A Deformed yet Beloved Bride (Galatians, Part 4)
This week we continue exploring the book of Galatians using a question-and-answer format.
To the churches of Galatia:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Why is it significant that Paul addresses his letter “to the churches of Galatia”?
Now, this is not in itself an unusual feature in the letter. Paul includes the same or similar address in his other letters, referring to the recipients either as “the church” (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1) or “the saints” (Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:1; Php. 1:1; Col. 1:2).
But when Paul addresses his hearers as “the churches” in this letter, it is especially noteworthy, because of the harsh rebukes he has in store for them in the rest of the letter. A few sentences after this greeting, Paul tells them they are “quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1:6). But yet he still considers them God’s church. They are incredibly close to apostasy (denying the faith), but Paul has not lost all hope that they genuinely belong to God and can legitimately be called his church.
Paul affirms some amazing things about the Galatians. He says that they have received the Holy Spirit (3:2). He affirms that God works miracles among them (3:5). Paul says several times that they are children of God (3:26; 4:6), and have become his heirs along with Jesus (4:7). He says that even though they once were far from God and did not know him, now through Jesus they know God and God knows them (4:8). But then (two verses later), right after affirming that they do in fact know God, he worries that “I may have labored over you in vain” (4:11).
John Calvin, commenting on Paul’s willingness to describe such troubled people as God’s “churches,” says this:
Is it not wonderful that the term ‘Church’…should have been applied to the Galatians, who had almost entirely revolted from Christ? . . . We do not always find in churches such a measure of purity as might be desired. The purest have their blemishes; and some are marked, not by a few spots, but by general deformity….for we must not imagine, that, whenever there is some kind of church, everything in it that ought to be desired in a church is perfect.
Calvin notes how, in dealing with this troubled church, “Paul manifests here a gentleness of disposition.” And the reason for Paul’s gentleness is because he knows that Jesus loves his bride (the church), no matter how deformed she may be. He knows that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her…so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:25-27). Paul knows that it is precisely because the church is full of spots and blemishes that Jesus had to give himself to cleanse her.
As I said earlier, no matter how deformed Jesus’ bride may be, he loves her and gave himself for her. And so we must be careful about how we speak about her. We must be careful that we are not eager to say, “That blemished, deformed group of people does not belong to Jesus. They are not a church.”
So when we see deformed, blemished, unhealthy churches around us (and perhaps we find ourselves in one of those churches!), let us remember that Paul called the assemblies in Galatia churches. Because even though we realize that it is possible for us to abandon Jesus by our unbelief (see Gal. 5:2, 4), yet it is not our faithfulness to Christ but rather Christ’s faithfulness to us that is our great hope and security.