Understanding the apostle Paul's teaching about law and grace in Galatians requires understanding the background—the heresies Paul was combating.
Trying to understand Paul’s teaching on law and grace by starting with the book of Galatians is a little like trying to grasp the plot of a complex movie by starting to watch it in the final half hour.
The reader of Galatians first needs to know the background—the unusual circumstances that caused Paul to write this epistle (letter) to several congregations in the region of Asia. Otherwise the reader is likely to fall into a trap of misassumptions taught by people who do not correctly understand the biblical doctrine of law and grace.
Coincidentally, the same was true in the first century. Even then, people tried to put a spin on Paul’s words in order to twist their meaning. The apostle Peter warned about this. “Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles ... in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Frankly, the doctrine of law and grace is one that many in today’s Christianity misunderstand. The common problem one encounters today is an antinomian (anti-law) prejudice. Antinomian teachers argue that Paul—and, indeed, the entire New Testament—taught believers that it is impossible to keep God’s 10 Commandments and that it is evil to say that God requires the believer to keep the 10 Commandments. Most of their anti-law arguments make use of this book of Galatians.
We recommend that you begin your study of this subject by reading “Law and Grace: Jesus vs. Paul?” The answer to that question shows that Paul’s thinking on the law is in complete harmony with that of our Savior and that God expects believers to live by His Commandments. That truth fits hand in hand with grace—God’s benevolent kindness that is given based upon His goodness without regard to the worthiness of the recipient. God stands ready to extend grace to all who repent (turn away from breaking the law). The irrepressible truth of Scripture is that it is law and grace, not law or grace.
Why was Galatians written?
That the letter of Galatians was written to deal with serious problems is evident from its beginning: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7).
This is not a gentle pastoral letter of encouragement; it is obviously dealing with a doctrinal issue—a heretical teaching!
The error infiltrated the Church over several decades through Jewish members who rejected the Church’s policy to allow gentiles to become members of the Church without undergoing physical circumcision. (See “Acts 15: How Was the Law Changed?”) Even after the Church had formally adopted this policy, these Jewish troublemakers were agitating for the Church to reverse its approach. The agitators possessed a truly legalistic mentality, urging the Church to model itself after Judaism instead of accepting Christ’s leadership.
The fact that it was necessary for the apostle Paul to write this forceful letter demonstrates that those pushing the heresy had achieved a foothold in Galatia.
Their argument centered upon circumcision, which is evident from this emphatic statement: “I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!” (Galatians 5:12). The original language is quite graphic, sarcastically implying that those who are so insistent on circumcision might as well go all the way and emasculate (or mutilate) themselves (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Word Biblical Commentary, “Galatians” by Richard Longenecker). Lest anyone miss the double meaning, circumcision involves surgical cutting. Paul is saying he wishes that these people who are so obsessed with that kind of cutting would cut themselves off of the Body of Christ entirely because their thinking has no place in the Church of God!
Therefore, the book of Galatians counters the mistaken thinking that salvation could be earned through some legalistic formula. It was not an argument against whether a believer was required to keep God’s law.
There is a world of difference between thinking that salvation can be earned by keeping a set of rules, and the fact that those who receive salvation must live by God’s rules. This distinction is repeated throughout the book.
Many religious teachers today reflect the widespread antinomian prejudice (opposition to any teaching that a believer must keep the law of God) when they comment on Galatians. They overlook the reason for writing the letter, which was to counter the heresy being promoted by the pro-circumcision Judaizers.
Some religious teachers today write or speak as if modern Christianity were in danger of believing that the way to salvation was through physical circumcision and other regulations. The idea is somewhat preposterous. Christianity isn’t in danger of being taken over by promoters of circumcision!
The difference between legalism and being law-abiding
Many today believe that the heresy of Galatians was that God required His Church to keep the law. They fail to see the difference between legalism and being law-abiding. Paul argued with equal force against legalism and for being law-abiding.
The analogy of how parents administer household rules illustrates legalism vs. being law-abiding. Legalism would be demonstrated by a home in which parents offer love to their children only if their children adhere to strict rules. In such a home, there are rules for every aspect of life from dawn to dusk. Harsh punishment is administered for breaking them. “Love” has to be earned. Of course, it’s not truly love, and such a home is dysfunctional.
By contrast, being law-abiding is demonstrated by a home in which parents love their children unconditionally but at the same time teach their children that they expect a definite standard of behavior. When the children fail to live by those standards in some way, the parents lovingly correct the children and require them to change their behavior. The children are always loved, but they are also guided through life.
God is a family. His laws are the household rules for His children’s behavior. He loves His children unconditionally, yet at the same time He guides them in how they are to live. When they fail to live by His laws—and every person sins—He corrects them, requiring them to change their behavior. Keeping His laws does not make people His children. They become His children in a way that is similar to how any human child’s life begins, which is explained in our articles on the process of conversion. God produces His children in love, and then He guides them in love through His beneficial household rules, His laws.
Being law-abiding is normal and healthy in both a physical family and in God’s family.
Any peaceful society expects its citizens to be law-abiding. A person who rejects and refuses to submit to law is considered a criminal! Likewise, it is reasonable, normal and, more importantly, biblical to believe that the citizens of God’s Kingdom, the members of His household, need to be law-abiding.
For further study on the difference between law and grace, read the articles in the section: “Law and Grace: What Does the Bible Really Say?”