In Paul’s letter to the church of Galatia, the issue of justification (covenant standing) receives an overt treatment. For that reason, it often stands in comparison to Romans, and is explored alongside the letter to the church of Rome in order attain a richer understanding of the subject. The letter must be approached with the understanding that justification has more to do with covenant standing, that the means by which one is understood to be justified has to do with covenant markers, and that justification is something that had once been limited to Israel (and to Gentiles that made themselves look like Israel through the adoption of law-related practices), but was now thrown wide open to Gentiles through Jesus. With such a framework in place, it is actually possible to visit Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and even the letter to Titus, to find Paul’s conception of justification at work – the coming together of Jews and Gentiles, once separated, as a unified humanity under the sole identifying marker of the confession of Jesus as Lord.
Once we factor in the leveling out of the church that is fostered by the equal acceptance of both Jew and Gentile under the same covenant marker, and realize the way that it can be applied in multiple areas of a culture that was defined by exclusion, division, and separation of people into groups (Paul’s insistence on there being neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free), with this application flying in the face of, undermining, and subverting long-standing cultural norms, then we could also realize that justification, with its implications, makes its presence felt in the letters to Corinth, to Thessalonica, to Timothy, and to Philemon. The creation of a worldwide covenant community that represents the Creator God of Israel in and for the creation, as the harbinger of a new creation portended by the Resurrection of the Christ is a major theme for Paul.
The implications of the nature of justification prompt a question, which is, if God has removed the barriers that separated and delineated Jew and Gentile in order to make them one covenant people with a single purpose, and doing so through His own intervening activity in Jesus of Nazareth, then what right do we have to continue to allow other barriers to remain standing and effective? We see Paul essentially asking and answering this question in his addresses to other churches and to other individuals (though the letters to Timothy and Philemon would certainly have been read aloud in a gathering of the church). Paul’s push towards unity within the church, with that all-important unity, manifested in the exercise of sacrificial and self-subverting love, traversing all of the identifiable and stratifying elements of society, is his answer, as it demonstrates the reach of a full-orbed justification.
Because we well know that Galatians deals with justification, and because we know the primary issue of justification (Jew and Gentile relations and appropriate covenant boundaries), we are wholly unsurprised to find Paul writing “For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I was savagely persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (1:13-14). Why was Paul persecuting the church and trying to destroy it? It was because of his zealousness for the traditions of his ancestors. What were the traditions of his ancestors? Those were the works of the law, or the covenant markers that served to identify God’s covenant people.
The church of God, in Paul’s view, by preaching confession of Jesus as Lord as all that was needed to gain entrance into the covenant and therefore access to its blessings, was completely undermining that which identified God’s elect people. For Paul, this was horrifying, and as far as he was concerned, because this supposed church of God was a Jewish messianic movement centered upon a crucified and therefore accursed man (who couldn’t possibly be the messiah for that very reason), and because it primarily consisted of Jews that were now abandoning the covenant markers (though they would already be circumcised, many were no longer recognizing the Sabbath, and they were violating food laws by eating freely with Gentiles in imitation of the one that they looked to as Messiah, while also insisting that Gentiles could be included in the covenant people without having to adopt the traditional covenant markers), this could only bring the wrath of God upon Israel. Paul’s position is quite understandable. Based upon Israel’s history, which he knew quite well, Paul’s position was both logical and reasonable.
Paul, however, had an experience that changed these things. Making reference to Jesus’ appearance to him on the road to Damascus, as knowledge of the Resurrection changes everything, and as we find his build-up to the passages concerning justification containing references to both Jew and Gentile, Paul writes of “when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by His grace was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I could preach Him among the Gentiles” (1:15-16a). Thus, in Galatians, it is his mention of Judaism and Gentiles by which Paul sets the stage for his treatment of the issue of justification.