Letter to the Galatians

GALATIANS, LETTER TO THE. A short but very important letter of Paul, containing his passionate polemic against the perversion or contamination of the gospel of God’s grace. It has aptly been described as “the Magna Carta of spiritual emancipation,” and it remains as the abiding monument of the liberation of Christianity from the trammels of legalism.

The contents of the letter so unmistakably reveal the traces of Paul’s mind and style that its genuineness has never been seriously questioned even by the most radical NT critics. The testimony of the early church to its integrity and Pauline origin is strong and unambiguous.


The startling information received by Paul that a sudden and drastic change in attitude toward him and his gospel was taking place in the Galatian churches caused the writing of the letter. Certain Jewish teachers, who professed to be Christians and acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, were obscuring the simplicity of the gospel of free grace with their propaganda. They insisted that to faith in Christ must be added circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic Law (Gal.2.16; Gal.3.2-Gal.3.3; Gal.4.10, Gal.4.21; Gal.5.2-Gal.5.4; Gal.6.12). Paul realized clearly that this teaching neutralized the truth of Christ’s all-sufficiency for salvation and destroyed the message of justification by faith. By means of this letter Paul sought to save his converts from this fatal mixing of law and grace.

Because of the geographical and the political connotation of Galatia in NT times, two views concerning the location of the Galatian churches are advocated. The North-Galatian theory, which interprets the term in its old ethnographic sense to denote the territory inhabited by the Galatian tribes, locates the churches in north-central Asia Minor, holding that they were founded during the second missionary journey (Acts.16.6). The South-Galatian theory identifies these churches with those founded on the first missionary journey (Acts.13.1-Acts.13.52-Acts.14.1-Acts.14.28), located in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia. The former was the unanimous view of the church fathers. They naturally adopted that meaning since in the second century the province was again restricted to ethnic Galatia and the double meaning of the term disappeared. The majority of the modern commentators support the latter view for the following reasons: It was Paul’s habit to use provincial names in addressing his converts; it best explains the familiar reference to Barnabas in the letter; Acts.16.6 gives no hint of such a protracted mission as the older view demands; the older view cannot explain why the Judaizers would bypass the important churches in South Galatia; known conditions in these churches fit the picture in the letter.

Views concerning the place and date of composition are even more diverse. Advocates of the North-Galatian theory generally assign the letter to Ephesus during the third missionary journey, near the time of Romans. South-Galatian advocates vary considerably; some place it before the Jerusalem Conference (from Syrian Antioch), others place it on the second missionary journey (perhaps during the ministry at Corinth), and others place it as late as the third missionary journey.

The effort to date it before the Jerusalem Conference faces definite chronological difficulties. This early dating is not demanded by the silence of the letter concerning the conference decrees; the decrees were already known to the Galatians (Acts.16.4), and Paul, in writing the letter, would desire to establish his position on grounds independent of the Jerusalem church. Since he had apparently already visited the churches twice (Gal.1.9; Gal.4.13), a date after Paul’s second visit to the south-Galatian churches seems most probable (c. a.d. 52). During that second visit Paul had sought by warning and instructions to fortify his converts against the danger (Gal.1.9; Gal.4.16; Gal.5.3). The impact of the Judaizers on the Galatians threatened to destroy his work. The result was this bristling letter.

The contents of Galatians make evident Paul’s purpose in writing. The first two chapters show that he was compelled to vindicate his apostolic authority. The Judaizers, in order to establish their own position, which contradicted Paul’s teaching, had attempted to discredit his authority. Having vindicated his apostolic call and authority, Paul next sets forth the doctrine of justification to refute the teaching of the Judaizers. A reasoned, comprehensive exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith exposed the errors of legalism. Since the Judaizers asserted that to remove the believer from under the law opened the floodgates to immorality, Paul concluded his presentation with an elaboration of the true effect of liberty on the Christian life, showing that the truth of justification by faith logically leads to a life of good works. The letter may be outlined as follows:

I. The Introduction (1:1-10).

A. The salutation (1:1-5).

B. The rebuke (1:6-10).

II. The Vindication of His Apostolic Authority (1:11-2:21).

A. The reception of his gospel by revelation (1:11-24).

B. The confirmation of his gospel by the apostles at Jerusalem (2:1-10).

C. The illustration of his independence (2:11-21).

III. The Exposition of Justification By Faith (3:1-4:31).

A. The elaboration of the doctrine (3:1-4:7).

1. The nature of justification by faith (3:1-14).

2. The limitations of the law and its relations to faith (3:15-4:7).

B. The appeal to drop all legalism (4:8-31).

IV. The Nature of the Life of Christian Liberty (5:1-6:10).

A. The call to maintain their liberty (5:1).

B. The peril of Christian liberty (5:2-12).

C. The life of liberty (5:13-6:10).

V. The Conclusion (6:11-17).

VI. The Benediction (6:18).

Bibliography: J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 1865 (on the Greek text); E. D. Burton, The Epistle to the Galatians (ICC), 1921 (on the Greek text); H. Ridderbos, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Churches of Galatia (NIC), 1953; D. Guthrie, Galatians (NCB), 1969; H. D. Betz, Galatians, 1979; F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, 1982 (on the Greek text).——DEH