Paul’s message to the church in Galatia serves as a gospel compass for navigating life with the cross of the risen and reigning Jesus as our focus and guide.
NOTE: This post originally appeared on the New Growth Press Blog on January 8, 2024.
There are times as modern-day Christians that we too need to step back to recalibrate and restore our own understanding of the gospel.
In his Bible study, Galatians: Navigating Life in View of the Cross, McKay Caston guides participants in keeping the gospel as the “true north” for their lives, allowing them to break free from religious rule-keeping and live with freedom and joy.
In this interview, we talk to McKay about the gospel as articulated in the message of Galatians.
Q: YOU START OFF BY POINTING OUT THAT PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIANS IS AN INTERVENTION. REMIND US OF WHAT WAS GOING ON IN GALATIA AND WHY THEY NEEDED TO BE REMINDED OF THE TRUE GOSPEL.
The churches in the region of Galatia (today’s south-central Turkey) were started during Paul’s first missionary journey. He had preached a message of reconciliation with God by grace through faith in the redemptive work of Jesus, centering on the implications of the cross.
Eventually, Paul moved on and heard that teachers who had infiltrated the Galatian churches were corrupting the message of grace by minimizing the work of the cross. Rather than preach salvation by faith alone in Jesus alone, these teachers required disciples of Jesus to fulfill certain Jewish ceremonial requirements.
This resulted in a Jesus-plus gospel instead of a Jesus-alone gospel, which Paul would claim was no gospel at all. This corruption of grace was not only theologically incorrect but spiritually devastating for the Galatian believers. Rather than living in gospel freedom that fueled humility, love, joy, and unity, the practice of legalistic expectations fueled a spirit of pride, rivalry, and infighting. Paul feared his labor in Galatia had been in vain.
To deal with the insidious leaven of legalism, Paul wrote this letter as an intervention—a wake-up call of sorts. The heart of his concern is revealed in Galatians 3:1–5 (ESV):
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Galatians 3:1–5 (ESV)
Therefore, Paul’s concern is to show them the centrality of the cross not only for a believer’s justification, but also for their adoption, sanctification, and eternal security.
Q: FOR THOSE WHO MAY THINK, I’VE ALREADY STUDIED GALATIANS, WHY SHOULD THEY GIVE PAUL’S LETTER ANOTHER LOOK?
One reason we need a fresh look at Galatians is that we all continuously get caught in the gravitational pull of the flesh. We all lose sight of the cross and need to rediscover the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of the gospel over and over again.
Each of us understands what it’s like to fall into the Jesus-plus trap. For example, we may profess that our standing before God as fully forgiven, perfectly accepted, and dearly loved children is based on the substitutionary life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but we functionally live as if our standing is that PLUS our own religious credentials.
The message of Galatians…
- centers us theologically,
- renews us in faith and love,
- revives our freedom, hope, peace, and joy, and
- motivates us as ambassadors of Jesus with a deep desire for others to come alive to the grace of God in the crucified, risen, and reigning Jesus.
Additionally, this study of Galatians is uniquely designed for small groups, complete with lesson set-up questions, an explanatory article, and creative, heart-searching, practical exercises for going deeper with personal application of the material.
With the redemptive message of the cross at the center of every lesson, each study not only conveys information but leverages life transformation as believers consciously abide in the Vine of Jesus.
Q: WHAT IS A GOSPEL FACT-CHECK PROCESS? WHEN AND HOW OFTEN SHOULD WE BE ASKING OURSELVES THESE QUESTIONS?
The gospel is not an emotionally driven message but a fact-driven message. The gospel is not true or false based on how I feel about it. It is only true if it is universally, historically, and factually true.
Therefore, there are two primary reasons why we need to fact-check the gospel.
First, we need gospel facts when we have intellectual doubts. Is Christianity really true? Can I rely on the gospel of grace to be a compass for my life? Or have I been deceived by well-intentioned but blinded religious fanatics who lived two thousand years ago? The facts of the gospel can withstand the wind of any intellectual challenge. Isn’t it encouraging to know that the Bible anticipates your doubts and treats them seriously? In fact, this is one reason why Paul takes time to explain how he formed his teaching and why it is trustworthy. (See 1 Corinthians 15 for more on Paul’s demand that the gospel be historically verifiable in order to be believed.)
Second, our emotions may necessitate a gospel fact check. It is easy to allow the shifting, subjective sand of our feelings to become the ground upon which the gospel rests, rather than by objective propositions. This is why fact-checking the gospel is especially important when you are tempted to feel that the Father is disgusted and disappointed with you. You believe that he may tolerate you but that there is no way he treasures you. Those emotions may cause you to make promises to change or do what some traditions call penance—a painful act you hope will obligate God to grant forgiveness.
For the Galatians, this painful duty was circumcision. For you, it could be beating yourself up with words of condemnation, supposing that adequate feelings of self-loathing will compel God to show you mercy. But this is not how the gospel works. Our guilt was nailed to the cross in the body of Jesus. He has suffered the painful duty in your place. He paid it all.
The cross proclaims that God forgives and accepts you, not because of your obedience and sacrifice but because of Jesus’s obedience and sacrifice in your place. God is not disgusted. Far from it! He wants you to believe that you are forgiven and loved. You may not feel forgiven, but in Christ you are. You might not feel loved, but in Christ you are. You might not feel treasured by the Father, but in Christ you are. Sometimes, we need these gospel facts to override emotional fallacies.
Q: HOW IS LIVING BY GRACE SIMILAR TO A GYMNAST PERFORMING ON A BALANCE BEAM?
Just like we’re not used to balancing on a four-inch beam, we aren’t used to living by this grace. The default of our flesh is to live by merit, where we earn our own righteousness—through morality, success, peer approval, political victories, or a thousand other ways we feel we are right because of our achievements or alliances.
As we see in Galatians 2, even the apostle Peter lost his gospel balance and fell off the beam by giving in to the desire for peer approval rather than affirming the new fellowship that existed between believing Jews and Gentiles—a gift made possible by the gospel of grace.
To stay balanced, we must keep our eyes of faith on the cross. When we know we are recipients of gift-righteousness, we gain gospel confidence. Then we are enabled for a God-empowered life of repentance, faith, humility, and love.
Because living by grace is unnatural, it takes practice. Like gymnastics, it requires humility and teachability. Thankfully, it is not our own balance that sustains us in grace but Jesus’s sacrifice for every fall we’ve ever made or will make.
Q: THERE ARE TIMES WHEN SPENDING TIME IN PRAYER AND BIBLE READING CAN SEEM LIKE DUTIES WE NEED TO CHECK OFF OUR LIST. YOU OFFER SOME GREAT ENCOURAGEMENT FOR VIEWING THESE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES DIFFERENTLY. TELL US MORE ABOUT HOW THEY ARE OPPORTUNITIES TO EXPERIENCE MORE GRACE FROM GOD.
Lamentations 3:23 reminds us that the Lord’s mercies “are new every morning.” This is the purpose of what many Christians call morning devotions. While we may (mistakenly) think reading Scripture and prayer are duties we must fulfill, they actually are gifts to us as means for remembering the mercies of God in Jesus. Morning prayer and communing with God throughout the day are how we constantly realign our minds, hearts, and souls to the truth that Jesus’s blood has set us free.
When not treated as a merit-earning obligation, prayer is such a rich grace! It lets us speak freely with a sovereign Father whose love for us is higher, deeper, broader, and wider than we can comprehend.
Practices like prayer, reading God’s Word, and hearing it preached are called means of grace, not means of merit. While they’re not meritorious, they are beneficial because they serve as opportunities to realign our hearts and minds to the grace of God, where we remember it is not our doing that saves and sustains us but Jesus’s doing for us.
Q: WHAT MISCONCEPTION DO WE SOMETIMES HAVE ABOUT THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT? HOW DOES STUDYING THE FRUIT IN THE CONTEXT OF GALATIANS REVEAL SOMETHING DIFFERENT?
For many, sanctification is not only mysterious but misunderstood. Thankfully, both Paul (in Galatians 5) and Jesus (in John 15) give us a word picture that helps explain the dynamics of spiritual change. That picture is how fruit, such as a cluster of grapes, grows on a vine. In chapter 5 of Galatians, Paul speaks of moral virtues displayed in a believer’s life as fruit. But he doesn’t call this fruit the result of trying hard to produce things such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. Instead, he calls it “the fruit of the Spirit.”
A big misconception about the Christian life is that we are saved by grace but grow by pursuing the demands of discipleship. But Paul teaches that spiritual growth is not the byproduct of a resolve to obey the law but takes place as we humbly, personally, consciously, and continuously believe the gospel (Galatians 3:1–5).
Do we want to obey the law? Do we want to follow the King? Do we want to love like Jesus? Absolutely!
The issue is not the desire but the ability. And theologically speaking, both the desire and ability to live a new, fruitful life find their source in the presence and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
We can say it this way. The source of external fruit is the internal working of the Spirit, who cultivates new desires in us and empowers us to new life as we abide in the Vine of Jesus as our sin-bearer and righteousness provider.
In other words, as we confidently believe who we are now in Christ, the Spirit fills us and changes us by producing his fruit in and through us. This means that God is not only glorified as the source of our justification but is also glorified as the source of our sanctification!
Q: WHAT IS ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT LESSONS YOU LEARNED WHILE WRITING THE BOOK?
While Galatians does not deal explicitly with repentance, it is a letter about the centrality of faith as the means by which a sinner receives the grace of justification. The other side of faith is repentance. So, while repentance may not be explicitly stated, it is in the shadows. And what I learned about repentance is that we tend to use the wrong preposition when defining it.
Rather than turning from our sins to Jesus, the cross calls us to turn with our sins to Jesus, who, with open arms, reveals not a scowl but a smile, making sure we clearly see his nail-scared hands. Then, once we turn with our sins to Jesus, the Spirit enables us to turn from our sins.
GALATIANS: NAVIGATING LIFE IN VIEW OF THE CROSS
In his Galatians Bible study, McKay Caston guides participants in keeping the gospel as the “true north” compass for their lives, allowing them to break free from religious rule-keeping and live with freedom and joy.