Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Pervious article in this series: September 1, 2005, p. 466.
The Occasion for the Epistle
Assuming that the Galatian churches were comprised of the churches that were established by Paul on his first missionary journey, it is worth our while to refresh our minds on the history. The apostle visited the churches of Galatia on four different occasions. His first visit was at the time of their establishment during the first missionary journey. His second visit came on the return trip of his first missionary journey, when he confirmed “the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of Christ” (Acts 14:21, 22).
The third visit came at the very beginning of the second missionary journey, during which journey the apostle brought the gospel to Macedonia. This second missionary journey was preceded by the visit of the apostle to Jerusalem to take part in the deliberations of the Jerusalem council, at which council the question of the circumcision of the Gentiles was brought up (Acts 15:1-35). The final decisions of the Jerusalem council were carried by Paul and Barnabas and delivered to the Galatian churches (Acts 16:1-5). During this visit Paul also picked up Timothy to take him along on his further journeys.
The final visit to the Galatian churches was at the beginning of the third missionary journey (Acts 18:23). Paul continued on from Galatia and Phrygia to Ephesus, where he spent a great deal of time working both in the city and the surrounding country. After the riot in Ephesus and Paul’s departure from that city, he traveled to Macedonia and came finally to Corinth (Acts 20:1-3).
It was most likely after Paul’s final departure from the Galatian churches that trouble arose over the teachings of the Judaizers. The reports concerning the controversies that troubled the churches of Galatia must have reached Paul while he was in Macedonia, perhaps while he was in Corinth, where he spent the winter before returning to Antioch in Syria and Jerusalem. It was probably also true that Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians while in Corinth.*
The controversy sparked by the Judaizers raged in all its fury during Paul’s work in Ephesus and during his trip down the Macedonian peninsula to Achaia and Corinth.
Paul’s labors in the Galatian churches during his first missionary journey produced fruit from both the Jews and the Gentiles (Acts 13:43; Acts 14:1). Some of these converted Jews were the cause of the grief to which the apostle addressed himself in his epistle.
The Jews, really wherever the gospel was preached, but also in Galatia, found it impossible to break away entirely from the Old Testament and from the Old Testament notion that the Jews occupied a favored position in the eyes of God. God had set His love on Israel. He had chosen Israel in distinction from all the nations of the earth. He had favored Israel with great honor and blessing. Aware of this, Paul writes to the Romans concerning his brethren according to the flesh, “Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (Rom. 9:4, 5).
The elite status that the Jews occupied in the old dispensation was a status that the Judaizers wanted to retain in the new. It was their considered opinion that anyone who wanted to be saved had to become a Jew. And there was only one way to become a Jew, namely through the rite of circumcision, for circumcision marked the Jews as God’s covenant people. These Christian Jews were not opposed to the salvation of Gentiles as such. Indeed, already in the old dispensation thousands of people from other nations were brought into Israel and were incorporated into the nation. And this incorporation was accomplished by means of circumcision.
It obviously was not quite that simple. The great battle, fought already at the Jerusalem council and now continued in Galatia, was not over a mere rite. By insisting on the favored status of Israel as God’s covenant people, and by insisting that circumcision was the only way to become a true Israelite, the Judaizers were also insisting that the church of the new dispensation had to go back to the old, to the dispensation of types and shadows, to all that was implied in Israel’s “favored status,” to the dispensation of the law, which regulated Israel’s life as a nation set apart, and, therefore, to salvation by the works of the law. This heresy, as Paul points out in the epistle, is the real core of the matter. To be circumcised is to make the cross of Christ of none effect, and it is such because it means justification by the works of the law: “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:2-4). Paul’s epistle is a powerful and unforgettable refutation of this pernicious error.
The Judaizers did not teach that salvation is only by the works of the law. They were members of the church. They were believers, or so they professed to be. They taught the need for the cross of Christ and faith in Him. They were Christians, followers of Christ. But they wanted circumcision. And in wanting that, they wanted the works of the law to be added to faith in Christ.
It was the same error, in a somewhat modified form, that was adopted by Rome and from which God delivered the church through the Reformation. It is the same error so widely promoted today by leaders in Reformed and Presbyterian circles who once more are pleading for the doctrine of justification by faith and works. It is, as a matter of fact, the error of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, into which heresy Rome fell with its doctrine of salvation by faith and works. It is the error of Arminianism in all its many forms, a defense of salvation by faith, which is man’s work, and by the works that man is compelled to do if he is to be saved.
How can anyone doubt that this is an important epistle? It stands towering over man’s proud and foolish claims to acquire salvation by what he does. And from the pinnacle of that tower thunders forth the great doctrine of the Reformation: Justification by faith alone.
Without any doubt this epistle, more than any other, is passionate, fiery, fierce, weighted down with emotions of anger, and driven by deepest feelings of animosity against all who teach the heresy that the enemies in the Galatian churches taught. Paul was moved in the very depths of his soul. His exposure of the enemies of the gospel is ruthless. His defense of justification by faith alone is a roar that comes from the depths of his heart. His condemnation of the dreadful evil of teaching any other gospel but what he teaches is sharp, uncompromising, and imprecatory.
Combine this with the truth of inspiration and one has some sense of God’s attitude towards such damnable heresies. Paul’s emotions lie open for all to sense in their enormity. But those very emotions were used by the Holy Spirit to write a book that fires its cannon shots with perfect accuracy against the error promoted by the Judaizers, but also against their base motives, which inspire them to lead people and churches astray. God pours out His anathemas (Paul’s word) against those who corrupt His truth by denying Him as the sovereign and only Savior of the church.
I have called this commentary “The Charter of Christian Liberty.” I thought about the name, “The Magna Carta of Christian Liberty,” with its obvious reference to the historical document that became the basis for English common law. The name derives from the first verse of chapter five: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
Salvation by the works of the law, even when added to faith, is dreadful spiritual bondage. Justification by faith alone sets the believer at liberty, true liberty, the liberty of heaven itself. Woe to those who lead the church back to bondage. May blessing be upon all who proclaim the gospel of justification by faith.
* The controversy over the time when this epistle was written is long and drawn out. Basically there are two positions. One holds that the controversy broke out early, before the Jerusalem council, and that the epistle was written, therefore, prior to that major meeting in Jerusalem. The other position insists that the epistle was written near the end of the third missionary journey, while the apostle was wintering in Corinth, and prior to Paul’s departure from Corinth to Antioch in Syria, the calling church of his labors. I have no intention of entering into the pros and cons of each position. It is my judgment that the latter position is probably true. Anyone who wishes to look at the question more closely can find much material on it, including Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Times (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965); W. J. Conybeare & J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1951); William Hendrickson, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Galatians (Baker Book House, 1968).