Wednesday, January 30, 2008

An Introduction to Galatians

In the Bible study group that I attend, we recently started a series on Galatians. At the last meeting, I delivered an overview of the book, which I present to you now. In coming sessions we will be going through the epistle, passage by passage. To bone up for those studies, I have been reading commentaries on Galatians and taking notes. In future posts I will provide the fruit of my note-taking. In the meantime, here is my overview of Galatians.

When you read the book of Galatians, one impression that is quickly made is that Paul is angry with the Galatians. He expresses frustration with the churches in some of the other epistles, but he seems much angry when writing to the Galatians. For on thing, there are no complements in this letter as there are in his other letters. He has a brief greeting, and then gets on the business of castigating his readers. We must ask ourselves why Paul was so angry. What would get this saint so upset? The answer, as we see in 1:6-7, is that the gospel was being perverted. There is nothing more important than the gospel, which is the matter of the salvation of our souls. As Jesus asked in Matthew 16:26: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” False teachers, called Judaizers, had come into the churches of Galatia telling them that faith alone in Christ alone was not enough to be justified, but that one also had to be circumcised and follow the Old Testament ceremonial laws. This was an undoing of the gospel of grace. Paul offers some very strong statements that reveal the seriousness of this issue. We will look at four of those statements.

First, Paul says that those who would preach such a false gospel should be damned, or accursed (1:8). He would say such a thing because the gospel is a matter of life or death. Should anybody accept the false teaching of the Judaizers, they would be damned because they would be rejecting Christ alone as their salvation. It would be better, Paul is saying, that the false teachers should be damned than should the Galatians. We also see that these false teachers should be regarded as unbelievers, that they should be excommunicated from the church. Again, this is because they are teaching a soul-damning heresy.

The second strong statement that we will look at is in 3:1, where Paul refers to his readers as foolish. Strong words coming from an apostle! I would not want to be called a fool by such a great man of God. The Galatians were being foolish because they were rejecting that which is a matter of objective fact. He says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” As Peter says in 2 Peter 1:16, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” But the Galatians were rejecting the facts of the gospel. They were being ignorant of gospel doctrines. Such ignorance, such foolishness, leads to the ready acceptance of heresies. We learn from this that doctrine isn’t just for theologians and preachers. It is incumbent upon all Christians to learn the doctrines of the Christian faith, or else they will be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes“ (Ephesians 4:14). We must know what we believe and why we believe it, or else we are fools.

The third strong statement is the most shocking, for it is very graphic. After discussing the Judaizers insistence on circumcision as being necessary for salvation, Paul wishes that “those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves” (5:12)! He is saying, in essence, “You want to cut off that foreskin? I wish that you would go all the way and cut the whole thing off!” This is about the worst thing that you can say to a man. Why would Paul use such language? Because adding any works to our justification emasculates Christ. By adding to His work on the cross, it is as if we were saying that His work was insufficient. The Judaizers would agree that Christ was necessary for salvation, but not sufficient. We must add our work to His. But as Paul says in 5:2, accepting circumcision as a prerequisite for justification makes Christ valueless. What was the need for Christ to humble Himself and came in human flesh and die on the cross if we can be saved by keeping the law? We make a mockery of Christ and His death.

Finally, Paul says that those who walk after the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God (5:21). To say that anybody will not go to Heaven is a very unpopular thing to say, especially in our present day and age. After hammering home the point that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone, Paul then goes on to talk about how we ought to live in 5:13-6:10. He had been saying that good works add nothing to our salvation, but then he tells us to do good works. He says that those who live wickedly, as in the descriptions in verses 19-22, will go to hell. Is he contradicting himself? Is he undoing all that he had said before? No, he is not. He is merely showing us what a justified person looks like. We must remember the old Reformation formula: it is not that faith plus works equals salvation, but that faith equals salvation plus works. Notice that Paul says that all of the good works are fruits of the Spirit (v.22). The Spirit indwells us at the moment of our justification and afterwards--not before. The word “fruit” signifies that something comes before it. In this case, our justification precedes the fruit, the good works. But if you do not produce this fruit in your life, if instead you demonstrate that you are walking by the flesh, then that is an indication that you are not justified. For a justified person--one who is saved by faith alone and not by works--will inevitably produce good works. A lack of good works indicates a lack of faith. So Paul is not contradicting himself. He is merely showing us what a person who is justified by faith alone looks like. And those who do not look like that, he sternly reminds us, will not inherit the kingdom of God.

What can we learn from these four strong statements? First, knowing that the gospel is a matter of life or death, we should endeavor to understand it and get it straight as soon as possible. This is not an issue we could postpone until a later date because we never know when death will come for us. We must believe in Christ for salvation now. It is the number one priority of our lives.

Secondly, to avoid being foolish, we should read and meditate upon the Scriptures daily, for doing so will “make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). We need to know the doctrines that the Bible teaches and believe them.

Third, we must be careful to add nothing to the work of Christ for our justification. We must be able to always honestly give glory to God alone. I say “honestly” because no Christian would ever say that his salvation is not wholly from God, but when pressed on the details you will find that some form of human work gets squeezed in. No Christian would ever say, “My salvation was 95% God’s work and 5% mine” but their actual beliefs would suggest otherwise. Many attribute their salvation, not to the predetermined plan of God, but to their own free-will decision. This would suggest that perhaps they are smarter or more receptive to spiritual things than their neighbor who has heard the same gospel but has rejected it. This allows for pride to creep in and rob God of the glory that is rightly His. After all, John 1:13 says that those who are saved “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Even our faith, which we exercise, is not of us, but from God: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this [your faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Anything that would add to this grace of God is an affront to Him and to His Christ.

Our final application is that we should examine our lives to see if the fruits of the Spirit are present. Do we have “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23)? If not, then we should seriously question whether or not we have placed true faith in Christ. If our lives are characterized by “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (5:19-21), then we need to repent and run to Christ in faith, trusting Him alone to save us from these sins. Living a good life and avoiding these listed sins will not save us. Only Christ can save us. But if we live wickedly then we demonstrate that our faith in Christ is not true faith. Having walked down and aisle or being a member of a church does not save you. Only faith in Christ. And having saved you, Jesus will transform your life so that you have the fruit of the Spirit. Look for this fruit in your life.

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