Studying Righteousness in Galatians: Faith, Law & Spirit
- 2008 10 Oct
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.
Righteousness by Faith (Galatians 2:14-21)
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.
The Law and the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26)
An enduring question of the Christian faith is, Do Christians need to keep the OT law in order to become mature followers of Christ? Does following God's law provide sanctification?
When the Christians in Galatia had received the Good News of salvation through faith in Christ, they had also received the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of their status as believers. Not only had God given his Spirit to them, but he had also worked miracles among them (Galatians 3:5). They knew from experience that the Holy Spirit has the power to make them new people, and Paul had taught them to rely on the Spirit to guide them.
Shortly after Paul left Galatia, Jewish-Christian teachers arrived who taught the need to observe God's law, both to be accepted by God and to be sanctified and become mature. They argued that Paul's approach to sanctification by the Spirit would lead to lawlessness and sin.
Paul responded (Galatians 5:5-26) that, just as God accounts us as righteous by faith, so also he makes us righteous by faith, through the working of the Spirit. Those who rely on the Spirit and follow his leading will not sin - God's Spirit will never lead people to sin.
The real problem is not a lack of understanding regarding right and wrong. Our God-given conscience tells us when we're doing wrong, and God's law makes the requirements of his righteousness even clearer (Romans 7:7-12). The real problem is that, by nature, our hearts are hard and sinful, and we lack the wisdom to know the right thing to do in a given situation. By nature, we are unable to apply God's word in a way that is consistent with faith in his love.
The law cannot ameliorate our condition (see "The Limitations of Law" at Rom 7:1-25, p. 1905). But when the Holy Spirit guides and controls us, he changes our hearts and guides us to do the things that please God (Galatians 5:22-23; Romans 8:5-14). God's Spirit guides his people to fulfill his law in its true sense and intent. But fulfillment of the law is not the goal or focus - the law is just our guardian (Galatians 3:24-25). The focus is on trusting God, relying on the Spirit, and loving others. God's Spirit gives us the will and the power to do these things and please God (see also "The Holy Spirit's work" at 1 Cor 12:1-11, p. 1945).
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