At the beginning of this third apostolic journey, around the year 53 (Acts 18:23), Paul passed through Galatia to visit the Christian communities he had established in the area (Acts 13:14ff), which he had also visited during his second journey (Acts 16:15). The communities in question were in the southern part of Galatia – Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra.
On this last journey Paul was very surprised to find that the Galatian Christians – most of whom came from a Gentile background—had been led astray by “false brethren,” Judaizers, who made out that Christians should conform to the Mosaic law and should be circumcised. Perhaps because he was short of time, the apostle was unable to go into the matter in detail; at any rate, when he reached Ephesus (53-54) he wrote the Galatians a letter, refuting the errors involved, in which he goes into the whole question of the relationship between the gospel and the Mosaic Law, between the Old Covenant and the New.
He tries to get them to see that the key point is this: Accepting Mosaic doctrine would mean in practice renouncing the justification won for us by Christ—and therefore denying the value of the redemption; it would imply renouncing freedom, because they would be submitting to the yoke of the Law, which is slavery; it would mean rejecting the grace and salvation which faith in Jesus Christ brings with it. The universality of the Church would be destroyed and Christ’s doctrine irreparably damaged.
The Judaizers, for their part, were arguing that God himself had instituted the Law of Moses, which Christ had come not “to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). They even went so far as to invoke the authority of the Twelve against Paul, ignoring (because they did not want to obey them) the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem, which had gone into this whole question and with whose teaching Paul was in line (Acts 15:28-29).
With characteristic energy and zeal, Paul defends his apostolic authority and denounces the error of the Judaizers, into which many of the Galatians had fallen. He ends by telling them in no uncertain terms, “If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (5:2).
The content of the letter—which is reminiscent of Romans—ranges much more widely than this. For example, it makes the following points:
1. While recognizing Peter’s preeminent position as visible head of the Church, the letter stresses that the Church is one and universal, a community entered into through baptism, one in teaching and government, under the infallible and absolute authority of the apostles (1:9, 2:9).
2. Transition from a state of sin or alienation from God to a state of grace happens only through faith in Christ, who by dying redeemed us from all sin—original sin and personal sin. Faith makes us truly children of God, who share in God’s own life, and heirs of heaven, in keeping with God’s promises.
3. This faith in Jesus Christ is the only faith by which we can be saved; through it we attain the grace of forgiveness and the true freedom proper to the children of God. Therefore, as the apostle says, anyone who submits to the observances of the Mosaic Law falls back into the slavery of the Law and denies the redemption wrought by Christ.
4. Christians, whether of Jewish or Gentile background, are the true children of Abraham, according to the spirit, because through faith in Christ they have been justified and incorporated through baptism into his Church, the new people of God.
5. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, died on the cross as the representative of all mankind, to make satisfaction for all sin—not only sins against the Mosaic Law but also those against the natural law.
6. Following in Christ’s footsteps, Christians also must die to the old Law if they want to live for God (2:19). This is the death of the old man brought about through baptism, which enables us to live a new life, the life of grace, so we can “walk by the Spirit” (5:24) and not under the Law (5:18).
7. Only in this way will Christians attain the true freedom of the sons of God, which requires that we mortify our vices and the concupiscence of the flesh to become “a new creation” (6:15) and reproduce in ourselves the life of Christ, of whom we are both a member and a temple.
8. This new life, the life of grace, makes Christians yield the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23). The Law no longer has any power; what matters is faith in Jesus Christ, which works through love (5:6).