Welcome to the first installment of #WordforWednesday. In this series, we will study a passage of Scripture once a week in an in-depth manner to pull out its teachings so that we may apply them to our lives. Just a note: These posts may tend to be longer than the average blog post. But that’s why we are only doing one per week! Take time and really think through the passage and what we learn from it.
This week, we will look at Galatians 5:1-6, Paul’s defense of justification by faith alone.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Gal. 5:1-6).
[Note: We should always read passages in context (that which comes before and after), to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpreting the passage. The rule should be, “Context rules!”]
Galatians was written not to a single church but to “the churches of Galatia” (1:2). This was a province rather than a specific city. We find mention of this region in Acts when Paul visit such places as Antioch of Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium (Acts 13-14). After Paul left that region, word came to him that certain Jews had gone through the churches “teaching them, Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). By this, they were teaching that to be saved one had to essentially become Jews and keep the law of Moses.
The church at Antioch decided to send Paul, Barnabas, and some others to Jerusalem to seek a common mind on the question. Though the Jerusalem church wrote a letter that should circulate through all of the Gentile churches, Paul wrote Galatians specifically for those churches, since he founded them.
In the first part of the letter, then, Paul sets out to defend the idea of justification by faith alone. Using such Old Testament examples as Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, he argues that justification has always been by faith—even before the law was given. Thus, the law that came later could not set aside the promise which is realized through faith. The Galatians, it seems, having begun by faith, wanted to now turn to the Law as a means of righteousness.
The passage can be broken up by looking at two (unasked but implied) questions of the Galatians: 1) “Why Christ?” [or “Why did Christ come?”]; and 2) “Why not the law?”
Why did Christ come?
This passage starts out with Paul’s bold declaration: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1). Paul tells us that Christ came “for freedom . . . to set us free.” What did this mean to the original readers of Paul’s letter?
In the context of the first century, slavery was common. One could find himself sold into slavery because of debt or as part of a conquered people. Slaves were bought and sold in slave markets, which functioned much like those described in the American South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More often than not, freedom for a slave had to be purchased. But that freedom was not done in a vacuum, so that he belonged to no one. Rather, the slave was purchased by a god. The owner of the slave paid the money to the temple treasury and a document was drawn up containing the words “for freedom.” As the slave was now the property of the god, no one else could enslave him.
Thus, Paul’s words to the Galatians would have had an immediate impact. They would have understood the import of the phrase, “for freedom.” And Paul would clarify it later in another letter, when he wrote, “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23). Thus, He is telling the Galatians two things. First, they were purchased by Christ, so that no one or nothing else may enslave them. Second they were purchased so that they might be set free.
What kind of freedom is Paul talking about? In other letters, he often refers to freedom from sin’s dominion over the believer (freedom of the will). In this passage, however, he is referring to sin’s guilt (freedom of conscience). The believer no longer has to work and struggle to keep the law’s demands as a means of obtaining or maintaining the favor of God. The law has been fulfilled in Christ and applied to the believer through His sacrifice.
Why not the Law?
After declaring the purpose of Christ’s mission, Paul then turns to the second question, “Why not the Law?” To put it another way, “Why shouldn’t we accept the law as a means of righteousness?” The Galatians, according to Paul, had begun their journey by the Spirit, but were now trying to be perfected by the flesh (Gal. 3:2-3). Paul gives four answers to this question, which are separate but related.
* The obligation to do the whole law (v. 3). Paul tells the Galatians that to accept circumcision is to place oneself under obligation to the whole law. It seemed the Galatians just wanted to be circumcised, without worrying about the rest. Throughout his writings, Paul sees the Law as a unified whole, not able to be split (as we so often do) into convenient categories—and he often uses circumcision to represent the Law. His argument is obvious: If the Galatians accept circumcision, then they are obligated to keep the whole law. If they are under obligation to the whole law, then they are also under a curse, because no man can keep the whole law (Gal. 3:10). It seems the Galatians had not thought this far ahead.
* Alienation from Christ and His grace (v. 4). Paul plainly tells the Galatians, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” This verse has sparked widespread debate in the church over it’s meaning. Whatever else this verse means it means this: The Galatians would have to choose their means of righteousness. One cannot live in the realm of faith and the realm of law at the same time. Does this mean can lose their salvation? Losing one’s salvation is not the issue here. What Paul is talking about is rejecting the sufficiency of Christ’s grace for salvation in favor of the false salvation of the law. The believer, in Paul’s view, is saved by faith and indeed kept by faith.
* Righteousness comes by faith (v. 5). After giving reasons why the Galatians should not turn to the law for salvation, Paul proceeds to show why the Galatians cannot be saved by the law. “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Not by the law. Not by flesh. By faith, he says. The law, he says, simply cannot give the hope of righteousness.
* Love, not law, is the Issue (v. 6). Paul’s final answer to the question show that in the eyes of God, the only thing that counts is “faith working through love.” He puts circumcision and uncircumcision on the same level, just in case the Galatians reverse course and think there is something inherently wrong with being circumcised. Neither matter when it comes to the means of righteousness. Both Jew and Gentile are equal before the cross.
Takeaways From This Passage
[Note: The goal of Bible study is application, not merely the accumulation of knowledge. We are to seek to apply its teachings to our lives, lest we become a hearer of the Word only, instead of a doer.]
There are several important things that this passage teaches us. We should consider them carefully.
* The law was never meant to and cannot provide justification. Though Paul calls the law holy, just, and good (Romans 7:12), it’s purpose was never to provide justification, for Abraham was justified by faith apart from the law. The law was given to point to man’s need and Christ’s work. We could never be good enough or do enough good to earn God’s favor or justification.
* We cannot live by faith and live under the law at the same time. The realm of faith and the realm of law are mutually exclusive. Now, what we are talking about is how we are justified (declared righteous). We, like the Galatians, must choose our means of justification. Will we stumble and fall while walking the road of faith? Most probably. But the solution is not to turn to the law (“Do this more, do that more, and find someone to whom you can be accountable [which equates to outward pressure].”) The solution is to turn to Christ in faith. Believing His Word, trusting His promises.
* The cross of Christ is enough. The sacrifice of Christ is more than enough to cover all of our sin, shame, guilt, no matter how deep it may run within us. The law could never do that. We need only to turn to Christ and see all of that forgiven, redeemed and used for His glory.
Paul’s words to the Colossians serve as a great summary of this passage: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Co. 2:6-7). How did we receive Christ? By faith. How are we to walk in Him? By faith. Faith Alone.
[Note: The material in this post has been adapted from my commentary, available for free here.]