The Problem in Galatia – Works of the Flesh

It was on Paul’s second missionary journey that he and Silas visited the churches in Galatia. Only slight mention is made of it in the book of Acts: “Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6). Note that this is only a passing reference, with no details of the work they did there.

The next mention of Galatia in Acts is in 18:23: “After he [Paul] had spent some time there [in Antioch], he departed and went over the region of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples.” Again, we have only passing reference to Galatia.

Interestingly, these are the only two mentions in the book of Acts of the work Paul did in Galatia. Nevertheless, the work that he did there was significant enough that it merited the preservation by divine providence of a letter of rebuke he wrote “to the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2).

Why termed “a letter of rebuke”? After Paul’s customary greeting, which is almost identical in all of his epistles, the very first thing he wrote is, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel …” (Galatians 1:6).

Paul devotes most of the first and second chapters of Galatians to a justification of his whole body of work and to an account of his efforts to correct errors of the early church as it made the transition from the sacrificial services of the Jewish economy to the Christ-based fellowship of the Christian church. (Of course, the Jewish economy had also been Christ-based, although the Pharisees and the Sadducees had made the sacrificial service an end unto itself, failing to understand that these services pointed to the ultimate Sacrifice.)

Then he closes the second chapter with an exquisite exposition of justification by faith, exclaiming, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Paul begins the third chapter with a second rebuke: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified” (Galatians 3:1)?

From what follows in his letter, it is clear that the Galatians had either maintained or returned to their erroneous beliefs of justification by works: “This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh” (Galatians 3:2, 3)?

As Paul continues to explain how justification is by faith and faith alone, he reminds the Galatians of how Abraham was justified, then segues into a brief explanation of righteousness by faith, explaining, “… that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH’ ” (Galatians 3:11). [Emphasis supplied.]

As he continues his explanation of justification by faith, he provides a between-the-lines allusion to the difference between the moral law and the sacrificial law, stating, “Why, then, was the Law added? Because of transgressions, until the descendant came to whom the promise pertained. It was put into effect through angels by means of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19, ISV).

That mediator, of course, was Moses, who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, wrote the details of the sacrificial law and placed it beside the ark: “So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying: ‘Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there as a witness against you’ ” (Deuteronomy 31:24–26).

The remainder of chapter three and the beginning of chapter four give a clear explanation of those who constitute modern Israel, following the rejection of Christ by ancient Israel—the Jewish nation: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27–29).

Following his explanation of the very basics of justification and sanctification being by faith and faith alone, and an explanation of who the recipients of the promise given to Abraham are, Paul returns to his concerns for the Galatians, asking, “… how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain” (Galatians 4:9–11).

By relating the story of Hagar and Sarah, Paul expands on the difference between justification by works and justification by faith, noting that “we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. …  So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free” (Galatians 4:28, 31).

In essence, Paul is again asserting that justification is by faith (Sarah) and not by works (Hagar).

In chapter five, Paul begins by exhorting the Galatians, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).

Seeking to ensure that the Galatians understand his concerns for them, Paul once again points out the error that they have fallen into, writing, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love. You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth” (Galatians 5:4–7)?

After having established the critical importance of faith as the sole basis for justification and righteousness/sanctification, Paul endeavors to confirm that the Galatians have a clear understanding of the difference between the works of the flesh (recall that the Galatians were attempting to achieve justification by those works under the dictates of the sacrificial law) and the fruits of the Spirit in verses 19 through 23. (Obviously the Galatians were not attempting to gain justification through the sinful works of the flesh Paul outlines here, but they were, nevertheless, seeking to achieve justification through works.)

Paul closes his epistle by returning to his major theme of the futility of seeking justification through works of the flesh by following the sacrificial law: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:14, 15).

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a perfect example of the treasures hidden in God’s word that can only be found by a thorough mining of that Word. So many different aspects of the plan of salvation are touched on, that many hours could be devoted to a study of this epistle alone. While clearly intended to be an admonition to the Galatians who were “turning away” from the righteousness that faith in Christ establishes, this letter can have a far greater impact for those who seek to understand the gospel that “came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12).

“Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen” (Galatians 6:18).


John R. Pearson is the office manager and a board member of Steps to Life. He may be contacted by email at: