Book Review: Galatians: Freedom Through God’s Grace

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has long held a place of importance for those seeking to understand the power of the Gospel. One of the first books of the New Testament to be written, Galatians forcefully presents many of the Apostle Paul’s most central ideas and themes of grace and justification, displaying in brief, impassioned terms the theological categories and concepts that would find later expression in his letters to Rome and Corinth. If one hopes to understand the message of Christianity, Galatians offers a worthy starting point.

It was therefore with eager anticipation that I engaged Phillip Long’s Galatians: Freedom Through God’s Grace. And indeed, I walked away informed, encouraged, and impressed.

This is no technical commentary thickly layered with Greek exegesis, nor is it the kind of sweeping systematic commentary that one might expect a preacher to regularly consult. Rather, this is a reader’s commentary, the kind of book that any inquisitive Christian mind can bring with them as they thoughtfully engage Galatians.

Long’s prose is clear and compelling; his structure, simple and easy to follow. Readers are informed, without being overwhelmed, by historical details, the nuances of Greek, and the history of scholarship. Long includes snippets of those things, of course, but in ways that illuminate the text rather than insulate it from understanding.

The commentary proceeds section by section, with each section’s chapter including an introduction, conclusion, and discussion questions. Each section is divided into pericopes, and important aspects of each pericope are commented on. Footnotes to secondary literature are limited, but helpful when included. As with other commentaries, this one is best read next to an open Bible; unlike many other commentaries, however, you can actually consult this book section by section alongside your reading of Scripture.

Especially noteworthy is Long’s treatment of the chronology of Galatians and Acts. For those invested in understanding any biblical writing, there are few pieces of context more important than the audience and setting of a writing. In a reasoned but non-argumentative manner, Long suggests that Paul wrote Galatians before the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15. While this is not a majority position among contemporary New Testament scholars, the book’s argument is clear and compelling, and Long suggests a chronology that provides useful answers for some of the otherwise difficult parts of Paul’s letter.

In short, I want more commentaries like this; commentaries that are at once brief and helpful for the busy academic or pastor, while also accessible for the lay reader. This is the kind of slim book that’s worth its weight in gold for those who are engaging Galatians, whether for the first time or the hundredth. In terms of audience, this is not a commentary for the technical preacher or graduate student working in the minutiae of Galatians. However, it is an exceedingly helpful volume for the vast majority of people who want to better understand Galatians, be they pastors, small group leaders, or new Christians. I plan to use this commentary in the future as I lead groups through Galatians, and I know readers of all backgrounds and purposes will benefit greatly from Long’s insights.

Phillip J. Long, Galatians: Freedom through God’s Grace (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019), 156 pages. I received a complimentary copy of this volume in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

“Give Us Grace to Hold You…”

Another prayer from The Oxford Book of Prayer, this time from Fr. Gilbert Shaw:

Lord, give us grace to hold you

when all is weariness and fear

and sin abounds within, without

when love itself is tested by the doubt…

that love is false, or dead within the soul,

when every act brings new confusion, new distress,

new opportunities, new misunderstandings,

and every thought new accusation.

Lord, give us grace that we may know

that in the darkness pressing round

it is the mist of sin that hides your face,

that you are there

and you do know we love you still

and our dependence and endurance in your will

is still our gift of love.

On Baptism (Part I)

In this two-part article, I offer some reflections on baptism, beginning in this post with the Bible and history and wrapping up with some musings on covenant and sacrament in the next.

Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles

Last summer I led a Bible study on the Acts of the Apostles. While I had prior experience reading and studying Acts, nothing quite engages you with a biblical book like having to teach it to a group of people. One of the themes in Acts that we regularly encountered was the issue of baptism: how does Luke explain this Christ-instituted rite associated with the Way? Without delving too much into all the particulars of baptism in the early church, the varieties of baptism that Acts presents as valid stood out in our study. In contrast to many contemporary Christian doctrinal statements on how baptism ought to occur in a specific way at a particular time, Acts describes some basic parameters for baptism—the need for baptism in water in the name of God and the efficacious influence of the Holy Spirit (the so-called “baptism of water” and “baptism of the Spirit”)—and then seems to allow for what contemporary Christians think of as different forms of baptism. Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: On the Bondage of the Will, Part II

This post is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

In The Bondage of the Will, Luther also argues that if the potter and clay in Romans 9 do not refer to God and man in salvation, “Paul’s whole argument in defense of grace is meaningless. For the whole purpose of his epistle is to show that we can do nothing, even when we seem to be doing well, just as he says in the same chapter that Israel in pursuing righteousness did not attain to righteousness, while the Gentiles attained to it without pursuing it.”[1] In Luther’s interpretation, Paul “uses [the image of potter and clay] in his own spirit against free choice. But as for the idea that freedom of choice is not lost if we are as clay in God’s hands when he afflicts us, I do not see the point of it or why [Erasmus] contends for it, since there is no doubt that afflictions come upon us from God against our will, and put us under the necessity of bearing them willy-nilly, not is it in our power to avert them, although we are exhorted to bear them willingly.”[2] Luther equates free choice with the flesh, which he believes that “Paul in Romans 8 (:7) says cannot submit to God (as we shall see in that passage), and in which [Erasmus] says can will nothing good.”[3] Thus, whereas Erasmus understands Paul as a champion of free choice, Luther understands Paul’s doctrine of universal sinfulness to nullify free choice.[4] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: On the Freedom of the Will, Part II

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Erasmus of Rotterdam

In addressing the relationship between divine foreknowledge and human will, Erasmus concludes that while Paul does not adequately address the question,[1] “the will of God, since it is the principle cause of all that takes place, seems to impose necessarily on our will…. God willed Pharaoh to perish miserably, and he willed it rightly, and it was tight for him to perish. Yet he was not forced by the will of God to be obstinately wicked.”[2] Erasmus says concerning Romans 9-11, that “All this shows clearly that Paul’s sole object here is to repress the arrogance at once of the Gentiles and of the Jews.”[3] Erasmus does not interpret the use of the Potter and the Clay to be entirely indicative of the roles of salvation, as he writes that “In these things we are to submit to God as a vessel to the hands of a potter. Yet in truth this is not to take away free choice wholly, not does it exclude our will from cooperating with the divine will in order to attain eternal salvation…. Here the word of Paul is not whether free choice is entirely excluded, but to repress the wicked murmuring of the Jews against God, who on account of their obstinate unbelief were rejected from the grace of the gospel, while the Gentiles were received on the ground of their faith…”[4] Erasmus argues that humanity cooperates with God in the process of salvation, that “What the architect is to his pupil, grace is to our will. Thus Paul in Rom. 8 (26): ‘Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.’ Nobody calls him weak who can do nothing at all, but rather him whose powers are insufficient to perform what is attempted; nor is he said to be a helper who does everything by himself.”[5] Ultimately, Erasmus seeks a balanced understanding of God’s grace and man’s grace endowed free choice that allows for human responsibility in choosing or rejecting salvation under the grace and power of God,[6] as he concludes by writing that, “Pelagius has no doubt attributed too much to free choice, and Scotus quite enough, but Luther first mutilated it by cutting off its right arm; then not content with this he thoroughly cut the throat of free choice and dispatched it. I prefer the view of those who do attribute much to free choice, but most to grace.”[7] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Augustine and Pelagius

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine

The use of Romans in the construction of soteriological concerns has a long and varied history. Perhaps the most important discourse concerning the will involved St. Augustine of Hippo and the English monk Pelagius, both of whom relied upon Pauline thought in their arguments. In his “Letter to Demetrius,” Pelagius outlines his theology of the human will, using or inferring from various texts and concepts found in Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome. Pelagius argued that the human will had the inherent capacity to perform both good and evil, that the will was not forced to do evil necessarily, and that the human will became habituated into evil.[1] For his understanding, “doing good has become difficult for us only because of the long custom of sinning, which begins to infect us even in our childhood. Over the years it gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself…. If even before the law and long before the coming of our Lord and Savior, some people lived upright and holy lives, as we have said, we should believe all the more that we can do the same after his coming. Christ’s grace has taught us and regenerated us as better persons. His blood has purged and cleansed us, his exampled spurred us to righteousness.”[2] Using Romans 9:20, Pelagius argues that the Pauline Christian perspective indicates that people are wicked because they work not to improve their loves, but complain about their nature. “If, then, even apart from God, these people demonstrate how God made them, we should recognize what can be accomplished by Christians whose nature has been restored to a better condition by Christ and who are assisted by divine grace.”[3] Thus for Pelagius, the human will remains endowed with the freedom of choice between good and evil even now, and while the humans tend to sin, they act and choose not because of predetermined necessity but of their own willing. Continue reading