Read a dozen commentaries on Galatians (yes, I have way too much time on my hands) and you will get a dozen different views on how the book plays out. Though most agree that the book is focused on the idea that through the Gospel and by the Spirit the Christian community, both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, are united in Christ. However, it is in the details where theologians and pastors differ and one area where the difference can be pronounced is over the term, “works of the law.” What does it mean? and what law are they talking about? are two questions that bring debate into the book of Galatians.
Before we can deal with that issue we need to have an idea of who the players are in the book. The most obvious person is Paul who is writing to a series of churches in Galatia over the problem they are facing by a number of agitators who are stirring up trouble over the law. Now there are numerous views on who these people are but I’ll settle, for now, that they are a group of Jewish men who have converted to Christianity (probably from Jerusalem) and have arrived in Galatia to convince the gentile Christian converts that they have to keep the law along with their faith.
The third player in the letter are the Galatians who the agitators are trying to Judaize (convert to Jewish Christian teachings) and turn their backs on Paul’s teaching of faith in Christ alone. These Galatians, for the most part, are pagan’s who converted under Paul’s teachings when he originally planted the churches. These Christians, up till now, have only known grace, the power of the Spirit, and Christ crucified and resurrected as taught by Paul. These agitators have now arrived with a new message that is sweeping them up and causing them to consider adding the Jewish law (circumcision, etc.) to their faith.
It is important that these agitators from Jerusalem (or Antioch) are not rejecting grace because they have accepted Jesus as well, but they are simply saying that isn’t enough. In order to be part of the family of God (Abraham’s seed) the Galatians would have to take on the trappings of Judaism.
Now this is where the “works of the law” come into focus. There are some commentators who believe the law is the entire Torah and Paul is attacking the entire law as evil and outdated and no faith believing Christian should be subject to it. They are to be free of the yoke of bondage that the law brings onto a true follower of Jesus. (Galatians 5:1)
Others, however, are not quite sure and think that it could be the waymarks that separate Jews from Christians. What do they mean by that? The Jews believed that they were saved because they were the sons of Abraham (descendants of the promise God made to Abraham, Genesis 15 and 17), that through “his seed” the nations of the world would be blessed.
Because they were special, the anointed people, they were to keep separate from the pagan world. What separated them from the world around them were the particular laws God gave them that showed they were different from everyone else and thus the apple of God’s eye. Those laws, or waymarks, were Sabbath, circumcision, and clean and unclean foods along with a few minor regulations.
They believed that these laws, or waymarks, were the symbols of God’s approval of them. Now, we need to remember the Jews didn’t think they were saved by keeping these waymarks because they believed they were already saved on the bases of their heritage. These were simply the teachings that a saved person, as they believed they were, would follow and obey. So when many of these Jews converted to Christianity they simply added Jesus to their beliefs in regards to the waymarks.
Here is where Paul had trouble with the agitators. He reminded the Galatians that they had come to Christ, not through the Jewish waymarks, but by faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit. By accepting Jesus as their personal savoir they entered into salvation without the “works of the law.” And since that was true and they could measure that by their own experience and the example of Paul’s own life, then why did they need to add anything to the gospel? In other words the law (waymarks) added nothing to their status as sons and daughters of God because they were already declared part of the family of God (Abraham’s children) by faith.
In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that if they accept “works of the law” to their faith they undermine the entire gospel. Here is what Paul has to say to the Galatian believers who are thinking of becoming circumcised. “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Galatians 5:2-4
This is heavy stuff. Paul, is making it clear that if they get circumcised then they have to keep all the Jewish laws and that is a tremendous weight that Jesus had freed them from. Also, he couldn’t be clearer that to do so would “alienate them from Christ,” and show that they had, “fallen away from grace.”
Worst of all, however, is that they would make “Christ of no value” to them at all. To add the “works of the law” to grace was to undermine the entire sacrifice at Calvary. If the Galatians could find security with God through keeping the “waymarks” then Jesus death was totally unnecessary.
One last point; many people believe that Jesus died for their sins and forgives them their past sins, but their present sins and future sins are dealt with by the appropriate response to God’s blessing by doing “the works of the law.” Paul, I believe, makes it clear this is not so. The law points out our sins (Galatians 3:10, 19,22) and it cannot impart life (Galatians 3:21). The point is we cannot deal with our sin problem by law keeping—it just can’t work. (Galatians 5:13-18)
Notice Paul’s arguments in favour of grace as opposed to “works of the law.” Let me end on this beautiful quote from G. Walter Hanson about this very topic. “But what the law cannot do God does by his grace: through the cross of Christ he removes the curse of the law (3:13); by the Spirit he reproduces the righteous character of his Son in us (5:22-23) so that the ultimate moral standard of the law is fulfilled (5:14; 6:2). Therefore, if we are controlled by the Spirit, we are not under slavery to the Mosaic law (5:18). We are free from the curse of the law (3:13) and the supervision of the law (3:25) so that we can live for God (2:19) by serving one another in love (5:13).” p. 28 Galatians, IVP New Testament Commentaries
For freedom, Christ has set us free.