Book Review – The Message of Galatians (John Stott)

This is one of the first volumes in the Bible Speaks Today series, and was originally published 40 years ago in 1968. Unlike later volumes in the series, there is no introduction. Stott dives right in and begins his exposition of the text. Naturally, he covers the issues like authorship, dating, recipients, and themes along the way, but not in so much detail as a typical commentary might.

Paul is writing, he argues, to the churches in South Galatia to defend his apostleship and his gospel, both of which have come under attack from false teachers. Stott often points out that Paul still has many modern day opponents who deny his authority and reject his gospel message.

Each chapter of Galatians is dealt with in three or four chapters in the commentary. Stott sees Galatians as more or less falling into three main parts which roughly correspond to two chapters each. The first (Gal 1,2) deals with a question of authority. Paul defends his authority based on his apostleship. Those who are familiar with Stott’s writings will know how keen he is to emphasise the uniqueness of the 12 apostles, and his denial of any kind of apostolic succession or modern day apostles, both of which he would view as challenging the apostolic authority of Scripture.

The second section (Gal 3,4) deals with a question of salvation. The gospel is presented as salvation through the death of Jesus Christ, and is received by faith alone. He sees the false teachers as proponents of salvation through keeping the law as a necessary ‘supplement’ to what Christ has done. He shows how the law of Moses ("thou shalt…") is contrasted to God’s promises to Abraham ("I will…"), and therefore the gospel is analogous to the promise, not the law. He regularly quotes Luther in this section.

The significance of the law is to show us our need of the gospel. Stott argues that this step cannot be bypassed – we must let the law show us our sin, before we can understand what the gospel is. Come to Moses first, and let Moses lead us to Christ.

The third section (Gal 5,6) deals with a question of holiness. Up until now, Paul’s message of Christian liberty may lead some to assume that anything goes in terms of behaviour. But liberty does not mean license. Stott argues that Christian freedom is primarily a freedom of conscience – we are not guilty before God. But freedom from law does not mean freedom from keeping the law – our sanctification involves us fulfilling the law, which Paul says is summed up in the command to love your neighbour (Gal 5:14). Similarly, we are called to fulfil the law of Christ (Gal 6:2).

Stott argues that the Christian has a conflict between what he is by nature (the flesh) and what he is by rebirth. In both Gal 5 and Rom 7 Paul presents walking by the Spirit as the solution to this conflict. We have nailed our flesh to the cross, but we need to keep it there until it dies. He describes holiness as a harvest. Paul speaks in Gal 6:8 about whether we sow to the flesh or to the Spirit. Holiness then is not automatic, but depends on where and how we sow.

Although the book has no introduction, a summary section at the end reiterates the main themes of the book and its key points for application. There is also a study guide at the end.

As with John Stott’s other contributions to the Bible Speaks Today series, this volume comes highly recommended. Due to its age, he does not address the question of the "New Perspective on Paul" (in particular, were the false teachers really teaching salvation by works?), and perhaps his approach to the issue of modern day apostles would be tempered by some of the clarifications that have been made by groups such as newfrontiers (that modern day apostles are not seen as having an authority equivalent to the 12, who were unique in that sense). I also felt that he could have explored more what it means to walk in the Spirit. Stott makes several comments throughout the book to state that the church are the inheritors of the Old Testament promises, and are in full continuity with the Old Testament believers, which is another key theme found in Galatians.

The strength of this commentary is an uncompromising proclamation of the message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Having laid this foundation, Stott then goes on to show how exhortation to holiness is not in conflict with this message. It will prove a valuable resource for anyone wanting to study or teach through the book of Galatians.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Message of Galatians (John Stott)

  1. I found the following comment breath-taking !
    “But freedom from law does not mean freedom from keeping the law – our sanctification involves us fulfilling the law”
    This suggests that freedom from the law entails us fulfilling the law (something which Christ said He would do). I cannot see how it can be argued that this is what Paul is advocating for in Galatians. Surely Paul was arguing the exact opposite – that an attempt to be sanctified by/according to the law effectively undid one’s justification by the law.

  2. Hi Richard,

    I think what Stott is driving at is that Paul expects believers to fulfil the law of Christ (see Gal 6:2) which involves the commandment to love one another. This does not mean we are bound to obey ceremonial aspects of the law of Moses such as circumcision. And of course this does not mean in any way that we are attempted to be justified by the law. I think Stott would agree with you that we are also not “sanctified” by the law.

    Or perhaps another way of putting it is that we are not given freedom to sin, but we are set free from the guilt for those sins which we have committed.

    Anyway its been a while since I read the book, so I should probably dig it out and re-read it to make sure I understood him correctly.

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