Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:1-9 ESV
As is usual with all of Paul’s letters, he began this one with his normal salutation. He introduced himself as the author of the letter and affirmed his authority as an apostle of God, commissioned by Jesus Himself. He then offered them his normal greeting of grace and peace. But then he somewhat uncharacteristically went from pleasantries to a stinging denunciation of his audience, accusing them of having deserted the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wasted no time getting to his main point for writing the letter. This was a serious matter that needed to be addressed boldly and immediately. Paul knew there was no room for complacency or compromise. The spiritual well-being of the entire congregation was at stake.
It is likely that the church or churches to which Paul wrote were located in the southern region of Galatian, a Roman province in Asia Minor. It is believed that Paul helped bring the gospel to this area during his first missionary journey.
Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel. – Acts 14:1-7 ESV
Paul and Barnabas had helped to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to this area and had immediately run into opposition. First, the Jews who lived there saw them as a threat. In their minds, Paul and Barnabas represented a dangerous sect called “The Way” that was propagating heresy and leading many Jews astray. Before coming to faith in Christ, Paul was a God-fearing Jew whose life mission was to persecute the followers of The Way. AFter his arrest outside the temple in Jerusalem, Paul addressed the crowd and said, “And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison” (Acts 22:4 NLT). But after His face-to-face encounter with the resurrected Christ while on his way to Damascus, Paul had been transformed from persecutor to proclaimer. He went from trying to destroy the gospel to serving as its greatest missionary and zealous defender. And it was his passion for the gospel that led him to write this letter.
Paul’s main complaint against the believers in Galatia was that they were deserting the gospel. The Greek word Paul used is μετατίθημι (metatithēmi) and it means “to fall away or desert from one person or thing to another” (“G3346 – metatithēmi – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). They were being persuaded to turn away from the gospel that Paul and Barnabas had preached and were accepting “different” gospel. There were those who had infiltrated the congregations in Galatia and were preaching a ἕτερος (heteros) gospel. It was “another” gospel – different, altered, not of the same nature (“G2087 – heteros – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). And it was this alternative gospel that Paul so vehemently attacks in his letter.
It is believed that Paul was dealing with the influence of a group called the Judaizers. These were Jews who had converted to Christianity, but who were propagating the belief that circumcision and adherence to the Mosaic Law were necessary for Gentiles to be truly saved. “‘Judaizers’ refers to Jewish Christians who sought to induce Gentiles to observe Jewish religious customs: to ‘judaize’” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology). These individuals seemed to follow Paul wherever he went, bringing their message of law or human effort and mixing it with the grace that Paul preached. In doing so, they brought confusion to the new converts in Galatia and earned the wrath of Paul. But before Paul addressed the proponents of this other gospel, he admonished those who had so quickly bought into it. He was astonished at how quickly they had turned from grace to works. “I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ” (Galatians 1:6 NLT). “The Greek word thaumazo (“I am amazed”) was a conventional expression in Greek letters that signaled astonishment, rebuke, disapproval, and disappointment” (Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Galatians, 2007 Edition). Paul was dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. And he wasn’t willing to sit back and ignore what was happening in Galatia. He knew just how dangerous and insidious this alternative gospel could be, and he was not going to tolerate it.
Paul will spend the rest of his letter defending the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is good news because it is based solely on grace. The good news is not opposed to effort, but it must always be relegated to its proper place. Human effort plays no part in salvation. But it is an essential after-effect of coming to faith in Christ. Paul told the believers in Philippi, “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). Effort has its place, but not when it comes to salvation. Paul makes this important distinction clear in his letter to the Ephesians:
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT
Dallas Willard puts it well: “The path of spiritual growth in the riches of Christ is not a passive one. Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude” (Dallas Willard, “Live Life To the Full”).