The congregations of the Roman province of Galatia in Central Asia Minor were especially dear to the Apostle Paul. He had come here, with Barnabas, on his first missionary journey, Acts 13, 14-14, 23, spending considerable time in the cities of Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. With Silas he had gone to the same district of the Galatian province on his second journey, Acts 16, 1-6, at which time he had taken Timothy along with him. Again, on the third journey, he went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples, Acts 18, 23, before going down to Ephesus. It appears, from the account in Acts as well as from the present letter, that the Gospel was, on the whole, received by the inhabitants of this part of Galatia with great enthusiasm, and they, in turn, may have carried it to the regions toward the north, where the descendants of the Celts, or Gauls, lived, who, coming from the northern part of what is now France, had migrated eastward in the third century before Christ and found a home in this fertile and beautiful country south of the Black Sea. At the time when Paul wrote this letter, therefore, there may have been flourishing congregations not only in Southern Galatia, in the sections of the country which were Phrygian and Lycaonian by nationality, but also in the region adjoining, with all of whom Paul was personally and intimately acquainted. These churches were composed principally of converts from heathenism, although there was a liberal sprinkling of Jews.

The reason which prompted Paul to write this letter to the Galatian Christians was the following. Shortly after his last visit among them a number of Judaizing teachers came to Galatia and began to make trouble, chap. 1, 7. The method of these converted Jews, who still adhered in their hearts to all the precepts of the ceremonial law, was simple, but effective. “They insisted that faith in Christ was not enough to obtain righteousness before God, life, and salvation. They told the Galatians that it was necessary to salvation to keep the ceremonial law of the Jews, to submit to circumcision, observe the Jewish feasts, etc. Paul had taught the Galatians that in order to become righteous in God’s sight and obtain life and salvation, nothing more was needed than faith in Christ. To destroy this doctrine, these Judaizing teachers hinted that Paul was no true apostle of Christ, that he had never seen the Lord, and that he owed his knowledge of the Gospel to the apostles who had their headquarters at Jerusalem. They were prompted by unworthy motives, chap. 4, 17; 6, 13. They soon succeeded in winning over the greater part of the churches. What made their success easy was the fact that some members hoped to escape persecution if they would enter into outward fellowship with the Jews, chap. 6, 12. Many were ready to receive circumcision, etc., chap. 3, 1; 4, 9 ff.; 5, 1; 6, 13.” 1)

The Epistle to the Galatians is one of the earliest, as many scholars believe, the very first letter which Paul wrote, very likely from the city of Corinth, about the year 51, or from Ephesus, a few years later. Its form and language indicate great commotion in the apostle’s mind, as well as a holy zeal for his apostolic office and for the purity of the Christian doctrine as taught by him. Though much briefer than the letter to the Romans, it is a doctrinal epistle throughout and of peculiar significance in the fight against Judaism. It may readily be divided into three parts. In the first, personal or historical, part Paul defends his apostolic office as one entrusted to him by God, a fact which appears not only from his being acknowledged by the apostles at Jerusalem, but also from his rebuking of Peter. In the second, doctrinal, part Paul offers the proofs for the soundness of his doctrine that salvation comes not by works, but by faith, since the nature of the Law is such as to make it necessary for the Christians to be free from its dominion, a fact which is typified also in the story of Isaac and Ishmael. In the third, practical or hortatory, part Paul draws the ethical conclusions from the doctrine as taught by him, with the admonition to hold fast the liberty in Christ Jesus; he warns them against the yoke of circumcision, against walking after the flesh; he urges them to give evidence of brotherly harmony and fellowship. 2)

Luther summarizes the contents of the letter as follows: “The Galatians had been brought by St. Paul from the Law to the true Christian faith and to the Gospel. But after his departure there came the false apostles, that were disciples of the true apostles, and seduced the Galatians to believe that they must be saved through the works of the Law and were committing a sin if they did not keep the works of the Law.... in opposition to them St. Paul extols his office and does not want to be considered less than any other apostle, boasting that he had his doctrine and ministry from God alone, in order to quell the boasting of the false apostles that relied upon the true apostles’ work and name.... This he does in the first and second chapters, and concludes that every one must be justified without merit, without works, without Law, through Christ alone. In the third and fourth chapters he supports all this with Scriptures, examples, and parables, showing that the Law brings sin and condemnation rather than righteousness, which is promised by God by grace only, fulfilled by Christ without the Law, and given to us. In the fifth and sixth chapters he teaches the works of love which should follow faith.” 3)