Paul to Galatia: Stop Kissing the Ring

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

The 1972 drama “The GodFather” is the quintessential mob story. I’m not just saying that because my father is Italian. You can’t talk about mob movies without someone pulling a Marlon Brando. He’s the OG kingpin of making offers you can’t refuse. “Going to the mattresses.” “Sleeping with the fishes.” Classic.

The late AD40’s letter to the Galatians is considered by many to be the quintessential “law and gospel” epistle. “No one is justified by the law.” “Who bewitched you?” Classic. [1]

Paul wrote his fiery letter against a backdrop of legalism that had crept into the church and threatened the gospel. The false teachers taught that Christ’s work needed to be topped up by our work, which erased His work altogether. Paul’s love for the church compelled him to reach out with a red hot warning which sounded a little like …

“Stop kissing the ring of the law.”

Let’s go back to Don Vito Corleone for a second. When a person kissed the godfather’s ring, the gesture wasn’t merely a sign of respect. It was a pledge of allegiance to the godfather, a commitment to trust the godfather and in return for this trust and allegiance, they were welcomed into the “family” of the godfather. The godfather’s welcome always had some hefty strings attached, contingent upon what they brought to the table.

This analogy is limited, as all analogies are, because of course God’s law is perfect – not shady. The problem isn’t with God’s perfect law, but our inability to keep it.

Paul invited the church out of the anxiety of trusting in the law and called them into the assurance of resting in the gospel. Convinced of Christ’s sufficient grace, he went so far as to tell the Galatians to “be like him”. The flow of the letter makes it clear he wasn’t saying, “get it together like I am“, but rather, “be dependant on Christ as I am“.

In Chapter 4, verses 9-10, Paul used some wordplay to show them the futility of “kissing the ring” of the law by juxtaposing the Greek gods they used to trust in with with the Mosaic law they had come to trust in.

Paul was saying that while the pagan gods were non-existent, trusting in your law keeping was insufficient. Whether you trusted in Aphrodite or your own piety, you arrived at the same same dead end – neither could save you.

Holding a “Jesus + our continued obedience” theology means that salvation isn’t assured by Christ’s work, it’s being secured by ours, putting us in the drivers seat for our own justification – which is anything but good news. To borrow from my wife Susan, Christian obedience is to praise Him, not to repay Him.

“Stop kissing the ring of false teachers.”

In verses 15-17, Paul pushed against the ring kissing even further. Paul’s message of grace in Christ never changed, but the way the church related to his message did. Paul said the church stopped relating to him like a friend and started relating to him like an enemy.

How did that happen?

Paul exposed how kissing the ring of the law had created a dysfunctional, co-dependant relationship between the false teachers and the church.

He wrote, they make much of you so that you make much of them”. Paul used an interesting word to show just how severe this was. The english words “make much” is a Greek word (ζηλοῦτε) which is onomatopoetic. Some examples of English onomatopoetic words are “bang“, “pop” or “hiss“. In the Greek, “ζηλοῦτε” was often used to invite listeners to imagine hot, bubbling water. By using it in this context, Paul was saying that the false teachers were “bubbling over with flattery” toward the church in order to get “bubbling over allegiance” from the church. 

By calling the false teachers out on their need for ring-kissing, Paul reveals how a ministry centred on the gospel plays out differently from a ministry centred on works.

Paul didn’t need the church to pledge their allegiance to him. He didn’t need them to validate his work, because he didn’t believe he was being saved by his work.

The false teachers on the other hand, sought to have the church pledge their allegiance to them because in believing that salvation was validated by works, they needed people dependant on them in order to validate their works.

In verse 20 Paul went on to say that he’d like to change his tone with the church – but he didn’t. His commitment was to hold up the gospel, not change his tone and hold out for their validation.

The gospel produces dependence on Christ, calls us into the likeness of Christ and in the end, propels us to live in freedom, to the praise of Christ.

The false gospel produces dependance on the law, calls us into the likeness of the teachers who insist on the law and in the end, burdens us to live for the praise of the teachers who we need to validate us for keeping the law.

Good News

What was true for the church in Galatia is true for us: our acceptance before God is not based on our constant, imperfect attempts at obedience, but Christ’s perfect obedience for us. His substitutionary and atoning death has paid for our sin – past, present and future. His divine resurrection is our assurance that not even death itself is going to hold us.

God’s great grace both rescues and renews us. It captivates our hearts and then over the course of our lifetime, reorients our hearts. As His Word continually guides us and says, “do this“, our hearts will increasingly respond, “I want this“.

As we gather weekly for worship to celebrate Christ and enjoy our liberty, the Spirit of God and the Word of God are working together to deepen and enrich our maturity. To borrow from James K.A Smith, worship that restores us, re”stories” us. [2]

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” ~  Antoine de Saint Exupery

Worship invites us to marvel at the endless immensity of God’s grace.

It cures us of our nearsightedness as we are reminded that this life isn’t all there is, and that the restoration Christ will bring with His return is going to wipe every tear from every eye and eradicate all suffering.

In the here and now, this gospel reorients our loves and re”stories” our lives. We engage in relationships, vocation and recreation with re-narrated identities, living our lives with a humble confidence that we are God’s children and our lives are in His capable hands. His grace is so perfect, we are never held hostage by circumstance again. Even in suffering, our hearts are free.

The Christian faith is not a lifelong exercise in kissing the ring of law, hoping we’ve brought enough to the table – it is enjoying and glorifying God knowing we’ve been kissed by His grace and Christ has welcomed us to His table.

Press on,


[1] This article expounds on Galatians 4. To see the implications of Paul’s doctrine most clearly, set aside sometime to read Galatians in one sitting. The 6 chapters should take about 20 minutes, and will be well worth your time to see the flow of the letter.

[2] “You are What You Love” James KA Smith, p.91-92, paraphrased.

One Comment on “Paul to Galatia: Stop Kissing the Ring

  1. Pingback: Links I Like, Vol. 50

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