GALATIANS: GOD’S ANTIDOTE TO LEGALISM
Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from a commentary by Ron Merryman on the book of Galatians titled, “Galatians: God’s Antidote To Legalism.” Details on how to order this complete commentary are at the end of the article.
Galatians is such an important book that one wonders where the church and even western civilization would be had it not been written. Justification by faith in the finished work of Christ alone is the genius of Christianity — pervert it and the rest becomes perverted. Like dominoes, other doctrines tumble when numero uno falls.
First of all, Galatians clearly demonstrates the essence of Christianity; that of placing ones’ hope personally and directly with Christ plus nothing. Both the basic thesis (doctrine) and the experiential outworking (human orientation to the doctrine) of Christianity are illustrated in the simple, yet marvelous, expression of Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ, and no longer I myself live, but Christ lives in me, and that life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith which has as its object the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (my translation).
Secondly, Galatians is a permanent restraint to both formalism and legalism in the body of Christ. It not only establishes that justification is apart from law works; it demonstrates that sanctification fits the same category. “Having begun by the Spirit, we will be brought to perfection-maturity by the Spirit and not by law works” is the message of Galatians 3:3. That is, sanctification is by the Spirit, not by the law. Outward, fleshly conduct can be legalized to a certain extent (witness the Pharisees), but the life of the Spirit cannot, and the essence of the Christian experience is Christ and his Spirit in the life of the believer. Galatians affirms that fact; then Romans 6-8, written some years later, reaffirms it. Outward, fleshly conformity to rules or regulations, even the best rules and regulations, will not produce the fruit of the Spirit within. With the proper emphasis on Christ and his Spirit within, the outward will take care of itself! Such is the thrust of Galatians 5.
Lastly, Galatians forever establishes the fact that true Christianity has no ethnic, nationalistic, or cultural walls. Had the legalists their way, Christianity would have become simply another sect of perverted Judaism as per the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes; that is, an addendum, an appendix, attached to perverted concepts of Old Testament law. Its converts would have been statistical additions to an ethnic-culture-related religion associated with Judaism. But in Christ Jesus, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). In Christ there is a oneness that eliminates ethnic, socioeconomic, and sexual status. Galatians, probably Paul’s first inspired epistle, demonstrates and clarifies this basic fact of body truth for the church age. The church is the body of Christ, not an addendum to national Israel.
Thank God for the Epistle to the Galatians: it establishes us in God’s grace provision for justification, sanctification, and life of the Spirit. Sink your moorings deep into the message of this book.
GALATIANS BACKGROUND MATERIAL
When Paul wrote this epistle, the territory called “Galatia” was known from two perspectives:
1. the official view of the Roman government which included (geographically) the cities of the Lycaonian plain, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (South Galatia) and also the cities of Ancyra, Pessinus, and Gangra (North Galatia), or
2. the popular view which excluded the area and cities of South Galatia.
The people and cultures of North and South Galatia were vastly different. North Galatia was settled mainly by migrating Celtic Gauls who left southern Europe around 278 B.C. Their settlements in northern Asia Minor soon became known as Galatia. This state became a Roman province in 25 B.C. and soon included the country immediately to the south (Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe). Northern Galatia at this time was still mainly populated by Gauls, was pastoral in nature, had little commerce and poor communication. Southern Galatia had a much more commercialized culture with thriving cities, good highways, Jewish, Greek and Roman colonies. Scholars have long debated whether Paul wrote to those in North or South Galatia.
Scripture gives no indication of the establishment of any churches in North Galatia; it does, however, in South Galatia (Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe – Acts 13:1-14:28). Paul probably visited North Galatia on his second journey (Acts 16:6) and again on his third journey (Acts 18:23), but evidently won only a few scattered disciples there, since he does not use the term churches in this connection. Conclusion: The Galatian churches as such were in South Galatia, and they were the recipients of this letter from Paul.
A. Practically all evangelical scholars since Theodore Zahn feel Galatians was written before Romans. Zahn’s masterful Introduction to the New Testament is a classic.
B. Zahn thinks Galatians was Paul’s first inspired epistle and that it was written from Corinth on his second missionary journey before he wrote I and II Thessalonians. The date would be late A.D. 49 or early 50, shortly after the Council of Jerusalem.
C. Ramsey thinks Paul wrote Galatians sometime before his third journey.
D. Lightfoot feels it was written while Paul was on his third journey, possibly while in Macedonia or Greece, ca. 55, 56 A.D.
E. I feel that the letter was written sometime in 49 A.D., either before the Council of Jerusalem or shortly thereafter (see Chronological Notes on pp. 19 and 25). This would make it the earliest of Paul’s inspired epistles. Prof. Harold Hoehner of Dallas Theological Seminary believes it was written in 49 A.D. before the Council.
A. The Immediate Reason
Paul, together with Barnabas, founded churches in Galatia on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:14-14:23). He visited them again on his second tour (Acts 15:40-16:4), strengthening them and delivering the decree that had been issued at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:19, 20). During Paul’s absence from these churches (the “how long” or “when” is determined by when one dates the book), Judaizers from Palestine came to this region and violently opposed Paul and his teaching. They denied his apostolic authority and repudiated his doctrine of grace. When word of this got back to Paul, the seriousness of the situation moved him to write the Epistle to the Galatians, since for some reason he could not visit them in person (4:19, 20).
False teachers at Galatia were:
1. tempting the believers to another gospel diametrically opposed to the gospel Paul preached, 1:5-7;
2. tempting believers to reject Paul’s apostolic authority, Chapters 1 and 2;
3. tempting the believers to turn from grace provision to law works for perfection (maturation), 3:3; 5:24,
- by circumcision,
- by observing days,
- by extraneous legalisms.
B. The Background of the Judaizer-legalists
1. Basically, the Judaizer-legalists were unsaved Jews who sought to maintain a corrupt form of Judaism and to impose some perverted legal forms of that religion upon the early churches. For other references to these legalists, see Acts 15:1; Philip. 3:1‑6; Rom. 2:17-3:8.
2. The Judaizers taught:
a. salvation by belief in Jesus Christ plus the doing of good works with particular emphasis on circumcision;
b. maintenance of salvation by good works (or by keeping the law), Acts 15:1; Gal. 3:1-5;
c. acceptance with God came by identification with Israel;
d. token assent to the messiahship of Jesus. This gave them access to the churches (as in Acts 15:1), but once in, they wrought havoc with their false teaching.
3. The Judaizers sought (at Galatia) to destroy Paul, the chief exponent of grace by:
a. undermining his apostolic position, thereby discrediting his authority as a teacher. In this effort, they maintained:
(1) Paul was not one of the original apostles,
(2) Paul got his information about the Lord second hand.
b. perverting his message (of salvation by grace) by adding good works as a prerequisite to salvation and also as a prerequisite to eternal security or “to keeping saved.”
Chapters 1 and 2 – Paul plunges into a defense of his apostolic authority proving it to be of divine origin. He establishes that his gospel came from God.
Chapters 3 and 4 – Paul proves that law-works and grace-faith principles cannot coexist. He shows that salvation was by grace long before the Mosaic Law was ever given and that the coming of the law in no wise superseded or did away with salvation by grace. Moreover, he states that perfection-maturation is a ministry of the Holy Spirit not dependent upon works of the law.
Chapters 5 and 6 – Paul emphasizes the practical outcome and way of life that the ministry of the Holy Spirit produces in the believer’s life. Included are 15 commands and exhortations relative to Christian liberty.
A. 1:1-10 – Introduction and rebuke for vacillation in the gospel
B. 1:11-24 – How Paul got the gospel
1. by revelation from Jesus Christ (direct revelation) v. 12
2. not by flesh and blood (human instrumentality) v. 11, 12
3. not through the apostles (the Twelve) v. 17
C. 2:1-14 – Paul’s consistency in defense of the doctrines of grace
1. before the legalists in Jerusalem (example – Titus) v. 1-10
2. before Peter and the legalists at Antioch (example – Peter) v. 11-14
D. 2:15-21 – Paul’s explanation of justification (before the legalists at Antioch)
1. the insufficiency of law works to justify v. 15-18
2. the sufficiency of justification by faith in Christ Jesus alone v. 19, 20
Conclusion: There is no need of law works to aid the sufficiency of Christ v. 21.
A. 3:1-5 – Five questions to stimulate doctrinal thought.
- Key verse - v. 3 = Do flesh works (good works, human good, witnessing, prayer, giving, etc.) motivated by the flesh bring the believer to perfection-maturation? Answer — NO!
B. 3:6-9 – Example of Abraham’s justification.
C. 3:10-14 – Deliverance from law works, that is, good works, through Christ.
D. 3:15-18 –The priority and performance of the faith way (Covenant of Promise) over the works way (Covenant of Law).
E. 3:19-25 – The real place and purpose of the law.
1. the law highlighted sin v. 19
2. the law could not give life; but shut up its followers to a hope that did give life — Christ, Messiah v. 20-24
F. 3:25-4:9 – Six blessings unique to position in Christ in contrast to position under the law.
1. unconditional sonship v. 26
2. position, identity, living union with Christ v. 27
3. oneness in Christ for all believers v. 28
4. heirship in accord with promise v. 29
5. adoption as sons 4:5
6. the Holy Spirit in our hearts 4:6
G. 4:8-5:1 – Appeal for Galatians believers to drop all forms of legalism.
The history of Sarah and Hagar illustrate the present incapability of mixing law and grace, 4:21-31.
1. Stand fast in the liberty of the gospel
2. Be not entangled again in the straightjacket yoke of bondage
- the flesh will pervert liberty into license v. 13
- love for one another is indicative of grace attitudes v. 14, 15
- conduct life by means of the Holy Spirit (right relationship to the Holy Spirit), the lust of the flesh then loses control v. 16-25
- restoration of brethren v. 1
- bearing overwhelming burdens v. 2
- sharing of financial blessings with teachers of the word v. 6
- helping others, especially those in the faith v. 9, 10
E. 6:11-18 – Conclusion: Paul encourages the readers of this epistle to rest in God’s great grace provision in Christ and not to frustrate that grace by seeking to add law-type good works to it. ¢