Beginning on September 12, I will be teaching through Galatians in my evening Bible studies. Why Galatians? Galatians is an important book for Christians to study for several reasons. First, Galatians is the earliest of the Pauline letters and is therefore one of the first documents written by Christians in the first century. Since I date the book before Acts 15, a study of Galatians helps illuminate the controversy in Acts 15 and allows us to see “behind the scenes” and hear firsthand how serious the problem was that lead to the conference in Jerusalem.
Second, Galatians deals with the first real controversy in the early church. In short, the book deals with the status of Jews and Gentiles in this present age and the applicability of the Law to Gentiles. Paul argues quite passionately that Gentiles are not “converting” to Judaism and therefore should not be expected to keep the Law. Gentiles who accept Jesus as savior are “free in Christ,” not under the bondage of the Law. Jews and Gentiles are alike in that they are adopted into the family of God and now serve the Father freely, not as slaves or servants.
Third, the book of Galatians deals with an important ramification of Paul’s view of freedom in Christ. If Gentiles are not “under the Law,” are they free to behave any way they like? Is Paul’s gospel antinomian in the sense that Gentiles can continue to live like pagans and still be “right with God”? Obviously Paul does not promote a sinful lifestyle, but why should a Gentile convert live a righteous lifestyle? Again, the answer is based on the believer’s status as an adopted child of God who is not free to serve God without compulsion.
Even though Galatians deals with a particular problem in the first century, the book is particularly applicable to the present church. While the Christian churches rarely demand obedience to the Law, the idea that there is an unwritten law which defines a real “Christian” persists. Many churches exchange the idea of “freedom in Christ” with a series of beliefs and behaviors which (re)define what a Christian is. One example: in some churches conservative politics goes hand-in-hand with being a “real Christian.” (A real Christian reads the Bible while listening to Glen Beck.) In other churches, a liberal political agenda is a sign that a person is a “real Christian.” (A real Christian loves Shane Claiborne and cares about the environment.)
I believe that a close reading of Galatians will show that neither of these extremes are accurate.