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Since the Reformation many readers have understood Paul and the rival teachers at Galatia (1:6–9; 5:12; 6:12–13) as being engaged in a fierce debate over the terms by which an individual may enjoy a right status before God. The Galatian rivals are advocating that the apostle’s Christ-believing Gentile audience (4:8–9) observe the Law of Moses and circumcision (4:10, 21; 5:8; 6:13–14) to enjoy the blessings of Abraham’s descendants (3:6–9, 13–14, 29; 4:21–31). Whereas Paul divorces faith in (or of) Christ from observance of the Law as mutually exclusive alternatives, the rivals affirm the Law and faith as complementary for a justified status before God (2:16). Such a reading may lead one to conclude that Paul was not overly concerned about the deeds of the Christian. The rival message, however, promoted far more than an avenue to God’s favor. The rivals were also offering a comprehensive approach to the Christian life through the Law of Moses. For Gentile Christ-believers who had left behind the concrete, daily structure of a pagan calendar and ritual, the Law of Moses offered a detailed alternative that was apparently far more concrete than what Paul had originally preached.

The apostle responds that the Christian life must accord with its origins in faith in/of Jesus Christ. A new life and new behavior characterize the Christ-believer. In chapters 1 and 2 Paul presents his life as consistent with and as exemplifying the “truth of the gospel.” In chapters 3 and 4 he juxtaposes faith in Christ and Law observance as mutually incompatible approaches to adoption into God’s family. In chapters 5 and 6 he contrasts the effectiveness of the Spirit with the impotence of the Law in combating the flesh. Ultimately, Paul underscores the otherworldly invasion of this present evil age.

Paul as the Embodiment of His Gospel Message: Galatians 1—2.

Paul introduces himself as “an apostle not from human beings, nor through a human being, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (1:1; all translations are my own). This emphasis on the supernatural character of the gospel ministry is a fitting introduction to the first two chapters, if not also to the letter as a whole. Paul preaches the gospel of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins in order to rescue us from the present evil age” (1:4). The apostle closes the letter by announcing that Christ has delivered his people from one age into a “new creation” where “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything” (6:15). A future reality is invading the present and transforming this evil age into something new and wonderful.

The danger, unfortunately, is that the Galatians are turning away from the one who called them for a gospel falsely so-called (1:6–9). Paul therefore presents his life to the Galatians as an example of the gospel’s invasive, life-transforming power (1:11–24). In his “former way of life in Judaism” he had been “advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] contemporaries” as one “far more zealous for the traditions of [his] ancestors” (1:13–14). He had been “intensely persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (1:13). Nevertheless, as Paul puts it, God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (1:15–16). Many have noted corresponding elements in this autobiography. In 1:22–24 Paul writes: “I remained unknown by sight to the assemblies of Judea in Christ. Only they kept hearing that ‘the one who formerly used to persecute us is now preaching the faith which he formerly tried to destroy.’” The description hearkens back to Paul’s “former” way of life:

Source: Gaventa, 1986, p. 316 (modified).

Formerly Now
1:13: violently persecuting the church of God 1:22: still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea
1:13: you have heard of my earlier life 1:23: they only heard it said
1:13: in Judaism 1:22: in Christ
1:13: I was violently persecuting 1:23: the one who was formerly persecuting us
1:13: I was trying to destroy it 1:23: now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy

A profound reversal has taken place. The gospel revelation changed Paul’s life, and his behavior now exemplifies that gospel.

The ancients lauded those who were consistent in their words and deeds. Philosophers sought to embody their teachings. Rhetoricians presented examples for imitation in urging their hearers to a particular course of action (paradeigmata; exempla; Aristotle, Rhet. 1.9.40; Rhet. Her. 3.5.9; Cicero, De or. 2.82.335; Quintilian Inst. 3.8.36, 66; Isocrates Or. 8 [De pace].36–37). Individuals might even present themselves as models for imitation (Aristotle, Rhet. 3.17.12; Plutarch, Mor. 544 C–545D; Seneca, Epistles, 6.5–6; 11.8–10; 71.7). Paul therefore presents himself as an embodiment of his gospel message. The Galatians ought to become as he is (Gal 4:12), especially in his abandonment of his former “zealous” observance. The Judean Christians were glorifying God for the transformation that had taken place “in” Paul (1:24). He had left behind a path of violence (1:13–14) for the way of peace (1:3; 5:22). Like the prophets of old, Paul is being shaped and transformed by his message as he is called to be a light to the nations (1:16: “in me”; cf. Isa 49:6).

Allegiance to an otherworldly gospel message relativizes human honor conventions. God’s revelation directed Paul to Jerusalem (2:1–2), where the “truth of the gospel” was not to be compromised (2:5, 14). Even as the gospel does not discriminate between Jew and Gentile, human status should not be overly esteemed. Jewish literature connected God’s truth with impartiality. 1 Esdras 4:38–39 describes God’s “truth” (alētheia) as without partiality (ouk estin par’ autē lambanein prosōpa). Sirach 4:22, 27 exhorts impartiality (mē labēs prosōpon) while stressing devotion to the truth (cf. Sir 4:25, 28). In 1QH VI(= XIV), 19–20: “I do not consider a bribe. I do not exchange your truth for wealth” (‘r ynp ‘ś’ ‘lw; trans. F. García Martínez). Luke 20:21 associates God’s truth with an indifference to human opinion. God does not consider outward appearances (cf. 2 Cor 5:12). The impartial truth of the gospel is incompatible with outward circumcision (Gal 6:12: euprosōpēsai en sarki) or ethnic exclusivism. The impartial truth of the gospel even takes precedence over apostolic credentials (cf. Gal 1:8–9). Paul resists Peter’s withdrawal from the table at Antioch in 2:11–14 as reestablishing a partiality that is inconsistent with the truth of the gospel. Gentiles are acceptable as Gentiles! Such impartiality also leads to remembering the poor (2:10).

As Paul maintains the incompatibility of faith in/of Christ with the Law of Moses in 2:15–17, he does not leave the motif of impartiality behind. All people prove to be “sinners,” and not just Gentiles, apart from faith in/of Christ (2:15–17). Jesus is not, however, a “servant of sin” (2:17). The Law simply belongs to an era that is passing away as “I” died to the Law (2:19; cf. 3:15–17). Even more importantly, in 2:20: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, in faith I live, namely, in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” No one may legitimately claim that Paul’s “Law-less” doctrine leads to lawlessness in view of the change worked by Christ. Paul will unpack the implications of this new life in Galatians 5—6, but the basis for that new life is in 2:18–21, especially 2:20. Truly God-pleasing behavior is grounded in the same faith in/of the Son of God that justifies the individual.

Paul regularly points to Christ as an example or pattern for Christian behavior (Rom 15:1–3, 7–9A; Phil 1:27—2:11; 1 Thess 1:6). The apostle bears the “marks of Christ” in his body (6:17). God has revealed his Son in Paul (1:15–16), and thus to receive Paul is to receive Christ Jesus (4:14). Even as Christ became as we are (4:4), so also I have been crucified, Paul says in 6:14. The Galatians should therefore become as Paul (4:12; 1 Cor 11:1). Those who belong to Christ crucified the flesh (5:24). Christ now dwells in the believer, who enjoys a new identity (cf. 1:16, 24). Christ refashions the individual and guides actions “in the flesh” (en sarki). Certainly the Christian cannot die on a cross for the sake of sinful humanity as did Christ, but Paul sees Christ’s selfless sacrifice as a paradigm for behavior within the community of faith as Christ is formed in their midst (4:19).

The Christ-Centered Basis for Paul’s Exhortations: Galatians 3—4.

With a series of rhetorical questions, Paul opens a new section of the letter in 3:1. Before the Galatians’ very eyes, “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” That riveted gaze on Christ’s saving work is always transformative. The “hearing of faith” (3:2) in the crucified Jesus Christ brought God’s Spirit (3:3) whose power is a prerequisite for believers to escape bondage to the demonic forces that hold sway over the present evil age (1:4). The Galatians began their walk in Christ with the Spirit, and their continued lives of faith should be consistent with the origin of faith. Paul is concerned not only with how the individual is justified but also with the ongoing nature of the Christian life. The Galatians are in danger of “ending with the flesh” (3:3), that is, with a power that is opposed to the things of God. An adoption of the Law of Moses (and circumcision) is, ironically, a yielding to the flesh and contrary to what God began in their lives solely on the basis of faith. Through the Spirit, God worked powerful deeds in the Galatians’ midst (3:4–5). A new age has dawned that is in jeopardy with the Galatians’ potential adoption of the Law.

Paul is not the only Jewish author concerned about the power of the flesh. In other Jewish literature, the answer to the flesh lies in the Law of Moses and circumcision. The author of the Qumran Community Rule (1QS V, 4–5), for instance, points to circumcision as the solution to the evil inclination: the community member is not to “walk in the stubbornness of his heart in order to go astray following his heart and his eyes and the musings of his inclination. Instead he should circumcise in the Community the foreskin of his tendency [rṣ]” (trans. F. García Martínez, emphasis mine; cf. James 2:21–23; m. Ned. 3.11). The apostle, for his part, engages in a double entendre with the word “flesh.” To entertain circumcision in the physical flesh is, ironically, to surrender to the flesh. The flesh as a cosmic power endeavors to express itself in the flesh of the individual (cf. 1QS V, 4–5). Paul develops the notion of the flesh as a cosmic power more fully later in the letter, but he hints at that development in 3:3 as he contrasts the Spirit with the flesh. Tragically, the Galatians are threatening to abandon the new era that has come in Christ—the “now” (nun; 3:3) of the Spirit—to return to the present, evil age (1:4).

God saves on the basis of faith (3:11–12), and by faith one becomes a child of Abraham (3:6–9). As for the Law of Moses, those who fail to obey all that God commands endure God’s curse (3:10), but Christ endured the Law’s curse to free the Galatians from bondage under the Law (3:13) and to grant access to the Spirit (3:13–14). In the latter half of the chapter, Paul adds that those who have been baptized have “put on” Christ (3:27). “To put on” or “to clothe oneself with” is a figure of speech from the Hebrew Bible for being characterized by the named quality or attribute. To put on Christ is therefore to be identified with Christ! Those in Christ are all “one” (masculine), that is, one person in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (3:28). Ethnic and social exclusivism must give way to a genuine oneness in Christ. Paul returns to the pairs of opposites that characterize the old era in 5:6 and 6:15: “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision.” In the last two chapters of the letter, he develops the profound social implications of oneness and identity in Christ. Those who believe in Christ will prove to be a different sort of people as they are transformed by the power of the Spirit.

The focus away from self on Christ crucified in 3:1 continues in 4:4–5 as the Spirit directs the individual to the praise of God as “Abba, Father.” That selfless orientation will become a major motif in chapters 5–6. Even as Christ died for humanity, faith is intrinsically other-centered, especially in the community of fellow believers (6:9–10). Christ must be formed in the Galatians (4:19–20). In imitating Paul (4:12), the Galatians are really imitating his embodiment of Christ (2:19–20). Paul therefore reminds them in 4:31 of their new identity: “Therefore, brothers (and sisters), we are not children of a slave woman but of the free woman.” “We” are a different sort of children as children of the free woman. Just as Paul begins chapter 3 by asking who are the real children of Abraham, indeed, of God, the apostle wants the Galatians to recognize and stand firm in that identity (4:31). The Galatians must remain what they already are in Christ.

Life in Christ’s Spirit versus the Works of the Flesh.

The once-neglected Galatians 5—6 has of late been recognized as a rather crucial section of the letter as Paul turns to exhortation. In many ways, 5:2–12 is reminiscent of 1:6–10 near the beginning of the letter. Paul employs a severe tone (1:8–9; 5:10, 12). He warns the Galatians that they are deserting the one who called them (1:6; 5:8) and are apostatizing from the grace of Christ (1:6; 5:4). The “again” of 5:3 recalls 1:9. The doubled curse in 1:8–9 presages the penalty of 5:10 and the emasculation of 5:12. With the echoes of 1:6–10, the apostle is signaling a pivotal section. At the same time, 5:2–12 also parallels the conclusion of the letter in 6:12–17. In both paragraphs, Paul strikingly writes of observance or nonobservance of the Law (5:3; 6:13A). He doubly emphasizes “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision” (5:6; 6:15), and he draws a relationship between circumcision and persecution (5:11; 6:12; Matera, 1988, p. 83). The links between 5:2–12 and 6:12–17 create an inclusio around the intervening material (5:13—6:10). The apostle is effectively contrasting the Law and circumcision in 5:2–12 and 6:12–17 with the Spirit as the decisive power against the flesh in 5:13—6:10. Ironically, the prized yoke of the Law proves to be nothing more than a yoke of slavery (5:1) since people are unable to obey the Law in the comprehensive manner that God demands (5:3). Those who adopt the path of the Law have cut themselves off from Christ and his grace (5:4).

Paul does not affirm the possibility of autonomous action. Christian behavior cannot be separated from its motivating and empowering source. The Galatians are led by the Spirit (5:18) and produce the Spirit’s fruit (5:22–23), and the Spirit prevents the believer from doing what the flesh desires (5:16–18). The flesh and the Spirit are two power-charged entities with humanity subject either to the one or to the other. They are not equal combatants, however. Otherwise the struggle of the Spirit and the flesh in 5:17 would hardly serve as support for the admonition in 5:16 to live by the Spirit. Only the Spirit bears the power that can conquer the flesh. Because of the Spirit’s presence, Paul can write confidently of the new behavior of the Christian even as he admonishes the Galatians to walk by the Spirit (5:16) and to keep in step with the Spirit (5:25; stoichōmen, not peripateō; cf. 4:3, 9, stoicheia [“elements”]). “Keep in step” derives, ironically, from military language for soldiers standing or marching in a row following their leader. If the Galatians are looking for the rule of law, they will find all the guidance and discipline they need in the Spirit. The marching orders are clear: they will be led forth by the Spirit (5:16, 18).

The Spirit of God’s Son (4:6) enables the believer to love as Christ loved and gave himself for humanity (2:20). Love stands at the head of the list of the Spirit’s fruit (5:22–23). Faith expresses itself in love (5:6). Freed from slavery to the Law and its demands, the believer is free to be enslaved to others (5:13). Indeed, such other-centered love is precisely what happens to the Law in the hands of Christ (6:2). Believers who do not set out to do what the Law requires “fulfill” the real intention of the Law of Moses (5:13–14). The ambiguity of the passive form of the verbs for “is fulfilled” (5:14; 6:2) expresses both God’s creation and the believer’s involvement (thus 6:2). Paul is careful to say that Christians “fulfill” the Law; they do not set out to do it. To endeavor to do the Law is to find oneself “under” it and enslaved to it.

Fleshly existence and “spiritual” existence manifest themselves not only with the individual but also within the larger society. The Spirit of Christ (4:6) brings to life a “new creation” (6:15). Christ has been formed in the believing community (4:19), a community clothed in Christ through baptism (3:27), and the corporate life of that community is the social embodiment of the self-giving Christ. Those at Galatia who are looking for a new legislation to replace Moses will be disappointed. Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruit offers, instead, a general outline of Christ-like behavior. Those in the community of the flesh, on the other hand, are characterized by a different sort of spirit that is manifested in the works of the flesh (5:19–21, a phrase reminiscent of the “works of the Law”) as they bite and devour each other (5:15). “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21). Paul’s vice list includes drunkenness, disputing, and quarreling, which characterize the pagan symposia gatherings. Idolatry and sexual sin take place in the context of the pagan temple and public rituals. The Spirit’s peace, on the other hand, expresses itself in the communal gatherings of believers. The flesh promotes strife and division between human beings even as the Spirit’s fruit brings forth unity and concord.

Galatians 6:1–10 stresses again that those led by the Spirit will live connected to a community of fellow believers. Paul alternates between corporate responsibility and individual accountability:

Source: Barclay, 1988, pp. 149–150 (modified).

6:1A Corporate responsibility—restore the transgressor
6:1B Individual accountability—look to yourself (you singular)
6:2 Corporate responsibility—bear one another’s burdens
6:3–5 Individual accountability—test your own works; bear your own load
6:6 Corporate responsibility—support those who teach
6:7–8 Individual accountability—how one sows will be how one reaps
6:9–10 Corporate responsibility—everyone should do good to all, especially to fellow believers

An isolated Christian cannot bear another’s burdens or share material benefits. A believer with no contact with others of the faith cannot restore another in the Spirit of gentleness. An unnecessary side-effect of the Reformation emphasis on justification before God has been a tendency to stress the individual at the expense of the community that God, by faith, has drawn together. The Galatian Christians have been set apart from this present evil age (1:4). Israel of mere flesh must yield to the corporate Israel “of God” (6:16). Christ must be formed in their midst (4:19). Again, note the plural pronoun for “you” in 4:19 (en hymin): Christ is formed within the Christian community! Paul therefore admonishes restoration of a sinning brother (6:1), warns of the dangers of boasting (6:3–5), and reminds of the need to support teachers (6:6). Whereas the “works of the Law” divide the community into Jew and Gentile, the Spirit binds the community together. If God’s grace is no longer limited to a specific people, then the good works of Christians need not be limited to the household of God (6:10). The faith that the Spirit works manifests itself in love wherever that individual may be.

A Greek-speaking person in the first century would likely have noticed in 6:1–10 the sheer number of words regularly used in financial contexts: “overtake” (prolambanein; 6:1); “transgression” (paraptōma; 6:1); “bear” (bastazein; 6:2); “burden” (baros; 6:2); “fulfill” (anaplēroun; 6:2); “examine” (dokimazein; 6:4); “work” (ergon; 6:4); “load” (phortion; 6:5); “share” (koinōnein; 6:6); “Word” (logos; 6:6); “sow”; “reap” (speirō; therizō; 6:7–9); “proper time” or “opportunity” (kairos; 6:9–10). Paul is clearly concerned with financial benevolence in several of the verses. The paragraph as a whole casts the net more widely to include failings of a more general moral nature, but genuine care for others must also include a willingness to share one’s wealth. The Galatian “brothers and sisters” are to act in a generous manner toward family members, and the sowing of such works for the good bears an eternal fruit (6:7–9).

The imperatival demand in Paul’s ethical admonitions is always firmly grounded in indicative expressions of the new reality in Christ. Those in Christ are a new creation. What believers do is grounded in who they are. In 5:24 “those of Christ Jesus crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” The aorist tense of “crucified” should be granted its full force for what the believer decisively did in Christ. The believer who crucified the flesh is holy. The death of the flesh is a past event; the flesh belongs to the old order that is passing away. The Christian is no longer a slave of sin (2:17) since the decisive victory that took place at Christ’s cross is also a decisive victory that took place in the life of the believer. At the same time, Paul’s confident statements in 5:16, 22–23, and 24 do not imply that the fullness of the age to come has completely exerted itself. As long as the present evil age remains and as long as the flesh seeks to regain control, the indicatives must give way to imperatives. A vicious struggle is still being waged. Nevertheless, even in 5:26 with its closing imperative, the emphasis remains on the positive, empowering action of the Spirit. In the conditional form of 5:25, Paul invites his hearers to recognize for themselves the new reality in which they share. The imperative in the final part of the sentence is therefore grounded in the indicative, the certainty of life in the Spirit.

Ethical Expression within the New Creation.

Paul warns the Galatians of the danger of capitulating to the Law and hence to the flesh. The victorious battle in the Spirit exposes the powerlessness of the Law of Moses for combating the flesh or enacting any real change in the present, evil age. The believer must remain focused on the crucified one, through whose Spirit the individual is incorporated, with others, into the person of Jesus Christ. The self-sacrificial love of Christ expresses itself not only in individual Christian behavior but also in the community of those bound together by the Spirit. That community wages war against the flesh with the power of Christ’s decisive victory. Paul grounds the behavior of the Christian in the reality of the new age inaugurated by Christ’s crucifixion.

[See also FLESH; LAW; PAUL; and SPIRIT.]



  • Barclay, John M. G. Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.
  • Das, A. Andrew. Galatians. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 2014.
  • Gaventa, Beverly R. “Galatians 1 and 2: Autobiography as Paradigm.” Novum Testamentum 28 (1986): 309–326.
  • Hays, Richard B. “Christology and Ethics in Galatians.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (1987): 268–290.
  • Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
  • Matera, Frank J. “The Culmination of Paul’s Argument to the Galatians: Gal. 5.1–6.17.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32 (1988): 79–91.
  • Matera, Frank J. New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
  • Schrage, Wolfgang. The Ethics of the New Testament. Translated by David E. Green. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.

A. Andrew Das

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