A Commentary by John Stott
It may be helpful, in conclusion, if we attempt to review the whole Epistle, or at least to underline its main themes.
We have seen that the background, the situation which called it forth, was the presence in the Galatian churches of certain false teachers. Directly or indirectly Paul alludes to them throughout. They were ‘troubling’ the church. The same word occurs in Galatians 1:7 and 5:10 and means to ‘disturb, unsettle, throw into confusion’ (Arndt-Gingrich). And the confusion they were spreading was caused by their erroneous ideas. They were perverting the gospel, and Paul confronts them with hot indignation.
There were three main points at issue between Paul and the Judaizers, and they are still vital issues in the church today. The first is the question of authority: how do we know what and whom to believe or disbelieve? The second is the question of salvation: how can we get right with God, receiving the forgiveness of our sins and being restored to His favour and fellowship? The third is the question of holiness: how can we control the sinful desires of our fallen nature and live a life of righteousness and love? Addressing himself to these questions, Paul devotes approximately the first two chapters of the Epistle to the question of authority, chapters 3 and 4 to the question of salvation, and chapters 5 and 6 to the question of holiness.
1). The question of authority.
This was the fundamental issue. Paul and Barnabas founded the Galatian churches on their first missionary journey by their preaching and teaching. After their departure other teachers arrived – teachers who claimed to have authority and backing of the Jerusalem church and who began to undermine the teaching of Paul. As a result, the Galatians were in a dilemma. Here were two sets of teachers, each claiming to bring God’s truth, but contradicting one another. Which were the Galatians to listen to and believe? Both seemed to have good credentials. Both are holy, godly, upright and intelligent men, and both were plausible, winsome and dogmatic. Which were they to choose?
The same situation obtains in the church today except that, instead of a simple alternative between two viewpoints, we are faced with a bewildering variety of opinions to choose from. Moreover, each group has its particular appeal; its spokesmen are reputable scholars; and its supporters include theologians and bishops. Each group sounds reasonable and buttresses its case with strong arguments. But they all contradict one other. So how can we know which to choose and whom to follow?
We must see clearly what Paul does in this situation. He asserts his authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He expects the Galatians to receive his gospel not just because of *it*, but because of *him*, not because of its superior truth, but because of his superior authority. The authority the Judaizers boasted was an ecclesiastical authority; they claimed to come from and to speak for the Jerusalem church. Paul insists, on the other hand, that both his mission and his message came not from the church but from Christ Himself. This is the argument of Galatians 1 and 2, in which he boldly advances his claim and then supports it by rehearsing the history of his conversion and his subsequent relations with the Jerusalem apostles. It was Christ who authorized him, not they, although, when he did later confer with them, they whole-heartedly endorsed his mission and message.
Conscious of his apostolic authority, Paul expects the Galatians to accept it. They had done this on his first missionary journey, receiving him ‘as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus’ (4:14). Now that his authority is being challenged and his message contradicted, he still expects them to recognize his authority as Christ’s apostle: ‘I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine’ (5:10). The original message, which he had preached to them (1:8) and which they received (1:9), was to be normative. If anybody preached a gospel contrary to this, however august a personage he might be, ‘let him be accursed’.
Almost deafened by the babel of voices in the contemporary church, how are we to decide whom to follow? The answer is the same: we must test them all by the teaching of the apostles of Jesus Christ. ‘Peace and mercy’ will be on the church when it ‘walks by this rule’ (6:16). Indeed, this is the only kind of apostolic succession we can accept – not a line of bishops stretching back to the apostles and claiming to be their successors (for the apostles were unique in both authorization and inspiration, and they have no successors), but loyalty to the apostolic doctrine of the New Testament. The teaching of the apostles, now permanently preserved in the New Testament, is to regulate the beliefs and practices of the church of every generation. This is why the Bible is over the church and not *vice versa*. The apostolic authors of the New Testament were commissioned by Christ, not by the church and wrote with the authority of Christ, not the church. ‘To that authority (sc. of the apostles),’ as the Anglican bishops said at the 1958 Lambeth Conference, ‘the Church must ever bow.’ Would that it did! The only church union schemes which can be pleasing to God and beneficial to the church are those which first distinguish between apostolic traditions and ecclesiastical traditions and then subject the latter to the former.