Theology in the Book of Galatians

Wayne E. Ward  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 15 - Fall 1972

Galatians is a theological battleground. It is the primary document in a struggle for the very life of early Christianity. If Paul had lost his battle, Christianity would have been left as an inferior sect of Judaism. But, by the grace of God, the liberating gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ has triumphed. A Gentile did not have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian.

Because of this fundamental theological issue, Galatians is one of the most theological of all the New Testament writings. Every part of it is shaped by the clash of belief s, and Paul is defending his apostleship and his understanding of the gospel in practically every line of this letter. Paul’s authority as an apostle and his message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ are inseparable parts of one great reality—the revelation which came to him “not from men nor through man,” but “through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.”[1]Gal. 1:1. Like any human being who is challenged, Paul’s pride may have been hurt. But it is abundantly clear that Paul is not simply trying to defend his status as an apostle for personal reasons. It is the very gospel of Christ which is at stake. Men are perverting it and trying to turn it into another gospel. Paul’s claim to authority as an apostle was crucial in this struggle because he had to prove that his commission and his message came from God!

Already it is obvious that we are not dealing simply with an ancient letter which has interest primarily for the historian. We are facing the issues of authority and truth in religion which are still at the center of theological debate today. Therefore, it should be of great interest to any Christian to see how Paul expressed and defended his beliefs. There could be no better guidelines in our search for the meaning of authority in our own religious experience.


Theology in the Salutation

Paul wastes no time in introducing the main theological issues of the Galatians letter. In a salutation which is expanded somewhat beyond his customary style and length, Paul anticipates the major themes which are to follow.[2]Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), Vol. II, p. 238. See also J. B. Lightfoot, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House), p. 71.

“Paul an apostle,” the opening phrase, is characteristic of Paul’s letters. But here his apostleship is really at stake. The word “apostle” is a distinctively New Testament word, not being used widely outside the biblical writings. Shaped by the Jewish usage of Shaliach (one sent), the word Apostolos came to mean a representative sent with full powers to perform a definite legal, prophetic, or missionary charge.[3]Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol II, p. 238. For additional material on “Apostle” see Gerhard Kittel, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co.), Vol. I, pp. 407-445, an exhaustive article by Karl Heinrich Rengstorf of Tuebingen. Paul had no “identity crisis,” which is so commonplace today. He knew who he was-an apostle of Jesus Christ; and he knew his purpose in the word—to take the message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

“Not from men nor through man”-Paul is anxious to establish his independence from any human authority. He is not going to deny his brethren, and he is even determined to show his fellowship with and approval by the apostles in Jerusalem. But they did not give him his apostleship or his message. Both his calling and his message came from Jesus Christ and God the Father. This contains a luminous word for the messenger of God today: the authority of the Christian preacher, evangelist, or teacher comes from God Himself. This authority is tested by the self-authenticating power of the message in transforming the lives of those who hear it, and it is confirmed by the brethren who share a similar calling. But it does not rest upon human power; it is the power of God Himself which is manifested in the message and in the life of the one who bears it!

“Through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead.” Paul affirms the role of the Father in raising Jesus from the dead. In a day when we have had the “death of God” theology and the claim that “God died” on Calvary, leaving man without God, it is important to see the personal and functional distinctions which Paul has drawn between Jesus and the Father. We have no distorted theology like the cry of Nietzsche’s hero, “God is dead, and we have slain Him.” God the Father did not die upon the cross—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on Calvary, and God the Father raised Him from the dead! This is a theology that clarifies the nature of God and the means of Salvation. Jesus Christ and God the Father are one Divine Being, but there is a clear distinction of their personal actions in the plan of redemption: Jesus Christ “gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age,”[Gal. 1:3.[/ref] and God the Father “raised Him from the dead.”[4]Gal 1:1. For a full treatment of Paul’s theology of Father, Son, and Spirit, the standard works are these: the old classic by W. Morgan, The Religion and Theology of Paul (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark), pp. 31-67. D. E. H. Whiteley, The Theology of St. Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), pp. 99-129. One of the newest works on Paul’s theology gives almost no attention to the relationships within the Godhead, Victor Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968).

The reference to “the present evil age” is rooted in the Jewish apocalyptic contrast between the present evil age which is dominated by the spiritual powers of evil and the coming age which is the Messianic reign. The doctrine of the two ages is a major one in Paul. Its occurrence in this letter marks a point of similarity with the Corinthian correspondence of Paul, which may have been written about the same time.[5]1 Cor. 10:11.

“And all the brethren who are with me.” Fellowship! Faith was not a lonely vigil for Paul, and theology was not a private task. He stressed the fellowship of faith, and he clearly includes the brethren who are with him in the content of this letter and the understanding of the Christian gospel which it proclaims. Not only does this lend support to Paul’s claim that he has been approved in his mission to the Gentiles and his message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, even by the brethren in Jerusalem; but it shows that Paul likes to emphasize the corporate nature of the Christian faith. He was not a “loner,” preaching some strange and esoteric gospel. He was a member of a fellowship of brethren, and they are joined with him in concern and prayer for the churches of Galatia.

“To the churches of Galatia.” Paul can use the “church” in the singular (as in Ephesians and Colossians and later in this chapter), but his characteristic use of the word is seen here. He is thinking of the gathered communities of believers in the cities of Galatia. He is certainly not thinking of some great hierarchical institution which spans cities and nations, nor even of an invisible entity which transcends the local gatherings. Whatever other uses may be made of the term in the long history of Christianity, it is clear that the basic meaning of the term “church” for Paul is a community of believers in Christ gathered in a particular place.

“According to the will of our God and Father.” The sovereign purpose and plan of God reigned supreme in Paul’s theology. He did not see the course of history left to chance or accident. God was in control. Even an event like the death of Christ (or especially an event like the death of Christ) was seen as an integral part of God’s overarching purpose of redemption. This did not destroy man’s freedom or responsibility for his actions. The crucifixion of Jesus was a heinous crime of such evil nature that it was an affront to everything in the nature of God. But the wonder in Paul’s mind is that God’s glory and power are so great that He can take this most impossible of deeds by sinful men and turn it to the purpose of redemption. No wonder Paul is so overwhelmed by this amazing grace of God that he can cry out, “To Him be the glory for ever and ever!”


The Source of Spiritual Authority

No issue in the religious world is more alive today than the question of authority. How do we know what is true in Christianity? Who has the authority to establish a church, ordain a minister, or baptize a person in the name of Jesus? Anyone who has ever spent any time in ecumenical discussion groups, or listened carefully to the debates of Vatican Council II or the World Council of Churches, knows that the issue almost always comes down at last to the question of authority-what is our ultimate source of truth? How do we know what is true and what is false in the realm of religion? And who has the authority to make the decisions and carry out the commands of Christ?

This was a burning issue for Paul in Galatians because some people had come to the churches which Paul had founded in that Roman province and challenged his authority. They said he did not have the authority of an apostle of Jesus Christ, apparently because he had not been with Christ in his ministry and was not one of the twelve. It is very instructive to see how Paul answered this challenge.

First, Paul claimed that his “gospel” came “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”[6]Gal. 1:12. He even traces this miraculous revelation all the way back to God “who had set me apart before I was born.”[7]Gal. 1:15. The calling came through the grace of God, even before Paul was born; but it was brought to culmination when God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”[8]Gal. 1:16. This is certainly a reference to the dramatic appearance of the Risen Christ to Paul on the road to Damascus-an encounter which Paul places on the same level as the resurrection appearances of Christ to Peter, James, and the other apostles.

But what is to prevent anyone from claiming a divine revelation? Does Paul expect his readers to accept his apostle­ ship and his gospel simply because he said it came by revelation from God?

Here is where a powerful second argument is brought in by Paul. He points to the dramatic change in his own life. Whereas he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it,” he has now become its most ardent herald and missionary. The evidence of a transformed life is the basis of his appeal. It is as if Paul had said, “What else could have turned my zeal to destroy the church into a consuming passion to spread its life and message to the end of the earth—what else but the power of God?”

A third argument is used in a subtle way. Paul went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, his regular Aramaic name for Peter the Rock. Paul is not just a name-dropper. He has mentioned the leader of the Apostles, but he has done so because the Judaizers who are harassing the Galatians apparently claimed the support of Peter. Now Paul can say that he stayed with him fifteen days. Furthermore, he can even point to the fact that James, Peter, and John (the three “who were reputed to be pillars”) gave to him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, approving their mission to the Gentiles.

The practical effect of these tests of divine revelation is very clear: this is a way to keep charlatans and deceivers from making false claims of a divine revelation. Paul was willing to submit his revelation from Christ, both his call and his message, to these two tests: (1) its power to transform his life and the lives of others who believed; and (2) the confirmation of the brethren who knew Jesus best and who saw the evident work of Christ in the life and message of Paul.

One other element in this line of authority is implied by the way m which Paul describes his visit to the apostles in Jerusalem. Paul does not go up and ask Peter what to do as if he were the Pope or ruler of the church. In fact, the apostles do not act as an authoritative body in any official capacity at all. They each recognized the grace of God working in the lives of one another. In other words, they interacted in a mutual fellowship of discussion, openness, and understanding. Paul puts it into simple words: “They perceived the grace that was given to me.”[9]Gal. 2:9. This is a strong warning that in the Christian community authority is not to be delegated to some official person. Rather, Christ Himself retains His authority over His church. When the brethren gather in His name and seek to understand His will, Christ is able to make known His grace in their lives. He is alive in their midst. It is a tragic distortion in the history of Christianity that men have set up “vicars of Christ,” substitutes for an absentee Lord. Christ needs no substitute because He is here Himself. He can and does make known His will and truth where even two or three are gathered in His name.



In Galatians 2: 15-21 we have a beautiful summary of the whole epistle. In fact, it is one of the most perfect summaries of Paul’s understanding of the gospel to be found in any of his writings. It is exactly on the point of the relationship between law and grace that Paul makes his greatest contribution. This was the crucial point in Luther’s theology in the Reformation.[10]See Martin Luther’s great work, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (Westwood, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Company).

Virtually all religions of this world could be divided on the line between law and grace. Man is instinctively unwilling to come before God as a repentant sinner, casting himself upon God’s grace. In his pride man wants to be morally worthy and acceptable to God. Man really is determined to save himself. Every one of the great world religions, including man, forms of the Christian religion, are simply great schemes of works salvation.” By rituals of smoking altars, sacrifices, lustrations, symbolic meals, and painful pilgrimages, man tries to atone for his own sins in all of the religions of this world. Over against this human religion, there is the awesome judgment and grace of the Living God: “I hate and despise your feasts, your smoking altars . . .” But the sheer grace of God which came in Jesus Christ strikes down all human pride, shatters all self-righteousness. God accepts the sinner who comes by faith in Jesus Christ. If a man can be made right with God through the works of the law, then Christ died in vain! It is instructive to follow closely Paul’s theological argument in this brilliant passage. Here is found the clue to the whole letter.

“We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners . . . ” Paul has been recalling his rebuke to Cephas when he drew back and separated himself from the Gentile Christians in Antioch, because of some of the Jewish brethren who came from James. Perhaps he is including Peter and others who are born Jews, along with himself, in the most obvious fact of their situation as Jewish Christians. They, with all their Jewishness, their circumcision, and all their laws had still never been able to be justified by the works of the law—that is, to be in a right relationship to God. It was only through faith in Jesus Christ and not by the works of the law that they themselves had been justified. It is a powerful argument. Paul is saying that they who are Jews, of all people, should know that the law is powerless to save. They have found it tragically ineffective in bringing one in a right relationship to God. Why then, Paul is arguing, would anyone who had found the law so utterly powerless to save, but who, like himself, found a thrilling new relationship to God through faith in Jesus Christ, ever want to go back to the deadening and useless chains of the law? It is a devastating indictment of those Jews who have been disturbing the Galatians. If they have become Christians, it is certain that they did not find their Jewish law and religion adequate. They found their hope only in Christ. Therefore, if these Judaizers are insisting that the Galatians go back to these empty rituals of the Jewish law, it is a sure sign that they have a kind of vindictive desire to make the Gentiles suffer through something which they had already found useless in their own Jewish law. Paul is using their own words to condemn them.

Paul then uses another argument which is based upon the very nature of Christ. It was in the tearing down, or bypassing, of some of the works of the law that Paul had been able to cast himself completely upon the grace of Christ. Furthermore, Christ had saved him exactly because he came to him by faith, rather than through the works of the law. Are they now going to accuse Christ of sin because he saved Paul and the Galatians, apart from the works of the law? Paul also points out a glaring inconsistency. If he now turns back and tries to build up these legalistic rituals which he has already thrown aside, he is proving himself an even greater transgressor of the law by building back the useless requirements which have already failed.

Dying to the Law

Now comes one of Paul’s greatest insights. It shaped his thinking and the course of Christian theology to this very day: “For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God.”[11]Gal. 2:19. Christian theologians have wrestled with what Paul meant by “dying to the law.” In the strong contrast here, it is clear that one must be set free from the claims of the law before he can live unto God. But how, exactly, did Paul die to the law? It was through the law that he died to the law. From his testimony in the rest of this letter, and his other writings, it seems that these steps are involved:

(1) Paul literally exhausted, used up, the resources of the law in his passionate desire to be righteous before God. Dying to the law, then, would not mean a flouting of the law, or a contempt for its claims. It would be just the reverse. It would mean taking the law so seriously that one spent his whole being in trying to fulfill the law, only to find one’s self farther from God than ever. This was autobiographical for Paul, a devastating experience which he never forgot. The harder he tried to keep the law, the more evil, self-righteous, and vindictive became his actions—even to the slaughtering of men, women, and children in his righteous zeal to stamp out the hated “enemies” of God, the church of Jesus Christ!

(2) But if Paul means that the resources of the law were used up, to no avail, he also means something about himself: Paul died. He died to the law, ending any power or claim that it might have over his life. But who was the Paul that died? If he can say, “It is no longer I who live,” which Paul is gone?

The Paul of the law is plain to see in this letter. With relentless clarity Paul paints his self-portrait before he met Christ. It is so much like these Judaizers who trouble the Galatians. He ought to know them—he used to be just like them, and worse! That “old Paul” is gone—dead—slain by the very law which he was feverishly following in order to save himself. Paul really means then that the law leads to death. If you take the law with absolute seriousness, it will kill you. The law is the absolute, the perfect standard. Usually men worked out ways to circumvent the law. They engaged in a kind of hypocrisy that seemed to keep the law outwardly, when, in fact, it was not being kept in the depths of the heart. This is precisely what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees with such blunt and piercing words. It may be that Paul as a Pharisee had heard these words of indictment by Jesus, and they may have fired his anger even more as he pursued and persecuted the Christians. After all, a man will often act with the most desperate outrage, exactly because the truth has struck to the very heart of his inward hypocrisy.

In a way it is a great compliment to Paul, and some other Pharisees, that they took the law with such seriousness. They were not looking for an easy accommodation. They passionately threw themselves into the moral effort to be perfect before God. Honesty compelled them to admit their failure. Then as happened in Paul’s life, they tried to compensate for their moral failure by redoubling their efforts to prove their loyalty to God and His law—works of supererogation, to earn special blessings and make up for moral failure in their own lives. Too often this frantic effort to earn points with God can mask a religious ‘zeal.

It is this Paul which has died! This existence had literally been a body of death, as Paul calls it in Romans 7. It is not simply that Paul had died to the power and claim of the law in his life. That Paul who was so filled with pride, that Paul who worked frantically to prove to God how righteous he was, that Paul who hated everyone who did not conform to his interpretation of the law—that Paul was dead. That law he pursued had slain him. But Christ had made him alive-a new man in Christ Jesus! Thereafter, the law meant death to Paul for all its good intentions; and the cross, with all its blood and death, meant life to Paul, because through it the old nature died and a new man was born. What a dramatic reversal of all the religious systems of mankind! Man creates religions which glorify man. But he finds true salvation when he dies to himself and reaches out for the grace of God. That is a salvation by grace, and it alone can glorify God.

The Test of Experience

In the middle part of this letter to the Galatians, Paul sets forth a powerful theology of experience. Although Paul was a great scholar, a man who knew languages and books like few in his day, he never makes his case just on appeal to the arguments of scholars. It should be a warning to us today m the field of theological teaching. Paul could have used scholarly documentation or arguments from Greek philosophy and rhetoric in a way that would have put to shame our feeble efforts today. But he chose another way. Paul appealed to the experience of the Galatians themselves.

“Let me ask you only this,” Paul says.[12]Gal. 3:2. “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The fact that many scholars will not risk appeal to what God has wrought through their life and teaching is a form of self-condemnation. Paul was not trying to win the argument with the Galatians, or to convince them of his great erudition. He really cared about what happened to them. Therefore, he asked them to think through their own experience.

Most theological systems in the long history of Christianity have been constructed out of the philosophical and scientific assumptions of their day. It remained for Schleiermacher to make a new approach and open up a new day in the history of Christian theology.[13]F. D. E. Schleiermacher’s classic work in theology, in which he expounded the experiential approach, is entitled, The Christian Faith. Unlike his predecessors, he focused upon personal experience as the clue to understanding theology. This emphasis made a great impact on E. Y. Mullins; and through Dr. Mullins, especially, this experiential approach has deeply influenced Southern Baptists. There are many inadequacies and dangers in an over-emphasis upon personal experience, but it is important to understand Paul’s use of experience in his formulation of the Christian message.

When Paul appeals to the personal experience of the Galatians, he is making a deliberate break with the classical method of Greek philosophy and learning. He is taking an experiential and empirical approach, rather than making an appeal simply to reason. In our day this would be called an existential approach. This shows how practical Paul was; and, at the same time, it shows his understanding of God and all Reality. What happens is what really counts. He is not concerned to amass a series of arguments which gain the consent of their minds. He cares what happens to them. He wants them to go on in their new-found life in Christ. He cannot stand to see them turn back to the deadening curse of the law. Paul’s theology of experience, then, is rooted in his understanding of reality. Their personal experience with Christ and the overpowering presence of the Holy Spirit is their participation in reality. There is nothing greater, or more real, than that. This is a theology that moves out of the classroom into the arena of life. Any Christian theology which is worthy of the name must do exactly that.

Then Paul’s theology of experience involves another assumption: God is the living God. He is involved in what happens in human life. The “God” of the academic theologians died, a few years ago, and it was a blessing. The abstract conceptions which have grown out of Greek philosophy and then have been embalmed in much scholastic theology left many Christians without a God of personal experience. A careful reading of the so-called “death of God theologians” will show this tragic lacuna in their theology—they simply do not find the experience of God in their own lives nor identify with the people who share their experience of God with others. If God is not experienced in life one might just as well be worshipping an ebony image or a Buddhist bronze!

One other important theological insight is involved in Paul’s appeal to the experience of the Galatians. Their experience is not just a private and individual thing. Christ was “publicly portrayed as crucified” before their very eyes, apparently in the preaching of Paul to them.[14]Gal. 3:5. God supplied the Spirit to them and worked miracles among them.[15]Ibid. This is not something which took place in the private recesses of their individual minds. It took place in the arena of group experience. It was tested and challenged by a dialectical exchange between different minds and personalities.

Much is made today of group experience, especially of small and intimate groups in our churches and communities. There is a powerful psychological and sociological force at work in a small group. It is literally true that persons can have experiences and come to understandings in such a group in a way that was never possible in any other setting. It seems that Jesus can be present—”‘where two or three are gathered together in His name” in a way that He cannot be present to the individual alone. This does not deny individual experience of Christ and the Holy Spirit; but it does add a dimension of experience which is not possible for the lone individual-the corporate life in Christ. This is the clue to the great teaching of Paul about the oneness of the body of Christ, with all the several members fulfilling their function for the well-being of the whole body.


Paul’s Theology of Holy Scripture

Throughout Chapters 3 and 4, Paul is bringing the witness of the scriptures to bear upon the lives of the Galatians. He is still carrying out his great contrast between the works of the law and the righteousness which comes by faith, but his use of the scriptures throws light upon his own theology of the Bible as well as the doctrine of justification by faith.

“Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”[16]Gal. 3:6. Gen. 15:6. From this Paul draws the conclusion that the true sons of Abraham are the men of faith, not the physical descendants of the great patriarch. Then Paul adds, “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In thee shall all the nations be blessed.'”[17]Gal. 3:8.

Now this is a remarkable way to use the scriptures, especially when writing to Gentile converts. It might have been more understandable if Paul had used the Old Testament scriptures, and applied them to the Jews, because they obviously stood in historical continuity with the covenant people of the Old Testament. But Paul goes deeper than this. Whatever may have been the understanding of Abraham in his day, concerning the promise of the nations, or whatever may have been the thinking of the Jews of Paul’s day about the place of the Gentiles in God’s purpose, it was clear to Paul from the scriptures and from his experience with the Gentile converts that God was fulfilling in their lives what He had promised to Abraham in the long ago. The Bible was not just the history of the Jews—it was a glimpse into the meaning of the history of all the Gentiles too! The Bible is the clue to history. That is the fundamental assumption Paul is making. What a broad basis for interpreting the scriptures and seeing their relevance to all human life.

This also involves a particular view of the divine nature of the scriptures. Ordinarily, the inspiration of the scriptures or the moving of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the writers is the focal point of the claim for divine authority in the scriptures. Although Paul does express this view of inspiration at other places, he implies another theological assumption here. The word of scripture has been verified in history because the promise to Abraham has come to pass in the conversion of Gentiles. The Galatians themselves, in their hearing and believing of the gospel, are proof that the word of scripture is true. The promise has actually been fulfilled in their own lives.

As a practical theological consequence, this is one of the most important insights into the doctrine of scripture. No theory of inspiration, however extreme, can really have any effect in convincing the unbeliever of the truth of scripture. Rather, the word of scripture must speak to him. It must be verified in his own life before he knows that it is truly God who is speaking to him. When the word of Holy Scripture comes through in power, convicting one of sin, and pointing to the cross of Christ, it has the same effect as the words of Christ in the long ago: “No one ever spake like this one.” The word of God authenticates itself. It does not have to be proved by something else which may be less worthy than it. This is the mistaken assumption of people who think they have to run around frantically defending the Bible. It needs to be proclaimed honestly and courageously. When it is, the Bible will prove itself to be the word of God by going straight to the heart of man, convicting him, drawing him to Christ. We know the Bible is the word of God because it does what only God can do.

One other element in Paul’s doctrine of scripture is shown by his use or the allegory or analogy of Mt. Sinai and Jerusalem as Hagar and Sarah. This is often dismissed as an unworthy use of scripture, a kind of Rabbinic special pleading which is so typical of ancient Jewish exegesis. It is certainly quite different from the type of Rabbinic exegesis which can be seen in the Talmud or in Philo. But it does make a strong use of the symbols, events, and even the geography of scripture to make a spiritual point. The most precise definition of this method of interpretation would be the principle of analogy. It is a powerful tool in bringing about understanding, and it is absolutely indispensable in applying the scriptures to our life today. Paul does not make a wild application of scriptural symbols. He begins with their actual historical meaning and relationship. Hagar was the slave. Sarah was the wife. Ishmael was the son of the slave. Isaac was the son of promise, born to the legal wife. Mt. Sinai recalled the desert wanderings of a slave people, escaping from Egypt. Jerusalem spoke of a people who had found their land and the fulfillment of their covenant in the Temple which stood there. In other words, by analogy to a well-known relationship in the Bible, the people could understand their relationship to the ongoing purpose of God. This is a principle that is absolutely essential to all learning. All graduate schools test the capacity of research scholars to do original and creative work by giving them analogy tests. Unless one has the capacity to see relationships and then discover those same relationships in new and strange environments he will never be able to understand anything new.


Theology in Action

The climactic part of this letter is found in chapters five and six. “For freedom Christ has set us free!” This is the liberating theme of the gospel. The rituals of the law enslave; the gospel of Jesus Christ liberates. But it is not a liberation to antinomian and irresponsible living. It is, in the beautiful words of Paul, “Faith working through love.[18]Gal. 5:6.

Theology, to Paul, is not something you think. It is something you do. Of course, it involves thought, but it cannot stop there. Through love, we are to be servants of one another. Theology must be acted out.

A sign proclaimed these surprising words: “I don’t care what you believe; it’s your life that counts!” Perhaps it meant to stress the same point of action that Paul is making here. But, as it stands, that statement is one of the most ridiculous statements ever made. What one believes determines his life. One may say that he has certain beliefs about God, or the church, or the Christian life. But what one really believes can be determined by looking at his life. Our deepest beliefs shape everything we do. We give our time, our energies, and our thoughts to those things which we truly believe.


Spirit and Flesh

Some have thought that Paul uses the word flesh to mean the physical body, or its natural appetites. But it is clear from his words in Galatians 5 that it means something else. Sometimes the body and its appetites can be used by the flesh; but, thank God, they can also be ruled by the Spirit. What Paul really means by “flesh” is the self-centered life. To be walking by the Spirit means for God to be directing the life. To be dominated by the “flesh” is to be under the power of egocentric self-love, exploiting everything and everybody in terms of what they can do for the ego. This kind of life is directly opposed to the life of the Spirit, because the Spirit-led life involves the death of this self-centered ego, and the enthronement of the Spirit of God in its place. Sometimes the connection between this passage on the Spirit and the central theological issue of law and grace is missed by the interpreter of Galatians. Paul’s point is this: preoccupation with the works of the law becomes the most self-centered of all pursuits. Far from helping me to be better, an attempt to try to save myself by the works of the law only makes me more and more self-centered, self-righteous, and sinful. Viewed in this way, the law is not saving but destroying.


Bearing One Another’s Burdens

Paul closes with an exhortation to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”[19]Gal. 6:2. It is Paul’s paraphrase of the second half of the great summary of the law, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is a very beautiful expression of the freedom that the Christian has in Christ. He does not do works of goodness out of a desire to meet the requirements of the law. He is really free to love his neighbor out of the joy of forgiveness in Christ. The whole motivation for social action is reversed by this concept. We bear another’s burdens because Christ has borne ours, not because we are trying to fulfill a legal requirement.

The warning against pride is in the same spirit. No one ought to think he is something when he is nothing. Yet, the temptation is always there to glory in what we do for others. The tendency to exalt the self, whether in pride of circumcision, or pride of good works, or pride in overcoming temptations is the ever-present danger for the religious man. Paul sees it as the fatal flaw in all legalistic religion.


Sowing and Reaping

What Paul calls the “wrath of God” in Romans 1 is set forth in the last part of this epistle through the metaphor of sowing and reaping. God is not mocked. Even as he has created dependable laws of nature, so that a man can expect to reap what he sows, God has also proved Himself dependable in the moral realm. A man that sows to the self-centered, ego serving, gratification of the flesh will surely reap a harvest of corruption. This does not mean that God is vindictive, but that He is steadfast and dependable. On the other side of the picture, sowing to the Spirit will bring a harvest of life eternal.

The expression of this theological principle of judgment is an important corrective to many interpretations of Paul. From the critics of Paul, in his day, we hear the charge of libertinism, of irresponsible antinomianism, in his theology. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While Paul did not believe that one could gain salvation and justification before God by the keeping of the law, he did see the moral law of God running through the very fabric of life. It is as if Paul said, “Let no one accuse me of flouting the moral law of God. It is as dependable and unswerving as God Himself.”

Concluding Statement

In a short concluding statement, written in large letters in his own hand, Paul makes a strong appeal for his central theological concern: glory in the cross of Christ, not in circumcision or any of the works of the law. He even makes bold to say that his scars of suffering for Christ have earned him the right to speak thus, without being harassed by those who know nothing of such suffering for the name of Jesus.

Even this concluding statement tells us something of Paul’s theology. Theology, for him, was hammered out in the crucible of experience. It is not the measured academic exercise of logical reflection in the classroom. It was formed in the struggle of the Christian life, and it developed in response to challenge, criticism, and conflict. This may never give a neat theological system like some which have been constructed by the scholastic theologians. But it will never be dull, and it will give one a dynamic theology which is related to life. The way in which one struggles to reach theological understanding may, in many cases, be more important than the conclusions which are reached. For the Christian is on a journey, and he will never have all the answers. He must be growing in his theology every day.


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Southwestern Journal of Theology
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