Paul wrote Galatians to confront and combat the attempted Judaization of the church. Such was arguably the backdrop behind many of the New Testament letters. Intoxicated by the air of religious supremacy, Jews sought to enslave (Paul’s word for it) Gentiles under the burdensome yoke of Torah (cf. 4.7, 25; 5.1). Anyone wanting to be part of Yahweh’s people (i.e. Abraham’s people) had to come under the authority of Torah. And the front door to the kingdom was circumcision (Gal 5.2-6).
But Christ had lived, died and lived again. He was cut off in the flesh so that entrance into the new covenant would be faith, not a scalpel (cf. Col 2.11-12). There was no going back to time when that hadn’t happened. Therefore, the gospel of Christ revolutionized the nature of God’s covenant people.
While high-minded Jews insisted the mainstay of God’s salvation was Torah, Jesus’s (Jewish!) apostles taught otherwise. All who were “baptized into Christ,” “in Christ Jesus,” “belong to Christ” were “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” and therefore Abraham’s children (Gal 3.26-29). There was no need for Gentiles to become Jews because Jesus was the New, True Israel and they were “in him.” You were either in him by faith or otherwise eternally excluded from God’s salvation (i.e. Abraham’s promise and inheritance). Gentile Christians were as much a part of Abraham as any Jew thought himself to be, and in some cases even moreso (Rom 9.6).
Gentile Christians met all the demands of Torah because Jesus is the end/goal (Rom 10.4) and fulfiller (Mt 5.17) of the Torah. There was no need for any Gentile (or Jew, for that matter) to be “in Moses” because even Moses was now “in Christ” (cf. Mt 17.1-5). Need Paul remind them that Abraham never observed Torah either (Gal 3.16-18)! The Jewish Messiah had to come just as far to save the Jew as the did the Gentile.
“There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.4-6).
Paul could even say to the Galatians: “I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Gal 4.12). Paul, a Jew of Jews (Phil 3.4-6), had become a functional Gentile: a sinner brought into God’s covenant by grace through faith in Christ (Rom 11.1-6). And now he pleaded with Galatian Christians tempted to become functional Jews to consider themselves Gentile sinners again. In perhaps history’s greatest irony, they’d traded redemptive places!
Because of the gospel the arrogant oneupsmanship had to stop. Anyone assuming themselves superior to others, no matter their heritage, was antithetical to God’s purposes in salvation. No one was to seek vain-glory (Gal 5.26). Even those restoring a weakened, sin-whipped brother should be aware of pridefully assuming they were above his sin (Gal 6.1-3). They weren’t, and to assume they were was as much sin as anything the restored brother committed.
Such was the warning in Gal 6.4-5. You may consider yourself “something” (i.e. superior to another) but God makes no such comparison. He doesn’t grade on a curve. You’re accountable for your own sin on its own demerits. You are not “something” but “nothing” when measured against the perfections and demands of the God who made you.
Calvin thusly commented on Gal 6.5:
“To destroy sloth and pride, he brings before us the judgment of God, in which every individual for himself, and without a comparison with others, will give an account of his life. It is thus that we are deceived; for, if a man who has but one eye is placed among the blind, he considers his vision to be perfect; and a tawny person among negroes thinks himself white. The apostle affirms that the false conclusions to which we are thus conducted will find no place in the judgment of God; because there every one will bear his own burden, and none will stand acquitted by others from their own sins.”
Was Calvin a racist? Of course not. He simply stated the obvious. We will take any advantage to vault ourselves above others given the context. We will find a way to convince ourselves and others we are better than those around us. In fact, we might go out of our way to find those contexts to feed our lustful ego.
(As an aside, we should remember black/white racism and related civil rights issues are nothing new. We’re not the first to tackle these issues or morally superior to previous generations because they didn’t have hashtags. Here is Calvin in the 16th century addressing a contemporary issue that was as much a problem in the church then as now. And the answer then is the same as now: the one and only gospel Paul commended to the Galatians.)
Perhaps Calvin recalled the famous quote by Desidirius Erasmus (43 years Calvin’s senior): “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” If there is vain-glory in being white then even the tan-skinned will consider himself white among the company of his darker-skinned brothers. The opposite would also be true. If there is benefit to being black then the tan-skinned will consider himself black in a room full of white folk.
In a room of adulterers, the faithful husband deceives himself to think he is superior (i.e. less guilty) in God’s eyes. In a room full of thieves, the hard-working union man assumes himself more honest in God’s eyes. In a room full of sinners, the Sunday School teacher assumes herself less sinful in God’s eyes. In a room full of convicts, the innocent man assumes himself more innocent in God’s eyes. In a room full of Arminians the Calvinist assume himself holier. In the end, everyone in the room is “nothing” (Gal 6.3) and those who are Christ’s realize that. And the gospel is having its way among us when all the nothings in the room love the other nothings as though they’re everything (Gal 5.6, 13).
Christian maturity is the process of becoming lower. We are growing in gospel grace when our noses turn downward, our hearts reach upward and hands reach outward. You are no different than I and I no different than you. We’re not equally impressive, mind you, but equally condemned and cursed by sin. If you’re a Christian, Christ became as much a curse for you as he did me (Gal 3.13). He has freed us both from the tyranny of vain-glory (Gal 5.1). Therefore, let’s lock arms, bend knees and rejoice we need never be like the other but that Jesus became like us. And we’re together because we’re forever “in Him.”