This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
Perhaps you’ve had a day like this. The alarm wakes you up, and soon after, you groggily reach for your smartphone to check on your schedule and see if you have any emails. A flurry of activity begins: showering and getting dressed, making sure the kids catch the bus, having a quick bite to eat, and then, the workday. Some sixteen hours later as your head hits the pillow, you feel a wave of shame as it occurs to you that not once in the entire day did you even think about God, let alone pray to him. For all intents and purposes, you spent this day as a practical atheist.
If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, you might remember that one of the greatest threats Dorothy and her friends encounter as they seek the Emerald City is not some terrifying monster—it’s sleep. The magical poppy field along the way makes them irresistibly drowsy and threatens to end their journey. Similarly in our day, we are constantly facing the danger of spiritual drowsiness. We live in what has been referred to as a “secular age,” a time when thoughts about what is eternal and transcendent are almost completely removed from our cultural understanding. The constant pressure is toward practical atheism, toward falling asleep to the glory of our God.
Galatians is given to wake us up. Because every aspect of Galatians turns our attention to God.
God’s Gospel . . .
The opening section of the letter revolves around one simple point: the Christian gospel is God’s gospel. This gospel is not something that Paul came up with through his own creative genius, and neither was this message something he received from other Christian leaders. The eternal God made himself known to Paul. Through the risen Christ, God is the one who told Paul the gospel. It comes from him.
The implications of this for Paul were clear. Since this gospel is from God, it is a precious gift, and it is sacred. It offers us words of life and freedom, for to hear the gospel is to hear God himself. And the converse of this is also true: to ignore it or pervert it is death. When church leaders and teachers adjust the gospel message or augment it to make it more relevant and palatable to their audience, they are pursuing their own destruction. That was true in Paul’s day, and it’s true in our day as well.
. . . Of God’s Salvation . . .
The middle part of Galatians focuses on the salvation that this gospel proclaims, and again, the focus is on God. These chapters declare truths that fueled the Reformers’ teaching. Paul vehemently rejects the belief that obedience to the Law of Moses—or any other form of human effort—in any way contributes to making us right in God’s eyes. Christians are saved by hearing, with faith, the gospel of Christ. It is a salvation that comes through the cross in fulfillment of God’s promise of grace and not out of obligation to what is owed to us. It is a salvation that is experienced in the power of the Spirit and not our own strength. In every way, our salvation is of God.
We often spend much of our energy pursuing our own salvation, though we likely don’t think of it in this way. We work hard to demonstrate to others (and perhaps to God?) that we are likeable, even admirable. We seek, through earning and through careful decisions, to ensure that our lives are secure and comfortable. We pursue happiness by the sweat of our brow. And yet the gospel teaches us that all that we really want and long for comes from God, and it comes to us as a gift, to be received by faith. When understood rightly, our entire lives can be lived as a joyful response to all that has already been done for us—by God.
. . . Into God-Given Freedom
Galatians does more than describe how our salvation took place. It also speaks of the outcome of our salvation—the life of freedom that salvation gives to believers. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul reminds us. And this freedom can only be understood in relationship to God.
In our day, freedom is about choices. Essentially, “freedom” is the ability to do whatever we want, as long as we hurt nobody else. Tragically, this understanding of freedom is destroying us, for it deprives us of the very things that make us most human and alive. Human wholeness only comes in being faithful to our commitments and principles, in showing sacrificial love toward others, and, above all, in worshiping the true God. And yet each of these are seen as contrary to human freedom, for each of them places constraints on us.
When understood rightly, our entire lives can be lived as a joyful response to all that has already been done for us—by God.
Galatians offers us a different, and far better vision of freedom. Freedom is to be, in Christ, a son of the Most High God. Rather than being a freedom from, it is a freedom for. It is the freedom to experience the love of God that enables us to cry to him “Abba, Father,“ the freedom of confidence, knowing that we are an heir to all of God’s promises, the freedom in the power of the Spirit to serve one another in love. This is a freedom that connects us more deeply to God in every way, and in this, we find life.
God’s gospel of God’s salvation into God-given freedom. That’s the heartbeat of Galatians.
In the morning as I wake up very slowly, my antidote to the drowsiness I feel is my first, glorious cup of coffee. Galatians is a spiritual cup of coffee, awakening us again to the reality of God in our world and in our lives.
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