Many Biblical commentators equate the themes of Romans and Galatians and speak of them as if they contain the same message. On the surface, there are similarities, such as justification by faith and salvation through Christ’s finished work rather than works of the Law. However, I think that a close look at both epistles reveals contextual differences which affect the meaning of concepts such as law and grace.
Romans is a comprehensive outline of Paul’s theology. It tackles deep questions involving human nature and shows how Christ’s death and resurrection transforms human nature. Galatians, on the other hand, has a much more specific focus involving a controversy in the early church. The controversy was whether Christians were still required to follow the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament laws, such as circumcision, dietary rules, cleansing protocols, and observance of special days. Paul’s answer is a resounding no.
Galatians 2:16-17 – And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
2:19-20: For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.
2:21: I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
At first glance, these passages look like the passages I have been quoting from Romans. However, we need to consider the occasion for which Paul wrote these things. Earlier in Galatians Chapter 2, Paul criticized Cephas (the Apostle Peter) for sometimes eating with Gentiles, but other times refraining if he thought Jews would object. For Paul, this was a serious inconsistency. The point of verses 16-21 quoted above was to explain how, because of Christ’s atonement, the barriers between Jews and Gentiles (and thus the ceremonial regulations upholding those barriers) have been eliminated, and reenacting them in a way that excludes Gentiles denies the fundamental principles of the Gospel. In contrast, when Paul writes about dying to the Law in Romans, his example uses the law against coveting, which is a universal moral principle rather than a Jewish custom. I’ll discuss this more later.
While we are on this subject, Galatians 2 makes it evident that, when the Bible speaks of Christians being “condemned” for various acts, that does not have to mean they lose their salvation. Paul said that Peter was condemned because he would not eat with Gentiles (2:11). Do we really think that Peter had lost his salvation?
Moving on, let’s look at Galatians 3:23-25 – “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.”
The religious laws of the Old Testament were designed to protect the Jews from immoral influences in their surrounding cultures; hence, the Law was a “guard” as Paul writes. However, in the current age, Christians can be led by the Holy Spirit in a way such that they avoid immorality without needing all of the religious regulations of the Old Covenant.
More evidence that Paul is referring to ceremonial customs is in Galatians 4:10, “You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.”
Having said all of these things, Paul spends the last two chapters of Galatians addressing the misunderstanding that freedom from the Law means there are no rules for believers. What he emphasizes is that you are free from the Law so that the Spirit can show you what to do.
Galatians 5:18 – “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”
To help with discerning whether certain convictions come from the Spirit, Paul lists qualities associated with obedience to the Spirit:
5:22 – “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Paul also lists signs that a person is living according to the flesh rather than the Spirit:
5:19-21 – “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
It seems like a principle that is simple enough – you are justified by faith apart the Law, but after being justified you may either follow the Spirit’s leading and experience life in the Kingdom of God, or follow your selfish desires and experience corruption outside the Kingdom. But there is a complication to this principle. Are we really able to make ourselves do everything we feel convicted in our heart to do? Can we just wake up in the morning, resolve to do whatever our conscience tells us is right, and push ourselves to follow through with it?
I probably don’t need to tell you that the answer is no for many people. But that is beyond the scope of Galatians. This dilemma involves matters of human nature, psychology, and certain aspects of Christ’s finished work which Galatians does not set out to address. I believe Romans is where those themes are taken up. Earlier I mentioned that Romans uses prohibition of coveting as an example of Law. There is something twisted in human nature that makes people have greed for things they don’t own. We can know in our heart what is right and wrong, but nevertheless lack the power to carry it out (Romans 7:18). Romans describes how, through faith in Christ’s finished work, we can experience deliverance from these problems of human nature so that we can actually have the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.
I believe the distinction between Romans and Galatians is critical. Imposing the Romans message upon Galatians could lead to a complete disregard of moral principles. On the other hand, imposing the Galatians message upon Romans results in many contradiction and non-sequiturs.
So, this is my overview on the epistle to the Galatians. I’m interested to know what you think about all of this.