as well as for our sanctification. No wonder the New Testament church saw the need for a weekly remembrance of the Lord’s death. Christians must be reminded of the gospel because of what it means for our everyday living.
Paul’s introduction to the Book of Galatians should serve to warn us that the gospel, even when believed, can quickly be forsaken. I do not personally believe that it was consciously scrapped or set aside as much as it was deserted by distortion and thoughtless action. What was wrong, some may have reasoned, in submitting to circumcision in order to humor the Judaizers? It was truly wrong, Paul insisted, for in so doing the gospel of God’s grace was denied. My point is that we tend to measure orthodoxy more in terms of people’s creed, while Paul looks at their conduct. To act contrary to the gospel is to depart from the gospel. This we may do more often, and less intentionally, through our actions than by our outright affirmation.
The gospel, Paul would have us know, is set aside in the name of purity and piety, as much as it is in the name of paganism and immorality. Generally, we look for the heretic among those who openly advocate loose living and who openly attack the authority of the Word of God. However, we must also become more alert to the fact that Satan uses morality and purity as bait as often as he uses immorality and impurity. The “doctrine of demons” in 1 Timothy 4:1-4 deals with the denial of certain liberties in the name of holiness. So, too, in the Book of Colossians, denial and self-abuse are advocated as promoting purity, when they do just the opposite (cf. Col. 2). The Judaizers sought to bring about purity and holiness through Law-keeping. Paul taught that the gospel brings about purity (cf. 1:4), through the work of Christ on the cross. The gospel is salvation by grace, through faith, apart from works. Let us beware of those who seek to promote godliness through human effort. Such is a denial of the gospel by which men are saved.
26 Among the more recent scholars who are inclined toward the “South Galatian theory” are: F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982); R. A. Cole, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965); Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953).
28 In the Book of Philippians, Paul did not refer to himself as an apostle, but there was no need to here for his apostleship was not disputed. Indeed, it was this church alone which chose to share with Paul in his financial needs (Phil. 4:18). The Thessalonian saints did not challenge Paul’s apostleship, either, and so Paul does not introduce himself in his customary way (as an apostle).