What Saint Paul Should Have Said: Is Galatians a Polemic Against Legalism?

About 25 years ago, E. P. Sanders shook the world of New Testament studies with his book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. The viewpoint presented was not new, but for whatever reason, it was Sanders' work which had an impact. His thesis was that first century Judaism was not a merit-based religion, but one framed by God's gracious covenant with His people.

This notion stood in stark contrast to Protestant scholarship. Although the most extreme statements regarding Judaism were made by the anti-Semitic German scholars of the 19th century, it has been a maxim of Protestant exegetes since Luther to claim that Paul was countering Jewish merit theology in books such as Romans and Galatians.

That Protestant hegemony is now shattered. A great horde of scholars followed the Sanders paradigm shift, with the result that James D. G. Dunn coined the term "the New Perspective on Paul" (NPP).

Now, in truth, there is no such thing as a New Perspective on Paul. The work of Sanders on Paul is relatively limited, and other NT scholars disagree with him - and with each other - on a multitude of points. It is thus more accurate to say that what we now have is, for better or worse, a New Perspective on Judaism.

Reaction in orthodox Lutheran and Reformed circles has often been very strong. Such a reading of Judaism is incomprehensible in terms of how they have been exegeting Paul for a long time. For many, anything that smacks of the so-called NPP must inherently entail a sacrifice of the gains of the Reformation, such as sola fide (faith alone) and solus Christus (Christ alone). And some adherents of the NPP make similar claims: this new view makes the entire Protestant enterprise an exercise in error.

I come to this question, not as someone who was convinced by Sanders, or even as someone who places that much weight upon the character of first century Judaism. Personally, I have no particular axe to grind regarding whether Judaism was/is merit-based, or is not. My concern regards the textual evidence. It was trying to discern the argument of Galatians that spawned in me the notion that perhaps Paul's point was not quite what I had assumed.

What were the Judaizers saying?

It would seem to be a reasonable assumption that the Judaizers had similar views to the Pharisaic Christians of Acts 15. If this is so, they would have said something like this to the Galatians: "Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved" (cf. Acts 15:1, 5). Paul himself indicates that circumcision is the one great issue which occasioned his letter (allowing for secondary references to e.g. rules of calendar, as in Gal. 4:10). This centrality is confirmed, not merely by the sheer number of references (e.g. Gal. 2:3, 7-9, 12; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-13, 15), but by the kind of mentions that circumcision receives. Paul says quite directly that the Judaizers "compel you to be circumcised;" the form of argument of 5:2ff. suggests that the way in which the Galatians are being tempted to attempt to be justified by law is precisely by way of becoming circumcised.

In my reading of Galatians, I never see a claim that the Judaizers are self-consciously pushing the Gentiles to "earn their way." What I do see is that the Judaizers want the Gentiles to adopt the Mosaic law, as indicated by the act of becoming circumcised, and that Paul considers such a move by the Galatians as a denial of the gospel.

That the Gentile inclusion in the covenant apart from the law is the central issue can be further supported by a number of observations:

  1. Paul's account of his call (1:16) places the accent upon the fact that God laid upon him a vocation to preach to the Gentiles.
  2. The Judaizing "spies" who came in among the Gentiles were seeking to subject them to slavery (2:4). This corresponds to Paul's later description of the Mosaic law as a child custodian (pedagogue), and indicates that his concern is not theoretical, but rather entails an opposition to the Gentiles coming under the Mosaic law, period. According to 2:5, it is freedom from this which is necessary to guard "the truth of the gospel," a point confirmed again in 2:7: Paul's gospel is "the gospel of the uncircumcision." For whatever reason, for Paul the gospel is only "gospel" (good news) for the Gentiles if it does not entail coming under the Mosaic covenant.
  3. Peter's schismatic activity in 2:11ff. is not about theory. It is about severing table fellowship with Gentiles who have not been circumcised, and who are thus not in submission to the Mosaic law. By this action, Peter was implicitly compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews, even though he himself had been living in a Gentile manner. There is no reason to read all sorts of legalistic theology into the phrase translated living like a Jew ('Ioudaikos). It simply means "living in law-observance."

It is important that we reflect on this, because without doing so, it will be quite impossible to follow Paul's line of argument. Paul is not interacting with scholastic Roman Catholic theologians who have developed an extensive system of merit. He is not dealing with theologians at all. His opponents are "Christian" Jews who are teaching the Gentiles that they too must become circumcised.

"If you want to be saved, you must be circumcised." Is this inherently "legalistic"? Yes and no, depending on your definition. Yes, in the sense that "legalism" derives from "law," and circumcision was required by the Mosaic law. But no, in the sense that requiring circumcision does not necessarily imply a view that one can earn salvation through an accumulation of merit.

"Ah, but circumcision is a work, and requiring a work for salvation is legalistic." But suppose we replace the word circumcision with baptism in the Judaizers' demand: "If you want to be saved, you must be baptized." Is this legalistic? No, not according to Paul's own precedent, or that of the other apostles. When the Jews on Pentecost asked Peter, "what shall we do?" Peter's answer was: "Repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:37-38). Paul himself counters the Judaizers' requirement for circumcision by appealing to baptism: "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27). It is on that basis that he can claim the promises given to Abraham have become theirs (Gal. 3:26-29).

What I am arguing is that if Paul's concern is an abstract merit theology, he goes about his argument all wrong. He never charges the Galatians with trying to earn anything. (He does charge them with seeking to be justified by law - but the question at hand is what that means.) He spends all of Galatians 3 and on into chapter 4 dealing with redemptive history, arguing that justification was by faith before the law even existed, and that the law was temporary. The law was added, 430 years after the promise, to be a child custodian for Israel until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:15-25). His complaint is not with a supposed "attitude;" his complaint is with real practical issues: circumcision, observance of days, etc.

What we wish St. Paul had said

The fact is, if Paul is directly concerned with dealing with "merit theologians," then he never really explains anything. The redemptive historical argument, which comprises a good portion of the letter, and indeed is the very heart of his argument, makes little sense in that context.

Saint Paul should have argued differently. He should have said: "You foolish Galatians, don't you know that good works cannot win you God's favour? Good works are merely responses of thanksgiving; they cannot earn you heaven."

But then, that would not address the concern of the occasion, would it? Such an argument would not refute the necessity of circumcision, any more than it would refute the necessity of baptism. The Judaizers could then still respond: "Yes, of course salvation is gracious, but the necessary response of thankfulness is circumcision and law-keeping."

Paul's actual argument works rather differently. He does not suggest that circumcision is okay, as long as it is done out of thankfulness, not of superstition, or out of some thought of earning one's way. Rather, Paul argues redemptive-historically in order to prove that the Gentiles don't need to be circumcised at all! He is not merely concerned that the Gentiles have a correct attitude toward circumcision - he doesn't want them to practice it at all!

All of this suggests that Paul's actual argument in Galatians strains our usual paradigms. If we are struggling mightily to see how the argument fits together, it probably means that we have not understood the argument.

So what about Protestant theology?

One of the fundamental questions which arises is this: if the NPP is generally correct, then what happens to the Protestant opposition to merit theology? Indeed, what happens to Protestantism? Some NPPers, along with their opponents, suggest that it all dissipates. Supposedly, the Protestant doctrine of Christ's imputed righteousness collapses once we concede that Paul is not opposing a self-conscious merit theology.

I don't think that follows. At all.

It is one thing to say that the occasion for Paul's letter is the Judaizers' demand for circumcision, juxtaposed with Paul's conviction that Gentiles are most emphatically not under the Mosaic law. It is quite another to suggest that, in view of this, Rome's merit theology was quite acceptable.

Paul's concern with justification by faith alone is that the Gentiles share in the vindication enjoyed by the resurrected Christ, without coming under the Mosaic law. Even as the cross was Christ's condemnation (cf. Gal. 3:13), the resurrection was Christ's justification (cf. 1 Tim. 3:16). (Note that Paul mentions the resurrection in the very first verse of Galatians, which hints at something paradigmatic.) By demanding that the Gentiles become circumcised and law-observant in order to be accepted as God's people, the Judaizers were in effect removing justification from Christ and placing it in the law. Not in the sense that we generally mean when we talk about "legalism." But in the sense that Israel was defined by the law. The Sabbath was a sign of God's covenant with Israel. Circumcision was a sign of God's covenant with Israel. The whole Mosaic law had to do with justification in the sense that it marked out who belonged to God.

Paul is saying that in the new covenant, those baptized into Christ are thereby marked out as belonging to God (Gal. 3:27). It is these who are thereby justified. In terms of the old covenant, God's relationship to the Gentiles was largely left undefined. Paul elsewhere explains that the Gentiles were "strangers to the covenants of promise" and therefore "without hope, without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). This, of course, was not absolute or universal; we find apparent exceptions, both in the OT and among the devout "God-fearers" of Acts. But these nonetheless were left in an anomalous position because they were not incorporated into Israel (those who were circumcised were indeed incorporated into Israel - but this meant that they were no longer considered Gentiles). For Paul, the new covenant's glory is that there is one new man, Christ, which is made up of Jews, Gentiles, slave, free, male, female, who are all one (Gal. 3:28; cf. Col. 3:9-11). When he employs the term "gospel" in Galatians 2, he is suggesting more than a personal, individual forgiveness of sins. He is speaking of God's act in Christ, whereby Jews and Gentiles have become vindicated together in one body.

This is why Peter's abandonment of the table in Galatians 2:11ff. is considered a betrayal of the gospel. The gospel means that we are one body, the body of Christ. When Peter withdrew from table fellowship, he was implying that Jews and Gentiles were not one body, after all; that really, the only way Jews and Gentiles can belong together as one body is if the Gentiles become circumcised and keep the law.

But in this way, the Church would be defined by the law, not by Christ. And Paul will have none of this. The Church is marked out by baptism, because baptism is the sign of union with Christ.

Paul's doctrine of union with Christ is the foundation for a biblical doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Those baptized into Christ have put Him on (3:27), so that they now become partakers of His identity and status. (It is in this way that they become Abraham's seed: compare 3:16 to 3:29.) As Paul makes it clear in Romans 6, those who have been baptized into Christ have been incorporated into His death and resurrection. Put another way, the whole history and status of Christ are given to believers. That history includes His righteous life and sacrificial death, as well as His justifying resurrection. Union with Christ therefore entails an imputation of Christ's righteousness and justification. To be sure, this is not a doctrine of imputation "from outside," in the sense of a distant transaction. But such an abstraction is not integral to Protestant theology to begin with. As Calvin was fond of saying, Christ's work does us no good as long as He remains outside of us. Robust Protestantism has always held that justification involves the communication of the person of Christ, not merely some sort of quantifiable number of merit points.

It should be seen that there is no need to challenge sola fide on this view. When we understand that salvation is found in union with Christ, the question to answer is: how is that union appropriated and maintained? Paul does give a sacramental answer in Galatians 3:27: baptism inserts one into Christ. But for Paul, baptism is not placed alongside faith as some competing element. Baptism is the realization of faith, the transitional event which embodies faith - or better, which faith receives. And saving faith continues in Christ in terms of that baptismal transition. Elsewhere Paul prays that Christ would dwell in the hearts of the Ephesians - by faith (Eph. 3:17). That is "union" language.

Or again, as Paul makes very clear in Galatians itself, the real issue in justification, that which avails is "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). That is the instrument by which union with Christ is accomplished and maintained: faith. Note that it is faith which avails in this verse; but it is not dead faith. Paul does not ascribe justification to love, but neither does he ascribe justification to a faith which is inactive, a bare assent. Justification is given by way of a living faith. The faith which justifies is indeed a faith which works through love. In the classic Reformed distinction: justification is by faith alone, but is not given to an alone faith. Only faith justifies, but justifying faith is not naked. It cannot be, for justifying faith unites one to Christ, and the one united to Christ is given the Spirit, and by faith bears fruit. (Our problems largely arise from attempting to construe a doctrine of justification in the abstract, without recognizing that justification is an aspect of union with Christ. Justification in Scripture is principally union with the Justified One, Christ Himself.)

Is there then no point of intersection between what Paul opposes and merit theology? I would suggest there is. Paul identifies Jesus as our sin offering (Gal. 1:4). Paul is so adamant that the law does not define the people of God that he insists that Christ will become useless to those who become circumcised (5:2), that attempting to be justified via the Mosaic law means estrangement from Christ (5:4). In such a case, the Galatians will become debtors to keep the whole law (5:3). In other words, by seeking their identity in the law rather than in Christ, Christ will no longer be their sin offering. The law will become their ball and chain. In that sense, Judaism becomes a merit religion, not by design but by default.

— Tim Gallant

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