Patrick Henry’s words rang forth from St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775, as he closed his speech to the Second Virginia Convention. According to Edmund Randolph, the seventh governor of Virginia, the attendees sat in silence for several minutes after hearing Henry conclude, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Those famous words could be written across the pages of Paul’s New Testament letter to the Galatians. The situation the apostle addressed was as concerning, if not more, than the campaign for freedom faced by Patrick Henry and his fellow patriots, who stood on the precipice of the American Revolution. The fact that Paul skips over his usual thanksgivings and prayers for the saints points to the grave matter facing the churches of Galatia.
Centuries before a revolutionary patriot named Patrick rang forth about freedom, an apostle named Paul wrote these words to the Galatian churches, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). The “yoke of slavery” Paul had in mind was a distorted gospel preached to the Galatians by the Judaizers, who embraced Paul’s gospel teaching as long as it required circumcision and strict adherence to the Mosaic law, which it did not (Acts 15:1-5).[i]
In his book on Galatians titled Be Free, Warren Wiersbe writes, "Galatians is a dangerous book. It exposes the most popular substitute for spiritual living that we have in our churches today—legalism. … Millions of believers think they are spiritual because of what they don’t do—or because of the leader they follow—or because of the group they belong to. The Lord shows us in Galatians how wrong we are—and how right we can be if only we would let the Holy Spirit take over. When the Holy Spirit takes over, there will be liberty, not bondage—cooperation, not competition—glory to God, not praise to man."[ii]
The church is the custodian of the gracious and free gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and every follower of Jesus bears the responsibility of protecting it. Are you ready to defend the orthodoxy of the Christian faith as Paul did?
No Other Gospel
Paul begins Galatians by challenging those who object to his leadership. He establishes his apostleship as “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (1:1). By 1:6, he is already addressing the four-alarm church fire by saying, “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.” What does Paul mean by “a different gospel”? He quickly adds,
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. 1:7-8
Paul feels so strongly about the attack on the gospel that he repeats himself in verse 9 —“let him be accursed,” who preaches another gospel!
Every generation must fight for the pure gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Threats confronted the good news when Christianity was still in the cradle. Two thousand years later, sacred hazards still abound in many forms, including Roman Catholicism, Protestant legalism, Mormonism, and the Prosperity Gospel. Each are “different gospels” and represent some form of menacing Galatianism.
Paul continues and gets personal by talking about his own calling and apostleship (1:11-24). He wanted them to know that the gospel he preached was “not man’s gospel” and that he “received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” To solidify the point that divine revelation, not human reason, was the source of his preaching, Paul shares about his “former life in Judaism” and how he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (1:13).
Paul was a rising rabbi and advancing quickly in Judaism when God revealed His Son to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Afterward, Paul says, “I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” After three years, Paul traveled to Jerusalem and consulted briefly with Peter (only fifteen days) and James, the Lord’s brother, but not long enough for either of them to influence his teaching.
Fourteen years later, Paul returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to share another revelation the Lord gave to him about delivering the gospel to the Gentiles. He writes, “When James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (2:9).
Paul adds one more personal story to establish his apostolic authority. He reminds his naysayers that he rebuked Peter (Cephas) for his hypocrisy, saying to him, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (2:14). In Acts 10, Peter shed his religious pride and prejudice after meeting a Gentile believer named Cornelius; he also learned that faith in Christ alone meant freedom from the law, something Paul had been preaching for a while.
Paul states his thesis emphatically in 2:15-16,
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Rewind and repeat these words: “By the works of the law no one will be justified.” In other words, doing better, trying harder, or acting more religious will not save you from the penalty of your sin; it does not add to your salvation or sanctification.
Furthermore, Paul explains, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (2:19). Before he shifts to his doctrinal argument, the great apostle hits a personal high note when he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20).
No More Bondage
In chapters 3-4, Paul makes a theological argument for why the Galatians are free from the law as a means of justification, starting with the idea that those who begin in faith must continue in faith (3:1-5). After calling the Galatians “foolish” and “bewitched,” Paul asks three rhetorical questions:
- “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?”
- “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
- “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?”
Next, Paul reminds the Galatians that Abraham was justified by faith (3:6-9). “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” The same principle applies to us today.
In the following verses (3:10-14), Paul argues that Christ “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
The law condemns us and says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
Have you kept the Ten Commandments perfectly? If not, then you are cursed, until you place your faith in Christ, who took your curse upon the cross. Trying harder or doing better will not nullify the curse. What does? Paul echoes the remedy stated first by Habakkuk, the Old Testament prophet, who declared, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Furthermore, the law, which came 430 years after Abraham, does not void the promise God made to him. In other words, the Mosaic law did not change the way God justifies sinners, from faith to works (3:15-18). Justification was always by faith and made immutable by the promise of God. “Why then the law?” Paul asks. “It was added because of transgressions.” In other words, the law shows us our sin and the necessity of God’s grace through faith (3:19-22).
Think of Paul’s argument this way. Municipal traffic laws do not make you a good driver. They merely reveal the right standard by which the authorities judge your driving. When you exceed the speed limit, for example, the law condemns you. But the law cannot save you from the consequences of speeding. Justifiably, the police officer writes you a ticket and the traffic violation appears on your record. The law performed its duty.
Likewise, the law performed its duty, holding us captive “until the coming faith would be revealed” (3:23-4:7). “So then,” Paul continues, “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” By faith, we are adopted sons of God and heirs of His promise, no longer slaves to the law or prisoners of it. In summary, Paul says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5).
Finally, Paul expresses his concern for the Galatians who live as slaves to the law (4:8-20) and then makes his final doctrinal argument by drawing upon the story of Hagar and Sarah (4:21-31).
Abraham fathered two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, “one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.” Paul speaks allegorically about the two women and their offspring, and then he concludes his doctrinal argument by saying, “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman” (4:31).
Life in the Spirit
Until now, Paul has argued that the believer in Jesus Christ is free from the law as the means of justification. Those who “accept circumcision” have “fallen away from grace” (5:1-15). However, our liberty in Christ does not set us free to indulge the flesh. Rather, true freedom from religion rejects both legalism and licentious living, and is only possible by “walking in the Spirit” (5:16-26). Paul says pointedly, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law,” nor will you gratify the desires of the flesh. He contrasts the fruit of the Spirit and the deeds of the flesh.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 5:19-26
Paul continues by offering practical instructions to those who are spiritual: Bear one another’s burdens (6:1-5), share all good things (6:6), do not be deceived (6:7), sow to the Spirit (6:8), do not give up (6:9), and do good to everyone (6:10). He concludes with one more jab at the Judaizers and a warning to the Galatians, “For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh” (6:13). Bondage to the law for thee but not for me was the Judaizers’ attitude.
The loss of freedom is a serious matter in any generation, whether you are Patrick Henry or the Apostle Paul. Nobody should be under a yoke of slavery, especially the kind that comes from religious shackles.
How then should we live the Christian life? The answer is the same way we came to Christ, by grace and through faith. Paul says it best in 2:20, and his declaration is worth repeating: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Paul knew the course he should take by faith alone, and he led others to do the same. What course will your Christian life take?