A presentation given at the “Pauline Theology” seminar at the annual meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, Denver, November 16, 2018

David A. deSilva, Ph.D.


Where has humanity gone wrong, necessitating God’s restorative interventions? Where does it still go wrong on this side of the coming of Christ? What forces are at work constraining humanity to continue to go wrong (and to have gone wrong hitherto)? If we approach these questions merely on the basis of an analysis of passages using the lexical terminology most fundamentally associated with the idea of “sin,” we will not find all that much with which to work in Galatians.  In Romans, “sin” is a focal topic.  The word counts make this abundantly clear: forms of the noun ἁμαρτία appear in Romans forty-eight times, but only sixteen times across the remaining twelve letters associated with Paul’s name; forms of the verb ἁμαρτάνειν appear seven times in Romans, and only sixteen times across the remainder of the Pauline corpus. Nevertheless, each of those few passages in Galatians that foreground the lexicography of sin cracks open larger conversations within Paul’s letter and the situation he addresses that can lead us toward some helpful observations.

  1. Galatians 1:4

The first relevant passage appears in the opening paragraph, within Paul’s wish for “grace and peace” upon his troubled and troublesome congregations in Galatia:

“Grace to you and peace from our Father God and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for the sins we committed (ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν)[1] in order that he might rescue us out from the present, evil age according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:3-4)

This is an important verse that sets the stage for much that will follow.  It provides the Galatian Christians with an essential reminder of their debt to Jesus such that they ought to take great care neither to “set aside God’s grace” (as Paul claims he is careful to avoid doing in 2:21) nor to lose Christ’s benefits by falling from this grace (a clear and present danger facing them, according to Paul’s strong declarations of the consequences that would follow upon the wrong choice in 5:3-4).  Already from the outset we find Paul concerned both with “sins” as discrete acts in regard to which some sacrificial death is necessary and with a larger cosmic framework that is experienced in some way as oppressive and from which we therefore needed “rescue.”[2]

Paul will develop quite explicitly the notion of sins as discrete acts or patterns of behavior as he speaks of the “works of the flesh” (5:19), the actions prompted by “the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24):

“And the works born of the flesh are clearly evident: sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these.” (5:19-21)

These are, moreover, acts and patterns of behavior with clear consequences: “Concerning these things I tell you in advance, just as I warned you before: Those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21; see also 6:8a).

By “flesh” here, Paul does not simply mean the “meat” of our physical person…. It is the sum total of the impulses, urges, and desires that lead human beings away from virtue toward self-promotion and self-gratification, often at the expense of the interests and well-being of others, of the harmony of community, or of the accomplishing of the purposes of God in our lives, communities, and world.… It is a powerful force at work within human beings that can manifest itself in thought, word, and deed, in the yearnings of mind and soul as well as body.[3]

Paul speaks of the “flesh” as a potent force in the lives of human beings, but it is not an enslaving force.  Jurgen Becker expresses well the power of the “flesh”: “The compulsion to give in to desire is one’s own and at the same time is felt as foreign domination.”[4] What Paul calls “flesh,” however, is still at this point something internal to the person, even if it is not the person in the truest sense – that moral faculty that can recognize and resist the impulsive desires of the flesh.

At the same time, Paul gives significant attention in this letter to those forces that act upon the individual person from without to constrain his or her heart and practice to move in other than God-ward directions – and thus result in multiplying sins qua actions contrary to God’s vision for God’s creatures and their common life.  This brings us, in Galatians, chiefly to τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου.  The στοιχεῖα represent the fundamental building blocks of the world, but not in the sense of the physical elements from which the physical world is constituted,[5] though this meaning does provide a close analogy. They are the organizing and regulatory principles that create the “order” that constitutes the kosmos to which Paul celebrates having been crucified so as to live no longer within its constraints (6:14) – the “world” of human systems, interaction, and activity as these have taken shape in humanity’s rebellion against, rather than submission to, God. The στοιχεῖα arise from human ordering and activity, the accumulated residue of human sin’s effects on the environment of the sinners that “twists conditions in which others must live.”[6] The represent “the systemic nature of sin,” calling us to recognize “the manner in which structures embody and perpetuate harm and wrong.”[7]

The στοιχεῖα are, especially, the categories that divide, order, and create hierarchy within social reality, as well as the rationales that undergird the same. (Paul will name and sweep away three of these paired categories that had hitherto ordered human community and assigned priority and relative value across those categories in Galatians 3:28: Jew versus Greek, slave versus free, male versus female.) They are the rules and values that each child, born into and confronted with the society that had long since taken shape on the basis of such rules and values, must inevitably internalize, accept, and live by. They are the individual parts of “the way the world works,” to which each child must adapt himself or herself, by which each child must be willingly constrained as his or her mind, practices, and life trajectory are shaped thereby. These regulatory principles begin outside of us but, at some point within the long process of our socialization into the world as kosmos, become part of us, become internal strictures within us. This is the slavery into which every person is born, and which most never recognize as such.[8]

The human predicament consists, for Paul in Galatians, of sin and slavery; thus God’s remedy must consist of the restoration of righteousness and freedom.

  1. Galatians 2:15, 17, 18

The next three occurrences of the language of “sin” and “sinner” come from the extended version of Paul’s response to Peter in Syrian Antioch:

“We, Jews by nature and not sinners (ἁμαρτωλοί) from the nations….” (Gal. 2:15)

“Now, if while seeking to be set right in Christ we were found also ourselves to be sinners (ἁμαρτωλοί), then is Christ sin’s servant (ἁμαρτίας διάκονος)?  Heck, no!” (Gal. 2:17)

This says something about what sin is not for Paul, at least not anymore.  It is not to be found in the neglect of those practices that maintain the separation of Jew from Gentile once Jew and Gentile have been reconciled to God and to one another in Christ.  We could go further: sin is to be found now, on this side of Christ’s coming, above all in the rejection of the “way out” that God the Father (1:4) has provided from this predicament through the death and resurrection of God’s Son (1:4; 2:20) and provision of God’s Spirit (3:2-5, 13-14; 5:13-25). “Sin” is now choosing not to align oneself with God’s provision for the re-alignment of human beings as individuals and humanity as community with God’s Self and God’s vision for both – refusing, that is, God’s provision for “rectification,” the setting right, of the human situation before God.  This was, far from incidentally, Paul’s understanding of his own primary sin as he reflects on his own story (Gal 1:13-16; 1 Cor 15:8-10) – it was not his sins against the Law (in regard to which he could boast to be “blameless,” Phil 3:6) but his opposition to God’s righteous One that God had to intervene to correct by “revealing his Son to me” (Gal 1:15).

In the immediate context of 2:15 and 2:17, Paul is confronting Peter in Syrian Antioch as a man who “stood condemned” (2:11) – strong language indeed, calling attention to the amplitude of Peter’s transgression.  This transgression, however, is specifically a transgression against the solution that God has put in place and is bringing about in the community of those “in Christ.” By withdrawing from table fellowship with the Gentile Christians there who had been similarly reconciled to God and cleansed from their sin by the blood of Christ, and who had been similarly received into God’s family as attested by their reception of God’s Holy Spirit, Peter has moved against God’s own currents; he has not kept walking straight in the direction of the truth that the gospel announces (2:14).[9]  He has taken a serious mis-step by returning to a practice that suggested that the boundaries between the Jew and the Greek still had value in God’s sight and needed to be observed.  Even if Peter was just “putting on a charade” for the people who came from James, his shift in practice belied what God was doing in the new community of the Jews and Gentiles sanctified together in Christ and by the Spirit. Paul provides explanatory commentary on 2:17 along these very lines in the immediately following verse.  In what does “sin” now consist as far as the question of Jew-Gentile boundaries and the Torah that legislated these boundaries are concerned?  “If I erect afresh the very things that I tore down, I establish myself to be a transgressor” (παραβάτην, 2:18).[10]

The episode in Antioch incidentally offers a good case study for the interplay between sin as discrete act and sin as the result of systemic forces and predispositions that are hostile to God’s purposes and interventions. Peter’s cowardice, as Paul interprets the situation, led him to transgress the truth that the gospel was calling into reality; the στοιχεῖα, in the person of the human beings (the “men from James”) who had been shaped by them and continued to live in line with them, created the social environment in which significant forces were being exerted upon Peter to dispose him to fail to keep walking straight in line toward the truth that the gospel was calling into reality.

  1. Galatians 3:19, 22

The next cluster of occurrences finds Paul presenting the Torah as the non-remedy for the sin that had taken root in all the nations, the Jewish nation as well as the Gentile nations:

“Why, then, the law?  It was added for the sake of transgressions (τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν) until the Seed, to whom the promise was given, should come.” (Gal. 3:19)

The terse phrase τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν has been quite variously interpreted. Paul’s own further development of this topic in 3:23-25 seems to me to point quite clearly to the Torah’s role in keeping a particular people in some degree of check in regard to transgressions, as the pedagogue kept the behavior of his minor charges in check with his close supervision and his ready stick.  It might include the view that the Torah was given to make some provision for transgressions, even as the pedagogue would teach his charges to say “I’m sorry” when they make missteps.

The more relevant component is the temporary role assigned to the law in regard to transgressions. It was not the means by which God would rectify the human predicament, but the means by which God would preserve the seedbed from which the Seed was to emerge.  At the same time, the law served to confirm the human predicament.  Paul presents life under law as life lived under the threat of a curse – a threat that came to be realized far too often in the collective life of “Israel according to the flesh.” The Law as “pedagogue” in Gal 3:23-25 – an oppressive but, at least, benevolent figure – gives way to the Law as “slavery” in 4:24-26, akin to slavery under the στοιχεῖα (a kinship already established in 4:1-11).  Pushing aside the Law as potential remedy, Paul concludes that:

“Scripture shut up everything under sin (ὑπὸ ἁμαρτίαν) in order that the promise might be given on the basis of trusting Jesus to those who trust.” (Gal. 3:22)

(Parenthetically, I do not regard this translation of Gal 3:22 to be problematically redundant since I see two questions being answered throughout the central section of Galatians: On what basis do we arrive at God’s promised, good ends for us?  To whom are God’s good ends promised?  Both answers simply involve “trust.”[11]) This is the closest Paul will come to the kinds of expressions familiar from Romans that speak of sin as a power that dominates, even subjugates, the human being, but the concept is not nearly so fully developed yet in Galatians.  Sin is here a prison, a holding cell, not a triumphant conqueror.

At the close of this verse, Paul draws attention to the remedy for the predicament of living “under sin.” We find the content of the promise to which Paul refers here earlier in Galatians, in the only other passage in the letter in which “Scripture” appears as a grammatical subject: “Scripture, seeing in advance that God would make the nations righteous on the basis of trusting” (3:8).  This was the “good news” that Scripture murkily announced ahead of time to Abraham when it was promised to him that “all the nations will be blessed in you” (3:9; Gen 12:3; 18:18). This “blessing” turns out to be none other than the Holy Spirit, which Paul identifies as the promised good that, received through trust, would make many righteous:

“Christ redeemed us from the law’s curse by becoming a curse on our behalf … in order that the blessing of Abraham might come to the nations – in order that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Gal 3:14)

This verse underscores the importance both of Christ and the Spirit in God’s setting things right, and especially of the Spirit, which emerges as the divine force and provision for the “making right” of the nations in 5:13-25.

  1. Galatians 6:1

The final occurrence of a word explicitly and obviously associated with “sin” appears in Paul’s closing exhortations to his congregation:

“Brothers and sisters, even if a person should be caught in some trespass (ἔν τινι παραπτώματι), set about restoring such a person, you in-Spirited ones, in a spirit of gentleness – maintaining vigilance over yourself, lest you also be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1)

Even while Paul suggests with his language (“even if”) that trespasses should be exceptional rather than regular occurrences in the redeemed community, he makes provision for how to respond to these eventualities.  It is clear once again that Paul has not lost sight of sins as discrete acts.  Paul also presupposes a good deal of moral autonomy on this side of having trusted Christ.  As he writes at the close of this paragraph:

“Whatever a person sows, that shall he or she also reap, because the one who keeps sowing to his or her flesh will harvest destruction from the flesh, but the one who keeps sowing to the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit.” (6:7-8)

Whatever else might be said of life apart from Christ and prior to receiving the Holy Spirit, Paul addresses the Galatian Christians as people in whose power it now lay to sow to the flesh or to the Spirit.


God’s Remedy: Freedom and Righteousness

I fear I have spent too much time giving attention to sin to do justice to God’s remedy (and I pray that this is only true for this paper and not the fifty-one years leading up to it).  I can only put forward a few theses that, I hope, my recent commentary adequately supports:

  1. In Paul’s understanding, righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), and not merely acquittal (δικαίωσις), remains God’s goal for human beings (2:21; 3:21; 5:5). Paul forcefully asserts: “I’m not pushing God’s grace off to the side: for if righteousness[12] comes by means of the law, Christ died for no reason” (Gal 2:21). Christ died in order to make possible what the law had not made possible, namely for human beings to live righteously and, thus, to become righteous in God’s sight rather than remain sinners. “For it is we who, by the Spirit and on the basis of trusting, await the righteousness (δικαιοσύνη) for which we hope” (Gal 5:5).[13]


  1. This righteousness takes shape within human beings as Christ takes shape in – as Christ comes to life and increasingly lives through and among – those human beings individually and collectively (2:19-20; 4:19). The new life that Paul lives (2:20), the new life that the Law could not initiate, is the living Christ taking on flesh in, so as to live through, the redeemed person. This is the “making alive” that also brings “righteousness” (3:21).  It is the essential act of “new creation” that God is bringing about (6:15), the perfect restoration of the divine image in the redeemed by virtue of the perfect image-bearer of God, namely the Son of God, coming to life in the person.[14]


  1. The Holy Spirit is the agent of this transformation, the “best gift divine” secured by Jesus in his death for those who trust Jesus’ mediation. By the Spirit we participate in Christ’s death, dying both to enslaving powers and to our own “flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24); by the Spirit we come alive to God in a hitherto unimagined way. Paul describes this new life as the freedom for which Christ set us free in his death (5:1) – a freedom won for us at such cost that we dare not cast it aside. Paul is not interested merely in our deliverance from the consequences of sin, but in our deliverance from the internal bifurcation of the person that leaves us bound to continue in sin.[15] Paul is entirely optimistic about the Holy Spirit’s power to achieve God’s good ends in us: “Keep walking by the Spirit and there’s no way you’ll make what the flesh craves a reality” (5:16).


  1. Christ died to pull us out from the matrix – indeed, the mire – of the present evil age, the stoicheia-shaped live with its regulations and limitations, and to create for us a spiritual and social space – the space defined as “in Christ” – wherein the Spirit can bring order to our own unruly wills and affections and order our common life. Indeed, the death of Jesus is not explicated in this letter in terms of atonement, reconciliation, or cleansing; it is explicated in terms of rescue and liberation from a life defined by one set of conditions (and preconditions) for a different life defined by quite other conditions.


[1] I read the genitive pronoun as subjective rather than possessive: the “sins” are actions we’ve done, not items we possess.

[2] Caird and Hurst gave theologians a good lead in regard to investigating “sin”: “What sin means to those who commit it may be seen most clearly reflected in the language of redemption: for justification, consecration, reconciliation, and redemption imply a guilt to be cancelled, a stain to be erased, an enmity to be dispelled, and a servitude to be abolished” (G. B. Caird and L. D. Hurst, New Testament Theology [Oxford: Clarendon, 1994], 87).

[3] deSilva, Galatians, 447.

[4] Jurgen Becker, Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles (Louisville: WJKP, 1993), 392.

[5] Contra Dunn, Theology of Paul, 108.

[6] Mark E. Biddle, “Sin,” pp. 730-33 in Joel B. Green, et al., eds., Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 732.

[7] Biddle, “Sin,” 733.

[8] This paragraph is slightly adapted from deSilva, Galatians, 347; for a full discussion of the subject and defense of the interpretation given here, see deSilva, Galatians, 348-53.

[9] This is how I would render the phrase ὀρθοποδοῦσιν πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου.  The preposition quite clearly indicates a direction; the genitive seems to me best understood to indicate the “producer” or “source” of the particular truth in question.

[10] Similarly, for the Gentile Galatian Christians to take on the liturgical observances of the Jewish calendar (4:9-10) – which in the first-century context was one element that clearly marked the Jew and set him or her apart from the Gentile – was, for Paul, to participate in building up again what God broke down in the sending of God’s Holy Spirit upon Jew and Gentile together in Christ.

[11] See, further, deSilva, Galatians, 229-37 on the translation of διὰ/ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστου (Gal 2:16).

[12] Most English translations render δικαιοσύνη correctly here as “righteousness”; the NRSV for some reason renders it as “justification,” as if Paul had written δικαίωσις, but I trust the SBL review process will remedy this deficiency.

[13] I understand the genitive to express the object of the verbal noun “hope.”

[14] This lends credence to Biddle’s suggesting that “Paul’s understanding of sin involves the assertion, explicit in Rom. 3:23, that human beings universally ‘miss the mark’ (hamart-) by ‘falling short’ // (hyster-) of the ‘glory of God’ (a near synonym in Paul for ‘image of God’ [see 1 Cor. 11:7; cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4, 6])” (Biddle, “Sin,” 731-32). See also R. R. Reno, “Sin, Doctrine of,” pp. 748-51 in Kevin Vanhoozer, et al., eds., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 750: “The universality of sin is not peripheral to human identity. Sin shapes life. To use Paul’s language, sin enslaves, dictating the direction of human life…. For this reason, the very identity of the sinner is defined by sin, and that identity must be destroyed.  Echoing Paul again, the old man must die and a new man must be born if one is to turn from a life defined by sin to a life of righteousness (Rom. 6:6-8).”

[15] This is rightly stressed by Jurgen Becker, Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles (Louisville: WJKP, 1993), 390.