05 May 2006

Getting to the bottom of Galatians

I've always felt that Galatians is one of the hardest books in the New Testament to get my head around. What exactly is the "other gospel" that the Christians in Galatia are turning to? What does it mean to "live by the Spirit"? What is Paul really saying about the place of the Law for Christians? How do we produce the fruit of the Spirit? The last time I read Galatians carefully, I had tentative answers to those questions, but wasn't fully satisfied with them.

When I first read Galatians, I read it along with Roy Clements' teaching on it in "No longer slaves" (before he publicly acknowledged his homosexual orientation). In that book, Roy says that Galatians counters the false teaching of Jews who were:
  • Legalists: They thought that a person must earn salvation by obeying God's commandments
  • Racialists: They thought that part of becoming a Christian meant becoming a Jew
  • Nomists: They thought that obedience to the law was needed in order to stay saved. So nomists believe that we don't get right with God by works, but that we stay right with God by works. Or to use technical terms, nomists believe that although the law cannot save us, it can and must sanctify us (that is, make us holy)
[The timing of this book with respect to Roy's change of lifestyle should make us rightly cautious of what he says in it, particularly with regard to how we remain faithful to Christ (i.e. nomism). I hope I have been sufficiently cautious in what follows.]

The difficult question:
To my mind, there is no doubt that Paul is countering the first two in the letter (see Gal 2.15 and Gal 5.2 respectively). But what is he saying about how we go on in the Christian life? This is an important question, because it seems that this is the crux of the letter:
"Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" Gal 3.2-3
Possible answers:
1. Everything's already been done

One possible answer is that he is saying, "once saved, always saved. You've been put right with God by faith in what Jesus did on the cross. So why are you wasting your time now by trying to keep the Law? Instead, enjoy the freedom that Christ have given you." It seems to me that there's certainly some truth in this (see Gal 5.1). However, if we take that one step further, and say "so therefore I can do whatever I like" then we've gone too far. Not only does this contradict other clear teaching in the bible:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5.17-20
"Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." Heb 12.14
but it also doesn't fit with the rest of the letter. Why would Paul bother saying:
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Gal 5.14)
if he was trying to teach them that they needn't bother with the Law?? It just wouldn't make sense. So he must surely be saying something different or something more.

2. Limited meaning of "Works of the Law"
A possible solution to this problem is to say that Paul has something specific in mind when he uses the phrase "works of the Law." Perhaps he is only referring to specific Jewish national distinctives, like circumcision and keeping certain Jewish festivals. That would be to say that he is arguing against racialism, but not against nomism. This idea is backed by the fact that Paul only refers specifically to circumcision and Jewish festivals. This is appealing in that it removes the apparent tension with Jesus teaching on the Law ("whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least").
However, there are problems with this view. The most important of these is that when Paul introduces the phrase "works of the Law," he contrasts with "faith in Jesus Christ" as the means of justification. Surely in this context "works of the Law" means something broader than "keeping Jewish distinctives". Surely it means any attempt to get right with God by keeping the Law. And therefore, when he moves on to talk about how we continue in the Christian life, he is surely saying, "we don't get right with God by keeping the Law and we don't stay right with Him that way, either."

3. Faith working through love
So far I've outlined two interpretations of Paul's words which I think are insufficient to get to the bottom of what he's really saying. Now I come to a third possibility, which is based on an idea that is comparatively new to me. The idea is this: "faith that justifies is also faith that sanctifies." Or (in my words), faith that is real enough to put us right with God is also real enough to fight perseveringly against sin and (in some measure) overcome it. So, trusting Jesus as our all-satisfying treasure is the primary means by which we overcome sin and grow in godliness in our daily lives. [John Piper's excellent book Future Grace is an extended meditation on the mechanism by which this truth works out in practice.]
Under this view, Paul is saying: "the way that we go on in the Christian life isn't by trying to please God through law keeping; it is by growing in faith (i.e. trust) in Jesus. God gives his Spirit increasingly to those who believe and trust increasingly in Jesus. And the Spirit brings Christ-like love for others, which is the fulfillment of the law." So we might summarise the false teaching as follows:

Our efforts to keep the Law --> Pleasing God

and contrast that with Paul's flow of thought as follows:

Our faith --> Put right with God through the cross --> Please God
Our faith --> God's Spirit --> Increasing Christlikeness --> Fulfilling the Law

Once we see this link between faith, Spirit and increasing Christlike love, the meaning of a number of the harder sections of Galatians drop into place...
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2.20)
Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (Gal 3.5 NIV)
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Gal 5.13-14)
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal 5.18)
On this view, perhaps the following verse more than any other sums up the point Paul is making in Galatians:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Gal 5.6)
Living by the Spirit - revisited
So back to some of the difficult practical questions I posed at the start. My suggested answers are as follows:
  • What exactly is the "other gospel" that the Christians in Galatia are turning to? Believing that they can please God by becoming more Jewish and through their efforts at Law-keeping
  • What is he really saying about the place of the Law for Christians? God does not want us to strive to keep the Law as a way of pleasing Him. He wants us to grow in trust in Christ and hence to grow in likeness to Christ. The outcome of this should be (and will be) keeping God's commandments as summed up in "Love the LORD your God... and love your neighbour as yourself." If we see that the way we are living is not increasing in keeping with the Law as summarised in these commands, then we should be fearful about the reality of our faith.
  • What does it mean to "live by the Spirit"? To grow in trust in Christ as our all-satisfying treasure; and so become disillusioned with sin and become like Him in our love for others.
  • How do we produce the fruit of the Spirit? The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc) are the natural product of a life that is growing in faith in Christ. If we long to see the fruit in our lives, we need to deepen our faith through hearing God's words (in the bible) and trusting them


Anonymous Robwfoster@gmail.com said...

Murray, I was amazed to come across your article. I stumbled on it as a link from "Covenental Nomism" on Wikipedia.org.

What amazed me was that I had been struggling with the exact same issues as I prepared a message summarizing the letter to the Galatians. As I expressed my struggle to my friends they offered what I considered to be very unsatisfactory answers, mostly based on some previously accepted theological system. So, it was refreshing to read your post and know that I was not alone!

I'm not sure I totally agree with your conclusions, especially the attitude of the christian to the law or the purpose of the law in our sanctification. I found the article "Gospel Driven Sanctification" by Jerry Bridges helpful, along with the podcast from The White Horse Inn titled "An unspiritual Apostle?", dealing with Romans ch 7 from a reformed perspective.

Thank you again for your post, and I would enjoy additional correspondence about this issue.

12:34 am  

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