Introduction to Galatians

To Whom Was the Epistle Written?

Two Possibilities

The Epistle is addressed to “the churches of Galatia” (1:2.) The term “Galatia,” however, is ambiguous. The name itself is derived from the Gauls, a people of Celtic origin.

In the fourth century B.C. a considerable number of Gauls left their homeland, migrating southward and eastward. For a time they harassed Italy, but then moved on toward the Grecian peninsula. Repelled by the Greek armies at Delphi in 279 B.C., they once again moved on; a large number of them eventually settling in north central Asia Minor.

They were useful to the Romans as allies in local wars and thus were allowed to expand their territory, especially toward the south. Upon the death of their leader, Amyntas, their entire holdings were constituted by the Romans as the province of Galatia in 25 B.C. Thus, at the time Paul wrote, “Galatia” might mean North Galatia (the territory originally occupied by the Gauls,) or the term might be used as a reference to the whole Roman province, including the South Galatian cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe—the region Paul evangelized on his first missionary journey and visited on his second (E. Harrison, p. 257.)

The View that the Epistle is Addressed to North Galatia

Those who hold to the view that Paul is addressing the ethnic Galatians located in north central Asia Minor maintain that the apostle founded the churches there during his second missionary journey (Acts 16:6) and re-visited them during his third journey (Acts 18:23.) In favor of their view they insist that it is very difficult to believe that Paul would refer to the people of the south as “Galatians” (Gal. 3:1) if they were not, indeed, ethnic Galatians, the descendants of the Gauls, since residence in Galatia did not make them Galatians in the ethnic sense (E. Harrison, p. 258.) In response to this point, however, Sir William Ramsay (back in 1899) maintained that it is difficult to think of any other name that could have applied all-inclusively to the various peoples of the southern district of the province of Galatia. He argued that the name of the province would be used to describe all the inhabitants of that province without implying any ethnical significance (D. Guthrie, pp. 454-455.)

Those who hold to the view that the Epistle was addressed to North Galatia point out that Luke (in writing Acts), in reporting Paul’s work in the cities of southern Galatia, makes no mention of the sickness to which the apostle himself refers in Galatians 4:13 as being the occasion for his initial visit to their region. Furthermore, it is noted that, whereas Luke records the severe persecution the apostle received while ministering in the south, (even being stoned at Lystra), Paul makes no mention of this in his Epistle to the Galatians (E. Harrison, p. 258.) In response to these points, one must take into account Luke’s purpose in writing his account in Acts and Paul’s purpose in writing his Epistle to the Galatians. The fact that the one omits information cited by the other may well be an indication that each respectively did not consider the material cited by the other to be germane to his own particular purpose in writing.

The View that the Epistle is Addressed to South Galatia

A strong argument against the North Galatia view is the fact that little if any reference is made to the founding of any churches in the north. (Based on the passages of Acts 16:6 and 18:23, Paul may have visited, or merely passed through, a portion of the northern region on one of his journeys from Syrian Antioch to Ephesus. However, these passages in Acts make no mention of the founding of churches in this region.) As A. Ross remarks (p. 1002), “There is no direct mention anywhere in the New Testament of the founding of churches in north Galatia and it seems strange to seek the Galatians of the Epistle in the hypothetical churches of north Galatia, and to leave the well-known churches of south Galatia, which must have been dear to Paul’s heart as the sphere of his first missionary campaign, without any share in his correspondence.” In Acts 13-14 and 16 we are given a full account of the establishment of the churches in the south. Since Acts generally gives us a clear, if sometimes short, account of the founding of churches during Paul’s missionary journeys, it must be regarded as remarkable that not a word is said about the formation of churches in North Galatia (H. Ridderbos, p. 26), if, indeed, such churches had been founded by the apostle.

Once again, according to Gal. 4:13, Paul first visited the readers of this Epistle during a period of convalescence following a physical illness. But this episode would be highly improbable in the northern region; not only because that region would be off the beaten path, (the South, being more populace, had a better system of roads), but would have necessitated a journey over difficult country (D. Guthrie, p. 453.) Ramsay conjectured that the apostle contracted fever in the lowlands of Pamphylia during his first missionary journey (Acts 13) and sought relief by proceeding to the higher ground around Pisidian Antioch (E. Harrison, p. 257.)

One other item in favor of the view that the Epistle was addressed to the churches in the south is the fact that Paul habitually used provincial names rather than geographical names. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 16:1 Paul speaks of “the churches of Galatia.” In the same passage he also refers to Macedonia (16:5), Achaia (16:15) and Asia (16:19.) Since these last three names refer to Roman provinces, it seems probable that “Galatia” should also be taken to mean the Roman province, rather than only the northern portion of that province inhabited by ethnic Gauls (M. Tenney, p. 265.)

Why the Question of Destination has Significance

As E. Harrison asks (p. 259), Why should the question of the destination of the Epistle receive so much attention? Partly for its own sake, he answers, as a means of accurately identifying the historical context that occasioned the writing of the Epistle. There is also another reason for considering the question of the destination of the Epistle; namely, the bearing that it has upon the date of composition. In accepting the hypothesis that the Epistle was written to the churches located in South Galatia, it means that the Epistle must have been written some time after Paul’s second visit to these churches (note Galatians 4:13 and Acts 16:1-4); but in all probability, shortly thereafter, (judging from the apostle’s shock that the Galatians were so quickly departing from the gospel, Gal. 1:6.) The letter may have been written from Corinth, where the apostle stayed for awhile during his second missionary journey. If so, this Epistle would be among the first, if not actually the first, of the letters of Paul that the Holy Spirit has caused to be preserved for us (H. Ridderbos, p. 31.)

The Theme and Purpose of the Epistle to the Galatians

The Occasion for Writing

The Epistle to the Galatians is a passionate vindication, vigorous and uncompromising, both of the gospel of the grace of God and of Paul’s own authority as an apostle of Christ who had commissioned him to preach that gospel (A. Ross, p. 1001.) (Note: As J. Eadie points out (p. xl), in their effort to dislodge the Galatians from the gospel proclaimed by Paul, the heretical teachers who were troubling the churches of Galatia sought to undermine Paul’s apostolic authority. If they could portray Paul as being inferior to the original apostles, both in rank and authority, more easily might his teaching be set aside in favor of their own Judaistic teaching.)

The rapid growth of the Gentile church under the mission of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch (Acts 11:19-26) brought into focus a new question: If the Gentiles became believers in Jesus as the Messiah, to what extent should they be required to observe the precepts of the Old Testament law? With the mission to the Gentiles, first at Syrian Antioch and soon to be throughout Asia Minor, the question became one of utmost importance: In addition to faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, must the Gentile converts adopt the Jewish customs and adhere to the Old Testament law in all of its dimensions? Peter’s debate with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem following his visit to the home of Cornelius, where, upon hearing the gospel, many became believers (Acts 11:1-18), was an early sign of this tension (M. Tenney, p. 257.)

Soon, those who maintained that Gentile converts must adopt all the precepts of Judaism in order to be saved began to export their teaching to the regions where Gentile churches had been established. When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, they discovered that these  teachers (known as Judaizers) had visited the church and insisted that, unless the Gentile believers were circumcised, they could not be saved (Acts 15:1.) By the command of the Holy Spirit, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem in order to bring this matter before the apostles and elders. In consequence, the Jerusalem Council, (the first great council in church history convened to decide upon a theological issue), determined that a Gentile need only to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved, he need not adopt the Jewish lifestyle and take upon himself the yoke of the whole Old Testament law (see Acts 15.) Thus it was that the gospel of salvation by grace was preserved and propagated as the one true biblical doctrine of salvation.

But the matter did not rest there. A zealous group of Judaizing teachers (see below under, Who Were The Troublemakers?) continued to propound their heretical teaching, namely, that it was necessary to circumcise the Gentile converts and charge them to keep the law of Moses in an effort to be saved (Acts 15:5.) The Judaizers would follow Paul’s every step throughout his missionary journeys, seeking to dissuade his Gentile converts from the gospel and make them converts to their own form of salvation by works (as opposed to salvation by grace.) These men had reached the churches of south Galatia (where Paul had labored during his first missionary journey), and here they were making great inroads among the Galatian Christians.

In response to this emergency, the apostle writes his epistle, expressing his astonishment that these Galatian Christians were so quickly and so easily forsaking the One who called them (Gal. 1:6.) Note: Paul charges that they were not merely forsaking a doctrine, but were forsaking their relationship with God. After all, it is by means of the gospel that God the Father calls us out of spiritual darkness into His divine light (1 Pet. 2:9) and into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:9.)

The Galatians were turning to a “different gospel,” which in fact was no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7.) These churches were being exposed to the heretical teaching presented by the Judaizers and were accepting it as a substitute for the true gospel that had been delivered to them by the Apostle Paul. But this teaching that they were so readily embracing was no gospel—it was no good news at all; on the contrary, it was a deadly counterfeit. As noted earlier, the teaching of the Judaizers maintained that the sacrament of circumcision and the use of the law were necessary as a means of seeking to merit or earn one’s own salvation. These men taught that a person entered God’s covenant community by means of the sacrament and thereupon must endeavor to merit and maintain God’s favor by means of his personal observance of the law. In essence, this heresy, (and all other heresies in one way or another,) denied the all-sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ to be our one and only source of salvation. Furthermore, it erroneously taught the capability of man to contribute to his salvation by the observance of religious rites and by means of his own personal moral endeavors.

In no uncertain terms (Gal. 1:8-9) the Apostle Paul pronounces an anathema (a curse) upon anyone who would propagate any teaching that is contrary to the gospel of Christ (note 1 Cor. 15:1-4, where  Paul gives a succinct statement of the gospel.) As M. Tenney expresses it (p. 69), The Epistle to the Galatians is a protest against the corruption of the gospel of Christ. The essential truth of justification by faith rather than by works of the law had been obscured. (Indeed, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was being denied and supplanted.) When Paul learned that this heretical teaching had begun to penetrate the churches of Galatia, he wrote the impassioned remonstrance that is contained in this Epistle.

Who Were the Troublemakers Referred to in Galatians 1:7?

As noted, they are commonly identified by the name “Judaizers.” One commentator describes them in these terms: Paul’s opponents were conservative Jewish Christians who mandated that a Gentile must first obey the precepts of Judaism … prior to being accepted as a full member of the Christian church (S.E. McClelland, p. 1001.) Another commentator describes them as “Jewish Christians who wanted to combine the gospel of Christ with the observation of Jewish ceremonies” (H. Ridderbos, p. 16.) But anyone who adheres to the doctrines cherished and propagated by these men cannot be called Christian at all. Their teaching was a denial of the very essence of the Christian faith.

Who were these men and how was it that they were found within the Christian church? Note that the Apostle Paul calls them “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4) and in the Book of Acts Luke identifies them as “certain men of the sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5.) So, the question becomes, How did these Pharisees happen to be present at a council of the Christian church?

One must bear in mind that the Pharisees were firm believers in the doctrine of the resurrection (Acts 23:8.) Apparently, when the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead, and His disciples presented their irrefutable witness to His resurrection, some of the Pharisees acknowledged Him to be the Messiah and associated themselves with His church. But when they entered the church, they did not understand the gospel; they continued to hold to their former religious beliefs. They did not place their faith completely in Christ alone; rather, they sought to fit Christ into their religious system. As we have seen, they believed in the necessity of circumcision and personal obedience as part of an effort to earn and maintain one’s own salvation. Apparently, these “false brethren” only viewed the Lord Jesus as an example to be followed, rather than as what He is in fact: the Savior to be trusted.

A General Outline of the Epistle

Borrowing much from the work of D. Guthrie (pp 468-470), we present the following as a general outline of the content of the Epistle to the Galatians:

Introduction (1:1-10)

In place of the usual expression of thanksgiving for churches, Paul immediately refers to his apostolic credentials, sets forth the essence of the gospel, and in no uncertain terms denounces the heretical teachers.

A Defense of Paul’s Apostolic Credentials (1:11-2:21)

His teaching was not received from man, but from God (1:11-12)
God called him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles (1:13-17)
His apostleship was accepted by the original apostles (1:18-2:10)
He withstood Peter and re-affirmed the truth of the gospel (2:11-21)

A Defense of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith (3:1-4:31)

The Galatians received the Holy Spirit by faith, not works (3:1-5)
Abraham was saved by faith (3:6-9)
The Law can only impose a curse, from which Christ redeemed us (3:10-14)
The Covenant of Promise precedes and takes precedence over the Law (3:15-18)
One great function of the Law is to bring us to Christ (3:19-29)
By faith in Christ the N.T. believer enjoys the status of mature sonship (4:1-7)
Paul interrupts his arguments to make a personal appeal to the Galatians (4:8-20)
By the illustration of Sarah and Hagar, the believer’s freedom is contrasted with the Judaizers’ bondage (4:21-31)

A Defense of the Gospel Against Libertinism (5:1-6:10)

The Christian must not exchange his freedom for circumcision and the law (5:1-6)
Those who insist on circumcision are leading people astray (5:7-12)
Christian freedom must not be equated with libertinism (5:13-15)
Walking by the Spirit is the safeguard against libertinism (5:16-26)
Specific applications of the Spirit-filled life (6:1-10)

Conclusion (6:11-18)

The apostle exposes the motives and personal failure of the Judaizers (6:12-13) and exalts the cross of Christ as the only means of salvation (6:14-16)

The Relationship Between Galatians and Romans and James

The similarity of the Epistle to the Galatians in many points to the Epistle to the Romans has often been observed. John Eadie, in the introduction to his commentary (pp. lvii-lx), lists nineteen passages of Galatians that are either repeated or developed in the Book of Romans.

But, as H. Ridderbos points out (pp. 20-21), commentators have noticed a difference between Paul’s treatment of the law in the Epistle to the Romans when compared to the Epistle to the Galatians. In Galatians the emphasis is predominantly placed on the negative significance of the law. By way of example, note the following passages:

All who place their hope in the law are under a curse (3:10)
The law is antithetical to the covenant of promise (3:12)
The function of the law is to curb sin (3:19)
The law cannot give life (3:21)
The law is provisional: holding men captive and driving them to Christ (3:23-25)
The law produces children of bondage who are eventually expelled (4:21-31)

In the Epistle to the Romans this negative significance of the law is also mentioned (note Rom. 4:15 and 5:20.) However, in Romans, in addition to the negative aspect of the law, there is far greater emphasis on the loftiness and holiness of the law (note, for instance, Rom. 7, especially, 7:12.)

Some commentators have taken this difference to be indicative of a development in the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the law. According to them, in the interim between the writing of Galatians and Romans, Paul came to a much more positive appreciation of the law. But, as H. Ridderbos rightly points out (pp. 21-22), “There is no reason for such a judgment.” The different presentation of the law in Roman, when compared to Galatians, is not due to a change in the apostle’s thinking; it is to be found, rather, in his differing purposes in writing the two Epistles.

It must be remembered that in the letter to the Galatians, as distinguished from the letter to the Romans, the whole argument is governed by Paul’s refutation of the Judaizers (men who promoted obedience to the law as the way of salvation.) It is altogether appropriate, therefore, that in the Epistle to the Galatians the provisional and negative aspect of the law should be emphasized so as to dissuade the Galatians from foolishly forsaking the gospel in favor of the law as the way of salvation. In the Epistle to the Romans, the apostle’s presentation of the law is more balanced: slanted less toward the danger inherent in viewing the law as the means of salvation and bringing out more of the positive and permanent aspects of the law (note, for instance, Romans 8:3-4.) We may summarize the distinction found in these two Epistles as follows: The Epistle to the Galatians, written as an urgent corrective to the churches’ dangerous infatuation with the law, emphatically stresses the inadequacy of the law to serve as the means of salvation. The Epistle to the Romans, written more on the order of a reasoned theological treatise, is expounding the full scope of God’s holy moral law.

Just as there are obvious similarities between the Epistle to the Galatians and the Epistle to the Romans; so, too, there is apparent a striking contrast between the Epistle to the Galatians and the Epistle of James. Once again, the key to reconciling the apparent difference lies in an understanding of the distinct purpose for which each Epistle was written.

To understand the respective purposes of these two Epistles, we need to go back again to the controversy and the questions that arose when the church began to expand into Gentile territory and embrace Gentile converts. As M. Tenney remarks (pp. 260-261), the controversy over circumcising Gentile converts was no small, localized matter that could be settled by having the Gentile believers make a few small concessions to their Jewish brethren. On the contrary, several questions of great importance were involved. Such questions as, What is the place of the law in the plan of God? Is obedience to the law, in addition to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, necessary for salvation? If the Gentiles did not need to submit to all the Old Testament regulations, were they, nevertheless, still obligated to obey the moral law? In other words, What exactly is the relationship between salvation by faith and ethical behavior? To put it another way, What connection is there between faith and works? These and similar problems are reflected in many of the epistles of the New Testament that were written in the decade between A.D. 50 and A. D. 60. Two such Epistles in particular deal with these issues, each focusing on one or the other aspect of the question—the one focusing on faith, the other focusing on the place of works in the believer’s life. These two Epistles are Galatians and James.

The Epistles of James and Galatians illustrate the two aspects of Christianity that from the very beginning have seemed to be conflicting, though in reality they are supplementary. On the one hand, James focuses on the necessity of the Christian ethic: faith must demonstrate its genuineness by bearing the fruit of good works. (Nevertheless, James, no less than Paul, emphasizes the need of the transforming grace of God. At the very outset of his epistle, the Apostle James writes, “Of his own will, (God) brought us forth by the word of truth, in order that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”) Galatians, on the other hand, stresses the dynamic of the gospel (“the word of truth”) that produces the Christian ethic.

In Romans 8:3-4 we find these two essential elements brought together. There the Apostle Paul writes, “What the law could not do [namely, be the means by which sinful man could make himself acceptable to God] … God did by sending his own Son [to be our Savior whom we receive by faith] … so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Or again, we may consider Ephesians 2:8-10, “It is by grace that you have been saved through faith—and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—it is not of works, therefore no one can boast. We are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which  God prepared in advance in order for us to walk in them.” The means of our salvation is faith—a faith imparted to us by the sovereign grace of God. The purpose of our salvation is holiness—the doing of those good works that God Himself has prepared for us to perform. The Epistle to the Galatians focuses on the means of our salvation; the Epistle of James focuses on the purpose of our salvation.


Eadie, John; Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians; Zondervan Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, (Reprint of 1894 edition.)

Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, Eighth American Printing, January 19790.

Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third printing, October 1968.)

McClelland, Scott E.; “Galatians,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.

Ridderbos, Herman N.; “The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1953 (Sixth printing, December 1970.)

Ross, Alexander; “The Epistle to the Galatians,” The New Bible Commentary, edited by Prof. F. Davidson; Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted, October 1967.

Tenney, Merrill C.; New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1961 (Eighth printing, February 1967.)