The book of Galatians is perhaps the oldest book in the New Testament. Of course, the Jury is still out, some say it’s James or Jude, but regardless a lot of scholars agree that Galatians predates the gospels and most of the other letters Paul wrote. If it’s not actually the oldest book, it’s certainly in the top 3 or 4.
Paul wrote this letter to a church that he had founded years earlier but which had fallen prey to legalism. Right from the start of his letter he takes pains to point out that he has authority to preach not from any man but directly from Jesus. He goes on to explain that after several years of mentorship and development his authority was affirmed by none other than Peter himself and James, Jesus biological brother and the official leader of the church in Jerusalem.
Paul taught the Galatians a salvation of grace through faith alone. But some time between when he left to continue his church planting mission and when he wrote this letter the church had been infiltrated by legalists who were claiming that adherence to the law of Moses and Jewish tradition were still required for full access to salvation.
Paul was incensed when he heard this and sat down to write what is nothing less than a scathing rebuke.
Words like “astonished”, “perversion”, “false Gospel”, “foolish”, and “cursed” practically jump off the page as we read through the first few chapters of Galatians. Paul planted a church that had strayed so far from his original teaching he could hardly recognize them anymore.
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? [Galatians 3:1-5]
The first century church had to wrestle with two competing visions of salvation; the way of law, which had been given by God verses the way of Love which had been taught by Jesus. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his response to a group that got caught up in law, later he would write to the Corinthians about taking their new-found freedoms too lightly.
Laws are like training wheels or a safety net. They are there to help us learn and prevent us from hurting ourselves but there comes a point in our development as humans where the need for strict structures is superseded by our ability to understand the intent over the letter of the law. If we are mature in our faith, we will reach a point of transcendence. In the words of the writer of Hebrews, the law becomes obsolete.
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. [Hebrews 8:13]
Holding on to legalism long past its expiry date creates barriers to relationships and builds fences around community. People who say “it’s in the bible, we have to do it” are slaves to the law and false believers who spy on and despise our freedoms that come from Christ.
The freedom from the law that Jesus taught is not only freedom from something but freedom for something. Grace motivates us toward loving our neighbours on a case by case basis. Grace should also lead us toward gratitude and a changed life.
Let go of legalism. It’s obsolete! And love the sinner for his own sake.