Set Apart…Before I Was Born (Galatians, Part 10)

galatians week 10

This week we continue exploring the book of Galatians using a question-and-answer format.

15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born,
and who called me by his grace…

What does it mean when Paul says God set him apart “before [he] was born”?

This verse is often interpreted to support the doctrine of unconditional election, the belief that before time began God decided whom he would save and whom he would not. This doctrine is central to a theological system known as “Calvinism” (or “Reformed theology”). Reformed theologians read Paul’s statement that God “set me apart before I was born” and understand this to mean that Paul was only a Christian because God decided beforehand that he would be. John Calvin explains that in this verse Paul “intended to assert that his calling depends on the secret election of God.” So one way to understand this verse is to see evidence for the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election.

Not surprisingly, Christians who are not in the Calvinist/Reformed camp don’t interpret this verse the same way. Gregory Boyd, for example, says this about Galatians 1:15: “If we refrain from reading into the text a preconceived idea of what ‘set apart’ and ‘called’ entail…, I believe we will see that this setting apart and calling does not rule out the free will of the agent. Many of the things God plans, ordains and even announces ahead of time do not come to pass, for God has sovereignly created a world in which his will usually isn’t the only variable deciding what comes to pass: people and angels have freedom as well. God certainly had a unique plan for Paul’s life, [but Paul] could have nevertheless been “disobedient to that heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). Had he done so, God would have raised up a different uniquely prepared servant to bring his message to the Gentiles.…”

How different these two views are! But how can we decide between them?

Before we make a decision, I want to look at two passages from the Old Testament that Paul apparently had in mind when he wrote this verse.

First, in Jeremiah 1:5 the Lord calls Jeremiah to be his prophet (his official spokesman), saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” This language is very similar to what we find in Galatians 1:15, where Paul says that his calling as an apostle (i.e., a witness of the resurrected Christ and a divinely commissioned representative and spokesman for Jesus) predated his own birth. Paul is apparently comparing himself to Jeremiah and the prophets of old—a huge claim for a Jew to make, and one that implied great authority and trustworthiness.

Second, in Isaiah 49:5 the connection to Paul’s words is even stronger. Isaiah was written long before Jesus was born, and Isaiah 49 is part of a larger section describing the so-called “Servant of the Lord” who would come and make all things right, rescue God’s people, and perfectly complete the Lord’s work in the world. That Servant, we discover in the New Testament, is Jesus. In Isaiah 49:1, the Servant speaks and describes how, long before he appeared on the earth, he was commissioned by the Lord to accomplish his will and complete his redemptive work. He says, “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” When you compare the Greek translation of Isaiah with Paul’s words in Galatians 1:15, we find that Paul is basically quoting the Servant’s words in Isaiah 49:1. Paul is therefore comparing himself to the Servant of the Lord, who was sent out to the nations (Gentiles) to preach good news to them and to bring them into the Kingdom of God.

It seems to me, therefore, that what Paul is doing in this verse is not to help us decide between Calvinism and Arminianism. What he is doing, rather, is to point out that he stands in the long line of God’s prophets and messengers and therefore has authority as the Lord’s spokesman. He is saying that he brings good news to the Gentiles (the “nations”), and has come to welcome them into the family of God—in contrast to the false teachers in Galatia, who could not let the Gentiles in as Gentiles, but said that they could only enter the kingdom as Jews (by insisting on circumcision and obedience to the Jewish law).

This, I think, is far more profound than a proof-text for unconditional election, and it actually fits better with Paul’s overall argument in this section (i.e., that despite the false teachers’ claim that he was a false apostle whose message could not be trusted, he was in fact the official spokesman for the Lord Jesus and taught the true gospel message—the good news that entrance into the kingdom is not based on our ability to keep Jewish law, but Jesus’ perfect obedience on our behalf).

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