This is a summary of the main points in the verse by verse discussion of Galatians chapters one to three. Please refer to the verse by verse discussion for more detail.
Paul himself founded the churches in Galatia (1:8), but after he left some people arrived there, probably Jewish Christians from the church in Jerusalem (2:17), preaching a dangerously distorted gospel (1:6-9). Their intention was to force Gentile Christians to be circumcised (2:3, 12) and to live like Jews (2:14). They reasoned that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). If we use the terminology in Galatians to say the same thing, we would say that they reasoned that man is justified by the works of the Law (2:16).
It was to respond to this distortion of the gospel that Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians. He labored to prevent the circumcision of Gentile Christians.
Paul was concerned that the Galatian Christians suffered so many things in vain (3:4; 4:10). This implies that these Christians were at risk of losing their eternal inheritance. They were being compelled to be circumcised, but circumcision, in itself, is not the danger. The real danger lies in the thinking that people are put right with God by their own efforts (3:3). People with this conviction will always create a large number demanding rules and regulations as a barrier against sin because they will soon realise that they are not able to keep God’s law. They will invent rules and regulations to force themselves to obey God’s law. But such a system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation, turns the mind away from God to self. It kills love for God, and when love for God dies, love for fellow beings also perishes. It leads to selfish and narrow-minded criticism of all who fail to comply, which kills compassion. The Judaism of Paul’s day was a good illustration of such a system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation. Christians that become trapped in such a system are at risk of eternal loss. This is the danger that could cause the Galatian Christians suffer so many things in vain.
Paul opposes this dangerously distorted gospel in a number of ways:
- He defends the supernatural source of his message,
- he states that there is no need to circumcise Gentile Christians.
- he explains that people are justified through faith, not by the works of the Law, and
- he argues that Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses.
In the first two chapters Paul defends the supernatural source of his message. He claims that:
He is “an apostle” (1:1), which means to be sent by God.
He was set apart even from his mother’s womb and called through God’s grace to preach Him among the Gentiles (1:15-16; 2:7-8), which gives Paul the right to prescribe 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). This acceptance is practically illustrated by Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile, whom he took along with him on his visit to the church headquarters in Jerusalem, where Titus was not compelled to be circumcised (2:3, 9).
No circumcision required
Paul concludes chapter 3 with the statement that people that have been set right with God are all equal. He wrote, “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (3:28).
Judaism made a sharp and harsh distinction between Jew and Gentile. It presented Israel as God’s special people (Romans 11:1), but Gentiles as “sinners” (2:15).
Jewish Christians, by arguing “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; Gal. 2:3; 6:13, 12), and by compelling “Greeks”, such as Titus, “to be circumcised” (2:3; 6:13), maintained the difference between the circumcised and the uncircumcised Christians. This caused a rift in the church and tension between circumcised and uncircumcised Christians.
It is this rift that Paul was trying to heal by stating that people that have been set right with God are all equal. It is a correction of the distortion that argues that there remains a difference between circumcised and uncircumcised Christians from God’s perspective. What Paul effectively is saying is that there remains no need to circumcise Gentile Christians.
It is rather strange that Paul does not use the Jerusalem church council decision, as recorded in Acts 15, to support this position. The issue on the table was whether Gentiles must be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 3, 5), and the church council agreed with Paul that Gentiles must not be circumcised (Act 15:19-20). Perhaps the church council took place only after Galatians was written. One person proposed that Galatians was written while Paul was on his way to Jerusalem for the church council.
In 2:16 Paul argues that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus”. In doing so he attacks the foundation for the demand that Gentile Christians be circumcised.
This statement not only explains that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (2:16), but also provides the correct method of justification, namely “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16; 3:10). The question in Galatia was therefore how one is justified. To be justified means to be put right with God. It does not mean to become without sin. The question is how a sinful human being is put right with God:
By arguing that one is justified by the works of the Law of Moses, the Jewish Christians from the church in Jerusalem argued that man is put right with God by performing the external deeds required by the Law of Moses, seeking to thereby earn justification.
By arguing that one is justified through faith in Christ Jesus, Paul argued that man is put right with God by what goes on in his mind. “Faith” is the internal mind-set that trusts God and relies on His merciful-kindness (grace). To summarize Romans 7 in a single sentence, there is no condemnation for one that wants to do what is right, even though he continues to sin.
Many people see the statement that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” as the key message of the letter to the Galatians, but it is merely the reason why Gentile Christians must not be circumcised. The key issue in the letter is whether Gentile Christians must be compelled to be circumcised and to live like Jews.
Many people interpret the statement that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” as a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. However, this argument was used to oppose the error that links salvation to the Law of Moses, and it should not be applied out of context, as if somebody would be saved merely on the basis of the conviction that Jesus is the Christ, while persevering in the lusts of the body. The faith that saves is not mere conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. Faith that saves wants to act in accordance with God’s Law; not the Law of Moses, but God’s Law as explained by Christ.
After recounting certain historical events in the first two chapters, concluding chapter 2 with his speech to the Jewish Christians at Antioch, chapter 3 shifts the focus to the Galatians specifically. The first two chapters define the key issue, concluding with the statement that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus”. Chapter 3 provides support for this statement in a number of ways:
Paul provides various arguments in support of justification through faith. He argues as follows:
“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (3:6; Gen. 15:6). If this was true for Abraham, it should also be true for all Christians (3:7), because they are his children (3:29, 7).
God promised to Abraham that “all the nations will be blessed in you” (3:8), which means that “God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (3:8).
Even the Old Testament confirms that “the righteous man shall live by faith” (3:11; Habakkuk 2:4]. “Live by” is an Old Testament expression that means to be justified (to be right with God).
Paul interpreted the promise to Abraham, that “all the nations will be blessed in you“, as that “God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (3:8), and adds that this promise was received hundreds of years before the law, and therefore the law did not invalidate the promise (3:15, 17-18).
The promises, which God made Abraham, were actually received by Christ (3:16, 19). Thus everything belongs to Christ. The only way that people can become “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (3:29) is “in Christ Jesus” (3:14), which means that they “belong to Christ” (3:29).
Some of his arguments support both the view that man is not justified by the works of the Law and the view that man is justified through faith:
The Galatians did not have to perform “the works of the Law” to receive the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit (3:2, 5). All they had to do was to believe what they heard (3:2, 5).
The Galatians began their lives as Christians in the power of the Spirit, but now they are trying to “perfect” their lives by their own power (3:3), which is illogical.
Unless one does “everything written in the Book of the Law”, one is “under a curse” (3:10, quoting Deut. 27:26). “Scripture has shut up everyone under sin” (3:22), which means that the Old Testament declares that all people sin (Romans 3:9, 23). Therefore the law is not “able to impart life” (not able to grant “righteousness”) (3:21). Therefore (note the words “so that” in 3:22) the promise (to impart life) is “given to those who believe” (3:22).
Not subject to the Law of Moses
Another important argument used by Paul against this distortion is that Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses. Chapter 2 contains three 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. Chapter 3 states more directly that Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses:
Paul wrote that the Law was “added” (to the promises – 3:18), but only “until the seed (Christ) would come” (3:19, 16). The law served as a “tutor … to Christ” (3:23-24), “but now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (3:25).
But this does not mean that Christians are lawless. Paul taught that Christians are subject to the “law of God”, but not in the form given to Moses. Rather, Christians are subject to the “law of Christ” (6:2). Christ did not interpret the Law given to Moses; Christ actually replaced it with His own laws.
Israel in prophecy
Large church groups still today maintain a future special and separate role for Israel in God’s plan. This view is opposed in articles on Romans 9 and 11 on this website. Galatians confirms that literal Israel no longer exists as a separate entity in God’s plan:
- Circumcision is “the sign of the covenant between Me and you (Abraham)” (Gen.17:11), but Paul argued “neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision” (6:15; 5:6). Since circumcision has been annulled it seems to stand to reason that physical Israel, as a separate entity in God’s plan, has expired.
- God gave to Abraham both the promises and circumcision (Gen 17:10). Paul sets aside circumcision, but Paul does not set aside the promises. These promises remain valid (3:29). To the discomfort of many Jewish Christians, he taught that Gentiles are now regarded as “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (3:29; 14), even without circumcision. They share in the “inheritance” (3:18) promised to Abraham. This is another way of saying that they are justified (3:7-8; Romans 4:13, 16). However, the statement that “those who are of faith … are sons of Abraham” (3:7, see also 3:16, 29) also means that non-believing Jews are no longer be regarded as “Abraham’s descendants”. They have no claim to be “heirs according to promise”, which also implies that physical Israel, as a separate entity in God’s plan, has expired.