Why All the Fuss?

Mark R. Talbot
Wednesday, July 2nd 2003
Sep/Oct 2003

You do not have to read far in Paul's letter to the Galatians to realize that he is upset, even angry. After stating his credentials and offering a short greeting to the Galatian churches, he launches right in:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed! As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed! (Gal. 1:6-9; emphasis added)

Further on, Paul reiterates his anguish and perplexity at what has happened to the Galatians as well as his anger at those who are troubling them. In the fourth chapter, he asks:

Have I … become your enemy by telling you the truth? They [those who were troubling the Galatians] make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, … my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (4:16-20)

And then in the fifth chapter he focuses on those who are unsettling the Galatians, once again: "I have confidence in the Lord that … the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is…. I wish that those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!" (5:10, 12).

Finally, he closes his letter with the injunction, "From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus" (6:17).

Paul, then, is really upset and perplexed by what is happening in Galatia. Something has made him very angry-indeed, the angriest we find him in any of his letters. But what is it? Why all the fuss?

An Attack on the Gospel

The answer is already before us: Paul is upset and perplexed and angry because the Galatians are accepting "a different gospel"-a gospel "contrary to the one we preached to you," a gospel that is not really a gospel-not really "good news"-at all. Paul is so upset about this because the good news the Galatians had previously received from him was not "man's gospel" (1:11) but Christ's gospel, received "through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:12). The teaching the Galatians are now accepting is, then, only human and as such actually distorts God's good news in Christ.

So we naturally ask, What exactly is this good news from God that was being distorted in Galatia? But since Paul is writing to people who already know what his divinely authorized message is, he does not need to repeat it; and so he never states in Galatians what the Christian good news is, as such. Consequently, we must read between the letter's lines to surmise exactly what the gospel is by noting what Paul says it is not.

When we do that, we discover that the distortions making Paul so angry are linked to Judaism and circumcision. In recounting the history leading up to his letter, Paul refers to his "former life in Judaism" and how he then "persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it" (1:13). He tells us he was then "advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] own age" because he was "extremely zealous … for the traditions of [his] fathers" (1:14). But then, he says, God was pleased to reveal Jesus Christ to him (see 1:16).

This revelation was so decisive that Paul felt no need to make immediate contact with Christ's other apostles. After three years, he did go to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter, when he also met James (see 1:16-20). Then, after fourteen years of preaching to the Gentiles, another revelation led him to go up to Jerusalem again, taking Barnabas, a former Levite (see Acts 4:36), and Titus, a Greek convert to Christianity, with him (see Gal. 2:1-3). He went, he tells us, to set before the Christian leaders in Jerusalem the gospel that he was preaching among the Gentiles, "in order to make sure that I was not running or had not run in vain" (2:2). His gospel, as he sometimes calls it (see Rom. 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8), did not force Gentile converts to undergo circumcision or to conform to other Jewish "identity-markers" (such as only eating specific meats) in order to be accepted as Christians (see 2:11-14). When Paul told Peter and James and John-the reputed "pillars" of the Jewish Christian church-what he was preaching, they did not object. They recognized that God had entrusted him with the gospel to the Gentiles, just as God had entrusted Peter with the gospel to the Jews (see 2:6-9). As Paul notes, "even Titus … was not forced to be circumcised" (2:3). Thus Titus became a living symbol of the freedom believers have in Christ (see 2:4; 4:21-5:2).

Paul takes the claim that Gentile believers must be circumcised (and, perhaps, follow Jewish dietary laws and so on) to contradict the very "truth of the gospel" (2:5, 14; cf. 5:7). This is why he felt compelled to confront Peter, when Peter came to Antioch. When Peter came he ate with the Gentile Christians, but he stopped when "certain men came from James" who represented "the circumcision party" (2:12). This led all the Jewish Christians, including Barnabas, into the hypocrisy of requiring the Gentiles to live like Jews when they themselves were living like Gentiles (see 2:13-14 and 6:13 along with Acts 10:1-11:18).

This hypocrisy existed despite the Jewish Christians knowledge that no one-Jew or Gentile-is justified before God by obeying the Mosaic law but only through faith in Jesus Christ (see 2:16; 3:11). Yet the circumcision party was claiming that, while Gentiles had become Christian through accepting the grace that God offered them by hearing the gospel of the crucified Christ with faith (see 3:2, 5, 14; cf. Acts 10:44-11:18), they now had to perform "works of the law" in order to be perfected in Christ (see 3:3-5). In other words, these Jewish Christians were acting as if, while becoming Christian is indeed a matter of accepting by faith Christ's finished work (see Rom. 5:1-2), remaining Christian is a matter of behaving in specific ways and keeping the Mosaic law, including the portions of it requiring circumcision and dietary restrictions, and so on.

Paul saw this posture as a frontal assault on the "freedom that [Christians] have in Christ Jesus" (2:4; cf. 5:1, 13). It attempts to put Christians back under the "slavery" that comes with trying to keep the Mosaic law (see 2:4; cf. 4:1-10, 21-31; 5:1). But any attempt to put Christians back under law-any law, Mosaic or otherwise (see 4:1-11)-is to be resisted at all costs: "Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you" (5:2). In fact, all attempts to be justified before God on the basis of any kind of law keeping are bound to fail because "by works of the law no one will be justified" (2:16; cf. 3:10-13). Indeed, "all who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them'" (3:10, emphasis added; cf. Rom. 2:17-27). The law cannot give life (see 3:21); we cannot be justified before God by means of law keeping (see 2:21; Rom. 3:20-21; Heb. 7:11-19). Indeed, if we could, then "Christ died for no purpose" (2:21).

The Spirit Gives Life

In trying to bring the Galatians to their senses, Paul asks them this: "Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?" (3:2). The reason he asks is this: When God called Abraham to leave his country and his kindred for a land that he would show him, he promised to make of Abraham "a great nation," in whom "all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:2-3). And Abraham believed God, and God "counted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6; cf. Gal. 3:6). Through Isaac, Abraham became the father of the Jewish nation, to whom God gave the law 430 years later (see Gal. 3:17). That law had a condition attached to it; namely, if someone were to keep it-that is, keep it perfectly (see Deut. 27:26 with Gal. 3:10)-then that person would attain righteousness and live (see Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5). Yet Jewish history in the Old Testament establishes that no one gained life in this way (see Acts 7:1-53). So, through his prophets, God began to predict what he would accomplish through the work of his Son, Jesus Christ. Through Jeremiah, he promised to make a new covenant with his people, a covenant unlike the broken Mosaic covenant (see Jer. 31:31-34; cf. Heb. 8). Through Ezekiel, he promised to gather his people from among the nations, to make them clean, to give them new hearts, and to send his Spirit to live within them and thus cause them to do his will (see Ezek. 36:26-28; cf. Joel 2:28-29). Thus God's people would gain life through the indwelling of his Spirit, rather than through keeping Moses' law (see Ezek. 37:14; cf. John 6:63; 2 Cor. 3:3-6).

During his earthly ministry, Jesus began to clarify the relation between his work and this promise of the Spirit. Shortly before his crucifixion, he told his disciples that he would not leave them as orphans but that he would ask his Father to send the Holy Spirit to them, to dwell with them and to be in them (see John 14:16-18). After his resurrection he told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem "for the promise of the Father"-that is, the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-4, 14-21, 32-38). Then, through Christ's apostles, God made it clear that those who put their faith in his Son's redemptive work are given the right to become children of God (see John 1:12; Rom. 8:16). It is to these, his adopted sons and daughters (see Gal. 4:5), that God sends his Holy Spirit-the "Spirit of adoption" (Rom. 8:15)-who then dwells within them (see 2 Tim. 1:14) and leads them to cry out, "Abba! Father!" (Rom. 8:15; cf. Gal. 4:6).

When God then poured out his Spirit on new Gentile believers, even Jewish Christians agreed with Peter that these Gentiles could not be denied baptism, which is the Christian initiatory rite (see Acts 10 with Matt. 28:19-20 and Rom. 6:3-11). And on being told about this, even the initially skeptical circumcision party were won over and then glorified God by proclaiming that "to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:1-18).

Now it was clear that the Galatians had also received God's Spirit and that God was working supernaturally among them (see Gal. 3:2, 5). Yet-and here is the crucial question-how had this come about? "Did you receive the Spirit," Paul asks them, "by works of the law or by hearing with faith? … Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith-just as Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness?" (3:2, 5-6).

The answer is "by hearing with faith." The promised Holy Spirit is received, not by doing works of the law, but through faith (see 3:14). For the Galatians, just as for Abraham, it was by believing God that they became justified before him (see 3:6, 8, 22). The righteousness that results in life does not-indeed, cannot-come by obeying the law but only through faith in the finished work of God's crucified Son, Jesus Christ (see 3:1, 13). And this is made evident by the fact that those who put their faith in Christ receive his life-giving Spirit.

It Is the Flesh or the Spirit, Works or Faith, the Law or the Promise

The Galatians had come to receive the gift of God's Holy Spirit by hearing with faith the gospel message that Paul had preached to them. They thus became sons and daughters of God. As such, Paul stresses, they are no longer to be slaves to the law (see 4:1-5:1). In other words, they are not to succumb to the circumcision party's claim that their justification before God depends on their obeying any part of the law (see 5:2-6). Righteousness cannot be achieved by observing "days and months and seasons and years" (4:10). And righteousness cannot be achieved by submitting to circumcision. Indeed, to cut off one's foreskin as a way to be justified before God is in fact to cut oneself off from the grace God offers in Christ (see 5:4, esv), the grace that circumcises our hearts (see Rom. 2:25-29).

In Paul's eyes, the issue is black and white. To perform works of the law in order to be justified involves relying on our flesh (see 3:2-3); and relying on our flesh inevitably leads to death rather than to eternal life (see 6:7-8). The flesh and the Spirit are irreconcilably opposed (see 5:17). Similarly, there can be no compromise between relying upon works of the law or relying on the work of Christ through faith: "the law is not of faith" (3:12). To accept circumcision-or any other part of the Mosaic law-as something that we must fulfill in order to be or to remain righteous in God's sight, obligates us to keep the whole law, which means that we are then no longer relying upon faith and thus have "fallen away from grace" (5:2-6). It is the same with the categories of law and promise: if the inheritance promised to Abraham comes by obeying the law, then it no longer comes by believing the promise; "but God gave it to Abraham by a promise" (3:18). "Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith" (3:24). This means that we who have believed are no longer under the law, no longer subject to the law like a minor child is subject to a guardian (see 3:24-25; 4:1-7). We are now, through faith, incorporated "in Christ Jesus" (3:26); we have "put on Christ" through baptism (3:27), and so we "are Christ's" and thus "Abraham's offspring" and consequently "heirs according to promise" (3:29; cf. 3:15-22). But those who live by the Spirit must walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh or by works or by law (see 5:25).

It is the stark opposition of these principles-flesh or Spirit, works or faith, law or promise-that has Paul fearing whether he has labored over the Galatians in vain (see 4:11). He knows it is impossible to begin the Christian life by the Spirit and then perfect it by the flesh (see 3:3). We must rely wholly on God's grace (see Eph. 2:8-9). A little of the leaven of the circumcision party will ruin the whole lump (see 5:9). And so the Galatians' flirtation with the demands of the circumcision party means that Paul must start all over again. The Galatians have missed the point of God's good news so completely that Paul is once again "in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you" (4:19). He knows he must argue again, as he does throughout his letter, that the very heart and center of God's good news is that our acceptance by God is wholly a matter of our accepting by faith Christ's earthly work. For the Galatians to have turned so quickly to a different gospel-a gospel that is not good news at all because it throws those who accept it back under slavery to the law-shows that their life in the Spirit has, at best, hardly begun.

From Plight to Solution

By stepping back a little, we can put Paul's argument in Galatians into its proper context. As Paul clarifies in his letter to the Romans, all of us, both Jews and Gentiles, know that God exists and that we ought to give him honor and praise (see Rom. 1:18-21, 28; cf. Ps. 19:1-4; Acts 14:15-17). Yet none of us has done as we ought (see Rom. 1:24-32; 3:9-20; cf. Acts 17:22-30); and so we all deserve God's wrath (see John 3:36; Eph. 2:1-3). We also know, deep down inside ourselves, that we deserve God's wrath. Whether or not we acknowledge it, we know that we are "without excuse" and "deserve to die" (Rom. 1:20, 32; cf. 2:1-29; Heb. 2:15).

We are, then, in a terrible plight that we may try to remedy in various ways: we may turn to idols (see Lev. 19:4; Deut. 29:16-18), perhaps even harming ourselves in order to get our gods to hear when we pray (see 1 Kings 18:20-29); we may erect altars, even to unknown gods (see Acts 17:16-23); we may drone on and on in prayer, thinking that this entitles us to be heard (see Matt. 6:7); we may pursue some hypocritical, false "righteousness" (see Matt. 23:1-36); or we may pledge to reform and do exactly what God commands, which amounts to trying to "earn" our way into God's good favor, legalistically (see Rom. 4:4; 9:30-32; Eph. 2:8-9).

None of this works: idolatry and false worship provoke God (see Deut. 32:21; 2 Kings 16:7-18; Jer. 18:12-17); he rejects vain words and hypocritical righteousness (see Ps. 4:2-3; Matt. 15:1-9); and we inevitably fall far short of doing what he commands (see Isa. 64:6-7; Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). Left to ourselves, there is literally no hope for us (see Eph. 2:12).

But into this hopeless situation the gospel comes as the good news that, although sinful human beings can do nothing to remedy their plight before God, yet "now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (Rom. 3:21-22; cf. 5:6-11). Our plight is solved "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith" (Rom. 3:24-25).

In presenting Christ as the Redeemer, God offers to us a great and gracious exchange (see 2 Cor. 5:21): If we will put our faith in his Son's earthly work, then God will place our sins upon Christ, so that he may bear God's righteous wrath by dying in our place (see 1 John 2:1-2), and he will clothe us in Christ's perfect obedience (see Rom. 5:18-19), so that we may stand forevermore righteous before him (see 1 Cor. 1:30 with Rom. 5:1-2). This exchange rests on Christ's having fulfilled, during his earthly life, his role as the "second" or "last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45) who, by his perfect obedience, has merited life for those who belong to him by faith (see Rom. 5:12-19; Heb. 5:7-8). We can stand justified before God, then, by trusting wholly in Christ's finished work rather than by boasting in our own work (see Rom. 3:27-28; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Eph. 2:1-10).

I think it is his grasp of this great and gracious exchange that led Paul to make such a fuss about the circumcision party's claim that, although the Galatian Gentiles had become Christian through accepting the grace that God offered them by hearing the gospel of the crucified Christ with faith, they now had to perform works of the law in order to be perfected in Christ. Christ's own perfect obedience is the only solution to the plight of sinful human beings before a righteous God. His earthly work allows God to display his righteousness, both in justly requiring death for sin and in being the justifier of those who believe in Jesus (see Rom. 3:26). By his own perfect law keeping, Jesus has won for us complete freedom from our need to keep the law in order for us to be eternally accepted by God. We no longer have to do works of the law to stand justified before God because Christ has done all that is needed. All that we must and can do is to trust in him. But if this is in fact true, then it is such gloriously good news that it is indeed, above all else, worth making a fuss about.

Wednesday, July 2nd 2003

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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