Studying Righteousness in Galatians: Faith, Law & Spirit
- Friday, October 10, 2008
Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from the intertextual commentary notes from Paul's Epistle to the Galatians in the NLT Study Bible (Tyndale Publishing House, 2008). Throughout this new study Bible, essays like these enrich the experience of learning while providing extensive prooftexting and cross-referencing. According to the NLT Study Bible team, because the NLT is already so easy to understand, the NLT Study Bible doesn't have to explain the meaning of the text, allowing it to focus on larger issues in the study notes such as the historical and cultural background that adds to understanding the text, and theological implications of the passage.
The key issues for the church in Galatia were: How do people become acceptable to God? What do people need to do to earn God's favor? How do people become members of God's family?
For Paul, the answer was simple: There is nothing people can or need to do. Only Christ could do - and has done - what must be done to make people acceptable to God. So we should simply receive his gift, gratefully thank him for what he has done for us, and trust in him.
For Jewish Christians in the first century, it was hard to accept this answer. From the time of Abraham, their relationship with God had been defined by circumcision, the rite of cutting off the male foreskin (Genesis 17:9-14). Every male who was part of God's family had to be circumcised, and those who neglected it were cut off from God's people. Those who had received circumcision were also expected to keep the laws regarding the Sabbath and what foods could be eaten, along with the rest of the law.
When the Christian faith moved from the Jewish to the Gentile world, it was natural for questions to arise. Do Christians need to be circumcised - and keep God's law in general - to be accepted as part of God's family? Or does God accept people purely on the basis of their faith in Christ's work on the cross? As Paul's mission to Gentiles advanced, these questions became pressing.
The apostle Peter understood from his vision in Joppa and his experience in Caesarea that God has accepted Gentiles as Gentiles, on the basis of their faith in Christ's finished work (Acts 10:9). They did not have to become Jewish by observing circumcision, for Christ provided them open access to God by faith. Peter and the Jerusalem church therefore welcomed Gentile believers into fellowship. But later, Peter temporarily withdrew from fellowship with Gentiles when some Jewish Christians criticized him (Galatians 2:11-13). In response, Paul rebuked Peter for communicating that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be accepted by God (Galatians 2:14-21).
No one is accepted by God and made righteous before him on the basis of keeping the law (Galatians 2:16). Even Abraham was accounted as righteous and accepted by God because of his faith (Galatians 3:6; Genesis 15:6) - not because he was circumcised, which came later (Genesis 17:9-14). Both Jews and Gentiles are accepted by God and made righteous before him on the basis of faith alone.
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