Here are some helps to assist you as you read and study Galatians:
This letter of Paul has been called ‘the epistle of liberty’ and the like since it so strongly defends Christian freedom, and forcefully wars against those who would drag us back under the law. For Paul, right theology (orthodoxy) is always the basis for right living (orthopraxis).
Most New Testament scholars believe he wrote this in the late 40s or early 50s. In it he had to defend his apostleship and the gospel he received from the Lord and take on those who sought to impose legalism and various religious observances on the believers at Galatia.
Along with his letter to the Romans this is one of the major epistles to defend the gospel of grace versus the gospel of works. It was of course hugely influential for the Reformers, but it also had a vital impact on so many others, including many of the church fathers.
Standing against a false gospel is a main part of this epistle. G. Walter Hansen offers a brief summary of what Paul had to deal with:
Not long after Paul planted the churches in Galatia, some Jewish Christians taught these new believers that it was necessary to belong to the Jewish people in order to receive the full blessing of God. Therefore they required the marks of identity peculiar to the Jewish people: circumcision, sabbath observance and kosher food (see 2:12–14; 4:10; 5:2-3; 6:12-13). . . . Their focus shifted from union with Christ by faith and dependence on the Spirit to identification with the Jewish nation and observance of the law.
The serious nature of this is reflected in the fact unlike in his other letters, Paul does not readily commend his readers, but immediately begins to castigate them. What the Galatians have done is so serious that Paul has no time for niceties: he must rebuke them and turn them from their error. As Todd Wilson puts it:
The Galatians find themselves in a serious situation; in fact, it couldn’t be more serious. Paul knows it, and they now know it. . . . Here’s what happened. After Paul left Galatia, his converts came under the influence of certain individuals who discredited his apostleship, called into question the validity of his gospel, and insisted his converts were only half-baked and needed to go all the way and get circumcised, if they were going to shore up their status of children of God. These “Judaizers,” as they’re commonly called, were apparently quite effective in persuading the Galatians of the necessity of circumcision, if not the need to embrace the Jewish law as a whole.
While scholars have differed on the exact nature of the opponents of Paul, and what their actual position was (see below on the NPP for example), I go along with the views of Schreiner here: “Many different theories have been proposed regarding the identity of the opponents.… I will argue that the traditional view that the opponents were Judaizers is still the most satisfying.”
As he explains: “The core of the opponents’ theology was their focus on circumcision and the law. They probably claimed that circumcision was necessary for inclusion in the people of God. After all, only those who were circumcised would receive the promises made to Abraham. They almost certainly appealed to Gen. 17 where circumcision is required as the sign of the covenant.”
Paul is so upset with how these opponents are putting believers under bondage again that he employs strong terminology as he rebuts their false views. As he says in Gal. 3:1, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” And stronger yet, in Gal. 1:6-9 he twice says that those who pervert the gospel are under God’s curse. As I wrote elsewhere about this:
Now them’s fightin’ words! No beating around the bush for Paul here. So serious is this matter that Paul says such false teachers should be accursed. When is the last time you heard something like that come out of your pulpit? When did you last hear such a confident and bold proclamation of truth?
Paul is absolutely convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel, and he will not tolerate any deviation from it. Not that it is just “his” gospel. As Gordon Fee comments, the “curse is not spoken because the agitators disagree with Paul himself. That is, this is hardly personal on Paul’s part. Rather, he recognizes far more clearly than his later detractors that everything is at stake here.” billmuehlenberg.com/2012/10/28/the-gospel-another-different-false/
Many other themes and theological truths can be discussed here. But since I opened by discussing how Christian liberty is a core teaching in this epistle, let me return to this briefly. You can see below that Leon Morris subtitled his volume on Galatians this way: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom.
Last year D. A. Carson and Jeff Robinson edited a collection of articles on preaching and teaching Galatians called Christ Has Set Us Free (Crossway). Discussing Galatians 5, Thabiti Anyabwile entitled his contribution “Gospel Freedom, Gospel Fruit.” Let me quote parts of it here:
“Galatians has been called ‘the Magna Carta of Christian liberty.’ That is, the book gives us a great charter of religious rights and liberties that are to be protected. It focuses the reader on the idea of Christian freedom. The proper understanding and embrace of liberty in Christ inoculate the Christian from the smallpox of legalism.”
And he explains why this is so dangerous: “False teaching never unifies true believers with those in error. It always divides. And wherever legalism is the false teaching, then it will bring with it a censorious spirit and a self-righteous judgmentalism. That will lead to contention and pride. Legalism turns the church into a congregation of spiritual cannibals as they eat each other up in proud denouncements, provocation, and jealousy.”
He concludes: “Freedom properly embraced and protected, expressed and used, and improved upon by the Spirit makes for glorious living. He whom the Son sets free is free indeed. Live free and glorify the Lord who set you free.”
But as is often the case in Scripture, Paul is not fighting on just one front. If legalism was a threat to be battled, there was another equally dangerous front, that of license. This also is at war with freedom. Philip Graham Ryken, commenting on Gal. 5:13-18, says this:
Liberty must always be defended from its two great enemies—legalism and license. To this point, Paul has been fighting against legalism. This was his concern at the beginning of chapter 5….
There is another threat to liberty, however, and that is license. License is loose living. It is freedom taken to its immoral extreme. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a liberty of action, especially when excessive; disregard of law or propriety; abuse of freedom.” Whereas legalism demands responsibility without freedom, license grants freedom without responsibility.
Everyone wants to be free. “It’s a free country!” Americans like to say … The trouble comes whenever and wherever there is freedom without responsibility. Unfortunately, this is precisely what most people want….
The Apostle Paul understood that license poses as great a threat to liberty as legalism does. Hence his brotherly warning: “For you were called to freedom brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). The Galatians had been liberated from legalism, but they were not to use their liberty as an opportunity for license.
Paul and the “New Perspective”
One final point that I can just briefly raise here: the longstanding and traditional understanding of what Paul was dealing with in books like Galatians and Romans has been challenged over the past half century or so with the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.”
Those who run with this will take a somewhat different stance on what the message of Galatians is, at least in terms of what the Judaisers were on about and how Paul understood things like the law, works and justification. That is a massive debate and cannot here be entered into.
The names associated with this new view include Sanders, Dunn and Wright. Needless to say, all of the newer critical commentaries will discuss the NPP and interact with it to varying degrees. But I have written an introductory piece on this matter, so I refer readers there for more detail on all this: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/01/08/wright-new-perspective/
Expository and devotional commentaries
As always, I feature here a number of important works (mostly commentaries), and as always, they mainly reflect a conservative, evangelical point of view. Other works could of course be mentioned, but these are some of the better books available from relatively recent times (I have not included many older works here). Expository commentaries include:
Barton, Bruce, et. al., Galatians (LABC, 1994)
Ryken, Philip Graham, Galatians (REC, 2005)
Wilson, Todd, Galatians (PTW, 2013)
Boice, James Montgomery, Galatians (EBC, 1976)
Bruce, F. F., Commentary on Galatians (NIGTC, 1982)
Cole, R. Alan, The Epistle of Paul to Galatians (TNTC, 1965)
deSilva, David, The Letter to the Galatians (NICNT, 2018)
Fee, Gordon, Galatians (PentC, 2007)
Fesko, J. V., Galatians (Lectio, 2012)
Fung, R.Y.K., The Epistle to the Galatians (NICNT, 1988)
George, Timothy, Galatians (NAC, 1994)
Hansen, G. Walter, Galatians (IVPNTC, 1994)
Keener, Craig, Galatians: A Commentary (Baker, 2019)
Lightfoot, J. B., The Epistle of Paul To the Galatians (Zondervan, 1865, 1957)
Longenecker, Richard, Galatians (WBC, 1990)
Luther, Martin, Commentary on Galatians (Kregel, 1519, 1979)
McKnight, Scot, Galatians (NIVAC, 1995)
Martyn, J. Louis, Galatians (AB, 1997)
Moo, Douglas, Galatians (BECNT, 2013)
Morris, Leon, Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom (IVP, 1996)
Ridderbos, Herman, Galatians (NICNT, 1953)
Schreiner, Thomas, Galatians (ZECNT, 2010)
Stott, John, The Message of Galatians (BST, 1968)
Witherington, Ben, Grace in Galatia (Eerdmans, 1998)
Wright, N. T., Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (WJK, 2002, 2004)
As far as narrowing down this list a bit, perhaps the better works to run with are deSilva, Moo, and Schreiner, but Stott is always well-worth reading. You can see my review of deSilva’s commentary here: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/11/16/a-review-of-the-letter-to-the-galatians-by-david-desilva/
(Australians can find most of these books at Koorong: www.koorong.com/ )