Paul’s letter to the Galatians is prompted by the apostle’s deep concern that his group of churches in Galatia (part of central Turkey) might fall away from the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. Teachers there are telling his converts to imitate the example of righteous Abraham – they are to follow their faith with obedience to the command to get circumcised and keep the Torah regulations (5.1-3).
Paul will have none of this and uses some of the most strident language in any of his letters (3.1; 5.12) to defend his Torah-free gospel for the gentiles. Grace and faith in Christ, Paul writes, are enough and nothing needs to be added to this message – not circumcision, not keeping the biblical laws. On one level circumcision is of no consequence (6.15 cf Acts 16.1-5) and Jew and Greek are both welcome in the church. However, faced with people insisting that circumcision does matter, Paul is vehement in his defence of the proposition that the gentiles are righteous by grace alone – through faith alone and not by works of the Torah (2.16).
So the letter falls into roughly three sections each of two chapters. First Paul locates the authority of the gospel of grace in divine revelation (on the Damascus Road), not human authority. This puts the authority of message above apostolic or even angelic authority (1.8). In any case, on two occasions, he and the Jerusalem apostles have agreed that keeping the law of Moses is not to be required of gentiles (2.1-10; 2.14-16). Secondly, he argues that the essence of God’s covenant with Abraham is not obedience but the promise of God. This promise is fulfilled not in obeying the command of circumcision but in the gift of the Spirit, which the gentiles have already received (3.14). Just as Abraham had two sons by two women, one a slave and one free, so the covenant of Abraham can lead to slavery or freedom. The way of the promise and of the Spirit is the way of freedom (4.21, 31). Finally, when obedience to clear commandments seems such a temptingly specific way to decide what ‘righteous’ looks like, Paul asks – how do we live if not by the law? His alternative is to look inside not outside, for believers are to walk not by the flesh but by the Spirit – which produces Christ-like fruit in the life of the believer.
The crisis in Galatia pushed Paul to offer crucial insights. First, that the truth of the gospel trumps all ecclesiastical authority. This is because the gospel is not the product of the church but the church is under the gospel. Secondly, the old is in continuity with the new. But we have to be careful: the story of Abraham, fulfilled in Jesus, confirms the primacy of promise, freedom and the Spirit over obedience, slavery and the flesh. Finally just as Christian life begins with word and Spirit (3.1ff), that is how it is to continue: investing in the life the Spirt ‘is the way – walk ye in it’.