Introduction to Galatians
Galatia was not a city, like Rome or Corinth, but rather a Roman province containing many cities and numerous churches. At least some of these churches, such as those in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, had been founded by Paul on his first missionary journey (note Acts 14:1-13, along with Galatians 3:1-5).
This was prior to the calling of the Jerusalem Council, where Paul and Barnabas argued against the teachings of the Judaizing Christians, who were claiming that Gentile Christians had to be circumcised and obey the Mosaic laws in order to be saved or else to become sanctified Christians after being saved through faith. The Council, however, settled this question once and for all, in favor of Paul’s doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, completely apart from these works of the law. This decision was fully supported by the Apostles Peter and James (see Acts 15:1-29).
However, the “churches of Galatia,” to whom Paul addressed this epistle (Galatians 1:2), were being confused and led astray by either the same or similar Judaizers with similar arguments. Since it seems unlikely that this could have happened after the Jerusalem Council, many New Testament scholars believe that Galatians must have been written prior to the Council; otherwise it would seem that Paul would have referred to it in his Galatian letter.
On the other hand, others believe that Galatians was written after the Council. They argue that the Judaizers at Antioch were contending that believers were not saved until they were circumcised. Those in Galatia, however, were simply claiming that circumcision and the law were essential, not for salvation, but for Christian maturity and sanctification. Both groups believe that Paul was writing to the churches in southern Galatia, those founded by Paul in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe on his first missionary journey.
There is a minority group of scholars, however, who believe that Galatians was written to churches in northern Galatia, even though none of these are mentioned by name in the New Testament. Galatia, in fact, was named after the Gauls who inhabited north central Asia Minor at the time, and who thus were the true ethnic Galatians. The southern portion of the Roman province was not originally part of Galatia, and was inhabited more by Greeks and Romans than by descendants of the Gauls.
Whichever theory is correct really is irrelevant as far as the message of the book is concerned. The great theme of Galatians is that of justification by faith without the works of the law. Furthermore, we are not only saved by grace but kept by grace—not by works. Galatians extols Christian liberty—freedom in Christ. Liberty is not libertinism, of course; “use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh,” Paul wrote, “but by love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).
Legalism in any form—whether circumcision or ritualism or anything else—will neither save a sinner nor perfect a saint. The Christian life is not controlled by commandments but by the Holy Spirit. “Walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). That is the message of Galatians for the Christian believer.