Reconsidering Galatians: Pastoral Application

In my previous article, I set out to show that a robust reformed understanding of justification by faith in Galatians does not, in fact, depend on picturing Paul’s opponents as fully-paid-up promoters of ‘works-righteousness.’ Paganism, not Judaism, taught his readers everything they needed know about that kind of response to religious law. Now I want to whet our appetites for some important pastoral insights that flow from this conclusion.

First, let’s consider what it says about discipleship.

Christians have learned over the years to read Galatians as a theological treatise. And there’s some truth in that assessment. Here, after all, we find justification, union with Christ, covenant and fulfilment, and all sorts of other fundamental themes blended together in a single dense argument. Why wouldn’t this be a major landmark on our journey towards deeper theological understanding? And yet, as we saw in the previous article, Paul probably perceives himself to be dealing less with a theological problem here than with a pastoral, or even a missiological, problem.

The problem in Galatia had to do with enthusiastic Jewish Christians urging Gentile Christians to embrace the law without stopping first to think how they might respond. They hoped the Galatians would join them in expressing the same characteristic marks of covenant faithfulness they recognised themselves – circumcision and submission to the law of Moses. But they didn’t anticipate how their hearers would receive these things given their prior exposure to pagan religious norms.

Paul, however, seems to have seen clearly that if you gave recently-converted Gentiles Jewish religious festivals to attend, they would think about them in the same way they had thought about pagan festivals in the past whether they wanted to or not. No matter what the Sabbath or the Passover were supposed to commemorate, for Gentiles, they would end up functioning as means to improve their chances of blessing from their new God, just as similar events had improved their chances of blessing from their old gods. Circumcision too could be fatally misread – as a costly offering like the costly offerings they had offered in the past in an effort to oblige their gods to respond. 

Galatians teaches us, I think, that preventing this transfer of religious expectations from the surrounding culture to Christianity was a fundamental plank of Paul’s programme for discipleship. And if I’m right, it has significant contemporary implications. Modern churches have a tendency to get this wrong both for new converts and for mature believers.  

For new converts, our emphasis typically lies on making church as accessible as possible – which, in practice, means patterning it as closely as possible on the norms of the wider world. We keep the music the same (aiming to sound as much like popular bands as possible), we keep the publicity the same (aiming to look as much like secular books and conference posters as possible), we keep the teaching style the same (aiming to sound as much like a TED talk as possible). And none of this is bad in and of itself. But the problem Paul would surely have flagged in the light of the situation in Galatia is that our newcomers are already familiar with these ‘points of proximity,’ and that each of them is tenaciously connected to expectations that have nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. If we put newcomers back in exactly the same situation in church, we can only expect them to think about church in the same way

Paul is sometimes critiqued for naivety in Galatia. He’s forced to hurriedly backfill ethical guidance in the final chapters, we’re told, because he failed to give his converts sufficient guidance on how to live when he met them the first time. Reading the letter with greater clarity, however, we can see that his characteristically stripped-back gospel presentation – preaching ‘nothing except Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:2) – was driven less by pastoral naivety than it was by shrewd pastoral policy. Paul knew that if he’d given the Galatians lots of rules to live by (like his opponents had just done) – they would have slotted them straight into their existing religious frameworks and gone forward thinking like pagans, however much they looked like Jewish Christians oh the outside. Before we make church too much like the world in our own day, we have to think the same thought. 

But neither do we find a mandate here for the kind of cultural detachment among experienced saints that all too often also meets with our de facto approval. Paul’s advice is aimed at baby believers in Galatians, but he doesn’t want them to remain babies. Just as we see in Romans 12, Paul reaches for the language of spiritual transformation here as he looks forward to the Galatians’ future. He doesn’t want them to remain wrapped up in cotton wool for fear that their past religious norms will be reawakened. He wants to see those norms gradually eroded to the point where these former pagans can participate in events that feel very much like their former way of life without debilitating spiritual triggers in order that they can do spiritual good to others. 

This is only what Paul says of himself in 1 Corinthians – right? That he became all things to all people in order that he might save some. And he wants nothing less for the Galatians and for us. The point of spiritual maturity is not that we can sit in some holy huddle discussing what we’ve learned in terms that make us unintelligible and uninteresting to the outside world. The point of maturity is that, having weakened the connections that exist within us between worldly activities and the expectations that go along with them, God has enabled us to move toward the world with interest and sympathy without bringing those expectations back to life. 

But discipleship isn’t the only area of application. Think also about how this reshapes our sense of dependence on God.

Modern people, I take it, generally don’t grow up making offerings to Zeus or Artemis, pledging thanks to the gods if they give them a good harvest, or attending overnight ‘incubation’ sessions in the hope of receiving healing from Asclepius as the Galatians did. But our attitudes to money and careers, social networks and physical appearance are guided by strikingly similar expectations. Pagans thought that, by doing these things, they could incentivise the gods to bless them in the future. And we too think we can oblige the future give us what we want. It scarcely crosses our minds to think differently – of course I put money in a pension fund because it will give me the future I ‘deserve’, of course I carefully curate my CV to maximise my chances of ‘making it’ and minimise my chances of missing out. But is that kind of thinking supposed to shape the way I relate to God?

Galatians, I confess, used to perplex me as a letter. Paul clearly gets very hot under the collar about ‘the works of the law’ in this text, but I had never found embracing Jewish law particularly tempting and couldn’t relate to the ritualistic, ‘box-ticking’ vision of faith that was typically taken as the contemporary equivalent when the letter was handled from the pulpit. It didn’t feel like there was much here for me beyond the theological assertions we began with.

But now, with a new awareness that the problem Paul faced in Galatia is my problem too, the letter is positively pulsing with prophetic energy. If the point is not so much that I need to studiously avoid circumcision, and more that I need to open my eyes to the survival of worldly expectations – indeed, to the actual integration of worldly expectations – at the very core of my Christian convictions, suddenly Galatians has me absolutely in its crosshairs. Galatians is the letter where Paul confronts the modern church with the much-needed warning that, to the extent we live, and pray, and worship like people who believe that, by so doing, we can make God give us what we want, we are not Christians at all (Gal 4:11). It’s a radical call to embrace the truth that, if God is God, there is nothing we can do or should do to persuade him to bless us. God blesses us because of who he is. We can wait for him, and work for him, content in the knowledge that he will grow us in Christ’s likeness in the way he deems fit.

Dr Neil Martin is a member of the pastoral staff at Oxford Evangelical Presbyterian Church and a Research Associate in New Testament at Keble College, Oxford, having previously served as Biblical Studies Tutor at the Pastors’ Academy. His new book, Galatians Reconsidered, is published by IVP/Apollos. Visit and enter code Galatians20 before 2nd December to receive a 20% discount.