the shape of leadership

Jesus Followers in Step With the Spirit

A closer look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians

Craig Keener on February 27, 2019

Debate swirls around some key issues in Galatians among biblical scholars today. Applying Galatians pastorally, Luther challenged contemporary legalism with the epistle’s claims of freedom from the Law. Some of Luther’s modern successors went even further, developing negative depictions of the Law and of Jewish practice in Paul’s day.

During recent decades, many interpreters have challenged this focus on legalism with a more precise portrayal of ancient Judaism. Some scholars, associated with the so-called New Perspective (actually an array of various new perspectives), deny that Judaism was legalistic. They argue that Paul’s real target in Galatians was certain Jewish believers who demanded that Gentiles adopt Jewish practice to belong to God’s people. The application, then, addresses ethnocentrism.

In point of fact, Jews in antiquity held a range of approaches toward legalism, the salvation of Gentiles, and the like. (Still, virtually all Jews agreed that a male Gentile had to be circumcised and join the community of Israel to belong to God’s people.) Despite this variation, however, both the older “Lutheran” approach and the New Perspective approach converge on one important point: Paul, unlike his detractors, insists that righteousness is found in Christ alone.

Luther was right to apply this truth to individual salvation through Christ rather than through wrongly exploiting the Law to try to make ourselves worthy of God’s grace. New Perspective approaches are right to apply it to allegiance to Christ rather than ethnicity making us members of God’s people.

Although composed in the heat of a spiritual life-and-death issue in the first century, Galatians remains no less relevant for many spiritual life-and-death issues today. I treat here just five of these issues: being put right with God through Christ alone; why we can’t boast in “works of the law”; the priority of unity among God’s culturally diverse people; Paul’s pastoral relationship with his churches; and the empowerment of God’s Spirit.

1. Justified by Faith

Protestants have traditionally regarded “justification” as being put right with God; some advocates of the New Perspective focus on its relation to being made members of God’s people. Again, there is truth in both positions. Lexically, the term focuses on being put right with God. The contexts in Galatians, however, also show that those who are put right with God become members of God’s people. I will elaborate when I discuss unity among God’s people (Point 3).

For now, let us focus on the more direct meaning of the term. Although we echo the phrase “justified by faith” (Galatians 2:16; 3:24), we do not always consider what this means. To be justified is to be counted not guilty, that is, righteous. It is to be put right with God.

In principle, we know this means we have a clean slate before God, but sometimes we forget to embrace that identity for ourselves and live out of it. We are no longer in a position of having to make ourselves good; God treats us as right with Him, so we should see ourselves that way (cf. Romans 6:11) and act accordingly. The same faith that saved us from sin can help us live like we are saved from sin.

Scholars continue to debate whether Paul uses the term translated “justified” — or “made right” (NLT) — in Galatians more forensically (concerning our status in Christ) or transformationally (concerning our newness in Christ), but we cannot separate the two entirely in practice. When we are put right with God (in status), we are also born from His Spirit (Galatians 4:29). When God says, “Let there be light,” light happens. When God declares a person right, that person becomes a new creation.

We can also get hung up on the term “faith.” We might not feel like we have faith. We might have doubts, and can easily doubt our faith. But Paul does not speak of faith abstractly. We are not called to have faith in our faith; we are called to have faith in Christ. We may feel as if we do not have enough faith, but a mustard seed is sufficient. It is not about how big our faith is; rather, it is about how big our God is, in whom we place our faith.

Scholars today debate whether a particular phrase in Paul’s letters means faith in Christ or (with some proponents of the New Perspective) the faithfulness of Christ. Although the context of these passages probably suggests that he means in Christ (the majority view historically), these are not mutually exclusive options.

Paul’s understanding of faith is trust in the One who is trustworthy. Faith is only as good as its object; that is why so often people who stake their claims in Bible verses out of context do not get what they pray for! But Jesus is utterly dependable; we stake our lives on Him.

Of course, this faith in Christ does not mean simply a one-time prayer as a fire escape without a commitment of our life to Christ. We are so sure about Jesus that we stake our life — eternally — on His truth. This faith entails loyalty and allegiance, because we entrust our life — eternally and in this world — to Christ.

Still, it is encouraging that the example Paul gives of justifying faith is Abraham’s untested faith in Genesis 15:6, rather than his mature faith when he offers his son Isaac in Genesis 22. God wants real faith, and real faith matures through our relationship with God, as we increasingly see His faithfulness, not only in blessings but also through testing and hardship.

That leads to the kind of confidence in God that we see in Genesis 22. But God accepts as genuine, justifying faith even the incipient sort of faith Abram displays in Genesis 15. God takes us where we are and makes us into something more!

2. Works of the Law

Another debate today surrounds what Paul means by “works of the law” in Galatians 2 and 3 (as well as Romans 3). Most fundamentally, scholars debate whether Paul refers to specific, ethnic identity markers of Judaism, such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbaths, or to any works of the Law. Although we might suppose this to be a new debate, it appears already in the Church fathers and through much of history.

Again, there is truth on both sides, as recognized today by many commentators. Most scholars now recognize that, lexically, Paul’s phrase, “works of the law” simply refers to “doing the law,” i.e., obeying biblical commandments.

The majority of scholars also now agree that the specific works of the Law on which Galatians focuses are those that most separated Gentiles from Jews — such as circumcision and food customs. Ancient Roman literature is clear that these, plus Sabbaths, were the Jewish customs that generated the most criticism among Gentiles.

We should not, however, suppose that Paul means to denigrate the Law that God gave in Scripture. In a less polemical setting, where Paul is not battling for the lives of his converts, Paul agrees that the Law is holy and just and good (Romans 7:12). The problem is not the original value of the Law, but its abuse. The Law limited sin, but it did not deliver from it; it raised the standard of public behavior, but it did not transform the heart in the fuller way that God promised to do in the future (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27).

The Law could teach Israel about righteousness, but it was never meant to put us right with God (Galatians 2:21; 3:21). Jewish people had reacted against Gentile oppression by finding their identity in the Law. But God had now provided greater righteousness and identity with the Law written in the heart — by the Spirit in Christ.

Although Luther and the New Perspective apply the principle here in different ways for different settings, they both have something to teach us. Luther reasoned that, given our personal inadequacies, obeying God’s own Law could not put us right with Him. And if trying to obey God’s written Law could not make us right with Him, neither can human rules, such as those Luther opposed in medieval Western Christendom.

The New Perspective contends that Jewish tradition came to highlight Israel’s privilege more than its mission to the nations, using God’s Law as a means of ethnic pride. If Israel was wrong to do so, surely we must avoid any sense of ethnic, racial or cultural superiority that fails to rightly love our neighbor beyond ethnic, racial or cultural lines.

3. United Despite Differences

Paul’s letter to the Galatians battles to make clear that God welcomes Gentiles into His people without them changing their culture or ethnicity. Those of us who are Gentiles and still sing “Father Abraham” should appreciate this reality, one that the New Perspective has labored to highlight.

Yet we sometimes miss a corollary. If, in order to bring us together as His people, God surmounts a barrier that He himself once established, how much more must we transcend every other ethnic and cultural barrier to walk in unity together?

Surveys show that born-again Christians share most of the same beliefs and spiritual practices — but that we are widely divided politically and socially along racial lines. In Paul’s day, Judean and Diaspora Christians were often divided. Paul was less concerned that they share identical views than that they maintain fellowship and serve one another. This means listening to and understanding one another, and serving one another in love.

The same faith that saved us from sin can help us live like we are saved from sin.

Ever since the short reign of King Herod Agrippa I in Judea (A.D. 41–44), nationalism had been on the rise there. Gentile governors mismanaged the province, and mistrust of Gentiles grew. This nationalism colored how many Judean followers of Jesus viewed missionaries such as Paul, who welcomed Gentiles without requiring them to join Israel ethnically by circumcision.

Paul’s home church in Antioch had a different situation. Their culture was cosmopolitan, and Jews there welcomed both Gentile converts and uncircumcised Gentile sympathizers. Peter agreed with Paul theologically, and when he visited the mission field in Antioch, he had no problems eating with Gentile believers in Jesus (having learned his lesson back in Acts 10–11).

Unfortunately, Peter also had to keep happy his constituency back home. Some Jerusalem believers had already accused him of being too liberal in accommodating Gentiles (Acts 11:2-3). When some other guests from Jerusalem showed up, Peter knew that word would get back and would offend some members of the church. Not wanting anyone to stumble, and willing to give up some freedoms over secondary matters, Peter withdrew from eating with Gentiles.

Paul was no less ready to surrender personal freedoms to avoid offense over secondary matters (1 Corinthians 9:15-23). For him, however, table fellowship was no secondary matter. In antiquity, table fellowship created a covenant relationship; withdrawing from it could be viewed as an act of enmity. Gentile believers would see Peter’s public withdrawal from their table as treating them as second-class believers.

Even though both Jesus and Jewish tradition advised private correction first, Paul viewed this as an emergency, and challenged Peter immediately and publicly. The Church’s cross-cultural unity is important enough to risk offending prejudiced church people.

Paul goes beyond the views of many of his fellow Jewish followers of Jesus at the time. They may have agreed that it was alright to have table fellowship with Gentile believers, provided these Gentiles accepted certain rules considered mandatory for righteous Gentiles (Acts 15:20,29). But they did not accept them as full members of God’s people unless they were circumcised.

For Paul, those who are put right with God receive the gift of the Spirit (Galatians 3:2,5). This was a promise for God’s people in the time of the end (Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 36:26; 37:14; Joel 2:28 through 3:1).

Since Gentile believers have received this ultimate gift, Paul reasons, they are God’s people, whether or not they have the outward covenant symbol of circumcision (cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Romans 2:28-29). They are already children of Abraham (Galatians 3:6-9,29), grafted into the heritage of God’s people (Romans 11:17). Many scholars even suggest that Paul calls all believers together, both Jewish and Gentile, “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16.

To Paul, there are no second-class Christians. Justification puts all of us — Jewish or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, new convert or mature believer — in the same status before God (Galatians 3:28). We are brothers and sisters, and should serve one another humbly (Galatians 5:13-15; 6:2-3).

4. Pastoral Relationships

Paul was not simply a theologian who wrote letters. Paul was a pastor who cared deeply about the welfare of his converts, and his letter seethes with emotion. Of course, this is a crisis situation, not a weekly sermon, but Paul’s heart resounds loud and clear. Rival teachers are luring away his people with false promises, and Paul is anguished over the condition of his converts. That false teachers risk his converts’ eternal destiny explains Paul’s raw anger in this letter. The lives of people who he cares about are at stake.

The Galatians have already seen Paul’s sufferings to bring them the gospel. Ancient orators talked about depicting an event so starkly that hearers could envision the event as if with their own eyes.

But when Paul portrayed Christ crucified (Galatians 3:1), he depicted Christ’s sufferings even more vividly, for the Galatians have already witnessed him crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19-20; 6:14). Paul bears on his own body the brand-marks of Christ (Galatians 6:17) — probably the wounds he has endured from beatings for the sake of the gospel.

Ancient persuaders emphasized the value of pathos, or emotion, in persuasion, and Paul exhibits such pathos at greatest length in Galatians 4:12-20. Paul entreats his converts to become like him, as he, a Jew willing to eat with Gentiles, has become like them (verse 12). They welcomed him as a divine agent even when he presented Christ to them in the midst of his own suffering (verses 13-15). Why have they now rejected him for others, while he is away (verses 16-18)?

In ancient ideology, a friend of one’s enemy was an enemy, as was an enemy of one’s friend. Paul spoke hard truth to the Galatians (verse 16), but his enemies courted them only to exploit them (verses 17-18). They wanted to pad their missions reports by “converting” his converts. Paul’s past sufferings for them were like the labor of childbirth; now they are putting him through the same maternal agony again (verse 19).

5. Life by the Spirit

No treatment of Galatians could be complete without consideration of the role of the Spirit there. As noted earlier, their experience of the Spirit marked the Galatian believers as members of God’s own people. This experience has implications for how they could live.

Paul’s rivals insisted that moral perfection required obedience to the written law. For Paul, however, the righteousness to which the law points is fulfilled in life by the Spirit. God had promised to put His Spirit in His end-time people and cause them to “walk in” His commands (Ezekiel 36:27, ESV). This is why Paul says that if we “walk by the Spirit,” we will not be controlled by our hormones or impulses in sinful ways (Galatians 5:16).

In connection with this image of walking, Paul also speaks of being “led” by the Spirit (Galatians 5:18) and placing our feet in the footsteps of the Spirit (a good way to translate Galatians 5:25). The image of being “led” also evokes God guiding Israel in the wilderness by His presence (Nehemiah 9:19-20; Isaiah 63:11-14).

God’s Spirit directs our paths by various means, and we can pray for His leading: “May your good Spirit lead me” (Psalm 143:10). In this context, Paul emphasizes especially the Spirit’s moral leading. The fruit of God’s character within us will never violate God’s moral will (Galatians 5:22-23).

Because those who are led by the Spirit fulfill God’s will anyway, Paul says, they do not need merely external civil laws (Galatians 5:18), as Israel once needed. Instead, they fulfill Christ’s law of love (Galatians 5:14) by serving one another (Galatians 6:2). We discern where the Spirit is leading and follow His steps (Galatians 5:25). Of course, this also means that those who violate the Law’s moral principles are not in fact truly being led by God’s Spirit.

Scholars debate the meaning of Galatians 5:17, where the Spirit and flesh are at odds. But whatever one’s views about that verse (I articulate mine in my commentary), the picture of the Christian life differs from the dismal depiction of failure in Romans 7:14-25. That passage depicts the moral struggle of life under the Law, in a life devoid of the Spirit.

Jesus believers, by contrast, have a secret super weapon who ensures victory whenever implemented: the third Person of the Triune God lives within us. We can call on God, depend on His power and stand by faith, not only for our initial salvation from sin’s penalty, but for our continuing deliverance from its power. Focus on the passions of the flesh just fights the flesh by the flesh; resting instead on the life of God’s Spirit within us enables us to keep those passions in their proper place.

Left to itself, Paul warns, human flesh can produce only sin, even when it pretends to be religious (Galatians 5:19-21). By contrast, God’s Spirit living within us produces the fruit of His character: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV). Most of these flow from the chief virtue of love, which fulfills God’s law (Galatians 5:14).

We should thus labor not by the flesh, depending on ourselves, but by faith in the One who works in us. Consistent with the image of fruit, Paul speaks of sowing to the Spirit rather than to the flesh (Galatians 6:8). Sowing to the flesh follows the works of the flesh exemplified in Galatians 5:19-21; sowing to the Spirit is exemplified in the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.

Because the Spirit produces gentleness (Galatians 5:23), God’s people — those who have the Spirit — should treat one another gently, helping up those who have fallen (Galatians 6:1, which in Greek speaks of “the Spirit of gentleness”).

Through the Spirit, we await full righteousness in the future (Galatians 5:5). Here, as elsewhere in Paul’s writings, the Spirit gives us a foretaste of the coming world (Romans 8:23; 1 Corinthians 2:9-10; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14). Now we sow to the Spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit; in the end, we reap eternal life from the Spirit (Galatians 6:8).


In the final analysis, the Christian life is about Jesus and His Spirit. Because of Jesus, we are made right with God. Because of the Spirit, we are transformed and learn to act in the right way before God.

Because Jesus matters more than anything else, nothing else has the right to divide God’s people. And because Jesus is the only way to God, we must pour out our hearts and lives in helping others follow Him in truth.

Editor’s Note: Craig S. Keener’s forthcoming commentary on Galatians will be released by Baker Academic on May 21, 2019.

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