For years, the book of Galatians was a mystery to me. It seemed to be much ado about the Jewish rite of circumcision, but—like so much of Scripture—it yields its treasures gradually. Its primary theme reaches all the way to the fear of man.
Circumcision was a prominent way to distinguish Jew from Gentile. The Jews did it, the Gentiles did not, so the Jews were better. Dietary laws were another way to establish Jewish superiority (Gal 2:12). Together they became part of a non-gospel that Paul referred to as “works of the law.” He decried these works because through them “no one will be justified” (2:16).
“Works” still seem to be far from the fear of man, but we are getting closer. Works of the law were the way people distinguished themselves before God. It was a way to achieve righteousness, even though every Jewish person ultimately knew that their existence was based on the grace of God and not on their own deeds (2:16). Yet grace is one of those spiritual realities that is quickly forgotten. Gradually, this tendency to distinguish themselves from others and take pride in their righteous acts rendered God less relevant. They didn’t need their souls to be rescued. They only needed God to defeat the Romans and return their land to them. With their reputation before God firmly established, they were free to focus their attention on people whose works were less than theirs. The Pharisees had done this among the Jews, and now the Hebrew followers of Christ in Galatia were doing the same thing.
Not only is this an insult to the sacrifice of Christ, but lurking under the dependence on human achievement lies the fear of man. If life is based on our works as seen by others, we will soon be controlled by their opinions and live in fear of what they think. We rightly care about people’s opinions, but when we wrongly care about them too much—that is the fear of man. We can find it in our tendency to hide something embarrassing, overthink our appearance, exaggerate an accomplishment, drop a name as a way to elevate our reputation, or get angry when criticized. In other words, we have developed our own system of works.
We simply pick up where the Galatians left off and find something in what we do that gives us standing before other people. The world runs on achievement, and we are all in. One problem with this system is that human achievements—all of them—are ephemeral. What you accomplish today, even if it is truly amazing, will last until next week (maybe). If you are a professional athlete or the President, the prestige will last a little longer, but the way of achievement cripples its adherents with fear, and eventually, it always disappoints.
How is the path of achievement and pleasing people working for you? Paul asks a question much like this one. It begins, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law” (4:21) and then makes it clear that there are only two possible ways to live. One is a pact established on what you do; the other is established on what God has done for you in Jesus. One is slavery; the other is freedom. One can never be enough; the other brings rest.
When this was revealed to the apostle Paul, he took decisive action. He reviewed those achievements in which he found righteousness and treated them with disgust. He wrote, “I count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law” (Phil 3:8–9). His weaknesses and perceived failures? He boasted in them, as they always reminded him that he was strong only because he had Jesus.
With his strategy in hand, we head out into the world. We track down those achievements that have become our works of the law, and we do what Paul did: we cast them off. When faced with our weaknesses, we consider them to be built-in limits—common to all humanity—that provide opportunities for us to trust Jesus more than people. And gradually, over time—sometimes a good bit of time—we begin to get comfortable in God’s house, where the promise of love takes the place of performance, weakness is the new strength, and it all feels like freedom and rest.
If you are interested in reading more on this topic, check out the 26th-anniversary, second edition of Ed Welch’s book, When People Are Big and God Is Small, which was released in April 2023 by P&R Publishing. It brings our struggle with the fear of man into our modern vocabulary, offering a Jesus-centered approach.