You may have heard the phrase, “And though she be but little, she is fierce”. It comes from Shakespeare’s well-known comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and is said by the jealous Helena about her friend-turned-rival, Hermia. Hermia is self-conscious about her short stature, and so receives it as an insult, but many women nowadays use it as a maxim intended to warn against judging a book by its cover. “Yes, I may be little. But, oh boy, am I fierce!”
It is perhaps an unlikely comparison, but I was left with the same impression of Paul’s letter to the Galatians recently. Small but fierce. Soberingly so. I began reading it a couple of weeks ago, choosing what I considered to be a short, easy book — one into which I could sink my teeth in a short space of time. But I made it no further than the first chapter before I realised that while Galatians is among the littlest books of the Bible, its truths are colossal. As fierce as they come.
Paul wrote Galatians in response to the news that the Galatian Christians had fallen for a false gospel. They seemed to have embraced the gospel of Christ when Paul and Barnabas were with them, but since their departure, they had begun to listen to false teachers’ claims that while salvation begins by faith, it is completed by obedience to Jewish law (3v1-6). Sounds crazy to us, right? Surely we would never believe such a thing. But Paul here suggests that falling for a distorted gospel is so much of a risk that even Peter, one of Christ’s own apostles, fell prey to it (1v11-14).
So, here are some truths that I took away from Galatians. They are by no means a thorough study of all that this book entails, but I hope you will find them helpful, whether you are already a follower of Christ or simply looking into the Christian faith.
- The gospel is all or nothing.
Throughout the letter, Paul is obviously distressed about the Galatians’ attitude to the gospel. He makes this clear from the very beginning, writing, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ” (1v6). He doesn’t address the Galatian believers in his usual way, seemingly finding it more appropriate to call them “O foolish Galatians!” (3v1) than to express thankfulness for them (see Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians). And, in chapter 4, he uses the striking metaphor of being “in the anguish of childbirth” to indicate the level of his distress as he waits to hear how the Galatians will respond to the true gospel.
But why is he so concerned? Well, because the gospel is all or nothing. If the Galatians have accepted even a slightly distorted gospel, they have lost the entire thing. We see this in chapter 1 verse 7, where Paul writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly […] turning to another gospel — not that there is one”. This idea comes up again in chapter 5, where we read, “if you accept circumcision [i.e. if you trust in works to be justified], Christ will be of no advantage to you.” (5v1). Why? Because, chapter 5v6, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”. The gospel is all or nothing.
- So, keep in step with its truth…
His astonishment voiced, Paul moves on to consider the importance of being “in step with the truth of the gospel” (2v5,14). This is vital if the means of a person’s salvation is not flexible, as Paul has clarified. But what exactly is the truth of the gospel? Paul explains that, contrary to the works-based ‘gospel’ that the Galatians had accepted, it is “that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2v16). He makes it abundantly clear that the gospel is not about what man can do to earn favour with God; but rather, it is about faith in Jesus Christ. All about what He has done. Not at all about what we can bring to the table.
3. …because to trust in Jesus is to experience true freedom.
Chapter 5 contains some of my favourite passages in the whole book of Galatians. At its opening, Paul spells out the reason it would be such a tragedy for the Galatians to add the Law to the gospel of Christ. In short, it’s because to do so would be to miss out on the freedom that Christ offers. He writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (5v1). Christ set us free for freedom. This freedom refers primarily to freedom from sin, but the passage makes clear that it also refers to freedom to something — freedom to truly love God and others. We read, “[…] you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'” (5v13-14). This is what freedom from sin prompts us to do! Finding all the security and satisfaction that we could ever need in Jesus, we have been freed up to devote ourselves to loving others. And, importantly, this is the correct approach to the Law — loving others not in order to find favour with God, but because, free from our sin, we are now able to become others-focused. How sad it would be to miss this!
So, there we have it. Small but fierce. I don’t know about you, but I found it hugely beneficial to clarify the truth of the gospel in my mind. Am I trusting fully in Christ for my salvation? Am I guilty of a works-based approach to God? Do I, like the Galatians, believe that my salvation began by faith, but now depends on my obedience to the Law?
This little book certainly gave me a lot to chew over, but what a comfort to be reminded that salvation is based entirely on what Christ has done, and not on my feeble attempts to remain in His favour! There is much, much more that could be said about this book, so I encourage you to dig into its truths for yourself. As you do so, I pray that you will grasp the true gospel of faith in Christ, and hold tightly to the freedom that it offers.