Last week I talked a little bit about the background behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul has planted these churches in the province of Galatia. He preached the gospel to them and taught them how they should live in response to this good news and then he moved on to plant other churches elsewhere. However, it seems that some time after Paul left, some other teachers, Jewish Christians like Paul himself, came and began to preach to the churches of Galatia. As it turns out, these preachers were not preaching quite the same message that Paul had. In fact, they said that Paul’s gospel was incomplete; that Paul had left some things out.
It seems that from what Paul writes in Galatians the things that Paul was being accused of “leaving out” of his gospel were adherence to circumcision and food laws, what Paul refers to as “works of the Law”. It is important to recognize here that these are not just any “good works” as we sometimes use that phrase as the antinomy of faith. These are specific works which set Jews apart from Gentiles. Circumcision and the practice of not eating certain “unclean” foods and not eating with “unclean” people (Gentiles) is what made Israel distinct and separate from the rest of the world. In other words, this is not so much about “faith vs. works”. Both Paul and the other teachers would have agreed that salvation included both faith and works. (In fact, they probably would not have even separated the two. Both are captured in the same Greek word (pistis) which is often translated faith but can also mean faithfulness. Faith, at least the way it is spoken of in the New Testament, should not be limited to an inner disposition while works is something outward and separate from faith. Faith is both elements: the inner disposition and the works; without either faith does not exist.)
No, this is more a debate about the kind of works that are necessary to be a part of the people of God. For Jews, circumcision and food laws (and Sabbath observance, though that doesn’t seem to come up in Galatians) were always a part of that equation and therefore it was natural for these Jewish Christians to expect Gentiles who wanted to be a part of God’s people to have to do the same thing. But Paul says that forcing Gentiles to follow these works of the Law is a gospel other than what he preached which is really no gospel at all. This leads Paul to articulate in summary form his understanding of the gospel in Galatians 2:15-21.
There he begins by appealing to what he and the teachers who oppose him agree upon. He says “We are Jews by nature…knowing that a man is made righteous not by works of the Law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” In other words, even the opposing teachers know that it is not these works of the Law which make a person righteous; it is the faithfulness of Jesus. No Jew thought that they had to earn God’s salvation by following the Law. Every Jew knew that they were made righteous only by God’s faithfulness to Israel. Therefore, it was no different for Jews who came to believe in Jesus. They knew that it was God’s faithfulness through Jesus which had made them righteous, not the Law. If this is the case, Paul argues, then how can these teachers require Paul’s Gentile converts to do these works of the Law when Paul and the teachers themselves already know that even as Jews it is not these works of the Law which make them righteous? Paul says that would be like rebuilding a wall or barrier which has already been torn down. It is putting up an obstacle to salvation which Christ gave his life to abolish.
Paul then gives the alternative to following these “works of the Law.” After all, as has already been said, Paul is not advocating faith instead of works. Paul does not preach a lawless gospel. He simply says it is not these works of the Jewish Law which Christians are to follow. Instead, Christ himself has become the law for his followers, that is, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are now the guidelines for how to live righteously. Our lives, our stories, are to imitate the faithfulness of Christ. That is what Paul is saying in v. 19-20 when he says that he died to the Law so that he might live for God and that he has been crucified with Christ so that Christ now lives in him. Paul is saying that the story of Christ has become his story. Paul’s rule for life is no longer the Jewish Law but the law of Christ.
However, the law of Christ is not something that Paul follows by force of will. It is not that Paul simply wills himself to be more like Jesus. The good news that is the gospel is that Christ’s death and resurrection is not only something for us to imitate; they make our own death and resurrection possible. Paul believed that the death and resurrection of God’s Son inaugurated a completely new age in history which in turn meant that our old, sinful nature could be crucified, put to death, so that Christ’s Spirit might truly live in us and therefore we might truly live for God.
The error of the teachers who opposed Paul was that they failed to grasp the full significance of Jesus’ world changing, epoch dividing, creation renewing cross and resurrection. As a result, they failed to distinguish between the essentials and non-essentials of the gospel. They felt circumcision and food laws were essential to the new good news just because they had been an important part of what God had done in the old age. Instead, Christ’s death had rendered these things as unnecessary obstacles to salvation.
The Church today must be careful not to make the same mistake. We tend to add extra hoops that people must jump though in order to meet our criteria for what it means to be Christian. Too often, it is not enough for us that someone simply be Christ-like. It is also necessary for them to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and maybe even vote a certain way. We may not be too concerned about circumcision or what a person eats but we still have a tendency to use specific actions or practices as a litmus test of someone else’s Christianity. Paul’s words are a reminder to us that the gospel is nothing other than the faithfulness of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our righteousness is found solely in that good news.