The Galatian Problem
“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” (v. 6). - Galatians 1:6–7
Christianity has long recognized that even the unlearned can understand the basic gospel found in Scripture. Still, it is sometimes hard to interpret certain portions of the Bible because it was written so long ago in a culture foreign to many of us. As Dr. R.C. Sproul tells us, however, knowing the circumstances that prompted the writing of a particular biblical book lessens the difficulty we may have in understanding it (Knowing Scripture, p. 57). An awareness of Scripture’s historical context is indispensable for its proper interpretation.
It is relatively easy to determine why Galatians was originally written. Today’s passage informs us that the churches in Galatia were turning to a “different gospel” in the absence of Paul, and they needed correction (Gal. 1:6). They were abandoning the “grace of Christ,” which indicates a move to embrace something other than the gift of Jesus’ perfect righteousness as grounds for salvation.
John Calvin says the grace of Christ means “that it has come from Christ as its author, or that it purely exhibits Christ.” Since there is no other gospel than the one Christ entrusted to Paul (v. 7), the new teachers to which the Galatians were turning did not come from Jesus. Neither did they present Christ truly, for they said one must follow Jesus and rely on the works of the Law for salvation (3:1–6, 10). Apparently, they were telling the new converts that “true” Christians submit to circumcision, taking upon themselves the yoke of the Mosaic law in addition to faith in Christ (4:21; 5:1–6). These instructors have traditionally been called “Judaizers” because they imposed Jewish practices (circumcision, the kosher laws, and so on) on Gentile believers.
Why the Gentile Galatians believed these Judaizers is hard to say. Many in the first century wanted a salvation that was only available to a select few who were “in the know.” Perhaps the Galatians had not yet shed this cultural baggage and thus found the Judaizers’ “higher” religious life attractive.
Seeing the threat this teaching posed to the gospel, Paul wrote Galatians to counter these Judaizers and defend the truth. In many ways it is the most passionate of his letters, so grave was the error that needed refuting.
Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians states, “Since Paul by his own experience teaches us that congregations which are won by great labor are easily and soon overthrown, we ought with singular care to watch against the devil ranging everywhere, lest he come while we sleep, and sow tares among the wheat.” False teachers are perennially trying to seduce God’s people with error. Let us seek to be well-grounded in Scripture that we may not be deceived.
Passages for Further Study
- Joshua 1:1–9
- Jeremiah 28
- Acts 20:28–35
- 1 Timothy 4:1–10