The context of Galatians
Galatians is arguably the most misunderstood letter from Paul. A sound byte from this letter, lifted from context, can easily give the opposite meaning of what Paul intended regarding God’s law.
Peter saw this same issue in his day. He called it twisting Paul’s words and it resulted in being “carried away with the error of lawless people”.
“This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles,” (2 Peter 3:1-2)
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.” (2 Peter 3:15-17)
Since twisting Paul’s words can result in “the error of lawless people”, let’s take time to understand the background and surrounding context of Galatians.
Galatians was a letter
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was someone’s mail; written to specific people in a specific culture to address some specific problems.
Galatia (part of modern Turkey) had been absorbed into the Roman empire over a century. It had become largely Hellenized (Greek) and Paul wrote to them in Greek.
Galatians was written to correct a prevalent false teaching
The circumstance that prompted Paul to write Galatians was the same issue the Jerusalem council faced in Acts 15. Some men in the Circumcision Party were distorting the gospel of Christ by teaching that circumcision was necessary – for salvation. Paul wrote Galatians to correct this false teaching.
“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.” (Galatians 1:6-7)
“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in–who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (Galatians 2:3-5)
“For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” (Galatians 2:12)
It wasn’t that circumcision itself brought people into slavery. Rather, trying to obey God’s law, along with thousands of additional rabinial rules – for the purpose of earning salvation – is slavery. A modern word to describe law-keeping-for-salvation is legalism. Paul used the phrase, ‘works of the law’.
“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
Circumcision meant more than just a surgical procedure
Among first century Jews like those in the circumcision party, the word circumcision carried additional meaning beyond just the surgery. It also meant to become a Jewish proselyte. This meant going through a rigorous process designed by Jewish rabbis to learn the Torah PLUS all the Jewish oral traditions. At the end of the process, the proselyte would be a Jew.
In Galatians, Paul shifts from using the word circumcision (in their minds: becoming a Jew to be saved) to ‘works of the law’ (in their minds: becoming a Jew to be saved).