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Lenten Reading Challenge: Galatians 1 to 6 (whole letter)

• When and Where
Marcus Borg notes that the exact dating of this letter is uncertain and various scholars argue for as early as 50 and as late at 59, although most settle on the early 50’s. Borg chooses to put it second, arguing that the language of justification is core to Paul’s experience, not necessarily developed later.

He notes this is the only of the seven letters scholars trace to Paul himself written to a group of communities rather than a single one. Galatia was a region in central Asia Minor that contained several cities. The Christ-followers in these communities had come into deep conflict since Paul’s earlier stay in the region, and his own ministry was under attack. Perhaps because of this, is also the only letter without an extensive thanksgiving section.

Nearly all the believers in Galatia were gentiles. It is thought that most had been “god-fearers” – that is people who worshiped the God of Israel, but had not fully converted to Judaism. There is a strong difference of opinion between Paul and other teachers as to the requirement for being Christ-followers: did the people have to be circumcised and follow other Jewish practices first? Clearly an urgent and divisive question for these early communities, and one that we will revisit.

• Key Insights
Paul argues forcefully for justification by faith. We see him working out the effect of Christ’s offering in the midst of deep conflicts. The contrasts between grace and law found here have been profoundly influential throughout Christian history. They, and similar texts in Romans, were especially important in Martin Luther’s arguments during the Protestant Reformation.

• Big Picture
Some, including Luther at times, have placed so great an emphasis on justification by faith that it has seemed that a Christian has to do nothing but believe correctly. Wesley agreed with the reformers that we are seen as righteous before God because of what Christ has done for us, but insisted that justification also meant receiving a “clear assurance” of forgiveness which led to a “calm peace.” Further, he emphasized (often drawing from the epistle of James) that a Christian necessarily responds to God’s gift of assurance by following “the law of love, which is the distinguishing mark of [Christ’s] disciples.” In other words, we would bear the good fruit outlined in 6:22-23, living those out in all our relationships. We will ponder faith and works several times along our journey.

Blessings on your reading!

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