A few years ago I was asked to visit an elderly couple who desired to be baptized in the church where I served. I went to visit them to discuss this matter, as I always do, and as we also do as a church. On the door was a sign printed in five languages. Although I did not understand the languages, I discerned that “Keep Out” was the essence of the message. After knocking I was cordially invited in and after some small talk, I pursued to the purpose of my visit. “Tell me why you want to be baptized,” I inquired. “Well,” the husband responded, “you see my wife and I are getting along in years. We have done nearly everything we can think of to make certain that we are going to heaven, but we have not yet been baptized. We thought that we would not leave any stone unturned, and so we would like your church to baptize us.”
Needless to say, after trying to make a clear presentation of the gospel, I had to inform this couple that I could not baptize them under such circumstances. To them, baptism was a minor inconvenience but well worth the effort if there was any chance that it would enhance their spiritual well-being.
The Galatian Christians looked at circumcision in a similar light. They viewed it as a ritualistic act, which although painful and inconvenient, was a small price to pay to be more spiritual. There are, of course, significant differences between the circumstances in the Galatian churches of Paul’s day and the situation of this couple. The Galatian saints were saved and wanted only to enhance their spiritual standing. The couple with whom I spoke were not saved, and were trying to earn salvation by the “work” of baptism. Furthermore, baptism is not associated with additional duties and obligations. This couple would be no better off, nor any worse off, for having been baptized.
On the contrary, circumcision for the Galatians carried with it far-reaching consequences which they did not seem to understand. They did not realize that circumcision implied certain binding obligations. It was Paul’s intention in this passage to point out the consequences of circumcision, showing them the high cost. They had everything to lose by it and nothing to gain.
I think we all recognize that circumcision is not an issue for the Christian today. We have our male children circumcised as a cultural practice. (In fact, it appears that the trend may even be reversing.) Falling back into legalism is a particularly grave danger, since it is not signaled by any particular “rite” such as circumcision served for the Galatians. For this reason, we must pay all the more attention to the warning of the apostle.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1, NIV).
Perhaps the finest and most concise summary of the message of this epistle is found in verse 1 of chapter 5. This verse also serves as a transition to the third and final section of the letter. It is an apt conclusion to the argument of chapters 3 and 4, where Paul has shown the superiority of the Abrahamic Covenant to the Mosaic Law and thus of grace to law. Since the Law leads only to bondage, and grace to freedom, it is foolish to seek to return to bondage by placing oneself under the Mosaic Law. In addition, this verse leads us to the goal of the gospel—liberty. Notice that a very similar statement is found in verse 13: “You, my brothers, were called to be free” (NIV). In chapters 1 and 2, Paul has defended himself against the charges leveled against his integrity and authority as an apostle. In chapters 3 and 4, Paul has defended his gospel as that which has historical and theological priority over that of law—works. Paul explains the goal of the gospel in chapters 5 and 6 as true liberty, which includes not only liberty from the Law but also from the bondage of sin.
Because of the crucial importance of verse 1, let us focus our attention on the implications of four of its phrases which deal with the Galatian problem.
The expression “for freedom”95 indicates the goal of the redemptive work of Christ, or, as I have suggested by the message title, “the goal of the gospel.” Christ freed us in order that we might be free. Bondage is the opposite of freedom, and thus since the Law produces bondage, living under it is inconsistent with the gospel. “Stand firm” indicates the diligence and commitment required to maintain our freedom. We have already seen that bondage is the natural condition of men, whether Jew or Gentile (3:10-11, 22-23; 4:3, 8-9, 21-31). Unless we diligently guard our liberty, we will be drawn back into bondage. Paul’s words here help me to understand why spiritual apathy is taken so seriously in the Word of God (cf. Rev. 3:14-22).
“Do not let yourselves be burdened” implies that there is personal accountability for falling back into bondage. It is neither entirely an unconscious choice, nor is such a choice the fault of another. We fall back into bondage because we allow ourselves to do so (cf. Heb. 2:1). Finally, “again” is Paul’s way of equating the evil of the Galatians’ former bondage in their pagan beliefs and practices (cf. Gal. 4:8; Eph. 2:1-3; 1 Cor. 12:2) with the bondage to which they would succumb “under the Law.” This was a shocking statement to the Jew whose attitude is revealed in Galatians 2:15: “We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles.” Nevertheless, Paul teaches that to turn from grace results in bondage. Whether the brand of bondage is Jewish or Gentile is of little consequence.
Let me illustrate how bondage under the Law can be almost synonymous (indicated by the word “again”) with bondage under paganism. Suppose that a European nation was once ruled by a cruel, iron-fisted dictator, then overtaken by Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and later “liberated” by Russian Communism. By whatever name, each regime was merely another form of bondage. Thus, Paul can say that to follow the teaching of the Judaizers was to return “again” to bondage, not precisely the same bondage, but bondage nonetheless.
2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
The Judaizers had busily been at work among the Gentile Galatian churches. They preached a different gospel, claiming a superior spiritual status for all who would live under the Law. Paul’s words suggest that most (if not all) of the Galatian saints had not made a decision to follow the Judaizers when he wrote the epistle. The one issue, one act, which served as a touchstone for the Judaizers and a kind of watershed for the Galatians was circumcision. Paul focuses on this issue in verses 2-6.
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Only at this point in the epistle does Paul directly confront the issue of circumcision,96 preferring to deal with the error of the Judaizers in principle. In very practical terms, Paul points out several fundamental truths concerning circumcision which would give the Galatian saints pause for thought.
(1) Circumcision was commanded (or at least commended) by the Judaizers and contemplated by the Galatian saints. From the account in Acts 15 (vv. 1, 5) and chapter 2 of this epistle, we know that circumcision was a fundamental issue for the Judaizers. The impression which we gain from the context is that some of the saints were considering circumcision, but most, at least, had not yet committed themselves. Paul is thus addressing circumcision as an imminent decision which his readers must make.
(2) Submitting to circumcision was an extremely serious error. There is a solemnity to Paul’s teaching in these verses which is indicated immediately in the words of verse 2, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you …” Paul indicates that submitting to circumcision is a far more serious issue than the Galatian Christians perceive it to be. His introductory words alert them to the urgency of the issue.
What Paul’s introduction implies, his subsequent words make clear. The seriousness of the error is indicated by its consequences. We thus do well to take Paul’s words at full force when he writes, “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (v. 2) and again, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (v. 4).
I am personally convinced that the Scriptures teach the eternal security of the believer, and I do not believe this passage teaches otherwise. Nevertheless, out of a sincere desire to be true to the doctrine of eternal security, some downplayed the sobering impact of these words on the reader, which I believe Paul meant them to have. Paul is trying to shock his readers into a realization of the seriousness of submitting to circumcision which they were contemplating.97 Since the implications of circumcision are pursued in my next point, I will only mention here that circumcision was a serious error in Paul’s estimation.
(3) Seeking circumcision was as serious an error as submitting to it. It is perhaps a hair-splitting matter, but I think it worthwhile to suggest that Paul is rebuking his readers for even contemplating circumcision. Just as an adulterous thought is adultery (Matt. 5:27-28), so deliberating about circumcision is something which distressed Paul. There is a grave possibility of sinning by submitting to circumcision, but there is the present evil of contemplating it.
(4) Circumcision is a serious sin because it puts one back under the Law and thus makes righteousness a matter not of faith, but works. In verse 3 Paul reminds his readers of a fact which the Judaizers had no doubt avoided to mention: circumcision is the rite which testifies to one’s submission to the Old Testament Law. When a Gentile wished to become a Jewish proselyte, he submitted to the rite of circumcision. The Judaizers may not have clearly spelled out the implications of circumcision, but Paul did. One who is circumcised is under obligation to keep the whole Law. A correlation is that the one who is circumcised is thus seeking to establish his righteousness before God by law-keeping and no longer by faith. For this reason Paul can say they have “been severed from Christ” and “have fallen from grace” (v. 4). Circumcision signified a change in the basis of one’s righteousness.
I do not believe that Paul is teaching that the Galatian Christian who submitted to circumcision immediately lost his salvation. He is stressing the implications of circumcision. Circumcision is an acknowledgment that one is placing himself under Law, thereby turning from grace, and setting aside the work of Christ. Paul did not believe the Galatians wanted to enslave themselves under the Law, so he set forth the seriousness of the implications of circumcision.
A week or two ago I attended a luncheon, which was intended to promote a Christian short wave radio network. I think it is a wonderful idea and it was mentioned that a short wave radio was available for each person who attended the meeting. As I picked one up, the fellow who was with me pointed out that the radios were “tokens of appreciation” for all who contributed $500 or more. I quickly returned the radio. I did not understand all that was involved in accepting a radio, just as the Galatians did not comprehend all that was involved in submitting to circumcision. However, when the implications of receiving a radio were made clear, I responded differently. In like manner, Paul hoped that the Galatians would respond negatively to circumcision.
(5) Circumcision betrayed a complete reversal of crucial Christian doctrines. Verses 5 and 6 very forcefully conclude Paul’s arguments against submitting to circumcision. He points out three characteristics of Christian faith and practice which directly oppose the view of the Judaizers. These decisive differences are addressed in the remainder of this epistle, so we will only briefly discuss them in this lesson.
Faith works by means of the Spirit (v. 5). The religion of the Judaizers was not of God, and thus was not empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God works through men of faith, empowering them to live lives which are acceptable in God’s sight.
Faith hopes for ultimate and final righteousness (v. 5). The Judaizers promised complete righteousness in ones’ earthly life, beginning with circumcision and achieved with obedience to the Law. Paul spoke of righteousness coming in completeness in the age to come (cf. 1:4), rather than in the present age. Righteousness, of course, should be manifested in our lives in the present, but not sinlessness. Complete righteousness will be ours when Christ comes to take us from this evil age. The Judaizers looked for full righteousness in the present, Paul, in the future.
Faith works through love (v. 6). The Judaizers believed that righteousness was displayed in outward, physical forms. The scribes and Pharisees before them viewed righteousness also as that which is external (cf. Matt. 6:1-18). The faith of the true believer is manifested through love, a quality obviously lacking in the legalist. The characteristics by which we know God’s people are the “fruit of the Spirit,” beginning with love (cf. Gal. 5:22).
7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. 10 I have confidence in you in the Lord, that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is. 11 But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. 12 Would that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.
In verse 7 Paul’s attention turns from the arguments against circumcision to the advocates of circumcision. He begins in verse 7 by pointing out the lamentable fact that while the Galatian saints had once “run well,” they were no longer doing so. They had somehow been hindered from their obedience to the truth. Verse 8 denies that the source of their change for the worse was from God. This is important, for when Christians turn from truth to error they almost always try to give God the credit. Few fall into error initially by a decision to be disobedient. Rather, they are deceived and thus attempt to show that they have seen a new truth and that their sins are sanctioned by God. Paul gives no time for such excuses. They had turned from the truth, and God was not the author of their error. Instead, their change had come from another source.
It is important to understand that “persuasion” is probably the most effective weapon of the deceiver in turning Christians from truth to error. It would seem that Paul identified the influence of the Judaizers as the leading cause of the Galatian misconception. When the persuasive genius of the Judaizers was combined with the gullibility of the Galatians, error resulted.
In Galatians, as elsewhere, Paul contrasts his straightforwardness in proclaiming the truth of God’s Word with the persuasive techniques of the pagans and false teachers (cf. Gal. 3:1; Eph. 4:15; 5:6; Col. 2:4, 8; 1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1-5; 2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2). The “con artist” always peddles his goods to those who see his wares as a wise acquisition. Whether peddling stolen merchandise in some dark alley or peddling a false gospel, the methods are nearly identical. It is no wonder that an evil way of life is portrayed in the Book of Proverbs as a prostitute selling her wares. The Galatian saints have been persuaded, or to put it more crassly, they have been “conned.”
Verse 9 contains what may have been a well-known proverb, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” We find the same expression in 1 Corinthians 5:6, where Paul uses it to convey how letting a man’s moral sin go unchallenged was a corrupting influence on the entire church. The use of this proverb propounds the same principle: what seems to be a little thing can do a lot of damage. Paul may have two ideas in mind here. First, he may be saying that while there is perhaps only one false teacher among them, he can do a great deal of damage. Second, he may mean that what this teacher is peddling as a minor correction to Paul’s teaching is really a corruption of the gospel. In either of these two ideas, we can see that Paul emphasized what the false Judaizers (and it would seem, the Galatian saints) minimized. Paul sought to show them how much damage a seemingly little thing can do.
In verse 10 we find a strong affirmation of Paul’s confidence in the midst of these distressing circumstances. We need to understand the nature and the basis of Paul’s confidence. First, Paul is confident concerning the final decision of the Galatian Christians. He says that he is assured that they will not adopt a different view, or, we could say, a “different gospel.” Second, Paul is confident that God will deal justly with those Judaizers98 who had caused so much trouble in the Galatian churches.
The source of Paul’s confidence is of critical importance. Paul’s assurance rests in the Lord. Paul is confident of the ultimate decision and destiny of the Galatian saints, for it is God who has called them, and God is faithful to fulfill His purposes. Paul writes of his assurance to the Philippians: “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Likewise, Paul can be confident that God will deal in justice with those who lead others astray: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19; cf. 2 Peter 2).
Verse 11 is somewhat puzzling in some of its particulars, but the principle seems to be clear. Apparently the Judaizers were teaching that Paul himself advocated circumcision. They might have seen, for example, the circumcision of Timothy as support for their case (cf. Acts 16:3). Paul refutes this claim by pointing out that he was still being persecuted. He was ridiculed because he did not preach circumcision. If he continued to preach circumcision, as he had done prior to his salvation, he would not be persecuted. The fact that he was still persecuted proved that he did not, as the Judaizers implied or stated, preach circumcision.
To preach circumcision was to set aside the cross and its offense to the Jew (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 3:1). There was nothing more repulsive to the Jew than to think of Messiah suffering on a cross. No wonder Peter rebuked our Lord for talking of such a thing (cf. Matt. 16:13-23). On an individual basis, the cross is an offense to human pride. If I must believe in the death of Messiah on a Roman cross, a death suffered in my place, then I must also admit that I deserved such a death (cp. Gal. 2:15-21). The cross is the measure of my sin and of my utter inability to be justified in God’s sight by my own deeds. To cease to preach circumcision (which was promoted by the Judaizers as a means of being righteous) was to seek to minimize the offense of the cross. This was precisely why the Judaizers so aggressively promoted circumcision (cf. Gal. 6:12).
Verse 12 is looked upon by some as a crude piece of sarcasm. This is hardly the case. Paul’s purpose is to press the error of the Judaizers to its illogical and unacceptable conclusion. The Judaizers had emphasized circumcision more than the Old Testament Law had. The mentality of the Judaizers was that the cutting off of a little flesh was commendable and pleasing in God’s sight. In short, they taught that circumcision contributed to a man’s righteousness. If this were really true, Paul queries, then why not press the matter even further? If cutting off a little flesh is good, cutting off much flesh is even better. Why not be so pious as to castrate oneself?
Now this is a bit extreme for even the Judaizer. First, the Old Testament Law forbade a castrated man from entering the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:1). No Jew would ever have considered going this far. In addition, well known to the Galatian saints was the pagan ritual of the priests of Cybele in which they castrated themselves. To go to this extent was to imitate the heathen. From the Old Testament Scriptures and contemporary culture, the Galatians would recognize castration as too extreme, and yet it was the logical extension of their doctrine. As this illustration graphically reveals, the horrifying thought of castration was intended to show the Galatians that the Judaizers had gone too far.
There are several levels of application which this passage has for Christians in our day and age. Let us conclude by a consideration of the application of the text to our lives.
(1) Our passage condemns a return to the Old Testament Law as our rule of life. The first level of application is the most direct. While the Old Testament provides a standard for righteousness, it does not provide us with the means of meeting this standard. In the day of the Galatian saints, circumcision was a commitment to return to the rule of the Law. For this reason, circumcision was condemned. Today, while circumcision does not have the same implications for Gentile Christians, there are still those who would have us return to living under the Old Testament Law as the Judaizers taught. We must beware of any return to the Law in this sense.
Let me hasten to say that this principle does not cast the Old Testament aside. Both our Lord and the New Testament writers relied heavily on the Old Testament, including the Law. We have much to learn from the Law, but we dare not turn back the clock and attempt to live under the Law as men did before the cross.
We must remember that Paul is not trying to give a full exposition on the merits and use of the Old Testament Law in Galatians—he is attempting to refute a serious error which sought to misuse the Law. We must always interpret Paul’s words in this book in the light of his argument. I would encourage each reader to engage in a fuller study of the merits of the Old Testament and the Mosaic Law, so long as they distinguish between the Law as a means of edification and the Law as a means of justification (or sanctification).
(2) This text condemns any teaching which portrays a particular act as producing in the believer a “quantum leap” in his spiritual status. Some today teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. To those who hold this doctrine, salvation cannot be obtained other than by means of baptism. Apart from changing the rite from circumcision to baptism, this teaching does not differ from that of the Judaizers (cf. Acts 15:1,5). There are other “rites” or “rituals” which fall into this same category, I believe, including the experiences related to the “second blessing.” Let us beware of viewing some “rite” as the passageway into a higher spiritual standing.
(3) Our passage provides us with some very helpful principles for correcting an erring brother. We know from other texts that rebuke is the obligation of the Christian (cf. Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1-2). Paul’s actions give us several guidelines for correction. First, we learn that rebuke should not be delayed. Paul did not wait until the Galatians had submitted to circumcision; he warned them before such an error occurred. If it is better to “keep out” of sin than to “get out,” correction should not be delayed. Second, we learn that godly correction points out the implications and consequences of one’s actions. In Proverbs we are told that the wise man will consider the consequences of his deeds and will act according to wisdom (cf. Prov. 22:3). Paul thus points out the consequences of following the doctrine of the Judaizers. Third, correction never minimizes the seriousness of sin. We often tend to play down the seriousness of sin, but Paul emphasized it. There is grave danger in following false doctrine; Paul was emphatic on this point. Fourth, we learn from Paul to correct in confidence. He emphasized the foolishness of following the Judaizers (e.g. 3:1) and the seriousness of submitting to circumcision, and yet he was not fearful of failing in his task. Paul’s assurance was based in the Lord, and he knew that the God of the Galatians would finish the good work He had started in them.
(4) This passage instructs us about the value of foresight. We have seen how the previous chapters in Galatians looked backward, while in chapter 5 Paul begins to look ahead. There are several ways in which looking forward can and should be adopted by the Christian. First, we should exercise foresight in the goals which God has for our lives. Far too often Christians are in a dither to know God’s will for them in some particular area and have forgotten the central focus of God’s will for them in general. God’s will for us is that we be holy and sanctified (cf. 1 Thes. 4:3). Paul speaks of this goal particularly in respect to our sexual purity. If we are conscious of this broad goal, we need not agonize about God’s will on a particular matter when the outcome would be immorality. I personally believe that Christians in this generation have become obsessed with the particulars, because they have neglected the principles; we have become fascinated with guidance because we have lost sight of our goals. If our text stresses anything, it is that God’s goals for our lives should serve as guideposts. If God had called the Galatians for liberty, why would He possibly lead them into bondage again?
A second way of looking ahead is to consider the implications of our actions. Paul saw that Peter’s actions were a denial of the gospel and thus he rebuked him (Gal. 2:11-21). Paul saw that the Galatians’ contemplated action (circumcision) was also a departure from the gospel and from the freedom it was intended to produce. It is very important that we consider the implications of our actions. This is foresight.
Perhaps you have never considered the eternal implication of your response to Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that all men (this includes you) are sinners, deserving and destined to eternal separation from Him in hell. The Bible also teaches that God has provided men with a solution to their problem of sin and its consequence of death. Jesus Christ, God’s sinless Son, came to the earth, lived a perfect life, and died on a Roman cross. He did this in our place, so that everyone who accepts Him has already died to sin and its consequences, and may thus be accepted by God in Christ’s righteousness. To neglect this provision is to commit the most serious error of all and to await eternal judgment. May God enable you to trust in His Son, even now.
For those of us who are saved, may God enable us to consider the implications for our lives of the goals which God has for us, and may we also consider the implications of our actions in the light of these goals.
95 There are various ways in which the original text could be rendered. I have followed that chosen by the translators of the NIV. For an extensive summary of the options and technical problems involved, cf. Earnest De Witt Burton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1971 [reprint]), pp. 270-272.
97 Concerning verse 2, Burton writes, “The form of the conditional clause …, referring to a future possibility, reflects the fact that the question whether they will be circumcised is still pending.” Burton, p. 273.
98 In verse 10 Paul speaks of the false teacher or teachers as “the one who is disturbing you” and “whoever he is.” One might get the impression that there is but one false teacher and that Paul didn’t know his name. This is possible, but it hardly seems likely. Paul had been aware of this problem for a time and he seemed to know what was going on in churches, even though he was absent (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-12; Phil. 4:2-3). Paul may thus be avoiding mentioning the names of those involved, for there may be some who are unknown to him. Let the false teachers be discerned by their doctrine and their deeds. “Whoever he is” may speak of the individual’s rank or position, not of his identity. In effect, Paul would be saying, “God will deal with this person in judgment, no matter how high his position, nor how highly he is esteemed by others.” There may be an additional nuance to the expression “whoever he is,” which very nicely fits the context of the passage. If Paul’s confidence is in the Lord, who will judge false teachers, then Paul does not need to know who the individual(s) is.