‘You mindless Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you?’
Paul’s letters include both poetic statements of profound theology and very practical, down-to-earth instructions. The apostle could be very gentle, as is evident, e.g., in his correspondence with the Corinthians, but also sharp and nearly abrasive. His letter to the Galatians shows Paul at his harshest, especially towards the beginning of the letter. What had happened?
At the time the letter was written ‘Galatia’ could refer either to the Roman province of that name or to an area in the highlands of central Anatolia in which there had been a Celtic kingdom in the distant past. Later on ‘Galatia’ was only used to designate this northern area. This may be why for much of church history it was thought that Paul wrote to congregations in the highlands. Most recent commentators, however, with good reasons, favour the view that Paul refers to the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia and writes to churches which he and Barnabas had just recently founded on their first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). If that is correct, the apostle likely wrote the letter on his way to the first church council in Jerusalem. In this case, the situation Luke describes at the beginning of Acts 15 is the same as that to which Paul refers in Galatians 2:11-16.
The Council in Jerusalem was called together to deal with the first major crisis in the life of the infant church. Certain Jewish Christians were insisting that unless Gentile converts to Christianity are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they cannot be full members of the people of God. They probably conceived of themselves as Jewish Christian missionaries, whose goal was to bring the nations into captive obedience to Israel’s king in fulfilment of such Old Testament passages as Psalm 2:8 and Genesis 49:10 and prophetic texts like Isaiah 2:2-4. The point at issue was whether the church was open on equal terms to Jews and non-Jews or whether Gentile believers in Christ had to become Jews to be full members of the people of God. Were the boundaries of the church to be as wide as the human race or was the church to be an extension of Judaism to the Gentiles?
To help us appreciate what was at stake Tom Wright asks us to imagine we’re in South Africa in the 1970s. With Apartheid at its height we have embarked on a risky project, ‘a community centre where everybody will be equally welcome, no matter what their colour or race.’ But then we are ‘called away urgently to another part of the country’ and a new group of builders arrive to finish the project. They change the design, ‘installing two meeting rooms, with two front doors, one for whites and one for blacks only.’ They claim that the chap responsible for the original design had ‘some funny ideas’ and no authority to do what he did. Facing a situation like that, no wonder the apostle Paul was incensed and opens the letter not with courteous greetings but with an insistence on his status as one of God’s directly chosen ambassadors. But while it was Paul who wrote the letter, we should note that the rubric of ‘sender’ includes ‘all the members of God’s family who are with me’ (Galatians 1:2). Paul was not a lone voice and by the time the ‘apostolic conference’ of Acts 15 concludes, the apostles and other participants arrive at a consensus, in effect concluding that being Christian does not hinge on first becoming Jewish.
This specific issue has long been resolved, so how is Paul’s letter to the Galatians still relevant for us? We know that only Christ is right with God, along with all who belong to him. Salvation is to be found only in Christ. It is therefore essential that we belong to Christ’s body. What unites us to Christ? Faith – not the ‘vaguely thinking something might be true’ sort of faith but active trust in Christ whose blood cleanses us from all our sins. Those who have this faith will want to live more righteous lives, motivated by God’s Spirit. But nothing we do can make us more fully members of God’s people or more right with God. We are accepted by God because of Christ, not because of our religious performance. This is a liberating message. Re-discovering it was in large part what the Reformation was all about. Martin Luther and others saw that if we cannot be made right with God by keeping the law revealed on Sinai, then we certainly are not saved by keeping Christian religious obligations either. We cannot make ourselves acceptable to God by being ‘good Christian people’, doing works of charity to make up for our shortcomings, and we cannot curry favour with God by giving money to the church. Nor do we have to do so because in Christ God already embraces us. As Tim Keller recently tweeted: Religion says “I obey therefore I am accepted by God.” Gospel says “I am accepted by God through Christ therefore I obey.” The former is a false, works-based righteousness which we can find among people of all Christian and non-Christian religious traditions; the latter is the true freedom of the children of God and is worth fighting for, if need be with a letter as fiery as Paul’s to the Galatians.