Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Galatians

rev. by Kristofer Phan Coffman (03/2023)


The presenting occasion of Galatians is the issue of circumcision (see 2:3, 7-9, 12; 5:2- 3, 6, 11; 6:12-13, 15). Although the identity of Paul’s opponents and the precise reasons for their opposition are debated, it is clear that some in the Galatian community were arguing that the promises of God belong to the children of Abraham, and that one becomes a child of Abraham through circumcision. Their pressing for the practice of circumcision (see 5:3, 11; 6:12-13), in addition to keeping other parts of the law (3:2; 4:21; 5:4, 18), thus challenged Paul’s gospel message and his authority as an apostle (1:1). Paul’s response is to assert again the heart of the gospel: just as was the case for Abraham (3:18), being a child of God is grounded in hearing the promise. God has acted in the death and resurrection of Christ to free all people and to claim them as children along with the children of Abraham. To hold to circumcision is to deny the cross of Christ and to reject the new creation that lives by the guidance of the Spirit (5:5-6; 6:15).

Doing the law or hearing the promise

To judge from Paul’s remarks, the key argument among the Galatians was over the question of how one becomes a child of God and is included among the children of Abraham. Paul lays out two options for the Galatians. It is either a matter of doing something or it is a matter of hearing something. In 2:16, he asserts from his own experience that one is justified not by “doing the works of the law” but “by faith in Christ.” In 3:2-5, he expands this by inviting the Galatians to confirm by their own experience that life in the Spirit is not a matter of “doing the works of the law” but “believing what you heard.” In carefully orchestrated arguments in chapters 3 and 4, Paul asserts repeatedly that, just as was the case for Abraham, so for those who belong to Christ: being a child of God is a matter of “hearing the promise” through faith (see 3:14, 16-18, 29; 4:23) and not of “doing the law.”

The faith of Christ

The NRSV text of Galatians 2:16 and its translation notes reveal differences among readers about how best to express Paul’s key understanding of faith and justification in relation to Jesus Christ. Twice Paul says we are “justified by” (“justified through” is also possible) “the faith of Christ” (a literal rendering of the Greek phrase pistis Christou). The NRSV translates this as “faith in Jesus Christ” but offers the alternative “faith of Jesus Christ” in a footnote. It is clear that for Paul the good news of the gospel begins and is anchored in God’s call by grace through the cross of Christ Jesus (1:6, 15) and continues in the life the Christian now lives by faith (2:20). The issue of interpretation hinges here on how best to express the difference that Paul describes between being justified not “by works of the law” but “by faith.” Should one describe this crucial relationship with the words faith in or toward Christ, that is, with Christ as the end or object of faith? Or is it better to speak of this relationship as a matter of Christ’s being faithful, or of “Christ’s faithfulness,” that is, to call attention rather to God in Christ as the author or agent of justification?

Flesh and Spirit

In Galatians 3 and 4, Paul marshals his defense of the truth of the gospel as being “justified by faith” (2:16). He begins by contrasting living by the “flesh” with living by the “Spirit” (3:3). “Flesh” and “Spirit” denote two opposing “worlds” or spheres of existence whose alternative conceptions define Paul’s argument throughout the letter, culminating in the contrasting pictures of life in the flesh and life by the Spirit in 5:16-26. To be in the flesh means to live by insisting on circumcision and “doing” the works of the law, to return to slavery, the end of which is death. To be in the Spirit means to have Christ living within through the hearing of the promise, to live in the freedom of faith active in love, the end of which is righteousness and life. The call of God in Christ and baptism into Christ’s death is the transforming event of new creation that transfers the hearer of the gospel from the world of flesh and doing the law to the world of the Spirit and the freedom of life guided by the Spirit.

Judaizers and opposition to Paul’s mission

The occasion of the letter is the opposition that developed to Paul’s message in the Galatian churches after his departure. Paul refers to these opponents as ones who are “confusing” or “unsettling” the Galatians (1:7; 5:10, 12). Since Paul’s is a passionate, even polemical, response, it is difficult to say confidently who these opponents are, other than that they preach a different gospel (1:6) and are seeking to persuade the Galatians that they need to be circumcised (5:2-3; 6:12-13). Paul’s example of his opposition at Antioch to Jewish representatives from Jerusalem, including Cephas–who he implies are “Judaizers,” that is, ones compelling “the Gentiles to live like Jews”–certainly invites application to his opponents at Galatia (2:11-14). Other readers, however, have argued that Paul’s opponents are more likely Gentile converts who have been convinced that following certain Jewish practices including circumcision is more in keeping with the Jewish Scriptures.


Although the conflict in Galatians is often portrayed as one between Gentile and Jewish “Christians,” it is probably anachronistic to talk about Christians at this point in history as though that refers to a definite group of people. Instead, it is important to emphasize the varied expressions of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the ways in which the first generation of Jesus’ followers wrestled with the question of how they related to the Jewish faith. Paul thinks of himself as a faithful follower of the traditions of his ancestors (1:14), and his opponents certainly sought to emphasize their ties to Jerusalem and Jewish tradition as well. The danger of using the terms “Gentile Christian” and “Jewish Christian” is that it could obscure the fact that everyone in the debate believed that they were faithfully upholding the traditions that went back to Abraham, the traditions to which Jesus himself belonged. The question is not whether the Galatians belong to that tradition, but, rather, how they belonged to it and whether physical markers such as circumcision had value to them.

Law and gospel

Paul argues in Galatians for the “truth of the gospel,” that all people, Gentile and Jew alike, are justified or made right and called to be God’s children by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not by doing the works demanded by the law (2:16). Such individuals have died to the law and now live by faith by virtue of Christ’s indwelling life. To continue to hold on to the law as having some place in justification, Paul says, is to pervert the gospel and make Christ’s death on the cross count for nothing (2:19-21). The natural question, then, is why God gave the law. Paul answers that the purpose of the law was to hold the transgressions of sin in check until the one heir promised to faith, Jesus Christ, should come and be given to those who believe. So the law was a “guardian” or “custodian” set in place until the coming of Christ. Those who have been baptized into the cross of Christ are really a new creation who no longer need the law by which to live. By the good news of God’s grace they have been set free and empowered to live for the neighbor through a “faith that is active in love” and so already fulfill in their heart and action all that the law demands (5:14).

Paul’s autobiography in Galatians 1 and 2

As part of the defense of the gospel that he preached, Paul gives an autobiographical account of his conversion, call, and early missionary activity (1:10-2:14). He roots his apostleship to the Gentiles in an original call of God and in a conversion experience through a direct revelation of Christ Jesus. The timeline implied by his reference to two Jerusalem visits, one three years after his call (1:18) and then again after 14 years for a council at which his apostleship to the Gentiles receives approval (2:1-10), is not easy to square with the account of Paul’s conversion and mission in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 9:1-19; 23-28). While here in Galatians Paul is concerned to underscore his independence from the Jerusalem authorities, Acts is much more interested in his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, relating it at least three times (9:1-19; 22:1-15; 26:4-20). Despite a roughly consistent outline, it is also difficult to fit Paul’s narrative in Galatians 1-2 to the schema of three neatly defined missionary journeys in Acts (see Acts 13:3-14:28; 15:40-18:22; 18:23-21:17).

Apostolic authority

In Galatians, Paul launches into a complex argument regarding the nature of apostolic authority. The first core group called “apostles” (literally, those who are sent), revolved around Jesus’ disciples, especially Peter, and John, and the brother of Jesus, James. Though James seems to have converted after the resurrection of Jesus, these first apostles all shared a personal relationship with Jesus and a Galilean ancestry. They had known him during his earthly life and experienced his miracles and teachings before his fateful entry into Jerusalem. Paul, on the other hand, as a Jew from the diaspora and a younger contemporary of these first apostles, claims his apostolic authority on very different grounds. First of all, he maintains doggedly that his authority comes from the Lord Jesus himself (1:1) through direct revelation (1:12). Second, and with great importance for the later history of the church, he claims that his apostolic authority is centered in his Gospel. For Paul, the correct preaching of the Gospel and only the correct preaching of the Gospel marks one as an apostle. Anyone who claims to be an apostle but preaches incorrectly is just a “so-called pillar” (2:9). 

Paul’s use of Scripture in Galatians 3:6-18 and 4:21-31

Paul repeatedly turns to Scripture for proof that justification comes through the hearing of the promise by faith and not by the doing of the law. He uses the example of Abraham to show that Abraham also believed the promise before receiving the law. He uses Old Testament references to cursing and hanging on a tree to find their fulfillment in Christ’s death on the cross. He points to the singular “offspring” of Abraham as a sign of its fulfillment in the one man Christ. Finally, in an argument almost unique in the New Testament, he resorts to an elaborate allegory about Sarah and Hagar and their two children, one born according to the promise and freedom, the other born according to flesh and slavery. Most of these intricate arguments will seem tricky, forced, or even unsatisfying to contemporary readers. The key is to note that they follow common practices of biblical interpretation in the ancient world, but more important, that in all of them Paul is reading from his conclusion. They rest on the conviction that the children of Abraham are those who in Christ are born according to the promise of the Spirit and not according to the flesh and the law.