Galatians in Context
By Jim Huskins
Regrettably, few Christians consider the Bible “absolute truth.” Among those who do, many dismiss the books of Genesis through Malachi as allegorical or irrelevant. They are viewed as a source for children’s stories, comforting poetry, and a few treasured prophecies. Few believers apply the term “literal” to the first two-thirds of the Bible. Doing so would impact the way they live.
A certain method of meeting active resistance from Christians is to point out clear Bible teachings: God’s Sabbath is the Seventh Day of the week, eating unclean meat is an abomination, the observance of pagan holidays and worship rituals is a slap in God’s face, the observance of God’s feast days and celebrations is not optional. “We are not under all that ‘law stuff,’” they insist. At this point, the book of Galatians is invoked.
Paul wrote this letter to a group of believers living in what is now Central Turkey. Their ancestors were Celts who emigrated from Western Europe around 278 BC at the invitation of King Nicomedes I of Bythnia. Celtic culture was steeped in Druidism, a popular variant of Babylonian, sun-god worship. When Paul chides them for returning to former worship practices, he is not faulting them for anything found in the teachings of Moses. Hebrew worship was not part of their history. The “weak and worthless principles” and the “days and months and seasons and years” he condemns in chapter four were relics from their pagan past.
Many view this epistle as Paul’s proclamation that God’s instructions for living—Torah in Hebrew, Nomos in Greek, The Law in English—are no longer valid. How could this be true? The core issue of the Biblical narrative is that a Loving God created humans for fellowship, but we made that fellowship impossible by choosing sin rather than obedience. Sin is so horrible that God has no option but to impose the death penalty. Sin is so horrible that only a perfect sacrifice could save us and restore our relationship with our Creator. Sin is so horrible that the Holy Son of God had to die in my place.
But what is this horrible thing? 1 John 3:4 defines sin as breaking The Law. Paul teaches in Romans 7:7-13 that The Law is holy and that by viewing our actions in light of The Law, we learn to recognize sin. Sin is violating the instructions for living given by God in the first five books of the Bible.
In order to believe that The Law is no longer in force, one must conclude that Unchanging God changed His mind, that sin is no longer horrible, and that Jesus died so that all of us can sin without consequence. How does that perspective mesh with God claiming that Torah will be in force forever (Deuteronomy 11:1), with Jesus insisting that The Law and The Prophets will be undiminished for as long as heaven and earth remain (Matthew 5:17-19) or the fact that Paul continued to live and teach The Law until the end of his days (Acts 28:23)?
Many Christians reach the same false conclusion which corrupted First-Century Jews. Jesus lambasted the Pharisees and Sadducees for viewing Torah as a means for justifying themselves. Religious leaders of His day taught that by keeping Torah—especially their made-up interpretations of Torah—they could force God to accept them. Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers state that we can’t earn salvation through righteous living.
Modern Christians, however, take that teaching to the opposite extreme. Since we cannot earn salvation through righteousness, many conclude that we have no obligation to be righteous. This is absurd. Ephesians 2:8-9 says that we are saved by grace through faith. Hallelujah! But then verse 10 makes it clear that we are saved for a purpose. That purpose is to perform “good works.” Good works mean righteousness or keeping The Law. We are saved by grace so that by grace we may live righteous lives amid a perverse world.
Paul states this point emphatically in the Book of Galatians. He uses the entire fifth chapter to explain our “freedom in Christ.” Through faith, we have freedom from sin’s penalty, but we are never given the freedom to sin. Remember that sin is breaking The Law. The “yoke of slavery” he references in 5:1 is not The Law. Slavery comes from sin—violating The Law—not from keeping The Law. We who are justified by faith have work to do (Ephesians 2:10). That work is keeping The Law.
Paul hammers this fact in 5:19-21. He lists specific sins which he calls “works of the flesh. People who practice sexual immorality, impurity, indecency, idolatry, witchcraft, hostility, strife, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and similar actions will not inherit God’s kingdom. Each of these actions is a violation of commands found in The Law. If Paul is teaching earlier in the book that The Law is abolished, it would be impossible for him to now claim that violating The Law will keep us from inheriting God’s kingdom.
In fact, Paul never teaches that The Law is abolished. This widespread misunderstanding is due in part to the difficulty of translating ancient Hebrew and Greek texts into modern English. It is due in part to the fact that a lie oft repeated appears to take on the ring of truth. It is due mostly to the fact that few believers are willing to study and understand the first two-thirds of God’s Word. Until we do so, we will never be able to “rightly divide” the Word of Truth.
Obedient Heart Fellowship believes that the entire Bible is both true and relevant. We accept salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, and we attempt to love and serve Him by keeping his commandments. See Revelation 14:12. lostranger@mindspring.
Jim & Beverly Huskins are members of Obedient Heart Fellowship in McDowell County. You can read more good Christian news from Jim HERE.