Gospel and Identity Markers in Galatians

written by Dr. Peter D. Spychalla, Assistant Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation


Perspectives on Paul—New and Old. New Testament scholarship of the past half century bears witness to vigorous debate, and voluminous literature, regarding the Apostle Paul’s understanding of first-century Judaism (how much legalism was present within its variegated nomism?) and his theology of justification and the atonement.

Paul’s teaching in Galatians 2:16 stands at the heart of this contemporary reassessment: “Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (NASB). The appropriate translation and precise meaning of key concepts such as “justified,” “works of the Law,” and “faith in Christ” (for example, the NET Bible renders this as “the faithfulness of Christ”) are hotly contested. One finds a diversity of creative, nuanced understandings expressed within what is called the “new perspective” on Paul.

My own analysis of the biblical data leads me to viewpoints that are closely aligned with a traditional Lutheran and Reformed reading of Paul, the so-called “old perspective,” which emphasizes that Christ bore the penalty (punishment, wrath of God, curse, guilt) for sin as a substitute for (in the place of, instead of) guilty sinners. Jesus, by His propitiatory sacrifice, satisfied the justice of God so that God can justly forgive (pardon) sin and credit (impute, count) the righteousness of Christ (= “justify”) to the individual who trusts in (relies upon, believes in) Jesus Christ alone (= “faith in Christ”). This judicial pardon (a forensic declaration) is a free gift received by faith alone, and is not based in any way on any human merit (performing good deeds or “works of the law”).

We will examine the relative merits of these perspectives on Paul, old and new, as part of a verse-by-verse exegetical study of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians at Urbana Theological Seminary this fall. We welcome you to join us for this course in English Bible on Thursday evenings, starting August 30.

Identity Markers and the People of God. In the context of Galatians, the phrase “works of the Law” most likely refers to Torah-observance (practices commanded by the Mosaic legislation), with a particular emphasis in the context of this epistle on circumcision, observing Sabbath and feast days, and dietary restrictions. Scholars exploring sociological dimensions of these specific practices, have referred to them as “social boundary markers,” “identity markers,” or “badges of Mosaic covenant membership” since these practices distinguish ethnic Israel from all other peoples of the earth. Paul, in Galatians, vehemently denies that such Torah-observance is required for members of the new covenant, whether of Gentile ethnicity or Israelite ethnicity. Well then, are there any identity markers to distinguish the new covenant people of God? Are there any distinguishing characteristics of those who place their faith in Jesus Christ? Indeed there are! We cite three from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.

First, believers in Jesus Christ, the children of promise, descendents of Abraham by faith, are typified by possessing the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Holy Spirit, the sine qua non of membership in the new covenant, replaces Torah as the distinctive identity marker of God’s people. Rather than performing practices commanded by the Torah, believers in Jesus Christ bear the fruit of the Spirit. The personal, empowering Presence of God brings forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in all social relationships. Distinctive indeed! Second, rather than practicing the law of Moses, the new covenant people of God practices the law of Christ: sacrificially giving themselves in love for the benefit of others as Christ did. Believers in Christ are distinguished by faith working through love, following the pattern of Christ.

Lastly, God’s new covenant people place their confidence, glory, and boast in the cross of Christ. The death of Jesus on the cross—an utter scandal and shame to Roman and Jewish eyes—is of surpassing value to the believer in Christ. As Paul affirms in the closing of Galatians, “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). As we explore perspectives on Paul, old and new, let us embrace the ancient Apostle’s perspective on the nature and centrality of the cross. Like Paul, may we boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for it is by the scandal of the cross that God accomplished His glorious work of justly justifying guilty sinners. I call that good news. Paul called it “the gospel.”