A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 1:3-4. 2). Paul’s gospel.
Paul sends the Galatians a message of grace and peace, as in all his Epistles. But these are no formal and meaningless terms. Although ‘grace’ and ‘peace’ are common monosyllables, they are pregnant with theological substance. In fact, they summarize Paul’s gospel of salvation. The nature of salvation is peace, or reconciliation – peace with God, peace with men, peace within. The source of salvation is grace, God’s free favour, irrespective of any human merit or works, His loving-kindness to the undeserving. And this grace and peace flow from the Father and the Son together.
Paul immediately goes on to the great historical event in which God’s grace was exhibited and from which His peace is derived, namely the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Verse4: *who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father*. Although Paul has declared that God the Father raised Christ from the dead (verse 1), he writes now that it was by giving Himself to die on the cross that He saves us. Let us consider the rich teaching which is given here about the death of Christ.
a). Christ died for our sins.
The character of His death is indicated in the expression *who gave Himself for our sins*. The New English Bible translates ‘who sacrificed himself for our sins’. The death of Jesus Christ was primarily neither a display of love, nor an example of heroism, but a sacrifice for sin. Indeed, the use in some of the best manuscripts of the preposition *peri* in the phrase ‘for our sins’ may be an echo of the Old Testament expression for the sin-offering. (LXX *peri hamartias*, e.g. Lv.5:11 and Nu.8:8. cf. Rom.8:3 and 1 Pet.3:18, where the preposition is again *peri*), The New Testament teaches that Christ’s death was a sin-offering, the unique sacrifice by which our sins may be forgiven and put away. This great truth is not explained here, but later in the Epistle (3:13) we are told that Christ actually became ‘a curse for us’. He bore in his righteous person the curse or judgment which our sins deserved.
Martin Luther comments that ‘these words are very thunderclaps from heaven against all kinds of righteousness, that is, all forms of self-righteousness. Once we have seen that Christ ‘gave himself for our sins’, we realize that we are sinners unable to save ourselves, and we give up trusting in ourselves that we are righteous.
b). Christ died to rescue us from this present age.
If the nature of Christ’s death on the cross was ‘for our sins’, its object was ‘to rescue us out of this present age of wickedness’ (verse 4,NEB). Bishop J.B.Lightfoot writes that the verb (‘deliver’, ‘rescue’) ‘strikes the keynote of the epistle’. ‘The gospel is a rescue,’ he adds, ‘an emancipation from a state of bondage.’
Christianity is, in fact, a rescue religion. The Greek verb in this verse is a strong one (*exaireo*, in the middle voice). It is used in the Acts of the rescue of the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery (7:34), of the rescue of Peter from both prison and the hand of Herod the King (12:11), and of the rescue of Paul from an infuriated mob about to lynch him (23:27). This verse in Galatians is the only place where it is used metaphorically of salvation. Christ died to rescue us.
From what does he rescue us by his death? Not out of ‘this present evil *world*’, as the Authorized Version puts it. For God’s purpose is not to take us out of this world, but that we should stay in it and be both ‘the light of the world’ and ‘the salt of the earth’. But Christ died to rescue us ‘out of this present *age* of wickedness’ (NEB), or, as perhaps it should be rendered, ‘out of this present age of the wicked one’, since he (the devil) is its Lord. Let me explain this. The bible divides history into two ages: ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’. It tells us, moreover, that ‘the age to come’ has come already, because Christ inaugurated it, although the present age has not yet finally passed away. So the two ages are running their course in parallel. They overlap one another. Christian conversion means being rescued from the old age and being transferred into the new age, ‘the age to come’. And the Christian life is living in this age the life of the age to come.
The purpose of Christ’s death, therefore, was not only to bring us forgiveness, but that, having been forgiven, we should live a new life, the life of the age to come. Christ *gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age*.
Tomorrow: Galatians 1:3,4 c). Christ died according to God’s will.