Galatians 3-4: Love or Obedience? #30daysofPaul

When we left Paul in chapter 2, we had just been treated to an exceptional history lesson followed by a powerful statement of Paul’s essential theology of justification. Chapters 3 and 4 really expound upon Paul’s chief message in this letter: the juxtaposition of law and faith.

Remember how this letter started, with Paul launching right into an angry diatribe in 1:6? Well, he does the same thing in chapter 3; Verse 1 reads “You foolish Galatians!”

Paul is still angry.

There are two specific themes pervading these chapters (and Galatians over all) that I want to focus on. First, this conflict between obedience to the law and faith is a juxtaposition that is still highly relevant to how modern Christianity is practiced and lived. Second, despite his anger, Paul spreads a message of universality and inclusiveness, epitomized by the beautiful words of 3:28.

Paul’s chief argument to the Galatians is that our faith through Jesus is all that is necessary to justify our relationship with God, and that right action is a natural, irresistible outcome of that faith. This theory of justification has taken the place of obedience to the law, the idea that our relationship with God is first and foremost predicated on our ability to follow the rules and rack up more good points than bad.

Paul eloquently uses several Old Testament examples to ground this in Jewish tradition, to make this argument congruent with an ancient faith tradition his readers are committed to. Only by making justification by faith look as old as the Jewish nation itself will he be able to convince the Jewish Christians in Galatia that what they are doing is consistent with tradition.

We see this same argument so often in Christianity today. Traditional, conservative Christianity asserts that only through obedience to God’s Word (defined as inerrant Scripture) and the laws therein can one have a relationship with God, and consequently be admitted into God’s eternal presence. The most important thing a Christian can do, in this view of Christianity, is follow the rules, and only through that  will God grant salvation. Faith plays a role in that it propels one on to obedience of the Law. This model recycles that theory of agency I spoke of Paul rejecting earlier in Galatians: first we act, then God acts.

The other view of agency, God acting and then us acting, is making a comeback, however. Progressive Christianity has led a comeback in recent years of the Social Gospel, of the Christian’s duty to work for social justice. This work isn’t a burden, but is instead an irresistible call that our faith in the example of Jesus compels us onto. Faith has liberated us from the shackles of the Law, God’s grace being the key that opened that lock, and thus we are filled with the call to liberate our fellow man from the things that bind them.

This service-oriented, love filled example is such a compelling model of life, one that can appeal to all humans. And Paul writes in a way that emphasizes this universal appeal. Paul was an ardent universalist. As we saw in his explanation of his own personal history, Paul had given himself the special duty to spread the Gospel message to all people, both Jew and Gentile. Paul is inherently inclusive; he sees no reason to exclude anyone from the good news he is spreading across the Mediterranean Sea. This worldview is expressed so beautifully in chapter 3:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The church needs to take these words seriously again. Nothing matters but each person’s humanity, nothing but the divine spark and imago dei we all carry within us. The law becomes insignificant in light of that.

Paul’s desire to free all from the shackles of the Law stems from his desire to welcome all into fellowship as followers of Jesus, up to and including the tradition he had spent the majority of his life upholding. In Paul’s view, nothing should stand between us and God.

I believe these two ideas – radical inclusiveness and a relationship built on faith and shown through service- are key to rebuilding a crumbling modern church. Just as Paul grounded his arguments in Jewish tradition to bring along those otherwise resistant while framing it in a new way that appealed to those outside the tradition, so we can ground the values of inclusiveness and love in a two thousand year old tradition while bringing these radical ideas back to the forefront to appeal to a generation who has only seen a Christianity embodied by unthinking obedience and Divine Anger.

We are only four days in, and I’m appreciating Paul more and more. Far from the unappealing, small minded theology I expected, I’m seeing an apostle who was undoubtedly inclusive and progressive in his Christology and theology. Yes, he is angry here, and he can be a braggart and driven by personal grievances from time to time, but it’s becoming easy to see why he has played such a central role in the Christian faith. It’s time we reclaimed Paul as the radical, exciting thinker he was.

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