Galatians - One family of Faith
Ever get confused reading Galatians? Ever wondered what Hagar, Sarah and the seeds are and how it all applies to us? PHIL CAMPBELL
Source: Perspective Vol9 No4 © Perspective 2002
Ever get confused reading Galatians? Ever wondered what Hagar, Sarah and the seeds are and how it all applies to us? PHIL CAMPBELL takes a fresh look.
1.0 Introduction – Christianity for Gentiles
Are we Christians “Israel”, or aren’t we? There’s one hermeneutic that says an unqualified “yes”. So, “the church” is read back into the Old Testament accounts of Israel. So, for example, the experience of Israel in the wilderness becomes the story of “the church in the wilderness”. Application is easy – with some precedent, given that Paul tells the Corinthians that “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.” (1 Cor 10:11) But there’s a danger – for if we identify too readily and too often with the Old Testament Israel, we soon find ourselves under Israel’s law. And as Gentiles, that’s something the apostle Paul tells us explicitly to avoid. There’s plenty of confusion among Christians about the place of the Old Testament law… one of the issues that Paul addresses plainly in his letter to Galatia. And there’s more to his argument than meets the eye.
1.1 Galatians – Early Observations and Overview
Galatians addresses the huge problem of bringing together Jews and Gentiles in one family. Whose family rules will apply? The problem in Galatia is not legalism, it’s “Torah-ism”. Ironically, reading Galatians as an argument against legalism is a way of keeping a greater place for the law than Paul would want it to have. The problem is not keeping the law “too much” – but wanting to impose it at all. Some of our evangelical concepts and key verses (e.g. redemption) may need rethinking in the light of the distinction drawn between Jews and Gentiles. For example, what if Paul is saying that it’s the Jews who have been redeemed from the curse of the law – a curse we Gentiles were never under? The coming of the Holy Spirit fulfils God’s plan and promise for the world, and is fundamental rather than peripheral. The Christian life is guided by the Spirit rather than by the law.
2.0 Holiness and Law
Many Christians would argue that we are saved by grace alone, but are sanctified by keeping God’s Holy Law. Once saved, our response to God is measured in our obedience in keeping God’s moral law – the ten commandments – but also in seeking to discern and apply God’s will from the rest of the law. So, for instance, a command about building walls around the roof of your flat-roofed house in Jerusalem is taken to broadly apply to issues of workplace health and safety and swimming pool fences. The principle is indeed the same; the wisdom is unquestionable. The application of these principles is seen as an appropriate response to God’s grace in Christ Jesus. But the question remains, where do you draw the line? If our justification is by faith, and our sanctification is by keeping the law, exactly which laws do you keep? And is that really Paul’s view of sanctification in Galatians? The simple answer is no – Paul says that sanctification comes not from the law, but from the fruit-bearing Spirit. Paul’s argument, then, is that for gentiles to convert to the Christo-Judaism proposed by his opponents, .they will simply be bringing themselves under a curse that Israel herself had not been able to bear – the very curse that had been removed by the death of Christ. As Paul says in Galatians 3:10, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’” And in 5:3, “Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.” I want to suggest Paul is not just talking about “justification” here. The law as a lifestyle is an “all or nothing” proposition. And to live under the law is to live under the threat of a curse that Paul says has been taken for Israel already, at the cross… why go back?
3.0 Things I’ve Learned…
3.1 Us, You, and We – A Missing Key to Paul’s Theology For me, working through Galatians with the constant perspective of being a Gentile – someone never in the past under God’s law – opened whole new avenues of thought. I think it’s a safe assumption that the Judaizers in Galatians are preaching the same message they were in Acts 15 – “unless the gentiles are circumcised and obey the law of Moses, they cannot be saved.” That’s a statement made about people who are already saved – having heard the gospel from Paul – and calls on them to take on a new, law-based way of life.
Significantly, too, it’s in exact continuity with the way Gentiles were brought into the life of Israel in the past. The claim is, to be Christian is to be Jewish first. Again, the question is not simply about legalism. It’s about continuity with the Israel of the past. It’s claiming that the entry-way to the Kingdom of God remained fundamentally unchanged – circumcision and law pre-Christ, circumcision and law post-Christ. Amazing things unfold when we reconsider Paul’s argument taking into the account the full force of his “us” and “you” pronouns.
You’ll notice the same things in Colossians and Ephesians. For Paul, “us” in the first instance refers to “us Jews who were under law”. “You” typically refers to “you Gentiles who were not under law” – but at times, has reference to “all you Galatians”. At significant points, Paul will speak of “we” or “us” (Jew-Christians) in direct counterpoint to “Gentiles” or “Gentile-Christians”. Finally, as Paul argues that “us” and “you” have been called together into one family, he’ll use an inclusive plural – “all of us”. Confusing? Maybe. But when you see it in context it starts to make sense. A careful reading of the “us”, “you” and “we” passages throws some key passages into a whole new light, and particularly makes clear, univocal sense of the whole issue of whether Gentile-Christians should live under the law. (It’s remarkable the number of references to “we Jews” that “we Gentile Christians” have taken as directly referring to ourselves! Where did we lose the plot so badly?)
It’s unsettling to have to rethink fundamental ideas. In this case, in some ways nothing changes. But in other ways, there’s a paradigm shift. Have you … gentile Christian … been redeemed from the curse of God’s law? Is that the key to your inclusion in the Kingdom? No. Because you were never under the curse of the law. That was Israel’s distinct privilege – and danger. Notice Paul’s movement from “us” to “the Gentiles” here… 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. Let’s do it again… 13 Christ redeemed us Jews from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us Jews, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ 14 He redeemed us Jews in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we all might receive the promise of the Spirit.
Whatever it is we Gentiles have been “redeemed from”, it’s not the curse of the law. In fact, the whole thrust of Paul’s argument is to say that the reason Gentiles should not be put under the law is that the Jews have just been redeemed from it at great expense. It’s worth noting similar “us” and “you” distinctions3 in Ephesians 1… 7 In him we (Jews) have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 And he made known to us (Jews) the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
11 In him we (Jews) were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we (Jews), who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you (Gentiles) also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit…
3.3 Gentiles and the Spirit
There’s a significant repeated pattern in Paul’s thought from Jews and Law to Gentiles and Spirit. The manifestation of the Spirit plays a key part in the argument at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. It’s also fundamental to the transition in Paul’s thought in Ephesians 1 (above) and through Galatians. The progression usually goes like this… We Jews have been redeemed from the law… you Gentiles are included by the Spirit. Or perhaps… We Jews have been redeemed from the law… and we know you Gentiles are included by the obvious work of the Spirit. Either way, it’s a progression that seems to appear repeatedly. Gentile inclusion is not by means of redemption from the law, as by reception of the Spirit. See it again in 3:13-14… 13 Christ redeemed us Jews from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
The significance of all this, I think, lies back in Deuteronomy 30:6, which foreshadows the eventual return from exile after God”s curse has been poured out: “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” The return from exile (brought about by Jesus, the truly repentant, pure hearted Israel returning to Jerusalem) will be followed by God action of “circumcising hearts” which Ezekiel 36 identifies with God’s giving of his Spirit. The covenant of the circumcised heart that desires to do God’s will supersedes Sinai. And the fact that the Gentiles are included – as promised by Abraham – is marked by the fact that their hearts have been changed too! 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you (Gentiles) receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?... 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Here it all is again from Galatians 4:4-6 … 4 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5 to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. 6 Because you (Gentiles also) are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father”.
This is the Spirit that brings about the fulfilment of God’s plans by changing us from the inside – the one thing mankind has needed since the fall. And it is the Spirit that brings about the righteousness we really need. According to Galatians 5:4-5, “You who are trying to be justified (declared righteous) by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” For Paul, the coming of the Spirit is no mere afterthought, but a fundament part of God’s plan and promise. Christ’s “completion of the mission of Israel” finds its culmination in the outpouring of the Spirit on Jews and Gentiles alike4.
3.4 Still the ONE…
A number of essays by NT Wright in his book The Climax of the Covenant were hugely helpful in making sense of Galatians. Wright is considered “off limits” in some evangelical circles through his work on “the New Perspective” on justification. The Climax of the Covenant stops short of the justification issue – though I suspect it sets the scene for a re-think. Wright demonstrates that the primary issue in Galatians is that of the integration of Jews and Gentiles into the promised “one family of blessing”.
Wright has been criticised for moving the focus away from Christ to “the church” – yet his arguments are coherent and convincing. In fact, if Christ’s focus and role was to bring about the “one family of blessing” promised to Abraham, then we are in fact being “Christ-centred” if we align ourselves with his agenda. In preaching through Galatians, the issue of building “one family from two” is on view more often that a casual reading suggests. A key essay by Wright unpacks two of the most difficult passages in Galatians 3, which effectively become the centre-piece of Paul’s argument. These are outlined below.
3.4.1 Abraham’s Seed, Moses the Non-mediator
Galatians 3 contains two notoriously difficult sections5, which both have one thing in common – in both cases, suitably obscured by the NIV translation. Both refer to “the one” – with no qualifying noun. The one what? In an effort to make sense of things, the NIV makes a stab at supplying the missing referent… but misses the point. The added words are highlighted below… 15 Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds”, meaning many people, but “and to your seed”, meaning one person, who is Christ. 19 What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one. Wright’s argument is simple. Seed means family.
Paul is not playing semantics at all – and the strange availability of so many “singular-plural” translation options (offspring-offspring, seed-seed) doesn’t help. Let’s clear the clutter by inserting family where it belongs… “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his family. The Scripture does not say ‘and to families’, meaning many, but ‘and to your family’, meaning one, who is Christ.” In other words, in Christ, we are called together as one family, under one set of ground rules. The context is, of course, whether the Gentile converts are to be brought under the existing family rules – namely, the Sinai covenant, expressed in circumcision and law.
Paul’s answer? One family, yes. That’s always been God’s plan, ever since Abraham. We’re to be one family of blessing, made up of people from all nations. But law? No! At which point 3:19-20 suddenly gain a whole new sense … 19 What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the family to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator (Moses). 20 That mediator, however, does not represent the one family; but God is one. God, the one God, is working towards one family. The Mosaic covenant, however, is clearly not the tool to bring about that one family. It was a covenant for Israel only, specifically to distinguish Israel from the nations.
The mechanism for bringing about the one family is rather, God’s promise. And Jew and Gentile alike are now called to be children of faith in the promise, rather than children of slavery to the law. This reading of 3:15-20 now moves perfectly towards re-statement and climax in verse 28… “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
3.5 Justified, Sanctified …
Righteous now or later? Under this reading of Galatians, traditional evangelical issues of “grace” against “legalism” are no longer at the heart of Paul’s concern. His greater concern is that there are some who have failed to discern the “turning of the ages” that has taken place in Christ. To live under law is to fail to appreciate what Christ has achieved – and to maintain a “wall” that should have been removed. I also have a sneaking idea that Paul is not just up against people who are pursuing “salvation by works” – but there’s a wider issue of those who want to gain “righteousness by works”. This is the point at which Galatians intersects with standard “Presbyterian piety”. It’s the distinction we want to make between “sanctification” and “justification”. Again, I wonder if Wright, Sanders, Dunn and others may well be right in saying we have too simply assumed “Pharisaic works-justification” as Paul’s background. The bigger question -in my context at least – is whether the appropriate way for modern Christians to pursue “sanctification” is by observing the law. Consider again Galatians 5:4-5.
There’s a symmetry here that’s again obscured by the NIV: 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. Is Paul talking about our “forensic justification in the past” here? It seems more that he’s talking about our “declaration of righteousness in the future”. And this is something that will in no way come from observing the law – whether for justification in the beginning, or sanctification along the way. It comes, instead, through the Spirit. And Paul goes on to detail the righteousness-inducing work of the Spirit in the rest of chapter 5.
4.0 Being Good – A means to an end? Or an end in itself?
To Paul, this righteousness produced by the Spirit is not just a “by-product”. It’s fundamental to what the whole thing is about. The Christian life is certainly not the life of slavery to law. But it certainly is the life of Spirit-fruited righteousness. And rather than being a casual afterthought, it’s fundamental to our salvation. According to 6:8, “The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life”. So, let us not become weary in doing good, says Paul, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. The righteousness he’s talking about here is substantial – not just imparted or imputed. And as the product of grace, we await it by faith – but it’s very real, and very much needs to be evident in our lives. Only good people will go to heaven. Is this a heresy? I’m not sure.
5.0 Hagar and Sarah & Avoiding Sinai…
It’s conventional for evangelical Christians to speak nicely about the Sinai Covenant, and to look for points of continuity between the old covenant and the new. Paul is not quite so polite. To his mind, the Judaisers behind his persecution are direct descendants of the Sinai covenant. They are not “legalists” – they are simply those who won’t give up the Sinai covenant, and now want to impose it on others. Paul’s bluntness can remain obscure in the Hagar and Sarah allegory (Gal 4:24-31), but add this up… “24 …(Hagar and Sarah) represent two covenants.
One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar … 30 But what does the Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’” Or to be a bit more blunt … “Get rid of the covenant from Mount Sinai and those in slavery to the law, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”
Galatians is a great reminder to Gentiles like us that being included in the family of God isn’t a matter of taking on Old Testament laws expressed at Sinai, whether for our justification or our sanctification. Rather, we’ve been included the family of those who are given new, God-serving hearts, by faith, through the work of the Spirit. And if we come to faith in Christ and live by the Spirit, there’s a great inheritance waiting for us, along with those who were meant to be part of the family all along.
Phil Campbell is the Editor of Perspective, and pastor of Mitchelton Presbyterian Church