Readers of The Shepherd’s Study are familiar with the circumstances surrounding Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but it is always edifying to review. Certain missionaries were trying to persuade Paul’s Gentile converts in Galatia to submit to the law of Moses. They especially wanted the Gentile Christians to get circumcised (6:12). Paul was horrified by this and wrote a furious letter to the Galatians, strongly urging them to disregard these missionaries, whom he considered “trouble-makers” (1:7), “false brothers” (2:4), and “agitators” (5:12). As a side note, most modern Pauline scholars refer to Paul’s opponents in this letter as “the agitators,” since that is what Paul calls them in 5:12.
In a new commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Douglas Moo helps us to understand the arguments that Paul mounts against the agitators. One of the main arguments that Paul makes against Gentile circumcision has to do with the time in which the Galatians lived. Paul saw the cross and resurrection of Jesus as ushering in a new era of world history. In this new age, “circumcision means nothing” (6:15).
Throughout the commentary, Moo helpfully brings this aspect of Paul’s thinking to our attention. For example, at the end of 1:1 why does Paul bring up the fact that God the Father raised Christ from the dead? Moo answers that by raising Jesus from the dead, “God has inaugurated a new age in salvation history, a situation that ‘changes everything’ – including especially the evaluation and application of the law” (69).
More evidence that Paul is thinking in terms of a “new age” is found in 1:4. Christ has “rescued us from this present evil age.” Moo explains that,
New Testament scholars generally recognize that the NT language of a ‘present age’ (Mark 10:30) versus ‘the age to come’ (Matt. 12:32) reflects apocalyptic Judaism, which divided history sharply into two phases and looked for a decisive intervention of God to end the present age and usher in the new age of salvation. In keeping with the typical NT perspective of inaugurated eschatology, Paul claims that, though this present evil age continues in force, believers are rescued from this present age of evil, sin, and death and find their true identity in the new age that has broken into history through Christ’s epochal death and resurrection…Paul’s point is that believers, with their sins forgiven…belong to a whole new state of affairs” (73).
By “inaugurated eschatology” Moo means that instead of an immediate break between “the present age” and “the age to come,” believers live in what some have called “the overlap of the ages.” We still live in “this present evil age.” We still live in a world characterized by sin and evil. But the age to come has broken into this present evil age. Some of God’s end time promises have already been fulfilled: the resurrection (in the case of Jesus) and the pouring out of the Spirit (Joel 2:28; notice the emphasis on the Spirit in Galatians in 3:2-5 and 5:16-25). So the end times have already been inaugurated but they have not yet been brought to full consummation.
Because the Gentile Galatians have died with Christ (2:20) and been raised with him, they belong to the “new creation” (6:15), in which they do not need to be circumcised or obey the law of Moses. This “apocalyptic” way of thinking “bookends Galatians” (73). In his outline of the letter (63-64), Moo points out that Paul begins with “The Cross and the New Age (1:1-5)” and ends with “The Cross and New Creation” (6:11-18). In the cross and resurrection, God has inaugurated a new age, a new state of affairs, and in this new age, Gentiles do not need to be circumcised to be part of the people of God.
This specific line of reasoning may be unfamiliar to many WELS pastors, but it is really no different than when a WELS pastor says, “We live in the New Testament era, and in the New Testament era the ceremonial laws found in books like Leviticus do not apply anymore.” Moo shows that this line of thought has firm roots in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Of course, the agitators would have acknowledged that Jesus died and was raised. But they would have maintained that in this time after the cross, Gentile believers in Jesus should still be circumcised. Therefore Moo says that “At base, the disagreement between the agitators and Paul lies just here: how significant is the shift in salvation history that Christ’s coming has inaugurated?” (225)
But Paul’s argument in Galatians does not have only to do with time, the period of history in which the Galatians lived. Paul’s argument also has to do with the very nature of “law.” The law is all about “doing” (3:12). It demands a perfect “doing” (3:10; quoting Deut. 27:26) and for that very reason cannot save or justify. Moo does a great job of pointing this out in the commentary. Confessional Lutherans will readily agree with the following statements: “The demands of the law, because they are ultimately impossible for sinful humans to fulfill, serve to ‘confine’ all things under sin” (239). “The law, God’s good and holy law (Rom. 7:12), is in itself impotent to rescue fallen human beings from their sinful state and the wrath that sin brings in its wake” (242).
Moo strikes a good balance: to account for everything in Galatians the interpreter needs to recognize that Paul makes both temporal arguments (the Mosaic law no longer applies to Christians) and more fundamental arguments (the law cannot justify because sinful humans fall short of its demands). Commenting on 3:17-18 Moo says, “In a way typical of Paul’s argument in this part of Galatians, the temporal, salvation-historical argument of verse 17 is matched by an argument from principle in verse 18” (231).
Confessional Lutherans will especially appreciate Moo’s comment on 5:4.
Grace in Paul reflects his conviction that God is free and unconstrained and that all that he does for his created beings is therefore given freely and without conditions (see esp. Rom. 4:4-5). By using this word, therefore, Paul suggests that the Galatians’ flirtation with the law as a means of justification is wrong not only because the law has been set aside in the new era or because the law acts as a barrier to keep Gentiles out of the kingdom. Pursuing the law is wrong also, or even mainly, because the pursuit of the law as a means of justification involves an attempt to find security with God by means of human effort, a ‘doing’ of the law that, with whatever attitude it is pursued, introduces into the divine-human relationship a nexus of obligation that is incompatible with the nature of our gracious God. (326-327)
Another thing that this reviewer appreciated from Moo’s commentary is the insight that when teaching “sanctification” Paul focuses on relationships within the Christian community. In his comments on “the works of the flesh,” Moo points out that Paul focuses on “sins that involve community relationships” (358). In the list, “hatred” begins a series of eight works of the flesh “that are especially harmful to good community relationships, a special concern of Paul in this section” (359). When Paul moves to the fruit of the Spirit, Moo points out that “his focus [is] on those manifestations of the Spirit that are particularly foundational for a harmonious community life” (365). These insights are useful for pastors who teach sanctification in the context of local congregations.
In commenting on 6:8 (“The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life”) Moo says, “Human works that please the Spirit are indeed necessary for final salvation” (387). I understand why he says that. True faith will produce good works (Gal. 5:6). In article IV of the Formula of Concord, the formulators wrestle with the question of whether good works are necessary for salvation. The formulators decided to say that good works are necessary because God commands them and because true faith will always produce good works if it is not dead. But they refrained from saying that good works are necessary for salvation because we are saved by grace apart from works (Eph. 2:8).
Nevertheless, Moo’s point is very well taken that
While promised by God and therefore secured apart from the law by our faith and through the Spirit’s provision…the inheritance of God’s kingdom will not come to those who manifest ‘the works of the flesh’ in their lives. In light of NT teaching elsewhere and Paul’s own blunt appraisal of continuing sinfulness among the holy people of God, this does not mean that the kingdom is reserved only for the sinless. But it does mean that a consistent preoccupation with these sins resulting in a life marked by them rather than by the fruit of the Spirit reveals that such a person is not ‘being led by the Spirit.’ Clear NT warnings of the necessity of putting away sin to gain eternal life (see also esp., Rom. 8:12-13) must not be swept under the carpet by a one-sided and unbiblical understanding of ‘justification by faith alone.’ (363)
The Formulators themselves express the same sentiment as Moo when they say that “men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits” (FC Ep IV, 18).
It should also be noted that throughout the commentary Moo refers to justification as being “by faith alone” (62 and other places). Even more importantly, he also talks about the time of justification and makes the point that “The agitators probably adopted the usual Jewish view that justification was tied to the last judgment, and in that judgment God’s positive verdict would take into account the degree to which one had done ‘the works of the law.’ Paul responds that justification is always, whatever its time, a matter of faith and not works of the law – or of works of any kind” (162). Here Moo says that we are justified “by faith and not by works,” not only when we first become believers, but also when we stand before God’s judgment seat on the last day.
Much of Pauline scholarship today would say that by even asking the question, “Are good works necessary for salvation?” we are imposing Reformation categories and questions onto Paul. I wonder, if we had Paul in front of us today and asked him, “Are good works necessary for salvation?” what would he say? Judging by his letters, the best answer I can come up with is that he would say, “We are saved by faith apart from works, and faith produces good works” (see Eph. 2:8-10).
In his discussion of water baptism in Galatians 3:27, Moo says that “It was not, in and of itself, a means of salvation or incorporation into Christ” (251). It is true that “the benefits of baptism are received though faith…Unbelief loses the benefit of what Christ did for us” (Lyle Lange, God So Loved The World, 495). If a person refuses to believe in Jesus, then his baptism doesn’t do him any good. But Peter does say that “baptism saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). This leads Confessional Lutherans to believe that baptism is a means of salvation. It’s not that baptism is another way of salvation besides Jesus. Baptism connects you to Jesus. We are “baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
Moo does say that “baptism is more than simply a symbol of that new relationship [with Christ]; it is the capstone of the process by which one is converted and initiated into the church. As such, Paul can appeal to baptism as ‘shorthand’ for the entire conversion experience” (251). On the next page he says, “believers enjoy ‘sonship’ (v.26) because, in baptism, they are incorporated into the Son” (252). Lutherans gladly agree that baptism is “more than simply a symbol” and that “in baptism, they are incorporated into Christ.” Lutherans would just want to emphasize that something supernatural actually happens when a person is baptized. He or she is united to Jesus.
Moo makes the point in regard to baptism that “faith…is the only means of coming into relationship with Jesus Christ” (251). When we Lutherans talk about the power of baptism, we don’t see faith and baptism as opposed to one another because we see baptism as something that God does for us, not something that we do for God (like a work). We see God as making promises to us in baptism. We believe that in baptism God washes our sins away (Acts 22:16), gives us “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) and connects us to Jesus (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3-4), and we have faith in those promises. So when we Lutherans talk about baptism connecting us to Jesus, we don’t see baptism and faith as being opposed to one another; just like we don’t see the word of God and faith as being opposed to one another. In both baptism and the word, God makes promises and we believe them. After all, baptism is the word added to an earthly element.
There are many things that will make this commentary useful for WELS pastors, besides the things already listed. In 2:14-21, Paul’s line of thought is rather hard to follow. Moo’s commentary is very useful for navigating that section. The introduction contains helpful discussions of important Pauline terms like “the gospel,” “justification/righteousness,” “the law.” There is a controversy over whether to translate the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ as “faith in Christ” or “Christ’s own faith.” Moo comes down on the side of the traditional rendering “faith in Christ,” but this reviewer especially appreciated how he explained the other point of view and why they understand the phrase as “Christ’s own faith” (41-42).
With Moo’s Galatians commentary and the recently released Concordia Commentary on Galatians by A. Andrew Das, WELS pastors have two new resources from superb Pauline scholars which will help them dig into Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Thanks to Dr. Moo for his continued outstanding work in Pauline studies!
Douglas Moo is Kenneth T. Wessner Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. Before joining the faculty at Wheaton in 2000, he taught New Testament for many years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Dr. Moo received his Ph. D. from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 1980. His many works on the letters of Paul include a commentary on Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series and the article “‘Law,’ ‘Works of the Law’ and Legalism in Paul,” in the Westminster Theological Journal.
Galatians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, by Douglas J. Moo. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013. 469 pages.