Galatians 5:1 is a transition from the scriptural argument in chapters 3-4 to the final section. In chapters 5-6 Paul will begin to deal with the consequences of legalism and begin to address a real problem for his view of the Law. If I am free from the Law, what is it that God does require of me? Is there another law, or set of instructions which the Gentile believer in Christ must follow, or is the Christian completely free from all restraints?
This is a difficult passage in some ways because Paul is very personal and emotional. Paul drives his point home using language which is jarring. If the Galatians return to the old covenant, Christ will be of no advantage to them and they will put themselves in very real spiritual danger. Paul’s use of shocking language in these verses is calculated and intentional – he is demanding that his readers make a decision to stand firm in the gospel now, before they accept the Law. It will take a conscious decision on the part of the Galatian believers to be “in Christ,” to live in the freedom of their adoption as children of God rather than to return to the now out-dated and obsolete covenant of the Law.
What would be the motivation for Gentile members of the Galatian churches to adopt Jewish Law? Ben Witherington suggests that by accepting Jesus as messiah and Savior, they have also turned their backs on the traditional gods of the Greco-Roman world as well as ritual observances associated with the gods. To accept Jesus as Savior is to reject pagan gods. By rejecting pagan gods, the Gentile converts severed many social ties and joined a religious movement unlike the rest of the ancient world. There are virtually no rituals in the Christian church other than an initiation ritual and a shared meal. There are no sacrifices or liturgy to follow, no festivals, feast days, temple or central gathering places. The Jewish Law, in Witherington’s view, provided an opportunity for Gentile believers to concretely express their Christian identity. Since Judaism was an ancient religion, Gentile converts could avoid the charge that they were accepting a new religion, a “superstition” which was suspect in the Roman world.
Here we see one of the greatest applications of Galatians to a modern church setting. Very few people would argue that Christians ought to be keeping the whole law (although there are a few). More likely is the claim that one must do a series of rituals in order to be right with God, or that one must subscribe to a particular doctrinal formulation, or that one must avoid certain lifestyles or behaviors. Paul never says that one must act like a Christian in order to be right with God – one is right with God because they have been adopted into God’s family and they are his children.
Paul is not talking about a religion in Galatians, but rather a relationship with God.