Revisiting Galatians
David Dewan

In an age of watered down theology, distortions on the Word of God are commonplace. But the book of Galatians stands out like Mount Everest to point the way to the true living Gospel of God's grace. It has rightly been called the "Magna Carta of Christ in liberty." The epistle rightly maintains that only through the grace of God in Jesus Christ is a person enabled to escape the curse of his sin and the condemnation of the law. He is enabled to live a new life, not in bondage nor in license, but in a genuine freedom of mind and spirit through the power of God. Because of this powerful truth, Galatians was the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther stated that he was "wedded to it."

As it was a weapon in the hands of Luther, the Apostle Paul, the author of the epistle, also used it as a sword to cut through false teaching of his day. He contrasts the condemnation of the law with justification by faith; human works with divine grace; the curse of death versus the blessing of life; slaves versus sons; defeat versus victory; the old covenant with the new covenant; flesh with spirit; license with liberty, and the world versus the cross.

One of the first characteristics of this great book is that there is no warm salutation. Paul gets right to the point. There is only one Gospel, and that is the Gospel of God's grace. Paul says, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel form heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed" (1:6-8; NASB).

Yet there are many gospels in the cult of Christian television. There is the false gospel of self esteem. There is the false gospel of wealth and personal happiness. There is the false gospel of "once in faith always in faith." The book of Galatians destroys all of these self-centered ideas. They are different gospels and Paul pronounced a curse on them. Those who preach another gospel are to be condemned.

The Apostle Paul speaks of the origin of the gospel. In 1:11-12 he defends his ministry, declaring that the gospel is of God and not of man. "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by men is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." The Gospel of the grace of God has its origins in heaven. Much that is being preached today does not!

The cross is a prominent subject in this epistle. In most contemporary preaching the "offense of the cross" is almost non-existent, but to Paul it is the only thing that matters. He wrote, "But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (6:14). He also said, "But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished" (5:11). Why is the cross an offense? In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul explained, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (NKJV).

The cross means death — death to self, death to our own ambitions, death to self righteousness, death to our own goodness. The reason people hate the cross is because it shows us our own guilt, our own condemnation. It pronounces the death penalty. Jesus paid a debt he did not owe. I owed a debt I could not pay. In commenting on 6:14, John Stott wrote,

And what is there about the cross of Christ which angers the world and stirs them up to persecute those who preach it? Just this: Christ died on the cross for us sinners, becoming a curse for us (3:13). So the cross tells us some very unpalatable truths about ourselves; namely that we are sinners under the righteous curse of God's law, and we cannot save ourselves. Christ bore our sin and curse precisely because we could gain release from them in no other way. If we could have been forgiven by our own good works, by being circumcised and keeping the law,we may be quite sure that there would have been no cross. Every time we look at the cross, Christ seems to say to us, ‘I came here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size. And of course men do not like it. They resent the humiliation of seeing themselves as God sees them and as they really are. They prefer their comfortable illusions. So they steer clear of the cross. They construct a Christianity without the cross, which relies for salvation on their works and not on Jesus Christ’s. They do not object to Christianity so long as it is not the faith of Christ crucified. But Christ crucified they detest. And if preachers preach Christ crucified, they are opposed, ridiculed, persecuted. Why? Because of the wounds which they inflict on men’s pride.

The cross is a sign of punishment for sin, but to the one who is forgiven, it is a sign of release! A release from condemnation (Rom 8:1), release from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13), release from the penalty of eternal damnation. Paul says to the believers at Colossae, "And through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross" (1:20). The peace of God runs through the cross of Christ. The repentant sinner is reconciled back to God through the cross of Christ.

Because of the cross of Christ, the repentant sinner is justified. The heart of this great epistle can be found in 2:15-21. In verse 16 Paul says, "Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified."

This is the theme that goes all through the book. "Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, the righteous man shall live by faith" (3:11). The law shows us our sin and unrighteousness, but could not save. Only the grace of God could justify a sinner. Justification springs from the fountain of God's grace (Titus 3:4-5). It is operational as the result of the redemptive and propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, who has settled all claims of the law (Rom 3:24-25; 5:9). Justification is on the basis of faith and not human merit or works (Rom 3:28-30; 4:5; 5:1; Gal 2:16). In this marvelous operation of God, the infinitely holy Judge judicially declares righteous the one who repents and believes in Christ. A justified believer emerges from God's great courtroom with a consciousness that another, his substitute, has borne his guilt and that he stands without accusation before God (Rom 8:1, 33-34). And because of this we can say with Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly" (2:20-21).

Of this doctrine Martin Luther wrote, "This is the truth of the gospel. It is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine, whereby the knowledge of all goodness consisteth. Most necessary it is therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it to others and beat it into their heads continually." John Wesley agreed with Luther that the church stands or falls with this doctrine of justification by faith. And Charles Wesley, having read Luther's Commentary on Galatians "endeavored to ground as many of our friends as came in this fundamental truth, salvation by faith alone."

In this epistle Paul defends the doctrine of the grace of God. He pronounces a curse on all other gospels, for there is only one—the gospel of the grace of God. No other gospel can save. And yet this gospel can save all. Speaking of those who have been baptized by the Spirit into Christ, Paul wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28).