We are very much in a time in our culture where we want the answer quickly. We do not want the details. We do not want an explanation. We just want the quick facts. The information must be given to us in 140 characters or less. It is in the fifth chapter that we see the apostle Paul boil it all down for the Christians in the Galatian region. Paul is going to explain what counts in being a Christian and the effect of what they are doing if they listen to these agitators.
The Impact of Circumcision (5:1-4)
We noticed in the last lesson that we have been called to freedom and must not submit to the yoke of slavery (5:1). The Galatian Christians had left the slavery of pagan idols, were set free in Christ, but now are enslaving themselves by turning to the Law of Moses for justification. Paul explains this with clarity in verse 2.
If they accept circumcision, then Christ has no value or benefit to them. This is an amazing statement which contrasts what the agitators were teaching. Listen to Acts 15:1, “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'” (Acts 15:1 ESV) They said you must be circumcised to be saved. Paul says that if you are circumcised you have lost all the benefits that come with Christ. All the advantages and benefits found in Christ are lost if they are circumcised. In verse 3 Paul explains why the value of Christ is lost in circumcision. They are obligating themselves to keep the whole law. A person is allowed to be circumcised by personal choice. But if a person is trying to be justified by circumcision, then the person must keep all the law and its requirements. A person cannot pick out one law by which to declare one justified. One is under obligation to keep all the law if you are trying to find justification through the law. As we have noticed many times in Paul’s arguments, the purpose of the law was not to justify people but to show people that they need to put their hope in God because the law cannot justify. We have an important reminder for us that we cannot add something to the gospel and still remain in Christ. We cannot do what we like and remain in Christ. We lose all the benefits of Christ as soon as we change any aspect of the gospel.
Paul states the problem even more dramatically in verse 4. To submit to circumcision means you are severed from Christ. Not only are you severed from Christ but you have fallen away from grace. That is a frightening declaration. If they choose to be justified by the law by being circumcised then they are no longer with Christ and no longer have the grace of God. It is important for us to consider that there is a way to separate ourselves from the grace of God. This very apostle argued that nothing could separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:35-39). But there is something that these Christians are doing that would mean they are severed from Christ and fallen away from grace: relying on self for justification. When you no longer depend on the grace of God you have fallen away from his grace. Justification is not by what we do, but by grace. When I try to earn my salvation then I have fallen from his grace. This is why Jesus begins his sermon on the mount that it is the poor in spirit who are blessed and possess the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). This is why God says twice that he resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). Why do the humble receive grace? They understand their sinfulness and are not trying to justify themselves. They are putting their trust in God to save.
What Counts (5:5-6)
Therefore, Paul says that by faith through the Spirit we wait for the hope of righteousness. We are not waiting for the hope of righteous by works through the law. It is not even by faith in our flesh or in our obedience to the law. Our hope is by faith through the Spirit. Righteousness is not something that we can do for ourselves. Our hope is not in our own righteousness but in the righteousness that God will declare upon us, even though we are sinful and condemned. We do not eagerly try to achieve our righteousness. We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. This is our faith in God to declare us righteous on the final day because Jesus has died for our sins. Therefore we humbly wait for this hope.
Paul sums up by telling us what counts. Circumcision does not count. Uncircumcision does not count. These kinds of outward acts to try to find justification count for nothing. These things have no power for salvation. There is no spiritual benefit in these actions. Here is what counts: faith working through love. This is the only thing that counts according to the apostle Paul. Faith in our salvation in Jesus changes everything about how we live. Notice that it is not just faith because faith alone is not true, saving faith. True faith is faith that works through loves. Our faith in Jesus saving us from our sins will be exhibited by our actions. What counts in Christ is observable faith. What matters in Christ is life-changing faith. If we truly have faith in God saving us through Christ, then that must energize our actions. Faith energizes love. When I see what God has done for me, to take a sinful person who cannot save himself and pronounce him justified, then that energizes my life to live for him and act in love toward him and toward others. People will ask what is the minimum they must do to be saved or belong to Christ. Here is an excellent answer: faith working through love. There is not one thing you can do. Rather, daily faith in Christ works through love daily.
Run Well (5:7-12)
Paul notes that these Christians were running well. But now someone has cut in on them so that they are no longer running well. The NIV captures the double meaning well. “Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7 NIV) They were running well but are no longer obeying the truth. Our faith is pictured as a marathon with the finish line at Christ’s return. The direction they are now running is not from God who called them. They were running well but they need to finish well. These agitators have cut in on them, keeping them from running the race well.
Verse 9 contains the warning. False teaching is like a spreading infection. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” False teaching about the gospel spreads easily and quickly. This is certainly true concerning this false teaching. To try to depend on yourself for justification is an easy false teaching to accept. We can build a whole church on a false teaching to rely upon your own good deeds for your salvation. We can scare people to obedience by constantly teaching only about all the things you have to do and how you can never know if you are saved if you sin. We can undermine New Testament texts like 1 John which were written so that you would know that you have eternal life. But the law is to show us our need for faith in Jesus and to depend on the grace of God. The sacrifice of Christ is to move us toward obedience and life transformation. But we are not to look to our own actions as the means of justification. This is the error the Christians in the Galatian region have fallen into. Paul tells them that those who taught them this way will bear the penalty for their false teaching. But they must not follow that view but maintain the view Paul has taught in this letter (5:10). One of the reasons I wanted to teach through Galatians is so that we would see what Paul teaches as the truth of the gospel so that we would not fall into this error as others have.
To prove that Paul is not preaching circumcision, he simply asks why he is being persecuted if he was preaching the necessity of circumcision? If Paul was going around preaching the necessity to keep the Law of Moses and maintain the works of the law, he would not have been persecuted by the Jews in nearly every city. Obviously Paul is not teaching justification by the works of the Law. So upset by the fact that he has been misrepresented and that these Christians are turning away from the truth, Paul declares that he wishes those who are agitating them would cut themselves off. Once again we see that Paul is not trying to please people. Paul wishes these agitators who want these Gentile Christians to be circumcised would make the knife cut all the way on themselves!
This is a powerful attitude against these false teachers. We must see false teaching as dangerous and those who promote false teaching as dangerous. This is why the scriptures warn to watch out for the wolves among them (Acts 20:29-30). God said to watch out and avoid those who cause divisions and create obstacles to the gospel (Romans 16:17). The spread of false teaching cannot be allowed in a local church. It spreads like a disease and therefore must be cut out quickly. This is why Paul stood against Peter before them all. Actions and teachings that lead people away from the glorious truth of the gospel must be rejected and cut out.
As we conclude I want to bring our attention back to verse 5. We are to wait eagerly for the hope of righteousness which is by faith in Jesus. That faith in Jesus expresses itself in love. The apostle Paul will call this faith that expresses itself through love “the fruit of the Spirit” in the next paragraph (5:22). Make your hope in God, not yourself. Let your faith be seen as it expresses itself in love for God and for others. We have been set free from our sins to love and serve God and others. We are free to hope in God, not fear in God, because Jesus has set us free.