Do you find yourself questioning how God feels about you after a particularly sinful day? Do you wonder if you need to do something to get back into his good graces? Listen in on Paul’s conversation with the churches in Galatia as he tells them over and over how they are saved and stay saved only by Christ’s work, not theirs. Through Old Testament saints, word pictures, and even shocking language, Paul will convince you that Jesus’s work was enough, and will always be enough, not only to pay for your offenses against God, but by the Holy Spirit to make you a new creature.
Deserting the Gospel of Grace
“I feel like I’m failing. I can’t even seem to stop yelling at my kids or stay on track reading the Bible, let alone lead a ministry.” Julia had been a believer for years, coming to know Christ in her twenties, and now was in a place of leadership. She took her faith seriously and had decided that if she was to be an example, her own life, including her spiritual practices, had to be consistently in order. She had known years of joy with the Lord. She was filled with gratitude when she first became a Christian, overwhelmed by the free gift of grace. She received Christ’s righteousness with a grateful heart and knew she had nothing to add or contribute to her salvation. But that season seemed further and further away as she took on responsibilities and pushed herself to grow. The joy, freedom, and grateful heart slowly turned to anxiety, comparison, and shame. What had gone wrong?
Julia’s story is a common one; without understanding why, Christians sometimes begin to experience burnout and a coldness in their faith. Many start by faith, receiving the gift of grace, but as the years go by and life gets more complicated, they begin to attempt to justify themselves to God by something other than faith in the one who saved them. They strive to add badges of honor to their resume of spiritual achievements, growing a list of accomplishments in order to make themselves worthy in the eyes of God and others. Added to their faith in Jesus are things like wearing the right clothing, being with the right people, or choosing the right type of schooling for their children. But there is pressure to do more, to up their status in their faith. And so they might host the monthly women’s gathering or volunteer for the food pantry. They may also begin to see those who do not have such practices as “entry-level Christians,” not as serious about their faith. If they fail in their disciplines, they feel unable to approach God, unworthy of his attention. Their relationship to him becomes less about what he has freely given them and more about what they do for him.
They may feel harried, burdened, and pressured to keep pace with whomever happens to be setting the standard of the “faithful Christian” in their crowd.
Faith in Jesus + something else = how we get into and stay in God’s kingdom. This is a formula that is not only discouraging but, as Paul will tell us in Galatians, completely opposes the gospel. We are saved by faith alone as we respond to God’s free gift of grace. This never changes, no matter how long we are believers. And yes, we must respond to this gift by working out our salvation (Philippians 2:12), but any work we do is the result of the Holy Spirit working in us, strengthening us, making us able to obey (Philippians 2:13). We do not get saved and then get left by God to work out our Christian life on our own. We do not get into the kingdom and then try to “level up” by our works. All of our growth is of grace. By listening in to Paul’s conversation with the Galatian church, we will find freedom and our own way back to the gospel as the only motivator and fuel for our growth in Christ.
Read Acts 13-14
Before it was a book in our Bible, Galatians was a letter, written by Paul to a group of churches in a region known as Galatia. Galatians, Paul’s first existing letter, is one of the most occasional letters in the New Testament, meaning that it was written for a very specific set of circumstances taking
place in the churches of the region. To understand Paul’s passion and why he is writing, we must first understand how the churches came to be.
Paul had taken his first missionary journey through the southern part of present-day Turkey, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. He had established churches in the region, specifically in the cities of Psidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Acts 13 and 14 chronicle the travels of Paul and Baranabas throughout the region of Galatia. In the city called Psidian Antioch (different from the Antioch where Paul’s home church was located), the Gentiles rejoiced and believed, but the Jews were jealous and eventually ran Paul and his people out of town (Acts 13:13-52). At Iconium, “a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1), and a church was established during a long visit. However, some people of the city disagreed with the apostles and were determined to stone them, causing Paul and Barnabas to flee to Lystra and Derbe. When Paul healed
a man in Lystra, the people there decided he and Barnabas were Greek gods and tried to worship them. Paul corrected them and established a church there as well.
Jews from other cities where Paul had preached were angered by his teaching and came to Lystra to stop him. They stoned him, drug him out of the city, and left him for dead. But Paul, preserved by God, got up and went to yet another city, Derbe, where he and Barnabas founded another church. On their way back to their home church of Antioch, they went back through all of the newly established churches, encouraging them with fasting and prayer and appointing elders for each. All of this happened sometime between 45-48 AD, about twelve years after Christ ascended into heaven. Most experts date the letter of Galatians around the same time, meaning Paul was writing this emotionally charged letter just one or two years after having started the churches. Why? What has Paul so upset about that he would begin the proper part of his letter with the words “I am astonished” and sprinkle in phrases like “O foolish Galatians!” and “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?”
Apparently Paul was not the only teacher influencing the churches of Galatia. After he and Barnabas left, a group of teachers known as the Judaizers came to the region and began teaching what they would have thought of as the “next level” of the faith. It was fine that the Gentiles, or non-Jews, of the area had become Christians; these new converts had gotten a good start in the faith. But in order to progress, said these false teachers, they would need to add something to their newfound faith–the ceremonial Jewish law. Gentile converts were being required not only to be circumcised, a Jewish requirement under the covenant of Moses, but also to follow the entire law of Moses. God’s moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is timeless, perpetual, and enduring. By God’s moral law, he teaches sinners that we have fallen short of God’s glory, and that the only way to be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to him is through faith alone. Then, by that same moral law, God teaches his redeemed and reconciled people in all ages how to live lives that please him.
On the other hand, the ceremonial laws (related to worship) and civil laws (related to the kingdom) only served a temporary purpose of pointing forward to the coming Messiah. Once Christ came, he fulfilled all those laws in his birth, life, death, and resurrection, abolishing them from further use. The problem was that these religious teachers were acknowledging that getting into the kingdom by faith alone was acceptable, but that to stay in the kingdom, much less to “progress,” the Gentile believers needed to supplement their faith with some specific actions– specifically, with the ceremonial laws that Jesus had already fulfilled. Continuing in the faith meant Jesus plus something else.
Paul’s response in the letter of Galatians has left us his most heated letter. He is “astonished,” “perplexed,” and in the “pains of childbirth” for their faith once again. He explains that this is not just some marginal issue but a central matter of life and death, heaven and hell. This letter, though written to a specific group of people at a specific time for a specific reason, has been part of the foundation of our faith for hundreds of years. Martin Luther loved it so much he called it his “wife.” Tim Keller writes, “The book of Galatians is dynamite.” As we study Paul’s words to the churches he planted, we will be reminded that it’s Jesus plus nothing and rejoice.
Read Galatians 1:1-10
1. In verses 6-7 what does Paul say he is astonished by?
2. In verses 8-9 what does Paul say should happen to anyone preaching a false gospel, no matter who it is?
3. What questions does Paul ask in verse 10? How does he answer them for himself?
Right out of the gate, Paul makes the source of his authority clear. Jesus Christ himself, not men, appointed him to the task of making disciples. Therefore he did not need the approval or endorsement of the other apostles in Jerusalem. Normally in his letters, Paul says something positive about the recipients in his “To” line. Here, he makes no encouraging remarks about the churches in Galatia. If we continue reading, we will find that he doesn’t have anything positive to say. Instead, he moves directly into praise to God, where he emphasizes the fact that Jesus “delivered us” (ESV) or “rescued us” (NIV). The Galatians, along with all of us, were desperate, helpless, and weak when Christ came to our rescue. God’s initiative is the only thing that saves us.
Now Paul comes to the reason for his letter. He cannot believe that these dear brothers and sisters, whom he so recently saw enter the kingdom through faith, are turning away from Jesus. It may seem at a casual glance that this is a small theological quarrel. Paul makes it clear that this is so much more. To pervert the gospel, says Paul, is to walk away from Jesus completely. Verse 6 mentions that the Galatians were called “in the grace of Christ,” not in the obedience of the law or in their best efforts. Adding anything to grace is a distortion. Paul goes so far as to tell them that it doesn’t matter who preaches something different or what kind of authority they seem to have: If anyone preaches a different gospel, what they teach will lead people to hell. Paul repeats himself for emphasis: Entrance into the kingdom and life in the kingdom is through faith and faith alone. Anything different than that will send you to hell. Obviously, Paul is trying to please God and not men, as he argues in verse 10. He sees himself as a slave, as someone who belongs to another. Therefore, he seeks to please Christ, his master.
As we continue to listen in to the conversation between Paul and these baby churches, a couple of things have already become clear. Both we and the Galatians need deliverance and a rescuer. That deliverance came in the form of a person who chose to save us at great cost to himself. Requiring anything in addition to faith in Jesus’s work is not, in fact, the gospel but something else entirely. And so we will begin to examine our hearts as we listen to Paul to see if we are trusting Christ’s work alone for our salvation and growth.
A note to the reader: Paul, here and in other letters, refers to the first-century practice of slavery, which was widespread in his day and often involved people selling themselves into service in order to repay a debt. He uses slavery as a metaphor to describe a person’s relationship to what or whom they worship–either God or the law.
At no time is it appropriate to use any references to slavery in the Bible to justify cruel treatment or ownership of another human made in God’s image. Nor is it appropriate to twist the Bible’s meaning in order to condone the wicked system of chattel slavery as it was practiced in the United States.
Please feel free to look back to this note as you make your way through Galatians and encounter Paul’s many references to slavery.
4. What part of the background and history behind Galatians stood out to you?
5. What do you make of all the resistance to the gospel Paul experienced?
6. Paul had poured into starting and caring for the Galatian church, even to the point of great physical harm to himself, only to find them turning away from the true gospel. What emotion do you think he felt as a result? How would you feel if you were him?
7. Paul makes the shocking claim that to pervert the gospel by adding anything to grace alone is the same as walking away from Jesus completely. What about this makes you feel uncomfortable or nervous? What about it makes you feel relieved?
8. The Galatians and many of us live with the equation faith in Jesus + something else = how we get into and stay in God’s kingdom, even though this is not the truth of the gospel. What is the “something else” that you personally add? When and why did that start?
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-7
Reflections, curiosities, frustrations