The Interaction of Law, Works, Faith and Justification in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

The subject of Paul’s role in transforming what was seen at first as a renewal movement within mainline Judaism into the church of Jesus Christ has justifiably been an important subject for study by Christians and scholars in the years that have followed. The question of the value of the Law and works versus justification by faith is at the heart of the matter. F.C.Baur said that it was necessary to come to an understanding of :‘how Christianity , instead of remaining a mere form of Judaism…broke loose from it’ [1] and so became a new religion.

Paul’s career as a missionary was filled with attempts to deal with complex problems that  affected the new born church. His responses fell into three main categories – general exhortations to unity, love and holiness as we find in Philippians 2 v 2 ‘Be united in your convictions and united in your love.’ [2]; the purely practical matters as in I Corinthians 11; finally there were the passages such as we find in Galatians 3 where we have exhortations on specific matters  – in this case the difference between  an obligation to keep the Law which was being urged upon church members by the Judaizers and freedom in Christ  because of their faith in him and the promise of justification because of his sacrifice.

Galatians 2 v 16 is the central verse in this argument. I t is the point at which Paul’s theology of justification by faith is first mentioned. The statement seems to come out of Paul’s endeavor to define and to defend his views as against the views being put forward by his fellow Jewish Christians. In Antioch Gentile believers had been until this time fully accepted into the group that Jesus was the Messiah, a Messiah who had been rejected by Judaism in general. The leading Christians in Jerusalem had already agreed that Gentile Christians had no need to be circumcised – see Galatians 2 v 1-10 and it had been the custom for the whole group, whether from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, should eat together.  But we are told in Galatians 2 v 11 that some Jews had arrived who found such behaviour unacceptable.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written at a time when the church was very new and not entirely sure in every case what its beliefs and practices should be. Paul and his letters went a long way towards giving the church definite answers and so set the pattern for its future style as well as its theological basis. It is possible that the epistle to the Galatians was the first of his letters to be written to the churches according to Richard Longenecker in his commentary on Galatians. The fact that it is placed in our Bibles after the letters to the Romans and Corinthians may be because of the Old Testament tradition of ordering books according to the length of text rather than to any ideas about either  chronology or  importance.

 There was tremendous pressure on the Christians to become or remain a part of Judaism, what Paul referred to as ‘the circumcision’ in chapter 2 v 8.[3] rather than be a new creation. It seems that this was particularly so in Galatia, an area with a strong Jewish community present. Leon Morris gave his book on Galatians the title ‘Galatians, Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom’ with some justification. On the other hand C.K. Barrett called his 1985 study of the letter ‘Freedom and Obligation’ which sums up the two sides of this argument. Longenecker describes it as ’foundational for many forms of Christian doctrine, proclamation and practice.’[4] Marcion, compiled a shortened New Testament canon in about 140 C.E. H e included only one gospel, that of Luke and10 letters of Paul’s. All of these contained alterations and had omissions to fit in with Marcion’s ideas of Christianity. He put the letter to the Galatians as the first of the epistles. Marcion seems to have placed it there because of its anti-Jewish slant.

Justification by faith rather than adherence to a set of rules is a central issue in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church. It takes up a large central section of the letter – Chapter 2 v 26 -3 v 24. The dating of the letter is important. Was it prior to the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, that is about C.E. 48 or 49 when the question of circumcision proved to be such a contentious issue, or was it written rather later, after Paul’s second visit referred to briefly in Acts 18 v 23, which dates, according to J.G.Dunn, in ‘The Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians’ ( page 12 ) from the mid 50’s? The difference is one of only a few years, but it is important because it makes the difference between Paul merely citing theology his readers should already have been aware of, and him creating for the first time theological ideas.

The Jerusalem group would have expected that their ideas would be propagated in the daughter churches, but Paul, who was totally opposed to the majority view, had been the founder of many of those churches. In this letter he is seeking to distance himself from the Jerusalem group. Holmberg observed that ‘the dialectic between being independent  of and being acknowledged by Jerusalem is the keynote of this important text.’ In his 1978 book ‘Paul and Power’.[5]

Paul’s rebuke to Peter regarding his change of actions when confronted with folk from Jerusalem merges into his strong message to the Galatians found in 2 v 15 – 21. He is absolutely certain that justification comes about by faith rather than adherence to the law and is totally opposed to any backing down from this position which is just what he accuses Peter of having done. In chapter 2 v 5 he says ‘I refused even out of deference to yield to such people even for a moment’[6]. He goes on to give examples e.g. 3 v 6 ‘Take Abraham for example : he put his faith in God , and this faith was considered as justifying him’. [7] This is an important point to Paul and he expands on it at some length, but his point can be summed up in 3 v 8 and 9 :-

Scripture foresaw that God was going to use faith to justify the pagans, and proclaimed the Good News long ago when Abraham was told: In you all the pagans will be blessed. Those therefore who rely on faith receive the same blessing as Abraham, the man of faith.

Abraham lived of course at a time before the Law had been proclaimed

This is a letter full of fire and passion, so concerned is Paul that the Galatians would have a true understanding of what saving faith was. Bruce Longenecker describes this in his chapter on Galatians in the Cambridge Companion to St Paul as ‘fighting for the spiritual health of Galatian communities’.[8]He asks for instance in Chapter 3 v 1 ‘Are you Galatians mad?[9] a phrase that the King James Bible renders as ‘O foolish Galatians!’ He is also fighting for his status as an apostle. What the Judaizers were saying was in opposition to the gospel as Paul had taught it.

In commenting upon this passage Luther makes several points. First that Paul was doing what he felt to be right in condemning their behaviour. In II Timothy 4 v 2 he would tell him to ‘proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it. Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience – but do it all with patience and with the intention of teaching.’ and here we have him practicing that exhortation for himself.[10]New teachers had come along, supposedly to build upon the basic faith that Paul had taught and to help these new Christians to maturity, but instead they were saying ‘Yes, but you need to do what the apostles did and be circumcised’. Wasn’t that is in the scriptures, which even Paul acknowledged as holy? He seems to have written the letter as soon as he heard what was happening. Paul’s gospel did not consist of keeping rules, but of accepting God’s gift of salvation. In Chapter 2 v 16 he contends ‘We hold that faith in Christ rather than fidelity to the Law [11]is what justifies us, and that no one can be justified by keeping the Law.’ He asks them in chapter 3 v 2 ‘Was it because you practised the Law that you received the Spirit, or because you believed what was preached to you?’[12] In Chapter 3 v 6-14 Paul sets out to prove the doctrine which he felt the Galatians were rejecting. Chapter 3 v 12 in the Weymouth translation says ‘the Law has nothing to do with faith’. Darby says ‘the law is not on the principle of faith’ and the New American Standard Bible renders Paul’s words as ‘The Law is not of faith. On the contrary.’ The People’s New Testament has ‘The law is not of faith. Is not a system of faith, but proclaims life by doing the law, rather than by faith.’ The parallel Old Testament passage is found in Leviticus 18 v 5 ‘I am Yahweh your God. You must keep my laws and my customs. Whoever complies with them will find life in them’.

Paul on the other hand felt that true life, freedom, was to be found in Christ. In Chapter 5 he tells his readers that Christ meant them to be free and to remain so. ‘do not submit again to the yoke of slavery’ he tells them in chapter 5 v1.[13]

At times the apostle is so concerned to prove his point that he uses arguments that many would feel are doubtful, as when in Galatians 3 v 16 he emphasizes the fact  that the word ‘offspring ‘ in Hebrew is single and must therefore refer to Christ alone rather than to the Jewish nation. This sort of use just proves how Christ centered was his theology. Later in the same chapter, 3 v 29 he uses the same word to mean the plural when he tells his readers ‘by belonging to Christ you are the posterity of Abraham, the heirs he was promised.’[14]

Law is a major concern throughout this epistle. The word ‘Nomos’ or Law occurs 32 times . Only in the Letter to the Romans does it occur more frequently. It is in this letter however that Paul reveals the law and faith in Christ to be so opposed to each other and that is faith which must be the standard for all Christian from whatever background.

That is not to say that Paul objected to Jewish Christians keeping the Law. We know that at times he complied with it himself, as when he circumcised Timothy, though Luke does tell us, that this was because of Jews in the area.[15] He wanted Timothy as a travelling companion and this would have made it easier for him to be accepted in synagogues. This doesn’t seem so odd when we remember that at this early in the church’s existence it was Jews who were in the main the proclaimers of the Good News.  In recent years there have been new ideas on the subject of Paul’s theology. Spurgeon said that’ No scripture is exhausted by a single explanation’ [16]and so it has proved in the case of Galatians.

 James Dunn[17] argues that it was Paul who brought to a climax the tension between gospel and law that was already present, and which had been so from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as in Mark 7 v 1-23. Paul reminds them in Galatians 2 v 9 that he came to them in the first instance with the blessing of James, Peter and John, none of whom expected Gentiles to become circumcised.[18] ‘James, Cephas and John, these leaders, these pillars, shook hands with Barnabus and me as a sign of our partnership: we were to go to the pagans and they to the circumcised.’

 This call to the Gentiles seems to have been in response to a vision which Paul described to the Jews of Jerusalem in Acts 22 v 17 – 21. The Lord tells him that his message will not be accepted by the people of Jerusalem and God says to him ‘Go, I am sending you out to the pagans far away.’[19] Galatians 1 v 16 tells us that ‘I did not stop to discuss this with any human being.’[20] Paul did not feel the need to consult with others because he felt he had divine authority. One point that has been much commented upon by various Bible scholars is that Paul saw what most would describe as the moment of his conversion as his time of commissioning.

During the last 30 years new ideas have been put forward regarding Paul and the Judeo/Christian debate. There have been a number of scholars involved including J.G. Dunn, N.T.Wright and E.P.Sanders who have looked at Paul and his epistles in a fresh way, separating it from the Protestant/Catholic discussions of the intervening centuries. They seek recognition that Judaism is not a religion of self-righteousness by which people humankind seek to merit salvation. Paul’s argument with the Judaizers they say was not about grace versus legalism according to the Paul Page which is dedicated to the New Perspective on St Paul. The phrase was first used by James Dunn in a 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture and refers to a shift in Christian thinking about Paul’s theology following the publication in 1977 of ‘Paul and Palestinian Judaism’ by E.P.Sanders. The various scholars, such as  Paul’s  argument was about the status of Gentile believers in the church. His doctrine of justification had more to do with issues  between the Judaizers and the Gentiles than with questions of the individual’s status before God. This new outlook it is claimed will bring about a better understanding of both St Paul and life in the early years of the church, as well as being a means of reconciling Biblical scholarship and theology and give a theological basis for social justice. This will it is believed build common ground between the Catholic and Protestant churches and at the same time enable better dialogue between Christian and Jews. Dunn believes that Judaism saw the law as both separating them to God and as separating them from others. Paul he says was working hard to break down the barriers that such ideas constructed. Dunn says that the shift in thinking began with the work of W.H.Davies who, in protest against the concentration of study about Paul’s Hellenic background, said that was more important, in order to obtain a better understanding of the apostle, to concentrate upon his origins in Judaism.[21]

The arguments are not accepted by all, especially not by the most conservative followers of Calvin’s teaching, but have been expounded upon by such evangelicals as N.T.Wright in books such as ‘What St Paul Really Said’ 1997 and  ‘New Perspectives on Paul’, 2003. In a lecture given in Edinburgh Wright, with the voice or reason perhaps, claims that both sides in the argument may have a wrong view to some extent and:

            I believe that Luther, Calvin, and many of the others would tell us to

 read scripture afresh, with all the tools available to us – which is after

 all what they did – and to treat their own doctrinal conclusions as important

 but not as important as scripture itself. That is what I have tried to do, and

 I believe I am honouring them thereby.’[22]

We read Paul’s letters from a distance, with a certain coolness leant by time, but he was in deadly earnest and felt that believing they were justified by faith in salvation through Christ was a matter of life and death for the young church. This did not mean however that by discarding the Law of Israel they were free to do what they wanted. In Galatians 5 he expands upon the subject of Christian liberty, but it is a liberty to serve, guided by the Spirit of God, not a spirit of self indulgence as he makes plain and so he speaks of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control.

In Galatians 5 v 13 he describes them as the called and , because we cannot entirely separate this letter from the remainder of Paul’s writing, we can turn to Romans 8 v 30, a letter he wrote soon afterwards, and in which he says  ‘ those he calls he justifies’.[23] N.T. Wright’s position is that all who accept Christ as Saviour are in the kingdom of God whatever their beliefs about justification by faith.

In almost the final words of the letter to the Galatians he claims that those who wanted to impose the full measure of the Jewish law were only doing so for selfish motives. He is not denying that someone who had been circumcised could follow Christ. He simply sees it as irrelevant to the mater. What should concern them he says is whether or not they are a new creature i.e. whether or not they have been born again.[24] As far as he is concerned that should settle the matter settle the matter once and for all. Commenting on the book ‘What Paul Really Said’ by N.T.Wright , Andreas Köstenberger says that Paul saw Christ as having victory over ‘principalities and powers’. Paul believed that it was the righteousness of God, through Christ which acquits Christians from sin. In this he differs somewhat from Luther who referred to God’s distributive justice. In his commentary on Galatians Luther is firmly of the opinion that even if it were possible for anyone to keep the whole law that would not save them. He places the Catholic church at that time as one which promoted the idea that works could bring about salvation.[25]’ The true way of becoming a Christian is to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by the works of the Law.’ He states quite clearly in his commentary on Galatians 2 v 16. Paul’s rebuke of Peter was Luther says, ‘to conserve the difference between the Gospel which justifies in heaven, and the Law which justifies on earth’.

Calvin considered Galatians to contain such important ideas that we know he preached more than 40 sermons on this one letter between November 1587 and May 1588. He speaks of how important freedom is to man in this life and how much more important it must be eternally.[26] Like Luther he was reacting to what he saw as the faults of the church of Rome but he nevertheless makes valid points. He makes reference to Romans 4 v 15 for instance which states that the Law involves the possibility of punishment for sin. In order to have a proper understanding gospel Calvin tells us that we must recognize our need to rely entirely upon Christ and his mercy. New ideas may have come along since that time regarding the position and motives of St Paul, but this would remain central to his arguments.

In his 1990 book ‘Jesus, Paul and the Law’ James Dunn gives credit to other scholars, but in chapter 7 states that the historic image we have of 1st century Judaism they have given us may be mistaken. He refers to the 1977 book [27] ‘Paul and Palestinian Judaism’ by E.P.Sanders who stated that ‘the picture of Judaism drawn from Paul’s writings is historically false’. Dunn goes as far as saying that Paul’s fellow Jews would scarcely have recognized themselves – a point that has been put forward by Jewish scholars  many times. He also quotes James Parkes ‘If Paul was really attacking ‘Rabbinic Judaism’ then much of his argument is irrelevant, his abuse unmerited and his conception of what he was attacking inaccurate.’[28] Sanders main argument, reached after intensive studies of Jewish documents of the time, was that Jews did not see the Law as a means of obtaining salvation, but rather as a means of maintaining a relationship already obtained. Sanders says therefore ‘Righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect’.[29] Dunn argues that this seems to make Paul reject Judaism simply because it was not Christianity. Some scholars believe this meant that Paul had so totally rejected Judaism that he saw things from a Gentile point of view. Paul seems to believe that God never intended Gentiles to have to keep the Law in order to enter into a relationship with God, but that the covenant relationship did not make allowance for God’s ultimate plan of salvation for the world through Christ.

Whatever the various arguments put forward and differing schools of thought Dunn admits [30] ‘I am not convinced that we have yet been given the proper reading of Paul from the new perspective of first-century Palestinian Judaism.’



BARRETT,C.K. Freedom and Obligation: A Study in the Epistle to the Galatians London, S.P.C.K. 1985

BAUR,F.C. Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, London, Williams and Norgate, 1845

DUNN,J.G. Jesus, Paul and the Law, Kentucky, John Knox Press, 1990

DUNN,J.D.G. (n editor) The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003

DUNN. J.G. The Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1993

Jerusalem Bible editor A. Jones, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1974

HOLMBERG, B. Paul and Power: the structure of authority in the primitive church as reflected in the Pauline Epistles, Philadelpia, Fortress, 1978

LONGENECKER,R. Galatians, World Biblical Commentary, Dallas, Word Books, 1990

MORRIS, L. Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom, Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1996

NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, California, Lockman Foundation, 1971

SANDERS.E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion , Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1977

WRIGHT,N.T. New Perspectives on Paul, revised Eerdmanns, Grand Rapids, 2008

WRIGHT,N.T. ‘What St Paul Really Said, Was Paul o f Tarsus the Real founder of Christianity? Eerdmanns, Grand Rapids, 1997

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JOHNSON,B.W. The People’s New Testament, 1891 retrieved 16th May 2008  from

KŐSTENBERGER, A. Wright,N.T. ‘What St Paul Really Said, Was Paul of Tarsus the Real founder of Christianity? Eerdmanns, Grand Rapids, 1997. Faith and Mission, 15/2 1998 pages 87-88, retrieved 16th May 2008 from

LUTHER,M. Commentary on Galatians, 1535, Project Wittenburg, retrieved 17th May 2008 from

MATTISON,M. The Paul Page, retrieved 16th May 2008 from

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[1] Baur,F.C. Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, 1845, Volume 1 page 3[2] Jerusalem Bible, Philippians 2 v 2[3] Jerusalem Bible, Galatians 2 v 8[4]  Longenecker, R. Galatians, page xliii[5] quoted by James Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law, page 108[6] Jerusalem Bible, Galatians 2 v 5[7] Jerusalem Bible , Galatians 3 v 6[8] Longenecker, B. Galatians , The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, editor J.Dunn[9] Jerusalem bible Galatians 3 v 1[10] Jerusalem Bible, IITimothy 4 v 2[11] Jerusalem Bible , Galatians 2 v 16[12] Jerusalem Bible, Galatians 3 v 2[13] Jerusalem Bible , Galatians 5 v 1[14] Jerusalem Bible, Galatians 3 v 39[15] Acts 16 v 3[16] quoted on ‘Go to the Bible’ web page[17] Dunn, J. Jesus, Paul and the Law page 92[18] Jerusalem Bible, Galatians 2 9[19] Jerusalem Bible , Acts 22 v 21[20] Jerusalem Bible Galatians 1 v 16[21] Dunn,J. St Paul, page 9[22] N.T.Wright, 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, August 2003[23] Jerusalem Bible, Romans 8 v 30.[24] See Galatians 5 v 16[25] Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, 2 v 16[26] Calvin , J. Freedom from the Bondage of the Law[27] Dunn, J. Jesus, Paul and the Law, page 184[28] Dunn,J. Jesus, Paul and the Law, page 184[29] quoted by Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law, page 186[30] Dunn, J, Jesus , Paul and the Law, page 188