Sanctification in Galatians & the Theonomic Error

In discussions on the issue of theonomy, many non-theonomists struggle to understand why the issue is so difficult to discern. It would seem that the New Testament is quite clear: the Mosaic law was given to Israel, for a specific people, for a specific time, for a specific purpose. It was never meant to be the binding rule of life for all people for all times. This idea is repeated in multiple ways through many passages in the New Testament (i.e., Romans 6 & 7, 2 Corinthians 3, Matthew 5, Hebrews 7, etc) But it is most clearly seen in Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. A simple read through Galatians should be enough to end the issue: Paul gives a clear answer to the relationship of the Christian to the Mosaic law. That should end the debate quite quickly.

However, theonomists typically don’t believe that Galatians addresses their position. They don’t believe theonomic teachings would fall under the umbrella of what Galatians is discussing. One of the objections made to support this is that Galatians is talking about justification only and not sanctification. However, this view is a very narrow and oversimplified view of Galatians as a whole. The entire flow of the letter to the Galatians shows that Paul is talking at a higher level than just specifics. Though he addresses specifics, his point is about a general theme. What is meant by that is, though a given verse here or there may mention justification, that does not mean that the whole letter is about that aspect only. Or if a given verse here or there may mention a ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic law, that does not mean that the whole letter is about that aspect only. Or if a given verse here or there may mention the manner in which a Christian is to walk after being saved, that does not mean that the whole letter is about that aspect only.

Throughout the letter of Galatians, Paul is making a contrast: the wrong way versus the correct way. He is calling the Galatians to avoid the wrong way and follow the correct way. That contrast plays out in multiple different individual comparisons that can be seen throughout the letter. Here are some examples:

– bondage / liberty (2:4)
– living like the Jews / living like the Gentiles (2:14)
– works of the law / faith in Christ Jesus (2:16)
– works of the law / hearing with faith (3:3,5)
– being perfected by the flesh / having begun by the Spirit (3:4)
– inheritance based on law / inheritance based on promise (3:18)
– according to the flesh / through the promise (4:23)
– according to the flesh / according to the Spirit (4:29)
– children of a bondwoman / children of the free woman (4:31)
– a yoke of slavery / freedom (5:1)
– under the law / led by the Spirit (5:18)

In every way that Paul can make the comparison, the Mosaic law is on the side of the “wrong way” for the Galatians. Numerous times he says it explicitly. Others are implicit, like in 5:1 when he calls the Mosaic law a yoke of slavery, using the image of the allegory which he just clearly spelled out in the preceding verses about two covenants.

So the overarching theme throughout the letter of Galatians is: “not the Mosaic law, but instead something else”. Not Mosaic law, but promise. Not Mosaic law, but faith. Not Mosaic law, but Spirit. Not Mosaic law, but freedom.

Now, in the process of supporting this overarching theme, Paul talks about multiple topics. He obviously clearly talks about justification – on that point we’d all agree. He mentions justification explicitly in places like 3:11, 3:24, and 5:4. He also talks about it implicitly (i.e., 3:6 “reckoned to him as righteousness”).
The question then is this: is that all Paul is talking about? Is the issue of justification the only issue Paul is addressing in this letter?

As long as we don’t approach the letter of Galatians holding on to the presupposition that it’s only about justification, and instead we genuinely ask the question whether or not it’s about more than just justification, the conclusion comes out very obviously: the letter to the Galatians is also contrasting the Mosaic law against promise/faith/Spirit in regards to sanctification and the pattern of life that a believer should live.

Let’s look as specific verses which support this view:

– 2:11-14 Here, Paul is rebuking Peter. Ask yourself this: is Paul rebuking Peter because he was teaching the Galatians that they needed to be justified by the Mosaic law? Or is Paul rebuking Peter because Peter was acting as if the Mosaic law is the pattern by which people should live? It’s clearly the second: “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” This situation, which Paul uses to springboard into the doctrinal teaching, is clearly about a sanctification issue for Peter, not a justification issue.

– 3:3 “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The issue of sanctification is present here. Paul is identifying a past event (begun by the Spirit – justification) and then contrasting a present process (being perfected by the flesh – sanctification) His rhetorical question here is about how they are being sanctified.
– 5:13 “do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” The last half of this verse is clearly not talking about justification: we aren’t justified by serving one another in love. Paul is discussing the pattern of life for believers. And he’s not pointing them back to the Mosaic law for this: he’s still working under the same contrast as mentioned before, as we’re about to see (5:18 below).

– 5:16 “But I say, walk by the Spirit” Walking is definitely not justification language. That’s sanctification language. That’s progressive holiness language. That’s pattern of life language. And the answer Paul gives is not the Mosaic law, but instead the Spirit. Again, he puts those two in contrast to each other. He contrasts them thematically throughout the whole letter, but also specifically in just a couple of verses from now.

– 5:18 “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” Here is clear and undeniable sanctification language (“led by the Spirit”), and it is mentioned in clear and undeniable contrast to the Mosaic law (“you are not under the law”). This verse is so explicit and clear that really everything else said above probably isn’t even needed. But it has still been included to show the overwhelming truth that Galatians is not just about justification only.

– 5:25 “if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” Again, clear sanctification language with the term “walk”. This is pattern of life language.

Those are the highlights, and from that we can confidently state that the letter to the Galatians is not just about the narrow issue of justification only. It is also about sanctification, and about how the believer should walk in this life. Essentially, when you look at the letter from a high level perspective, from at least 5:13 on to the end, the issue is all about sanctification and the pattern for the believer’s life. And Paul is still pointing away from the Mosaic law, not towards it.

At the end of the day, if theonomy were true, then the letter to the Galatians would have pretty much been a postcard. Paul would have simply had to say “Look, all that stuff that the Judaizers want you to do, putting yourself under the Mosaic law, I want you to do it too. I want that to be the pattern for your life. Just understand that you aren’t justified by it, you are merely sanctified by it. As long as you know that you aren’t justified by the things the Judaizers are asking you to do, then please go ahead and do them for your sanctification.”

The issue of sanctification is only part of the way that Galatians refutes theonomy. It does an even much stronger job in other ways, but that departs from our purpose here. The purpose of this article is to show that sanctification is actually an important part of the Galatian issue. Which makes it an important part of the theonomic error. Many theonomists don’t feel that Galatians applies to their position, since they claim that Galatians is only about justification, and theonomy is about sanctification. We’ve heard the phrase many times, and read it in publications by theonomist authors also: “We are justified by grace through faith, but we are sanctified by the law”.

As long as theonomists believe that our sanctification comes by way of the Mosaic law, by patterning our life after the Mosaic law, then Paul’s letter to the Galatians definitely addresses the theonomic error.

For more information, please listen to epidsode 154 of the Bible Thumping Wingnut Podcast by clicking on this link: https://soundcloud.com/biblethumpingwingnut/e-154

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