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Paul, in writing to the Galatian churches, explores some of the same themes as in his letter to the Romans. Paul had noticed in his travels that there were certain very insidious teachings that had seeped in as Jewish believers and Gentile believers began to worship together. He penned his letter to the Galatians to address one such teaching.
Now, it must be noted on the outset that Paul’s introduction to the letter to the Galatian churches is by far his shortest, shorter even than that of his letter to the Colossians, whom he had not likely ever seen in person (Col. 2:1). The matter about which Paul was writing was of grave importance, and he wanted his readers to feel the urgency of it. Some who had come in among them were teaching a different gospel.
Infiltrating the churches of Galatia was a group theologians have come to call Judaizers. These Jewish “converts” were teaching that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not enough. They went further and argued that, in order to become a real Christian, one must first become a Jew through physical circumcision (Gal. 1:6-9; 3:10; 5:2-6).
Paul explains in chapter 1, verses 6-9, that this gospel is not even another gospel. In fact, he labors throughout the book to demonstrate that it is the opposite. Rather than being the gospel which compels us to follow our Father’s law as sons, the circumcision taught by the Judaizers subjected its adherents to the curse of the law. These Judaizers were wishing to be justified by the law (a futile undertaking for any man), not by faith.
In the same way, there are many today who add their pet views to faith as a prerequisite for salvation, thus creating a “new gospel.” Some claim that their approach to the problem of self-defense speaks to whether or not we are truly hoping in the gospel of Christ. Others claim that their philosophical approach to the very real problem of racism and their specific terminology in addressing it is essential to a proper understanding of the gospel. Still others claim that their particular view of economics and subsequent solutions to the problem of poverty are a necessary part of the gospel to the extent that one cannot even be a disciple of Christ unless one is willing to vote in an economic system designed to take from one group and give to another. Others, while not adding to the gospel per se, add abstinence from drink to the law and to the biblical qualifications for elders and church planters (see here and here). We will address this particular heresy more fully when we get to our study of Colossians.
This approach to the gospel may be useful for shaming others who disagree, but that is not all it accomplishes. It also serves to promulgate a “new gospel,” which is not really the gospel at all. It is a false gospel!
Notice that the Judaizers were not telling Gentile converts they could not be Christians. They did not want to keep Gentiles from entering fellowship with them. Rather, they wanted to impose prerequisites on them for entering the fellowship that are not imposed by the gospel itself. In the same way, legalists in the church today (infiltrating even as far as the Reformed and Reformed Baptist camps) do not claim that people who are different than them cannot fellowship with them. They simply have to agree with all their solutions to the problems they see in society. They must circumcise the foreskin of political, social, and economic disagreement before they can expect to be welcomed to the discussion. They have to read all the right books, listen to all the right teachers, imbibe all the right terminology, and subscribe to the right social narratives. Otherwise, they must remain outside the fellowship like the uncircumcised dogs they are. They have not come under bondage to the right works of the law, so they dare not dine with those justified by these works.
The Seed of Abraham
Of course, in both Romans and Galatians, Paul condemns the idea that man can be justified by the works of the law. Rather, it is by faith that we come to have all the blessings of union with Christ, including justification. Along with justification, we have the blessing of oneness with believers of all stripes. Paul explains that these privileges come to us by way of the promise made to Abraham.
“Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham,” (Gal. 3:6-7; NASB).
Paul goes on to remind his readers of the nature of the promise: “All the nations will be blessed in you,” and to explain further that this promise was made “foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (vs. 8; NASB). It is important to mention, at this point, that the term translated Gentiles and the term translated nations in this one verse are the exact same term in the exact same construction in the Greek: τὰ ἔθνη. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Paul understands this promise made to Abraham to apply to believers of every nation, even non-Jewish nations. In fact, he goes on to say as much:
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise,” (Gal. 3:25-29; NASB).
Paul was not denying the existence of ethnic disparity between the Greeks and the Jews within the church. What he denied was the law-centered approach to addressing this disparity. Rather, he pointed his readers to unity with Christ. We who have faith in Christ—who have been baptized into Christ, who have clothed ourselves in Christ—belong to Christ and in Him are now considered descendants of Abraham, heirs according to promise.
This union with, and unity in, Christ does not know racial or ethnic subdivisions. Rather, it is an indivisible unit. Furthermore, to reiterate, this breakdown of ethnic divisions does not pave the way for the gospel, as was attempted by the Judaizers with their requirement of circumcision. No. The gospel laid the foundation for the breakdown of ethnic divisions. It laid the foundation, provided the fuel, and supplied all the justification necessary for the utter destruction of ethnic division between the Greeks and the Jews. Circumcision had no power to accomplish such a feat, but the gospel could see it through from beginning to end.
Having been freed from bondage to the law (chapter 4), Christians are now free to walk by the Spirit (5:16). The Judaizers, however, would have had the Galatian believers rely on a fleshly circumcision. Paul understood that there was no power in such works of the flesh. Rather, relying on our flesh to save us only leads to more “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19b-21; NASB). Walking by the Spirit has a vastly different effect, though:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law,” (Gal. 5:22-23; NASB).
So, rather than pointing the Galatians to fleshly solutions for ethnic tension, like the Judaizers, Paul pointed his readers to the gospel. Note also that Paul did not equate the gospel with fleshly solutions to the problem of ethnic strife (e.g. adopting worldly terms like “safe spaces,” “micro-aggression,” “majority privilege,” etc.). The Judaizers went there, claiming “We will fellowship with people of other ethnicities only if they meet our extra-biblical prerequisites,” and Paul declared them accursed. Rather, Paul pointed them to the gospel of Jesus Christ as the sole sufficient and holistic solution for the ethnic strife that existed between the Jews and Greeks in the Galatian churches.
As we have seen in our study, both of Romans and Galatians, and as we will see in the rest of Paul’s letters, Paul was very concerned to see the churches of God unified in the gospel. The world will seek to divide the church of God according to gender, ethnicity, and anything else the devil might imagine. It is necessary for us, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, to return to our unity in the gospel, and to look for no other, no “better” solution. All such solutions are accursed! The gospel, however, is the power of God unto salvation.