Book of Galatians


Authorship, date, and background

The apostle Paul was the author of the Galatian letter. His Damascus Road conversion experience occurred around A.D. 32. The letter was composed after he had been in the ministry fifteen or more years. He was known as the apostle to the Gentiles, that is, to the non-Jews. One of the great questions of that day had to do with the relationship of new converts to Judaism. The Old Testament clearly taught that salvation is by faith alone. But Judaism insisted on the necessity of circumcision and the keeping of the law as part of the salvatory process. Some Jewish Christians and non-Jews who had been circumcised and who followed the law insisted that faith alone was insufficient for salvation. Known as the Judaizers, they followed Paul as he evangelized, insisting that converts keep the law and be circumcised. This was true in the region of Galatia where Paul's ministry had been quite successful. Paul did not hesitate to accept the challenge, since the salvation by faith alone was foundational to his understanding of the Good News. Any concession at this point would destroy the entire faith.

The dating of Galatians depends in large measure on the question of the destination of the letter- whether it was addressed to the Christians of South Galatia or North Galatia. Paul visited South Galatia on his first missionary expedition, and since the letter to the Galatians does not mention the first missionary council at Jerusalem, some suppose it was composed around A.D. 49 and sent to South Galatia. This would make it the earliest of Paul's writings. Others, however, date the letter A.D. 55-56, since Acts 16:6 and 18:23 specifically mention visits to Galatia by Paul on his second and third journeys, which occurred after the Jerusalem conference (acts 15). Whether the letter was written in A.D. 49 or A.D. 55-56, as so many hold, is not of great importance, for the Pauline authorship is not in question and the contents of the letter have universal and enduring value. In any event, the books of Galatians and Romans constitute the most systematic theological presentation of the Good News with all of its implications. They are the most highly didactic (teaching) books in the New Testament, and all of the letters in the New Testament must be understood in the light of these.

Characteristics and content

Galatians has been called "the Magna Carta of spiritual emancipation" and was for Martin Luther what he called "my own little epistle." He said, "I have betrothed myself to it." For the apostle Paul the issue at stake is the most important one relating to his preaching of the gospel. At the heart of the controversy lies this question: "Is a man saved by faith alone or by a combination of faith plus works?" Stated another way, it involves a choice between faith or works, between grace or law. The Judaizers were saying that new believers should be circumcised and observe Jewish laws and customs, one of which was the refusal to eat with non-Jews (Gentiles). Paul rightly sees that the principle involved is of such magnitude that to compromise the issue will result in the loss of the true gospel and bring men into the bondage from which the same Good News is supposed to free them. He claims in Galatians that the gospel he knows has not come from men, but from God by way of direct revelation.  "The tone of the book is warlike. It fairly crackles with indignation though it is not the anger of personal pique but of spiritual principle" (M.C. Tenney). Thus, Paul can say with vehemence and without apology or likelihood of change: men are justified (saved) by faith rather than by the works o the law. Anyone who mixes in works as a basis for salvation is preaching another gospel. And Paul places an anathema (a solemn ban or curse) on anyone who does this. In Galatians he summarizes the gospel he preaches. Later Paul will reaffirm and expand the central truths of Galatians in his letter to the Romans.

What Paul does not say is of equal importance, for there are some who think that the apostles James and Paul are in sharp disagreement. What Paul is saying is that men are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is always accompanied by good works; that is, the saved man produces the fruits of righteousness which are displayed in a transformed walk and a holy life. But works follow faith and salvation is by grace alone without works of any kind.