Paul himself founded the churches in Galatia (1:8). After he left some people, probably Jewish Christians from Jerusalem (2:17), took a dangerously distorted gospel to those churches (1:6-9). It was their intention to force Gentile Christians to be circumcised (2:3, 12) and to live like Jews (2:14). Their argument was that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1), or, using the terminology in Galatians, they argued that man is justified by the works of the Law (2:16).
Paul’s purpose in writing this letter was to oppose this distortion of the gospel. In the first two chapters he provides arguments to support for his message:
He is “an apostle” (1:1), which means to be sent by God.
He has been set apart even from his mother’s womb and called through His grace to preach Him among the Gentiles (1:15-16; 2:7-8), which gives him the right to dictate what Gentile Christians must do and not do.
He received his message from God, not from men (1:1, 11-12, 16-19; 2:6).
The church leaders in Jerusalem accepted his message as from God (2:9).
He took Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile, along with him on his visit to the church headquarters in Jerusalem, and Titus was not compelled to be circumcised (2:3, 9).
In 2:16, by arguing that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” he attacks the foundation for the demand that Gentile Christians be circumcised. Many people see this as the key message of the letter to the Galatians. However:
(1) The argument that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” is offered here as one of many reasons why Gentiles must not be circumcised.
(2) Another important argument used by Paul against this distortion is that the Law (of Moses), is in fact not binding on Christians. Chapter 2 contains a number of veiled indications of this. Both the reference to Christ as “a minister of sin” (2:17) and the reference to something which Paul “destroyed” (2:18) are interpreted above as implying that the Law of Moses is not binding on Christians. Furthermore, Paul’s statement that he died to the Law (2:19) means to be released from serving by the letter the Law.
Galatians 3 provides various arguments in support of both the arguments that:
- Man is not justified by the works of the Law.
- The Law of Moses is not binding on Christians.
Paul not only explains that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (2:16). He also provides the correct method of justification, namely “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). He thereby contrasts “faith” with “the works of the Law” (2:16; 3:10):
“Works” are the external deeds required by the Law, seeking to earn justification.
“Faith” is the internal mind-set that trusts God and relies on His merciful-kindness (grace). Please refer to Romans 7.
It is rather strange that Paul does not use the church council decision as recorded in Acts 15 to support his position. The issue on the table was whether Gentiles must be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 3, 5), and the church council agreed with Paul’s that Gentiles must not be circumcised (Act 15:19-20). Perhaps the church council took place only after Galatians was written. Perhaps the “great dissension and debate” (Acts 15:2) which preceded the meeting included the letter to the Galatians.