Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – Galatians

A Curse to the Curse

Though Romans 1:17 takes pride of place in accounts of the development of Martin Luther’s theology, the letter to the Galatians provided much of the theological vocabulary for Luther’s mature thought. In particular, Galatians 3:13 inspired the imagery that Luther used to describe Christ’s work in the atonement. 

Drawing on Paul’s argument that Christ rescued us from the “curse” of the law by becoming a “curse” for us, Luther formulated his pictures of Jesus as a curse to the curse, death to death, sin to sin. In this paradoxical language, he built on Paul’s conception of Christians as enslaved to the “elemental spirits” (4:3). 

For Paul and Luther, the curse of the Law, death and sin were not just abstract concepts or metaphors, but powers in the world that attacked and enslaved humanity. Through his death on the cross, Christ overpowered these spirits and rescued people from their clutches and, on account of this, Luther could call Jesus the curse of the curse, the sin to sin, and the death of death. This emphasis on the cosmic drama of salvation, i.e., Christ’s combat with the elemental spirits, differentiates Luther’s atonement theology. Unlike substitutionary atonement, Luther does not primarily use judicial language to talk about the cross. Unlike exemplary models of atonement, Luther does not see the cross as primarily something to emulate, because Jesus’ victory over the law, sin, and death is complete and does not need repetition. Though the influence of his theology of the atonement waxes and wanes, the vividness of Luther’s language continues to inspire.

Law and Gospel

The propensity of Paul to work out many of his arguments through contrasts (see for example Galatians 4:1-11) inspired one of the enduring frameworks for biblical interpretation, the contrast between Law and Gospel. Though the roots of this framework reach back into the early church, for example in Augustine’s distinction between the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life, Law and Gospel has an intimate association with the work of Martin Luther and his spiritual descendants. 

Luther’s study of Galatians, culminating in his 1535 commentary, helped him to formulate a way of reading that took into account Paul’s contrast between the Law as disciplinarian and the freedom granted through faith in Jesus Christ. The distinction between Law and Gospel owes much to Paul’s discussion in Galatians 3:21-24 in which he maintains that the Law cannot give life and functioned to imprison us until the coming of Christ who makes us free to be children of God. 

Luther’s leap in interpretation was to realize that Law did not just refer to the Mosaic covenant, but to any place in Scripture that disciplines and imprisons us. In contrast, Gospel, wherever it occurs, is the word that gives us life. Since Luther, this has remained a productive and popular reading strategy, though later interpreters have given Law and Gospel different emphases, often with regard to how sharply the two can be distinguished and whether a passage could be both Law and Gospel. 

The Third Use of the Law

Though the third use of the law as a technical term comes out of Reformation era theological debates, as a practical question, it has occupied Christians since the very beginning of the Jesus movement. The third use of the law is the question of whether, or to what extent, the law applies to those who have faith in Jesus Christ. 

The debate has its roots in Paul’s treatment of the law, especially in Galatians 3. There, he describes how “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed” and “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came” (3:24-25). He summarizes this discussion of the law’s function by stating that “…now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (3:25-26).

On one side of the debate over the role of the law are interpreters who see Paul’s use of temporal language (“until”) as intentional and decisive. As Paul says in Romans, Christ came to be the end of the law (Romans 10:4). For these interpreters, the law has no use for Christians, who live totally in the spirit. For others, it is part of Paul’s ongoing wrestling with the law. Paul wants to maintains its validity (cf. Galatians 3:21) while also underscoring Christ’s role in redemption. For these interpreters, Paul’s denial of the law is only in regard to justification, but in the daily life of the Christian, the law still provides a guide for living in accordance with God’s will. They point to the fact that Paul returns to the law when he gives instructions to the Galatians at the end of his letter (5:14). 

Wesley, Luther, and Galatians

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famously had his heart “strangely warmed” at a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate Street in London. The work that prompted this “Aldersgate experience” was Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.

Wesley wholeheartedly took up Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace through faith and he remained committed to that doctrine throughout his theological thinking. Wesley, however, did not become a Lutheran, and later became disenchanted with Luther as a biblical interpreter. The source of his disenchantment and his distancing from Lutheranism was Luther’s 1535 Galatians Commentary. Though some consider the 1535 Galatians Commentary as the crowning example of Luther’s mature theological thought, Wesley saw it as a sad departure from the brilliance of Luther’s preface to his  Romans commentary. He took issue with Luther on two counts in particular, namely Luther’s anti-rationalism and his lack of interest in sanctification

Wesley saw Luther’s treatment of Law and Gospel as totally ignorant of sanctification and thus defective. While Luther saw the Christian life as a continued struggle with sin until death, Wesley believed that Christians could and should aspire to their entire sanctification in this earthly life. This split between Wesley and Luther reflects a long-running debate over the uses of the law in Christian theology (see Third Use of the Law). 

The Fruit of the Spirit

Though the intricacies of Paul’s theological arguments in Galatians have inspired much reflection, perhaps no part of his letter has had more impact than his listing of the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23). Paul’s enumeration of the fruit takes place within the context of ancient vice and virtue lists, but it has turned into a shorthand for all of the attributes of Christian life. 

Children in Sunday school are often taught the fruit of the Spirit as an introduction to Christian living, which has led to many settings of the text to Bible camp music. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the fruit of the Spirit has provided the framework for sections of the catechism devoted to life in Christ, including in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope John Paul II. 

The Roman tradition, based on the Latin Vulgate, contains a slightly different list than English-speaking traditions based on the King James translation. The Roman list includes: charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity, whereas the traditional English rendering is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Though similar, the fruit of the Spirit should not be confused with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit given in Isaiah 11:1-3: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the Lord.

Children of Abraham

In Galatians 4:22-31, Paul reflects on the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael as a typology for Christian freedom in contrast to slavery under the law. While this typology has been influential in Christian theological formation, it has also formed a point of departure for dialogue between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. 

The three religions are sometimes referred to as the “monotheistic” faiths, but another important collective designation is the three “Abrahamic religions.” In all three faiths, Abraham stands as an example of faith and obedience, with two key events in his life being the departure from Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen 12) and the command to sacrifice his son (Gen 22). In each story, the three faiths see Abraham as an example of putting one’s trust in God. The three differ, however, in their understanding of Abraham’s children. 

For many Jews, Isaac, as one of the patriarchs of Israel, represents a literal ancestor. In addition, the binding of Isaac has come to represent the self-sacrifice of Jewish martyrs and Genesis 22 is one of the readings for Rosh-Hashanah. Within the Christian tradition, the church’s relationship to Isaac has been understood spiritually. This spiritual understanding is based upon Paul’s argument that Christians, like Isaac, are children of the promise (4:28). Isaac stands for the fulfillment of God’s word and the freedom found in Jesus Christ. For Muslims, it is Ishmael, not Isaac, who is the important son of Abraham. In Islamic tradition, Ishmael is the son who must be sacrificed, and he is considered one of the prophets and an example of obedience like his father Abraham. The festival of Eid al-Adha commemorates the story of Ishmael and Abraham.

Covenant vs Testament

Throughout the history of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, the concept of covenant has played a central role. Traditionally, Jews and Christians have enumerated four ratified covenants in the Old Testament, centering around the figures of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. In addition, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a “new covenant” that God will make with Israel, a covenant in which people will have God’s law written on their hearts. 

Paul, as a devout Jew, is familiar with this covenant language, but writing in Greek gives him a new opportunity for interpretation. The Greek word for covenant (diatheke) also means “testament” as in “last will and testament.” Paul uses this double meaning to redescribe the covenant with Abraham as God’s “testament” that promises an inheritance to God’s children (3:14-15). 

The letter to the Hebrews picks up this redescription and interprets it in light of Christ’s death: A testament only has validity upon the death of the testator. Thus, Christ’s death serves to make the testament valid (Hebrews 9:16-17). This tradition was continued in early translations of the Words of Institution. In both the Latin Mass and Luther’s German service, the  officiant proclaims that “This cup is the new Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” 


In Galatians 3, Paul sets up a contrast between promise and law, arguing that God’s promise to Abraham finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, not in the law. This theology of promise has inspired theologians to reflect on the ways in which God interacts with people. This reflection has inspired several modes of thought. 

One mode is that of Luther, who concentrates his theology of promise on the ways in which God speaks in the here and now. For Luther, preaching the Word and proclaiming the sacraments involves a repetition of God’s promises. Preaching and the sacraments do what they say because they are promises of God and God is always faithful. 

Another vein of theological reflection is the strain of biblical interpretation known as “epangelicalism” or promise theology (epangelicalism is derived from the Greek word for promise). Rather than dealing with the discrete actions of the worship service, epangelicalism re-reads the biblical covenants in terms of promise, interpreting them not primarily as agreements, but as proclamations of how God will deal graciously with the people of Israel and their descendants.

Luther’s Galatians Commentary

Though many works can lay claim to the status of Martin Luther’s “masterpiece” (among them The Freedom of a Christian, The Bondage of the Will, and the Genesis commentaries), Luther’s 1535 commentary on Galatians represents a unique opportunity to track the development of his thought. 

The letter to the Galatians was precious to Luther, not least because there was a tradition that the Germans themselves were descended from the Galatians. He also wrote a commentary on Galatians in 1519; the comparison between the two commentaries shows the ways in which Luther’s thought matured. The themes that he discusses in the 1535 Galatians commentary have continued to inspire and challenge biblical interpreters and theologians. 

In his commentary, Luther develops several themes that have characterized later Lutheran theology, including the distinction between Law and Gospel, the sacraments of promises of God and his theology of testament. The explication of these themes reveals the way in which the Reformation that Luther began can be seen in many ways as a return to the apostle Paul and his categories of thought. The 1535 Galatians commentary not only provides a glimpse into the origins of the Reformation, but it also serves as Luther’s commentary on its progress. Paul’s incredulity at the Galatians’ behavior serves as a point of reflection for Luther on the conflicts that the Reformation spawned both between Roman Catholics and Lutherans and between Lutherans and the Anabaptists.

Bridging Ethnic Divides

Paul spends much of his time in Galatians reflecting on specifically Jewish concerns, namely circumcision and the Law. However, he does so with respect to a definite question: how do those who are not part of the people of Israel relate to the promises of God given through Christ Jesus? 

Paul’s starting point always remains the same: Israel is the people of God and God has given Israel specific, unbreakable promises. However, Paul is certain that those promises extend beyond Israel to all the peoples of the world. Thus, in Galatians, he tries to work out how those outside of Israel can be incorporated into it. 

This emphasis on inclusion in the community of Israel has led to the branch of interpretation known as the “New Perspective” on Paul. The New Perspective argues that the Reformation emphasis on the individual and their relationship to God obscures Paul’s focus on bridging ethnic divides. The New Perspective has been helpful in reinforcing Paul’s commitment to his Jewish roots and his emphasis on communities. However, at times, the New Perspective is guilty of downplaying the radical nature of Paul’s argumentation and the way in which his solution to the problem of ethnic inclusion is at odds with traditional Jewish understandings. 

Galatians and Abolitionism

The role of the Bible in the debates over slavery in the 19th century was complicated. Texts from the Pauline corpus and the pastoral letters (esp. Ephesians 6:5-6 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2) were marshaled in support of the institution of slavery by Christians in southern states. In response, abolitionists sought to ground their opposition to slavery in the biblical text as well. 

One of the passages that they seized upon was Galatians 3:28, specifically Paul’s claim that in Christ, “there is no longer slave or free.” Paul continues his argument by criticizing the Galatians for returning to slavery, and the abolitionists applied this criticism to slaveholders. They pointed out that the slaves were baptized Christians and that the slaveholders sinned against them by forcing them back into slavery instead of allowing them to live in Christian freedom. 

This tension between passages that justified slavery and passages that condemned it led to paradoxical developments in American readings of the Bible. On the one hand, moral imperatives came to exercise great influence on readings of Scripture with a tendency to understand moral duty and conscience as authoritative. On the other hand, that moralism continues to seek a grounding in biblical proof texts. Thus at the same time, moralist readings of the Bible have both contributed to and fought against literalist readings and that tension continues to the present day.


Paul closes his letter to the Galatians by stating that he “carries the marks of Jesus on his body.” The Greek word translated “marks” is stigmata and it originally referred to the tattoo or brand that a Roman slaveowner placed on his slaves. Thus, in its original context, Paul is probably making another reference to his status as “slave of Jesus Christ.” 

There is no evidence that Paul had a literal tattoo, and many interpreters have seen the “marks of Jesus” as a reference to scars from the physical punishments that Paul suffered throughout his life including public beatings and stonings. However, beginning in the 13th century, the stigmata took on a new and more specific meaning. The source of this change was the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Before his death, Francis was said to have experienced a vision of a crucified angel. The vision left Francis with wounds in his hands, feet, and side that corresponded to the wounds of Christ on the cross. This episode of Francis receiving the stigmata has been memorialized by painters such as Giotto di Bondone and El Greco
Since the stigmatization of Francis, many Catholic believers, often members of religious orders, have reported receiving the wounds of Christ, including St. Catherine and, in the 20th century, Marie Rose Ferron, Mariam Thresia Chiramel, and Padre Pio of Pietrelcina.