The Reason for the Epistle:
Paul “had planted among them the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the righteousness of faith, but after his departure, there came false teachers, who overthrew all that he had planted and taught among them”. Luther.
The Gospel is the means by which all that is seditious amongst us – the devil, sin, death and the law, which germinates and sprouts false religion – is overthrown, for by this alone are we wrested from the hands of such tyrants and made free. The Galatians, having known such freedom, are wooed by false apostles from the sect grown from the Pharisees, who viewed themselves as better men for their keeping to the codes of their stock, proclaiming that true godliness is only possible for all by such means, for such outward piety spoke of their being of such heritage. Through such craft, they actively worked to deface the message and authority of Paul, deriding him as inferior in his calling and teaching to those who had come from Jerusalem and had truly ‘seen’ Christ.
Under such an appeal, the deception of authority and legalism weaves its poison, blinding not only those new to the faith, but even the learned. Claims of lineage from the Patriarchs, true Apostles and the like woo as loudly then as today, for the argument used constantly by the false against Christ is ‘we are the church – you and your kind are but a sect, of no great significance before the weight of our authority’. Therein is the pull and allure of such deceit.
It is against this ‘seat’ and presumption of authority that Paul boldly asserts his own appointed ministry, which, given not of men, demands that no ground be given to error when espoused by anyone, even another Apostle. To abate their pride and arrogantly miss-placed religion, he shows that he will accuse any of error when required, for his calling to the everlasting Gospel of Jesus Christ can require nothing less.
Let the one who seeks to preach to men be therefore equally certain of his calling, his responsibility – to only proclaim this very same truth, for it is only in this that men do not ‘hear’ us, but Christ Himself.
These, then, are the initial considerations to introduce us to the epistle.
Verse 1: Paul is called to be an Apostle ‘by God the Father through the Resurrection of His Son’. This is the seal of His ministry (the work of God in Christ), not the ‘shadows’ of the Old, but the splendour, the fulfilment of the New, which (vs 2) has gathered a great harvest amongst the world, and makes us right with God (vs 3). Such a gift only comes to us from the Father through the Son, because it is only through Christ, in His life and work, that God has truly given us Himself, even to becoming ‘sin for us’ (vs 4) that He might truly justify the ungodly. There is no message, no purpose in Paul’s life but to give Christ to us, for in Him, God has given all, and it is for us – for our sins, and the whole fall of life coupled to this. Here resides the true excellence of redemption, the great comfort and fulfilment of all that was promised.
As with those false teachers, we would prefer to see our sin as minor faults, undone by some easily resourced goodness or merit, but the giving of Christ to death for our corruption conveys how great our fall has been.
Christ comes not to judge, but to rescue us from this, and that should be our single sure comfort. It is when we truly behold and trust in Him as this one, the lamb given for us that we are already in the kingdom which is coming, delivered from this present evil in this world. All that is now subject to malice through the devil’s tyranny, in and under sin, shall be ended.
Our own skills or devices do not deliver us, but only because He has set His great mercy upon us – it is purely of grace.
It is by fastening our eyes upon this, the will of the Father, through Christ, that we are drawn and carried into the richness of His love. It is by apprehending Christ, in all His saving work, that we find the only refuge, the only haven in our broken world, for it once again makes God our Father. It is this great salvation which leads to true thanksgiving (vs 5).
It is in the context of this backdrop, reminding them of the great and precious work of grace, that Paul now begins to address their error.
The Trap (vs 6)
Aware of the beguiling that has befallen his brethren in Christ, Paul seeks to expose the deceit, which has plagued them by fully declaring the nature of seduction that has snared them. Another Gospel – a counterfeit derived from the delusion of self-worth in our beliefs and actions – has beset them through the deadly reasoning of the Judaizers. These thieves of souls are where Paul’s anger will focus, for they are seeking to prostitute the precious message of unmerited mercy and corrupt God’s work into a cancer which only crowns the ugly, vile abilities of our fallen piety as honourable and redemptive. Here we see the true work of Christian ministry – to care and serve the beloved with truth given in love, and to bring the message of anathema against those who would wound and kill His children. This dual work is vital. The Galatians had received the word of life, but quickly, this was corrupted, and they were turned away from Christ, from His righteousness, to seeking other merits by their own works, because of false teachers denying the value of the Gospel and replacing this with a spirituality based around our works. We must be those who watch and guard the church, so we do not fall by such terrible error.
The church at Galatia and other places was greatly harmed by this, but Paul is careful to call them back to what they had forgotten amidst this illusion. They need to return to the Father, the one who came to them only in the richness of the grace found in and through Jesus Christ. Here is the heart of the matter – not through Moses, or circumcision, or works; only in the message of grace were they called and delivered. It is Christ who so called them, by mercy and by love, and it is to this same Jesus they must now return to escape the futility of self-righteousness.
Error will always seek to cloak itself beneath the lie of offering virtue. The poison of false religion is the appeal to our own pride, our own ‘goodness’ that we, like Eve, might find merit in the very thoughts and deeds which have already been deemed as evil because they merely steal life, kill the truth, and destroy the world. How easily, when so beguiled, we can become the very heralds of a ‘faith’ which only makes men blind to the one who has died to make them free, because we have believed a lie, and are thereby disrobed of the beauty of grace.
There is nothing we can or should add to Christ’s work for us, for He who has begun this work, will complete it, not through teachings which mask and mar that completed rescue, but by placing Jesus and His salvation before us through His word and sacraments. It is when our eyes are distracted from this Jesus by all manner of ‘other’ things that we must do, that Satan woos us into the cul de sac of confidence in our own merits, which is merely another means of seeking to find mercy through a keeping of the law, rather than resting in His grace.
The Lie (Vs 7)
After the Gospel, says the deceiver, there is the need to ‘move on’ to something higher, deeper, more orientated around what you yourself must do’, but Paul counters this perilous folly. It was not the case that his teaching was incomplete or faulty, as some had charged, but that these very teachers had arose to re-establish what the Gospel rejects – namely, our achieving some form of reward or merit by our keeping of certain rules imposed by others. This must be ‘added’ to Christ to ensure we are truly godly.
This focus upon the show of the outward – that we are seen to be pious by form – mischievously enchants us to gain a confidence in a tainted and grotesque caricature of the true righteousness, found and given only in Jesus – and places our confidence back in the heinous religion of our fallen nature – the fig leaves which hide our true estate of being poor, blind and wretched outside of Christ.
The message of the false is always the law, for this is used as the key to place our gaze upon ourselves, not to reflect our sinful estate, but to bind and busy us by imposing a system of demands. Paul bluntly writes that this nothing but perversion – a ploy from hell itself to replace confidence in Christ’s finished work with the folly of trust in our own paltry actions. It is a lacing of the clear streams of grace from God through His son with the deadly taint of self worth to overthrow God’s salvation.
Such an appeal entices, for to the natural, fallen world, it welcomes the building of all manner of means to bring approval by our terms, our resolutions, our endeavours, casting aside the folly of a God who works through the folly of something so unappealing as death upon a cross, but therein resides its downfall, for to be right with God, it must be through His work and His alone.
The Curse (Vs 8 & 9)
There is only one conclusion to any message, any scheme, any mode of religion outside of the Father’s grace bestowed through His Son – it is eternally accursed. It simply has no power to do us good, but only power to harm and devour us. No teacher from heaven or on earth must be trusted or given place, says Paul, if it seeks to confound or reject or discredit the saving work of God in Jesus, for this alone has come from God. The only result in finding confidence in anything else is excommunication, for by trusting in a lie, we can become no more than aliens to God’s work and family – this lie kills!
Paul contends that no message, no ‘church’ or ministry, no authority or office can ever be viewed or placed above the Father’s work of saving us through Christ, but there are clearly those at work who hurl wicked and blasphemous doctrines and arguments against this in order to enslave us in the vanity of empty and murderous deceit.
The Ministry of Paul (Vs 10)
Paul now begins to open and unpack what he had touched upon in verse 1.
Paul’s message is imperative, because it does not seek to entice through those beliefs which so naturally appeal to us (that we’re really not that bad, so we can please God in ourselves) but to see our true estate and God’s true mercy. He knows this places his work on a collision course with those who pander to our abilities and our pride, but he cannot compromise on the need to declare what God has done. It is this sure truth that compels him - he must proclaim the good and renounce any message which does not affirm the wonder and splendour of God’s finished work in His son.
This is always the true work amongst us – to know God by the life brought to us only in Jesus, and to share this with each other in our ministry and worship, and with the world through our witness as those who delight in Him. This is never easy, and many will hate us for it, especially those seeking to be right by their own doing, but we must join with Paul in proclaiming the truth that is in Jesus, for it is our only hope and sure rescue.
Since those early days which followed Pentecost, there has always been an array of teachings abroad in the church which encourage us to look in all manner of places for approaches and access to God which primarily appeal to our desires for ‘special’ treatment, but climbing such ladders, seeking to please men, says Paul, is of no avail, and, as we shall see, he can state this for good reasons.
Paul’s calling and Apostleship was unique (Vs 11 & 12). He received His message from Christ Himself, and not from men or by other means (see Verses 15-17).
Here was a man who had been schooled from his youth in the very religion he now declares deadly; a man whose zeal for such notions of piety had literally known no bounds, but encountering Jesus Christ had changed everything (Philippians 3:5-8). A man who was once entirely committed to obtaining righteousness through keeping the law (Vs 13 & 14) is now constrained by Christ’s saving grace to labour to rescue others from the error and deceit of those who would trifle with and belittle the very revelation of God in Christ, saving us by grace alone. He refers to his own calling here – God revealing His Son in Paul’s message - to certify that we are grounded in the faith when we receive and abide in the message he has declared, rejecting any teaching which seeks to blur or replace this.