This short letter has an importance out of all proportion to its size. There is always a tendency for people to think that their salvation (however it is understood) is something that is to be brought about by their own achievement. How they understand salvation may vary, and the kind of achievement they see as necessary may correspondingly vary. But that their eternal destiny rests in their own hands seems a truism, so obvious that it scarcely needs stating. Christianity has often been understood as nothing more than a system of morality, as the careful observance of a sacramental system, as conformity to standards, as a linking up with others in the church, and so on. There is always a need for Paul’s forthright setting out of the truth that justification comes only through faith in Christ. This must be said over against those who stress the importance of works done in accordance with the Torah or any other achievement of the sinner.
The Christian way stresses what God has done rather than what sinners do to bring about salvation. There can be no improvement on the divine action by any human achievement, by way of either ritual observance or moral improvement. The cross is the one way of salvation, and no part of Scripture makes this clearer than does Galatians.
We should not miss the importance of Paul’s appeal to Abraham (Gal. 3:6-29). This takes the reader back to a time when the law had not been given; the covenant established with Abraham takes precedence over the law (3:17). The law cannot annul the promise of God. Those who were forsaking simple reliance on the promise of God were turning from the divinely appointed way and mistaking the real purpose of the law (3:19). If Paul’s Galatian friends would give proper consideration to the example of Abraham, they would see the serious error into which they were falling when they began to rely on the Torah.46 If we read the account of Abraham and his faith in its proper sequence in the unfolding history of redemption, instead of anachronistically assuming, with many Jews, that Abraham must have kept the law, it becomes clear that God’s way has always been the way of promise and faith. This brings Paul to the magnificent thought that all human distinctions have now become irrelevant (3:28-29). Christ came at the appointed time to redeem enslaved sinners (4:4-5), and Paul makes an important point when he says that he did this work of redemption “by becoming a curse for us” (3:13). This is a significant contribution to our understanding of the atonement.
Along with the emphasis on justification by faith in Christ is an emphasis on Christian freedom: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1); believers are literally to “walk in [NIV `live by’] the Spirit” (5:16). Even those who are justified by faith in Christ sometimes find it easy to subject themselves to the slavery of a system. Paul’s words remain the classic expression of the liberty that is the heritage of everyone who is in Christ.
Galatians is a constant reminder of how important it is to understand what the Christian faith implies for Christian living. Even Peter and Barnabas could go astray. Paul does not complain of their theology, but of their practice when “those who belonged to the circumcision group” induced them to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14). No letter makes as clear as this one does the importance of living out all the implications of salvation through the cross.
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