If Paul’s letter to the Galatians is aimed at refuting Jewish Christians who are attempting to nationalize the gospel rather than introduce an individual legalism, then why does Paul regularly introduce arguments that sound legalistic (2:15-16, 3:10-12, 5:1-4)? I’ve dealt with 2:15-16 in a previous post here, so let me address his remarks in 3:10-12.
Part of appreciating what Paul is doing in Galatians has to do with understanding his vocabulary. “Faith” is used by him (at times) to refer to the Christian era rather than the act of trusting in God (McGuiggan). We see this in 3:23 when he says “Before the coming of faith” and in v. 25 it’s “now that faith has come.” He’s not referring to a time when people didn’t have faith in God (if there ever was such an occasion)—he’s using “faith” to refer to the new arrangement brought in through Christ.
In the same way, “works of law” and “the law” are often Paul’s wholesale way of referring to Judaism that flowed from the Torah rather than just the legal aspects of the Torah. It’s difficult for us to think of these phrases in this way because we’re accustomed to looking at Galatians through the lens introduced by Luther. He was combatting the legalism of the Catholic Church. Consequently, he understood the references to the Torah in Galatians and Romans in light of the legalism around him.
But Paul isn’t looking at the situation in Galatia through the lens of a 15th century reformer—he’s seeing it through the eyes of a former Jewish nationalist who has become an apostle of Jesus to the Gentiles. And what we’ve understood to be addressing legalism isn’t. For example, when he says the law is not “based on faith” (3:12), he is not saying that those who obeyed the Torah were trusting in their obedience to set them right with God. He is saying that the Jewish system was designed for the nation of Israel (“The person who does these things will live” is referring to a Jewish person—the people to whom the Torah was given). Because it wasn’t inclusive of all nations, and it wasn’t the new era in Christ—it wasn’t “of faith.”
Though there are exceptions (possibly the tax collector Jesus talked about in Luke 18:9ff), I think it’s a fair statement to say that the Jewish mindset Paul is dealing with is one where they trusted in who they were more than what they did. There’s a difference between trusting in your status as a Jewish person (descendant of Abraham) and trusting in your raw obedience as a Jewish person. One is national and the other is individual. Look at Paul’s resume before coming to Christ in Philippians 3:3-6 and see if it doesn’t fit in this category. Then ask yourself this: do the Jewish people of the Old Testament or New Testament strike you as people who were perfectionists or as people who thought that because of their status God would overlook their imperfections?
Having said that, it’s nonetheless true that what Paul says to combat nationalism is very much the kind of thing we’d expect him to say if he were opposing legalism (i.e., the juxtaposing of law and grace, flesh and Spirit, works and faith). We do know that the Torah placed a great deal of emphasis on the visible and fleshly (the tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrifices, etc.). A big part of the Galatian situation has to do with the issue of Gentile disciples submitting to circumcision to become part of Israel.
There’s two points here. The first is that Paul’s terminology in Galatians fits not only with legalism but also the Jewish nationalism that focused on the flesh, law, and works like circumcision and dietary laws. The other point is this same type of speech is used in places like John 3 (Nicodemus), John 4 (the Samaritan woman), and the book of Hebrews where legalism is not under consideration. We therefore have a precedent for this type of speech being understood as something other than addressing legalism.