Overview of the Book of Galatians

Question

Overview of the Book of Galatians

Answer

Overview of the Book of Galatians

Author: The author is the Apostle Paul.

Purpose:

To help believers in Galatia resist false teachers who taught that salvation comes only to those who add the human merit of obedience to the law to their faith in Christ.

Date: A.D. 49-55

Key Truths:

  • Justification before God comes by faith alone.
  • Sanctification in daily life comes by faith through the power of the Spirit.
  • Paul's message of salvation by faith apart from works can be trusted.
  • The Gospel of salvation by faith is taught in all the Scriptures.
  • Legalism turns us away from Christ to futility and judgment.
  • Freedom from legalism is freedom to live for Christ by the Spirit.
  • Eternal salvation comes only to those who believe and live in the true Gospel.

Author:

The apostle Paul wrote Galatians (Gal. 1:1). He mentioned a group of his coworkers who had some role in sending the letter (Gal. 1:2), but its style and theology demonstrate that Paul was its author. A few scholars, beginning in the eighteenth century, considered the letter pseudonymous (written by someone else, using Paul's name), but their arguments are now curiosities of Biblical scholarship.

Time and Place of Writing:

The question of the letter's date is intertwined with the problem of its destination. Please see the discussion of the original audience below.

Original Audience:

Paul named the addressees as "Galatians" (Gal. 3:1; cf. 1:2), but to which Galatians was he writing? He may have been targeting his letter specifically to the Celtic people who lived in northern Galatia and who were widely known as "Galatians," or he may have been addressing churches in the entire province of Galatia. When we follow the course of Paul's first and second missionary journeys (Acts 13-14; 15:36-18:22), we discover that this question has implications for the epistle's date, as well as for its relationship to Paul's other letters. Paul visited Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (all cities in southern Galatia) on his first and second missionary journeys. If he wrote to southern Galatia, he may well have written to those churches early in his career, probably shortly after the first missionary journey, about the time of the Jerusalem council (c. A.D. 48; see Acts 15; cf. Gal 2:11-14). The most popular date among those who hold this view is A.D. 48-49. If they are correct, Galatians may be Paul's earliest extant epistle. It has also been suggested that Paul wrote to southern Galatia after the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) and that he referred to the council in Galatians 2:1-10, but this view seems unlikely because Paul did not rely on the decision of the council to support his views.

Many scholars believe, however, that Galatians was written to the ethnic Galatians in the north. If this view is correct, Paul probably wrote the letter after passing through "Galatia and Phrygia" (Acts 18:23) on his third missionary journey. Many who follow the "northern Galatian hypothesis" believe that Paul wrote the letter either during his two-year stay in Ephesus (Acts 19) or as he was traveling through Macedonia on his way to Greece near the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 20:1-6; cf. 2 Cor. 2:13). If this is correct, then Galatians was probably written in A.D. 54 or 55. Theories that date the letter late in Paul's career have the merit of placing Galatians within the same period as 2 Corinthians, Romans, and perhaps Philippians - letters with which Galatians bears some thematic correspondence.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Galatians was written to answer specific problems within particular Churches. In order to understand the epistle, some knowledge of that situation is essential. Not long after the Galatians had accepted the gospel, agitators came among them who attacked Paul personally (Gal. 4:17) and preached a distorted form of Christianity (Gal. 1:6-7). Their "gospel" required circumcision of Gentile Christians as a symbolic commitment to seeking salvation through works of the law (Gal. 6:12). The agitators insisted that the Galatians not only had to believe in Christ for salvation, but also had to practice circumcision (Gal. 2:3-5; 5:2, 6, 11; 6:12-13, 15).

The zeal of these agitators likely reflects Jewish pressure as well as their own pride. They were attempting to turn these Gentile Christians to Jewish traditions under pressure from nationalistic Jewish groups in Judea. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Judean Jews were becoming increasingly intolerant of contact between Jews and Gentiles during the last half of the first century.

The agitators were not content merely to preach their brand of the gospel; they also attempted to discredit Paul (Gal. 4:17), who had founded the Galatian Churches. Their attacks may have taken one or more of the following forms: First, they may have claimed that Paul was a renegade who had defied his superiors, the Jerusalem apostles. Paul responded to this attack in Galatians 2:1-10. Second, they may have stated that Paul had recently argued with Peter over whether the gospel required Gentiles to become Jews in order to become Christians. Paul gave his account of the encounter with Peter in Galatians 2:11-14. Third, the agitators may have spread the notion that Paul had originally preached circumcision for salvation (Gal. 5:11) but had recently changed his gospel so that he might more easily accommodate the Gentiles (Gal. 1:10). Paul answered that his change of outlook resulted from a revelation received directly from Christ (Gal. 1:11-24).

The Galatians, for their part, were showing interest both in the rumors about Paul and in the agitators' new form of the gospel. By the time Paul wrote to them, they were in the process of deserting the true Gospel and, consequently, God himself (Gal. 1:6-7). They now wanted to be "under the law" (Gal. 4:21; cf. 5:1) and, specifically, to become circumcised (Gal. 5:2). This transition to a "different gospel" (Gal. 1:6) was not a smooth one. Dissension broke out within the community (Gal. 5:15; 6:3-5).

Paul's purpose in writing was to persuade the Galatians that circumcision is not necessary in order to be saved. The "truth of the gospel" (Gal. 2:5, 14) is that salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone who seeks to violate that sacred sphere of faith by introducing other requirements corrupts the gospel and must be resisted at all costs (Gal. 1:8-9).

Galatians has played a central role in Reformed theology because it clearly declares that salvation is the gift of God's grace. Salvation is unearned and undeserved (Gal. 1:3, 6, 15; 2:19, 21; 6:18) and is received by faith alone (Gal. 2:15-16). Quite simply, this is "the truth of the gospel" (Gal. 2:5, 14). Paul showed deep anger over the agitators' denial of this truth (Gal. 3:1; 5:12), warning that those who reject it cannot expect to be saved (Gal. 1:8; 5:4).

Paul's emphasis on the doctrine of faith alone rises from his view of what Christ has accomplished. Christ is the One who introduced the age to come, the final stage of salvation and judgment for the world. See "The Plan of the Ages: Are We in the Last Days?." He bore the curse of the law in our place on the cross (Gal. 3:13; 6:14) and delivers us from this age of sin and death (Gal. 1:3-4). Made one with him, we are clothed with his righteousness (Gal. 3:26-27), our sure hope (Gal. 5:5). Because we are united to Christ (see theological note "Union With Christ"), we enter the age of the new creation (Gal. 6:15), receive the rights of his Sonship (Gal. 4:4-5) and are enabled by the Spirit of the Son to live lives pleasing to God (Gal. 5:16-18, 25). Against the proud boasting of sinners who think they can earn their own salvation by keeping God's law, Paul's boasting was only in the cross and in receiving the promise of God by faith (Gal. 6:14).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

The Epistles of the New Testament

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.