As much as any other of Paul’s letters, Galatians is written with an eschatological narrative frame firmly in place. It’s not immediately obvious—it’s been squeezed to the periphery by the argument about faith and the Jewish Law which dominates the letter. But that does not mean that eschatology has no bearing on interpretation. Quite the contrary. The argument about faith and the Jewish Law is important precisely because of eschatology, as I intend to make clear as we get on to Acts and Galatians next week in my class at St Johns Nottingham.
A few bits of eschatology are visible
To begin with, then, here are three places where bits of the eschatological frame of Paul’s thought can be clearly seen:
- In the opening address and greeting Paul writes that the risen Lord Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (1:4). If there is a present evil age, there is a new age to come. In the New Testament generally the arrival of the new age is thought to be imminent—at least, it belongs to a foreseeable and relevant future; and in scripture generally, the age to come is as much part of history as the present age which is passing away. Basically, we are talking about what comes after the age of second temple Judaism.
- Both faith and life in the Spirit are oriented towards the future: “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (5:5). Those who seemed to be justified instead by the Law, conversely, will be severed from this future.
- Paul warns the Galatians that if they continue to do the “works of the flesh” they will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (5:19-21). In other words, they will have no part in God’s new future. If they sow to the flesh, they will “reap corruption”. If they sow to the Spirit by doing good, they will reap the life of the age to come (6:7-8).
The argument in this letter about the Law and “justification by faith”, therefore, is not about personal salvation. It’s not the classic Protestant thesis that a person is saved by faith, not by doing good works. It’s an argument about how the churches in Galatia were to engage with God’s new future. To use Jesus’ image, it’s about what it would take for a historical community to stay on the narrow road leading to the life of the age to come and off the broad road leading to destruction.
Justification by faith in the coming reign of God
So here’s how, in very general terms, I think Paul’s argument in Galatians works within the over-arching, inescapable, controlling New Testament narrative about the coming reign of God.
Paul has learned that the churches in Galatia are giving in to pressure from unnamed Jewish-Christian apostles to be circumcised and submit to the Jewish Law. He regards this as a desertion of Christ in favour of a “different gospel” (1:6-9). Notice already that this is not a question about how the Gentiles are saved. It is about how they should respond to having been included in the family of Abraham. This is a fundamental New Perspective insight.
Paul then explains where his “gospel of Christ” came from. He had been commissioned to preach among the Gentiles the simple fact of Jesus Christ raised from the dead and glorified, a novel development which he believed would have far-reaching consequences for the nations. It meant, for example—at least, as Luke understood things—that the living creator God would no longer allow the idolatrous nations to “walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16; 17:30-31). It meant that wrath or judgment was coming upon the pagan world (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10), and so on.
This fact was preached to the Galatians and they believed it. The question that Paul has to confront now is whether the churches will stay aligned with the new future entailed in the fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead and given authority to judge and rule. Will they stay on course? Again, it is not the personal salvation of individual Galatians that is at stake here (will they go to heaven when they die?) but their eventual participation in the age to come.
The problem for the Jews in this scenario is that the Law stands in the way of their participation in God’s new future because it condemns their persistent unfaithfulness, the concrete outcome of which will be the devastation of the war against Rome. The old covenant has been stretched to breaking point.
But the God of Israel, out of loyalty to his promise to the patriarchs, has provided a simple alternative: to believe that the future really has been put in the hands of his faithful Son, whom he vindicated by raising him from the dead and to whom he has transferred full authority to judge and rule in the age to come.
The validation or confirmation of this belief comes through the experience of the Spirit of God. Both Jews and Gentiles believe that God has raised his Son from the dead and that this will change the future of his people in the world; and this belief is immediately accompanied by manifestations of the Spirit—worship, prophecy, proclamation, healings, and the like.
The particular argument of Galatians is that if the Gentiles have already received the Spirit by believing that God has put the future in the hands of his Son, it makes no sense to become subject to a Law which condemns disobedient Israel to destruction. It is not the Law which guarantees the future but the act of God in raising his Son from the dead and seating him at his right hand. It is not now the Law which manages the life of God’s people as they wait for this future but the regenerating Spirit of God: “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (6:15).
Justification for this community of believers, which lives by the Spirit and not by the Jewish Law, means that they will eventually be found to have been in the right as the new future unfolds, up to the defining moment when the nations of the pagan world confess Jesus Christ as Lord (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). More to the point in this context, they will be found to have been in the right for not exchanging life under the Spirit of God for life under the Jewish Law.
Justification by faith, therefore, is not what happens on entry into the community of God’s people. In its basic logic it is a statement about the future vindication of the churches at that moment in history when God judges the oikoumenē, by a man whom he has appointed (Acts 17:31) and it becomes apparent to all that those who believed that God had raised his Son from the dead—in defiance both of the Jews and of the pagans—had been in the right all along. For more on this narrative-historical understanding of justification by faith see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.
Finally, Paul explains in chapters 5-6 what it will require in practical terms for the community to inherit God’s new future. It will require Christ being “formed” in them (4:19). They will have to be a Christ-like community. On the one hand, they will have to be crucified with Christ, dying to the “works of the flesh” which the Jewish Law, under the old order, had been powerless to control. On the other, they will have to be led by the Spirit, expressing in their lives the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no Law. It is not enough for the churches to believe that God will do this. They are the means by which God will do this, and they need to be fit for purpose.