I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another: but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:6-7) Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Gal. 2:16)
I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. (Gal. 2:21)
The Galatians were originally from the Rhine River area of Gaul. Originally called Gallo-Grecians, they had been a warlike people and had come to dominate a large part of Asia Minor. Over time prosperity brought weakness and they were conquered and absorbed into the Roman empire. Paul visited the Galatian cities of Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium on all three of his missionary journeys. This may account for Paul's disgust with their gullibility in accepting false doctrine, though Calvin thought this epistle was written much earlier than generally accepted, perhaps after the first trip. False teachers had come into the region of Galatia and taught that justification, or God's declaration of righteousness, came by obedience to the law rather than grace (2:16, 21). The bulk of the epistle deals with this issue of righteousness by an act of God versus man's self-achievement of righteousness.
Another issue had apparently raised its head, however, and Paul had to begin by addressing a direct challenge to his authority. It seems these false teachers realized they had to directly challenge Paul's authority and his right to claim apostolic authority if they were to successfully challenge his teachings. They may have falsely claimed the blessing of the original apostles and denigrated Paul as being just another preacher. Paul therefore responded in the first two chapters of Galatians with a very clear and strong defense of his authority and commission from God independently of the other apostles. Paul said he was an apostle not from men or because of men but by the power of Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Christ from the dead (1:1). If the false teachers claimed any greater authority, they would have to contend with the resurrecting power of God. Paul expressed amazement that the Galatians were so quickly convinced to abandon his teachings (1:4) and pronounced a curse on anyone who perverted the gospel (1:8). This harsh tone was necessary, Paul declared, because it was not his own teaching they were abandoning, but the revelation of Jesus Christ (1:11-12). He had not planned to be an apostle (1:13-14) but had been called by God's grace from his mother's womb (1:15) to serve God.
In order to show that his authority was not derived from even that of the apostles, Paul spends a great deal of time (1:16-2:10) recounting that his call was not from the apostles or dependent on them but that they in fact recognized his calling from God and rejoiced in it. He even mentioned the fact that he had publicly rebuked Peter for snubbing the Gentile believers to avoid the criticism of the Pharisaical element in the church. Thus, even the other apostles were willing to stand corrected by Paul. The implication is that the Galatians and their false teachers must do likewise.
Regarding the crucial matter of the heresy itself, Paul also got right to the point. His salutation referred to Jesus Christ "who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world. . . ." (1:4). Now, if Christ gave himself for our sins "according to the will of God and our Father," how could the false teachers claim the need of any additional source of righteousness? They had left the gospel of Christ's atonement for another corrupted one (1:6). Paul does not even want to use the term "another gospel" which might imply it was a legitimate alternative, so he adds it is "not another," only a product of perversion of the true gospel (1:7). To abandon the gospel of Jesus Christ is a terrible thing, but to abandon its free grace in favor of justification by works is worse.
The false teachers the Galatians faced were not restricted to Asia Minor; they were apparently a fixture in the early church. They have been called Judaizers but have been inaccurately characterized by antinomians as anyone who kept Biblical ceremonies or law. If this were true, then Paul was a Judaizer, for he performed the Nazarite vow, worshipped in the temple (long after the veil had been torn and the Holy Spirit had been given), and even showed respect for the high priest who abused him at his arrest. The Judaizers were more properly those who sought to bring Phariseeism into the church, or more precisely they sought to reabsorb Christianity back into a Pharisaical form of Judaism. Paul would later say just this (6:12-13) when he said the motive of the Judaizers was to avoid persecution because of the doctrine of the atonement ("lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ"). If they could redefine Christianity as a branch of Judaism they could avoid persecution from the religious status quo and from Rome (Christianity was not a legal religion). Paul even said that those who insisted on circumcision did not keep the law. When Paul met the apostles at Jerusalem he said Titus was not "compelled to be circumcised" (2:3) because it was desired by "false brethren" who came into the church "to spy out our liberty" (2:4). Timothy was circumcised; Paul could have made Titus comply as well. Clearly, circumcision was not condemned in any way; Paul merely refused to allow it to be made obligatory. These false brethren wanted to "lay down the law" and mandate circumcision as a church rule, but Paul refused to accommodate them. He did not give way to them "no, not for an hour" (2:5).
Another instance of Judaizers trying to bring Phariseeism into the church was the incident Paul recounted regarding his rebuke of Peter. We have mentioned that Peter recognized Paul's authority; but just as important, the false, Pharisaical practice of Peter was apostolically denounced. Peter had withdrawn (2:12) from fellowshipping with the Gentile believers and submitted to an indefensible Pharisaical rule (not eating with Gentiles). Peter's sin was serious because he had brought Gentile Christians under a Pharisaical rule (not part of God's law) while he, though a Jew, felt Christ had given him liberty (2:14). As Paul's selective use of circumcision and his personal actions make clear, the use of Biblical (and by implication, extra-Biblical) ceremonies for personal edification or piety before God was allowable as long as they were not imposed on the conscience of others as mandatory. But beyond that, the use of any ceremony or work as a means of acquiring righteous standing before God was not only improper but constituted "another gospel."
When Paul said "a man is not justified by the works of the law" we must not restrict this to ceremonies, for it includes all the law, including what some designate the "moral law." Many people who think they are holier than God do not even regard the ceremonies under discussion here. Nevertheless, they believe they can be righteous before God by their ethical or moral conduct. Ceremonies, we must realize, are not at the heart of religions of works. It is a belief in the goodness and innate ability of man to present himself deserving before God that constitutes this heresy of self-righteousness. Ceremonies may or may not be regarded, for such men may argue individual practices and issues. It is not a claim to technical adherence that is the basis of their false faith but a claim to moral righteousness before God. Opposed to this is the belief in God's gracious declaration of justification to undeserving sinners because of Christ's atonement for our sins. We thus realize we are "dead to the law" that we might "live unto God" (2:19). We are dead to the law not because the law is dead but because our death penalty has been satisfied in Jesus Christ. We are now restored to fellowship with God so that our regenerate hearts can live for Him. Because our death penalty is paid, we no longer dread God's judgment but cry out to Him, "Abba, Father."