Letters for Life: Galatians
(The intro to the series can be found here)
The book of Galatians challenges the fluffy, feel good Christianity of our day; the type of Christianity known only in terms of calendars with majestic images with uplifting verses; the kind of Christianity equated with bright smiles and neatly kept hair; the kind of Christianity that courteously steps to the side of pluralism or remains quiet in the arena of ideas; the kind of Christianity that would never ever kill a wolf, say a sharp word, or dare offend another.
Galatians is no such book. It is genuine Christianity. And as such, it shows us the sanctity, and by extension, the preciousness of the Gospel.
What Makes Paul Livid?
Imagine the apostle Paul sitting in his study, praying and reading Scripture. There’s a soft knock on his chamber door. It’s a messenger with news from Galatia. Paul thanks the man, turns, unrolls the scroll and begins to read. His face immediately grows serious. Upon finishing, he turns back to his desk, rubs his forehead and lets out long frustrated sigh. The apostle looks upset, if not irritated. After a period of silence, he prays for what seems like a very long time. Rising up, he unrolls a parchment, prepares his pen and begins to write.
“Paul... to the churches of Galatia...”
What irritates an apostle? Does news of sexual immorality fire him up? Certainly (1 Cor 5). Does division? Oh, yes. Sloppy worship services? Sure. But listen, if you really want to fire Paul up, I mean if you really want to get his blood boiling, tamper with the Gospel. Pervert it. Twist it. That, dear reader, unhinges him.
This is seen most plainly in the book of Galatians. And by adopting our particular methodology, there are a number of insights to be gained by considering the letter to the Galatians as a letter.
How Serious the Tone?
We can gauge the strength of Paul’s passion for the fundamentals of the Gospel by considering a number of points. Firstly, note the opening verses of Galatians. Something is missing; something crucial is absent. In the vast majority of his letters, Paul opens with words of encouragement. He often highlights the excellent qualities of their faith. In addition, he openly expresses his thankfulness to God for them, saying, in one way or another, “I thank God for you always in my prayers.” Even the Corinthians— yes, the chaotic and worldly Corinthians! –receive a warm welcome (1:1-9).
But where is the warmth in the introduction of Galatians? Yes, Paul opens with some lofty theological truths, but there is little to no hint of pastoral warmth. Rather he immediately plunges into a scathing indictment. He says,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1:6-9)
Note Paul’s astonishment. What amazes Paul? People forsaking the Gospel? Not exactly. He knows there will be some who will walk away. Rather, he is astonished at how quickly they are deserting Christ. It’s as if the Galatians are the Israelites waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain. “Moses is gone, let’s make a golden calf!”
So, yes, Paul is upset and shocked.
We also see his emotions bursting forth elsewhere. Consider a few examples:
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” (Gal 3:1)
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3)
“I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Gal 5:12)
I think the lesson here is this: There are times when it is right and appropriate to speak sharply. And if Galatians teaches us anything, it shows us that when the Gospel is being perverted, and especially when that perversion is coming from lips of false teachers, the situation warrants a strong hand. If we were to stand in the shoes of the Galatians and imagine ourselves receiving this letter personally, we would feel its sting. It would hit us in the gut. It would be a mistake, therefore, to act as if the core tenets of the Gospel are negotiable. And by extension, it would be a mistake to suppose that we should act the part of Christian stoics, as if we shouldn’t feel passionate about the truth; as if we should never express those feelings or express moral outrage and astonishment when that truth is being genuinely threatened. Paul didn’t. So neither should we.
But! But let us be sure that the situation warrants a strong voice. Paul didn’t have a suspicion about the Galatians, he knew they were flirting with heresy. And the Galatians weren’t simply in error about a peripheral (even peripherally important) issue, but the very core of the Gospel was threatened. Paul didn’t suspect a problem. He knew there was a problem. Let us likewise be sufficiently informed before setting off a nuke. And let us be careful to major on the majors and minor on the minors. [Oh, how the Reformed would do well to heed this point. One need only think of the various theological skirmishes over the past century. Why do so many tertiary issues get ratcheted up to near a Gospel denying status? Is God’s knowledge analogical or univocal (Think Clark vs. Van Til)? Is that subject important? Well, sure, no doubt it is in its own way. But should that lead to a split? Surely not. Should that controversy elicit language like that which is found in Galatians? May it never be!]
Call out the Error
Two more points. First, Paul calls out the false teacher(s) (1:7; 4:17; 5:10, 12; 6:12-13). He not only points a finger directly at them, thereby showing that he has backbone, but secondly, he directly addresses their error and calumny. Given Paul’s extended defense of his life and calling (1:11-2:10), as well as his flatly denying that he’s a man-pleaser (1:10; 5:11; 6:14), it’s evident that the false teachers were attacking Paul’s credentials and motives. But Paul has none of this. He refutes the claims with evidence and logic.
He also tackles the heresy head on. A large portion of Galatians is tied up with this (Chapters 2-4). Here Paul unleashes a number of theological and redemptive historical arguments designed to overturn their view. He writes forcefully and convincingly. The idea is to not merely knock down the heresy, but to shame and persuade the Galatians in the process- those brothers and sisters whom Paul is spiritually unsure about (4:11, 20; 5:4, 7). [That being said, he also voices hope (5:10)].
It would seem, therefore, incumbent for us to not only denounce false teachers (which is easy enough), but to convincingly refute their errors. This requires an adept knowledge of the Scriptures. But it is more than that. Our refutations of heresy should be evangelistic, so to speak. We aim for our audience to understand us. We want them to be persuaded of the error. It would be nice if the false teachers repented, but our focus is on the sheep. Here it’s worth observing that the NT doesn’t appear to be simply concerned with heresy in the abstract, but rather, the NT demonstrates a deep and profound concern for the sanctity of the church. In other words, the apostles bear their claws when the church is being threatened. They are concerned about the people under their care. As such, they don’t write for academic applause, but for ecclesial, sanctified purposes. They want to see people walk with Christ in truth. This explains why emotions cannot be divorced from confrontation. Passion is inevitable.
When we fly over Galatians and try to see the big picture, it’s quite evident that there are times for sharp words. But unlike theological message boards, where conversations almost always degrade into serious name calling (and over trivialities), Galatians teaches us what really causes an apostle to grow fierce. The sole salvific sufficiency of Christ, understood especially in terms of the doctrine of justification, within the clear redemptive historical shifts of salvation history, are of premier importance. And when this is genuinely threatened, and especially when it concerns those near us or under our care, it’s time to speak bluntly and even sharply.
You might want to check out the following message by Mark Driscoll, a modern day Luther in certain lingual respects: “How Sharp the Controversy? Christ, Controversy, and Cutting Words. You can find it here.