Taking Inventory of God’s Grace (Galatians 3 & 4)
In a recent message I spoke of my efforts to make a “silk purse from a sow’s ear” by trying to make a Rambler station wagon into a car it was never meant to be. I now have another confession to make: immediately after that message I bought my third Pinto. A price of $100 purchased a wrecked Pinto wagon to supply parts for my other two Pintos. It was completely dismantled and is now filed away in my garage and attic. The “remains” rest peacefully in a wrecking yard. However, so little was left that it resembled the bones of a turkey picked clean and then boiled for soup. After towing it to the wrecking yard, I unbolted the hitch, jacked up the car, removed the differential and wheels, loaded them in the truck, and drove home.
That car was thoroughly dismantled. Everything attached with screws my daughter Jenny had removed with a screwdriver. To find parts for later use, I sorted them according to kind—air conditioner, engine block, cylinder head, etc. Now there are several boxes of parts, labeled according to category such as body parts, pollution equipment, fuel, ignition and exhaust systems.
Dismantling that Pinto was necessary, as was the separating and sorting of all the parts. Although stored for future use, none of them will serve any purpose until they are placed on one of the other Pintos and put in proper relationship to all of the other parts.
Thus far in our study we have treated the Book of Galatians like that Pinto. We have been dissecting the book, looking carefully at each part, thinking about its function and contribution. But, like those car parts, they are useless until they are implemented where they function as a whole. Hopefully, we likewise now have our mental attics filled with pieces of fact and principle gleaned from our study in Galatians.
In our last lesson we concluded the second of the three major sections of the Galatian epistle. It is a good time to take inventory of what we have learned, and it may also be a fitting occasion to try to categorize some of the major components, some of the major strands of theology which Paul has woven together in this great book. In addition, we must not overlook the synthetic idea, Paul’s purpose in writing the book.
Let us then carefully reflect on the first four chapters of the Book of Galatians, taking stock of what we have learned, and preparing as well for what lies ahead in the final two chapters. We shall pursue our study by walking through the first four chapters a section at a time refreshing our memories on what we have previously studied. Then we will survey the various themes of these chapters, showing their development in the epistle. Finally, we will attempt to show how these themes fit together to convey the message which Paul intended his readers to grasp, and which the Holy Spirit has inspired and preserved for our instruction and edification as well.
Overview of Chapters 1-4
Chapters 1 and 2 comprise the first division of Galatians. The focus of these chapters is on the life of the Apostle Paul. The Judaizers had repudiated both the message of salvation by grace and the messenger, the Apostle Paul. The charge against Paul was that his gospel had been contrived. They claimed that he wooed the favor of the Galatians by a kind of easy-believism, which puts aside all need to live under the Old Testament Law. Paul’s response was to survey his life, to show that his salvation as well as his ministry was divinely planned and executed, and that his independence from human manipulation was evident throughout his ministry. Having briefly surveyed the first two chapters, let us review them in more detail.
Verses 1-5 of chapter 1 introduce the epistle in the typical style of that day. Aside from identifying the author and the recipients of the letter, two significant statements are made. First, Paul was an apostle, not by man’s appointment but by God’s (1:1). Second, the goal of Christ’s intervention in history was to deliver Christians from this sinful world. These statements are critical because Paul’s apostleship is essential to the authority of his letter. He also clarifies at the very outset that whatever men may accuse his gospel of doing, its purpose is to deliver men from sin, not to promote or condone it.
Verses 6-9 spell out the Galatian problem which has occasioned the writing of this epistle. The Galatian churches have departed from the gospel they had recently received, and in so doing deserted God, who had saved them through Christ (1:6). While there was really no other gospel (1:7), those who preached another so-called “gospel” were worthy of the most severe pronouncement of anathema (1:8). This curse is repeated, and applies to all, even Paul himself (1:9). The message is greater than the messenger, and thus no messenger should dare to change it.
Verse 10 states the issue raised by the Judaizers about Paul’s gospel. They charged that he was a man-pleaser, that his gospel had departed from God’s Old Testament Law, and he thus wished to win the favor of men by offering a cheap salvation. Paul contended that his gospel was not of human origin (1:11). Verses 12-24 describe Paul’s life from before his conversion to three years after it. In his former days he was a man-pleaser, climbing the ladder of success by his zealous persecution of the church of our Lord (1:12-14). God had other plans for Paul, which began before his birth, and resulted in his conversion (1:15).
Paul was not converted through the instrumentality of any of the Jewish Christian leaders from Jerusalem (apostles), neither did he quickly seek to consult with them (1:16-17). Paul made only a brief visit to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, seeing only Peter and James (1:18-19). Other than this, Paul’s ministry was distant from Jerusalem, so that he was unknown to the church there, save by reputation, for which the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem rejoiced (1:20-24).
It was some fourteen years later that Paul made a second journey to Jerusalem, prompted by a divine revelation and accompanied by Barnabas and Titus (2:1-2). A private meeting with James, Peter, and John (2:2, 9) resulted in their giving Paul and his companions the right hand of fellowship, signifying that they received him as a true believer and that they also approved of his message and ministry even though it was targeted toward the Gentiles. The only stipulation made was that they continue to minister to the poor, which was the occasion for that visit (2:6-10). A contingent of legalists sought to force circumcision on Titus, but Paul refused to give in to them for the sake of the gospel, and it appears that the apostles sided with Paul in this (2:3-5).
Paul’s confrontation of Peter (2:11-21) was the most dramatic instance of Paul’s independence of men with regard to the gospel. Peter, sensing the pressure of the Jewish believers who had come to Antioch from James (Jerusalem), had withdrawn from eating with the Gentiles, sitting separately instead with the Jews. His example caused others, Barnabas included, to join him in this act, an act which Paul publicly challenged because it was a denial of the gospel. Both Jew and Gentile were equal in their sinfulness, as well as in their salvation.
Paul refuted the false and unfounded charges against him of being a people-pleaser in his gospel. He had proven himself independent of men’s acceptance and praise and had never tried to make the gospel something easy for men to accept or to practice. While Paul was independent of those whom he would have been expected to try to please (the Jerusalem apostles), they had warmly received him, stood by him in his resistance to the Judaizers, and approved of his message and ministry by giving him the “right hand of fellowship.”
The Galatians needed to learn two principle lessons from Paul’s testimony as contained in chapters 1 and 2. First, they should have recognized that the charges of the Judaizers against Paul were without substance. He had ceased to be a man-pleaser at the time of his conversion. Instead of seeking the approval of others, he had often taken the difficult course of resisting their error.
Second, the Galatians were encouraged to observe and imitate Paul’s exemplary ministry. The Galatians were too self-conscious of their reputation before the Judaizers, seeking to win their approval by submitting to circumcision and putting themselves under the Law. If the Galatians imitated Paul, they would make the gospel the standard for their own doctrine and practice, and they would strongly resist the Judaizers who were attempting to subvert the gospel. It was not Paul who was too sensitive to men’s opinion; it was the Galatian saints.
Chapters 3 and 4 compose the second major section of the book. The focus of these chapters centers on the critical differences between Paul’s gospel and that of the Judaizers. The single word “differences” aptly summarizes these two chapters, for those significant differences were overlooked by the Galatians in their folly. There were those things which were wrongly distinguished by them as well. Let us consider this section through the grid of distinctions.
In verses 1-5 of chapter 3 Paul points to the contrast between the way the Galatians attempted to live their Christian life and the way they were saved. They initially received the Spirit and experienced His power through believing faith alone, but later they foolishly set their faith aside for works.
In verses 6-14 Paul differentiates between the blessings of Abraham, which come by faith, as opposed to the cursings which result from being under the Law. Abraham was pronounced righteous on the basis of his faith, not law-works (3:6). The promises made to Abraham included the blessing of the Gentiles, who by faith are the sons of Abraham and heirs of the promise (3:7-9). In contrast, there is no promise of blessing in law-works. The Law only condemns men, since it must be kept completely and consistently. Law and faith are thus antithetical (3:10-12). The curse of the Law does not negate the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants, for that was borne by the Lord Jesus Christ (3:13-14).
In verses 15-29, Paul expounds on the distinctions of the covenant God made with Abraham and that which was made with the nation Israel through Moses. The Law of Moses which produced a curse did not set aside or modify the covenant made with Abraham which promised blessing. Three principle reasons are given for the priority of the Abrahamic Covenant and its promised blessings. First, the Abrahamic Covenant was ratified prior to the Mosaic, and thus has precedence over it (3:15, 17). Second, under the Mosaic Covenant blessing was conditional, based upon the performance of the entire nation. The Abrahamic covenant was unconditional, and blessing was to be accomplished through one person, Abraham’s seed (singular), namely Jesus Christ who Himself was God (3:16). Third, the Law of Moses was intended to be provisional and preparatory while the blessings promised Abraham were to be permanent. The Law was distinct and even inferior to the promise, yet it did not compete with or contradict the promise; rather, it prepared men for Christ and even pointed to Him (3:19-25).
While the Law made many distinctions between holy and unholy, sacred and secular, Jew and Gentile, all such distinctions are to be set aside in light of the coming of Christ and the truth of the Gospel. In Christ, the old distinctions have disappeared, for in Him there is no inferiority or superiority based on external differences such as those between Jews and Gentiles, slaves or free men, males or females. These are the very distinctions pressed by the Judaizers, for it is on the basis of such differences they considered themselves spiritually superior (3:26-29). There are now to be no such distinctions, based on the distinction between life under the Mosaic Covenant and life lived in Christ with the blessings promised to Abraham and those who are his sons by faith.
In the first 11 verses of chapter 4 Paul likens the dramatic transition from law to grace to the change from the status of a child-heir to an adult-heir who finally becomes what he was destined by his father’s will to be. While a child, the heir was no better than a slave. Remember that the Judaizers were teaching the superiority of Israel’s “good old days” under the Law as the basis for their appeal to the Gentiles to become circumcised and place themselves under the Law. Paul’s illustration indicates that superior status is given to the full son, which the Gentiles had become by faith in Christ. Even in the former condition of being under the Law, the Jew was no better than the Gentile, for both were slaves though in a different form (3:1-8). Why did the Gentiles want to turn the clock back and return to the condition of bondage under the Law when they were set free in Christ (4:9-11)?
There is a further contrast drawn. The way Paul had originally been received differed from the way the Galatians later shunned him (4:12-20). On his first visit he had received the warmest reception, even though his physical infirmity made him repulsive. Later he was shunned as though he had the plague. Only one explanation existed. Paul had not changed in his love for them—they had changed their attitude toward him. The change came in their rejection of Paul’s gospel. It was Paul’s gospel that once bound them together in the most intimate and fervent love. After rejecting his gospel, their intimacy was hindered. On the basis of the relationship they had once experienced, Paul appealed to them as a heartbroken mother, to return to his gospel and to him.
Verses 21-31 act as a conclusion to this section. Paul illustrates the difference between the two covenants by comparing them with the two wives of Abraham and their sons. Paul leads us to the conclusion that the fleshly sons of Abraham are not heirs of the promise, but only those who are sons by faith. In Paul’s analogy, the Judaizers were justified in calling themselves “sons of Abraham,” but not in thinking they were heirs of the promise. Indeed they sought to earn God’s blessings by the works of the flesh, rather than by trusting in God for His righteousness provided by grace. Only those who, like Abraham, are men of faith, are true sons of Abraham and thus heirs of the blessings which were promised through Abraham’s seed. The friction between the Jewish saints and the Gentile believers was really persecution, stemming from the jealousy of the Jews who resisted their (Israel’s) blessings being bestowed on the Gentiles. The only solution was for the Galatian churches to cast out the Judaizers, just as Sarah insisted that Abraham cast out Hagar and her son.
In no uncertain terms, chapters 3 and 4 prove not only the superiority but the priority of grace over law. To follow the Judaizers in placing oneself under the Law was to turn from the blessings of the promise through faith to the cursing of the Law.
The Theme of Chapters 1-4
There are many themes which could be pursued by the student of Galatians 1-4. There is, however, one overriding theme which we dare not overlook, for I believe that it is the principle purpose of this epistle. These chapters focus on the grace of God as evident in the gospel. The grace of God may be seen as a fundamental principle of the Christian life and the fundamental problem so far as the Galatian churches were concerned. Let me summarize some of the ways which Paul emphasizes the grace of God in these first four chapters.
(1) Grace is the message and the means of salvation. In Galatians 1:15, Paul spoke of God calling him “through His grace.” Paul realized that it was grace alone which sought and saved him. How could he, a persecutor of Christ and His church, possibly deserve salvation? The Galatians too were “called by the grace of Christ” (1:6). Salvation is a matter of pure grace, nothing more, nothing less.
(2) Grace is the means of the Christian’s sanctification. The thrust of Paul’s argument in the first 5 verses of chapter 3 is that the Galatian Christians have begun by faith and have turned to works. The assumption of the argument is that one is sanctified on the same basis that he is saved—by grace (cf. Col. 2:6). On the basis of this principle Peter says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18a). This is also why Paul says that receiving circumcision as a law-work is to have fallen from grace (Gal. 5:4). Grace is the way in which God has chosen to deal with sinful men. Sinful men cannot earn righteousness in God’s sight; they can only receive His righteousness by grace, through faith in Christ. It is also in this same grace that we stand (Rom. 5:2).
(3) Grace is the motive and the means for the Christian’s service. When Paul speaks of his ministry, which was approved by Peter, James, and John (Gal. 2:9), he refers to it as “the grace that had been given to me.” Ministry, like salvation and sanctification, is a matter of grace. It is not a coincidence that the Greek word for spiritual gifts is a derivative of the term for grace. This is why we find statements in Scripture like these:
And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly … (Rom. 12:6a).
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift (Eph. 4:7).
As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God (1 Pet. 4:10).
(4) The grace of God in the gospel is the standard for all teaching and conduct. The gospel which Paul first preached was the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. The “different gospel” taught by the Judaizers was a departure from God’s grace to works. Submission to circumcision as a law-work was to fall from grace (Gal. 5:4). Paul strongly reacted to such a departure, saying that no matter who it might be, including himself, the one who teaches salvation through any means other than grace is accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).
While Peter’s teaching was orthodox, his practice departed from the grace of God in the gospel when he removed himself from the table of Gentile believers. Paul’s strong reaction and rebuke was due to the fact that this behavior was inconsistent with the gospel. The grace of God in the gospel was the standard by which Paul measured Peter’s actions.
(5) Grace obliterates distinctions of superiority. The gospel removes distinctions, such as those between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female (Gal. 3:28). Although not clearly stated, it is implied that grace removes these distinctions. Let me explain.
If men are lost apart from God’s grace, they are equally lost. It doesn’t matter whether one is an unbelieving Jew or an unbelieving Gentile, they are equally lost in that both will spend eternity apart from Christ. Both the Christian Jew and the Christian Gentile have an equal standing before God, righteous in His sight, since the righteousness of each is the same—the righteousness of Christ, imputed to the believer. Because grace is unmerited favor, the merits of one man (as man views merit) do not give him any superior standing before God because all of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6).
The same principle applies to the matter of spiritual gifts. In Corinth, as in virtually all churches today, some spiritual gifts were more highly regarded than others. The result was that those who possessed the more desirable gifts were esteemed to be more spiritual than the others. We have already seen that spiritual gifts are literally “graces.” God is the sovereign giver of all gifts, every outworking is the result of His power (cf. 1 Cor. 12:4-6). Therefore, there is absolutely no basis for boasting, except in the Lord, who works all in all. Grace removes all ground for superiority and boasting.
It is no wonder that the Judaizers were so opposed to grace. Grace removes the basis for distinctions and thus for a spiritual hierarchy. Since the Judaizers regarded Jewishness (living under the Law) to be superior to Gentileness (not living under the Law), they regarded themselves as superior to the Gentile Christians. Departing from grace, the Galatian Christians were inclined to accept the superiority of those under the Law and put themselves under the same bondage. Wherever there is spiritual pride, there is likely some kind of illegitimate discrimination, and wherever there is such discrimination, grace has been set aside. Grace never produces pride, but grateful humility.
(6) Grace is the key to unlocking the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul was a prisoner of God’s grace. Having been saved by grace, Paul was now able to look at the Old Testament Law in an entirely new light. Before his conversion, the Law was Paul’s prooftext for torturing and killing Christians. After his conversion, Paul became an ambassador of Christ, now having a graciousness and a compassion which he had never manifested before.
Grace provided Paul with an entirely new perspective for studying the Old Testament Law. Once he focused only upon the Mosaic Covenant, thinking in terms of rules, restrictions, and human effort. After conversion Paul viewed the Mosaic Covenant in terms of the earlier and greater Abrahamic Covenant, which promises blessings instead of the curse of the Law.
It is unfortunately true that one can find texts to justify almost any thesis if one so desires. Once Paul became the prisoner of God’s grace, he was able to see grace throughout the Old Testament. For those who have not experienced God’s grace, the severity of the Law is their focal point. Grace gives one a new perspective in studying the Bible.
(7) Grace is not just a perspective on the Law, but a perspective on life. Paul’s life and ministry was dominated by the grace of God as manifested first and foremost in the gospel. His ministry was marked by grace, not only in his message but in his methods. Is it any wonder that Paul often refused remuneration for preaching the gospel, even though this was his right (cf. 1 Cor. 9)? Grace that is freely received is freely given.
What one is determines what one sees. Grace is an orientation, an outlook on life. Paul was so captivated by the grace of God it was the theme of his life and ministry. That is why Paul could smell a legalist a mile away. That is also why Paul so quickly and decisively responded to a departure from grace.
It is my prayer that you and I will become prisoners of grace, preoccupied by it. Unfortunately, too many preachers have guilt and condemnation as their theme. That was the function of the Law. While a necessary function, it should be overcome and overshadowed by the grace of God. You can only enter into this grace orientation by first receiving the grace of God in Christ Jesus, the grace which led Christ to bear your punishment and to provide you with His righteousness in place of your rags of sin. If you have never experienced the grace of God in the gospel by personal salvation, I pray that you will today, this very hour. If you have experienced this grace, I pray that you will grow in grace and not depart from it by some system of human works, such as that propagated by the Judaizers and a host of their kind today.
Related Topics: Law