Circumcision vs. a 'New Creation' in Christ
"Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation" (Galatians 6:15, NIV).
The Jewish practice of requiring gentiles (non-Jews) to be circumcised to be accepted into their fellowship threatened the unity of the early Church. The apostles held a special conference at Jerusalem to address that issue so that the right perspective of justification through faith in and of Christ would not be distorted.
In a letter sent to gentile congregations at the end of that conference, the apostles confirmed in writing that they were all in agreement on this matter. They explained, "We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said" (Acts 15:24, NIV).
Those disturbing the churches in Antioch and other areas tried to convince Christian gentiles that "unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (verse 1, NIV).
The New Testament talks about a circumcision of the heart. But even Moses had long before prophesied: "Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:6, NASB).
Paul also confirms this, writing that "he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God" (Romans 2:29, NASB). Thus, true Jews—true Christians—are those who are circumcised spiritually, with the rebellious spirit of the human mind resisted, suppressed and subdued in obedience to God through His Spirit.
Of those who insisted that believing gentiles should observe the outwardly symbolic aspects of the law, many were motivated by a desire for harmony with the non-Christian Jewish community. But as was covered in chapter 2, those aspects of the law are no longer required. The book of Hebrews explains this thoroughly. But that epistle had not yet been written when the issue of circumcision of gentiles led to a crisis in Galatia.
Paul emphasizes the importance of Christ's death
In addressing this same matter, Paul explained to the Galatians: "As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ" (Galatians 6:12).
In the early New Testament Church, certain false teachers attempted to persuade gentile converts that they could not be justified (have their sins forgiven) by simply repenting, believing the gospel, and accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.
Instead, they were teaching that justification was possible only if they were physically circumcised and adhered to other temporary laws that were given at Mt. Sinai. The apostles rejected this argument categorically. Paul forcefully argued against it in his letter to the Galatians.
The gentile Christians in the province of Galatia were being enticed to accept circumcision so that fellowship barriers between them and the Jews would be dropped. Jews limited their interaction with gentiles to mostly business activities. Eating together at the same table was banned. Even Peter at first hesitated to go against this taboo (Acts 10:25-29).
Whoever was enticing the Galatians argued that circumcision is essential to be fully accepted among God's people (the Jews). Circumcision would have opened the fellowship door for gentiles to the entire Jewish community. It also would have removed much of the tension between the Christians and the nonbelieving Jews.
But trying to resolve that issue with circumcision threatened to create a much greater identity issue. Physical circumcision only identified the Jews as natural descendants of Abraham. God was offering Jews and gentiles alike both justification and salvation as His children through Jesus Christ, not through fleshly circumcision. Protecting their properly perceived identity as the justified children of God was what was at stake.
Therefore, the purpose of Paul's letter to the Galatians was to make it clear that becoming adopted descendants of Judah (the great-grandson of Abraham from whom the term Jewis derived) through circumcision offered the gentiles nothing in regard to salvation. Even circumcised Jews had to be justified through the blood of Christ and afterward live a Spirit-led life.
Nevertheless, many of the Christian gentiles in Galatia were impressed (or intimidated by) the circumcision argument. They saw it as a reasonable way to change their ambiguous social identity as neither idolaters nor Jews.
God inspired Paul to see the whole picture very differently. What the Galatian gentiles were being enticed to accept would have changed their entire perception of how important Christ's sacrifice was to them. It would have clouded their understanding that justification is by the grace of God through faith in Christ's shed blood and the faithful obedience that comes through Christ's indwelling by the Holy Spirit.
Paul perceived that this change would have tacitly presented circumcision and diligent obedience to the law as the way to obtain eternal life. It threatened to undercut their faith in Christ as their Savior and Redeemer. It could have obscured the fact that by justification through faith they had already obtained a better identity as the children of God and heirs to the promise made directly to Abraham than they could ever obtain through physical circumcision.
His point was, they did not need to be adopted as Jews to become "sons of God" (Galatians 3:26) and receive eternal life.
Justification is not "through the law"
Paul responded, "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing" (Galatians 2:21, NRSV). Perceiving obedience to law through physical means (including the circumcision law) as a way of justification would imply that faith in and of Christ as our Redeemer and Savior is unnecessary or insufficient.
In effect, it would have shifted justification from the realm of mercy and empowerment through faith to the realm of lawful debt—to what could be earned through diligent natural effort in obedience. That would have ignored the fact that Scripture declares that all mankind is "under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe" (Galatians 3:22, KJV).
After having sinned, the most diligent attention to the observance of law—any law—that one could possibly achieve could never earn forgiveness.
The miracle of a "new creation"
We must, as Paul, emphasize that the New Covenant is about circumcising the heart—becoming a "new creation" in Christ. It is the miracle of God writing His law in our hearts and minds through the gift of the Holy Spirit, not through physical circumcision.
So how is the Holy Spirit to be received? That was made clear at the beginning of the Church—on the day the Holy Spirit was first given to the disciples.
"Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:38).
No works of any kind can earn for us the remission of sins or the gift of the Holy Spirit! Though conditioned on repentance and faith, both are nonetheless gifts of mercy as a result of Christ's sacrifice for us.
Therefore, Paul goes straight to the heart of the matter: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh [i.e., circumcision]?" (Galatians 3:1-2, NRSV).
Accepting the need for physical circumcision, and possibly other ceremonial works of law, would have been a tacit denial of the sufficiency of justification through Christ. It would have substituted physical "works of law" for His sacrifice and help.
The law is not the issue
The issue was not whether the law of God is good or bad. It was whether keeping that law can earn forgiveness of sin and eternal life and whether human effort can even meet God's requirements of true obedience. Paul's point was that by "works of the law" one earns nothing in regard to justification. The very idea that one could earn personal forgiveness and salvation is absurd.
The law defines sin and sets the penalty for it. That has never changed. But the law does not and cannot forgive sin. It provides no way to buy back or reclaim innocence after one commits sin.
So Paul explains that, once transgressions have been committed, it is futile to seek forgiveness and justification through the "works of the law"—because "as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them'" (Galatians 3:10).
Notice that the curse—the penalty of death—is placed on those who fail to do everything in the law. The law itself is not the curse. The law demands the curse of death for all who are disobedient, not for anyone who has always been obedient—as was Jesus Christ! The curse (death) falls not on someone who keeps the law, but on those who break it (be sure to read "The 'Curse of the Law'" on page 69).
The spiritual guilt and resultant death penalty for all of humanity was placed on our Savior, Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Christ allows us to be forgiven of our sins and justified. Forgiveness comes not from any works that we do because He, who alone never sinned, bore that " curse" of death that we have earned with our sins. Unless we repent—quit sinning (John 8:11)—we will perish (Luke 13:3, 5).
We are crucified with Christ
If we repent with faith that Christ died in our place, Paul explains that we are considered "crucified" with Him. "For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:19-20, KJV).
That Jesus Christ had to pay the death penalty the law demands for transgressions shows that God still regards His law as binding. Its conditions had to be met.
Jesus met the law's punitive requirement in our place so that God's grace could be made available to us. Therefore, continues Paul, "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing" (verse 21, NRSV).
Paul's conclusion is based on these essential truths:
Once the death penalty is incurred, law cannot release those who are guilty from that penalty.
Therefore, Jesus Christ bore the death penalty for our transgressions at His crucifixion.
Once we acknowledge through repentance that we have sinned, if we have faith in Christ's death as lawful payment for the death penalty we deserve and commit to now obeying Him with His help, then God reckons us as having "died to the Law"—and, therefore, reconciled to Him.
For us to be reckoned dead to the law, the law must still be in force. Justification would be meaningless if no law existed to be transgressed.
Only by having our death penalty forgiven may we become "children of God" and "joint heirs with Christ" of the eternal promise made to Abraham (Romans 8:16-17).
Circumcision was merely the physical sign that identified the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh. Though it had symbolic value for the people of Israel, it provides nothing for justification and is of no use in the cancellation of guilt.
Therefore, the attraction that some of the Galatians had for the offer of circumcision to solve their relationship problem with the Jewish community—primarily not to "suffer persecution for the cross of Christ" (Galatians 6:12)—was about to threaten their relationship with God.
It was misleading them concerning what is really important to being accepted as His holy people. That acceptance cannot be earned by any "works of the law"—and certainly not by circumcision.
The social context of Galatians 3
Some of Paul's reasoning in the third chapter of Galatians is closely linked to the analogy he constructs in chapter 4.
A minor son of a Roman estate owner was not acknowledged as his heir until the owner officially declared the child's kinship to him later in life. A minor boy's family status was little different from that of a trusted family slave.
The boy was probably treated very well, but legally he had few rights. A custodian (often an adult slave) was set over him as his guide and trainer in self-discipline. His custodian also guarded him as he went to and from the locations where he would receive his more formal schooling.
Paul compares such a minor son's family status to that of a slave (Galatians 4:1). His ultimate status in regard to the family inheritance was to be determined at a later date.
Physically the people of Israel were the sons of Abraham and potential heirs of the promise God gave to him. But their transgressions had put them in a state of bondage to sin. It brought on them the death penalty—invalidating their immediate claim to the eternal inheritance God had promised to Abraham through his righteous Seed, Jesus Christ.
It put them in need of a way to be forgiven—to be justified and remain justified. For a limited period of time—until Christ would come and offer His life for their sins (and for the sins of all people)—they were given a temporary "custodian." This custodian—the rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices—richly typified Christ.
For them or anyone else to inherit eternal life, they must become the "sons of God through faith" (Galatians 3:26). This is done through what the Scriptures refer to as justification—being made right with God through the cleansing of an unjust past and receiving the spiritual help needed to obey from the heart. That is Paul's focus in the book of Galatians.
The temporary law as Israel's custodial guard
When God established the people of Israel as a nation, He did not immediately free them from their bondage to sin. But He did put them under a "custodian" to guard them from totally abandoning hope in the future redemption promised Abraham and his descendants.
Therefore, Paul begins comparing the instructive body of Levitical, ritualistic, ceremonial, sacrificial, temple-based law (which began to be received at Mt. Sinai and which included circumcision) to the promise given to Abraham. That system of law became their custodial guardian in much the same way the custodian described above guarded an estate owner's son.
For example, Hebrews 10:1 speaks of "the law" that is no longer necessary: "For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect."
While the general term "the law" is used in this verse, the context clearly shows that the reference is only to the specific category of the sacrificial law.
The major purpose of the book of Galatians is to explain that justification, becoming right with God, does not come by human effort alone. Works of law—any law, whether of man or God—cannot save us. Only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can forgive sins and justify us. And only Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit can keep us right with God.
The book of Hebrews gives this same explanation: "For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
"And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance" (Hebrews 9:13-15).
Sacrifices could only render purification in a physical and communal sense. They could not forgive sins in the spiritual sense of the word. True spiritual redemption and forgiveness of sins comes only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The fact that animal sacrifices are no longer needed has no bearing on the underlying spiritual laws of God, which are still necessary and required.
As Hebrews 8:7-10 states: "For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: 'Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord.
"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'"
Under the former covenant, God spelled out penalties for disobedience. And He gave them symbolic reminders that they would need a sacrifice (Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of their sins.
What is included in the "law of God"?
Paul refers to "the whole law" in Galatians 5:3. It was not limited to just the spiritual principles that define sin.
In it are three main categories of laws that were codified for Israel at Sinai. Each category serves different objectives.
First, the law contains the Ten Commandments and many other commands, precepts, statutes and judgments that permanently distinguish righteousness from sin. These laws reflect God's divine nature of outgoing love (compare 2 Peter 1:4; Matthew 22:37-40). The fundamental principles were known by God's servants long before Moses (be sure to read "Did the Ten Commandments Exist Before Moses?" beginning on page 28.)
This category of law was not temporary. It did not originate at Sinai and did not end with Jesus Christ's sacrifice. The laws in this category, including the Ten Commandments and other regulations of daily spiritual life, are "holy and just and good," and Paul said that with his heart he "served" them (Romans 7:12, 14, 25).
Second, "the whole law" contains symbolic regulations pointing to Christ's role in solving humanity's problem with sin. These physical sacrifices, offerings and ceremonies filled a temporary need. And they did it very well! Yet their observance is no longer required. Hebrews 9:9-10 explains this clearly. Jesus became the sacrifice for sin they represented.
Third, the law had regulations that enabled the administration of governance in ancient Israel. Ordinances setting punishments for specific transgressions fall into this category. Such national ordinances—though given to a people not yet having received the Holy Spirit—are still useful as examples of good, sound and godly judgment.
As Paul explained to Timothy, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16). Those ancient writings are filled with principles and examples that explain and illustrate righteous behavior. This is one of the reasons Jesus said, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God" (Luke 4:4).
The reason for the Sinai Covenant
Paul wanted the Galatians to understand a major purpose for the Sinai Covenant, particularly the entire body of temporary law given with it. That purpose was to prepare the people of Israel for genuine repentance and justification through Christ at a later time.
Therefore, many temporary features were given to them through Moses. Those symbolic features served as a "reminder" of guilt and the need for redemption, but they could not "take away sins" (Hebrews 10:1-4).
They kept the Israelites constantly aware of their need for a Redeemer. In the writings of later prophets, God revealed much more information about that future Redeemer.
Those symbolic and temporary aspects of law were necessary for the duration of the time covered by the Sinai Covenant. But with the coming of the Redeemer—who is both the Savior and High Priest of all who are redeemed—they are no longer required. "For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well" (Hebrews 7:12, NRSV).
That partial change in the law (not a rejection of the eternal aspect of law itself) included only limited features within the entirety of what was spoken at Sinai.
The New Covenant's primary focus is to provide forgiveness for sin (as foreshadowed in the Sinai Covenant) and to create righteous thinking and will to act accordingly in the inner person. It accomplishes this by writing the same fundamentals of the spiritual and unchanging "law" given to Moses in the heart and mind rather than on merely external objects such as tablets of stone.
It also provides the gift of the Holy Spirit—for "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). The Holy Spirit supplies the internal motivation and drive needed to obey those laws of God that distinguish good from evil (Romans 8:7-9).
Abraham's example of faith
In both covenants, God's law defines sin and contrasts it with righteousness. But law does not and cannot forgive sin. To make this point clear, Paul gives the Galatians a history lesson.
He refers back to the covenant made with Abraham—the foundation on which both the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant are based. That covenant contained the "promise" that Abraham's "Seed" would obey God perfectly so as to qualify in all respects as the Redeemer of "all the families of the earth" (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:7-8, 29).
Since Jesus Christ is that Redeemer, it is only though faith in and of Him—and not merely through attempting on one's own to obey "works of law"—that deliverance from sin's penalty and from sin itself is made possible. Abraham's faith is offered as the prime example we should emulate in this regard.
"It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith" (Romans 4:13, NIV). Of course, that faith was coupled with and demonstrated by Abraham's obedience.
Paul is making the point that since "a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Galatians 2:16, KJV). He continues, "For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise" (Galatians 3:18).
To grasp all that Paul is saying, we must understand both aspects of justification. In some places Paul's focus is on reconciliation—dealing with "sins that were previously committed" (Romans 3:25), the emphasis being on the blotting out of transgressions through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. In other places he focuses on remaining justified through continued obedience—also possible only through Christ.
The law's purpose
Since justification did not come through the legal system given to ancient Israel , Paul asks, "What purpose then does the law [its temporary and "custodial" aspects] serve?" In the same verse he answers: "It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator" (Galatians 3:19).
Without the preexisting, unchanging law of God there could be no transgressions or sins—hence no guilt and no need for forgiveness and justification or a Savior. Therefore, in addition to explaining righteousness, the law of God also defines and condemns transgressions. Because of transgressions of preexisting law, the sacrificial and ceremonial laws were added as merely temporary and disciplinary reminders of sin, as Jeremiah 7:21-23 makes clear.
The promises made to Abraham were spiritual and are the same promises made to the people of God today, to those who have repented and received the Holy Spirit. God's people today, just as righteous Abraham (see Genesis 26:5), must keep the unchanging law of God that defines sin—though it cannot forgive sin.
The sacrificial and priestly aspects of the law symbolized the redemption from guilt that Christ's shed blood would make available in the future. But now, because He has been sacrificed as the true "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), those mere symbolic aspects of law are no longer required.
The law's principles of governance taught the people of Israel to look to God as their supreme Ruler. When Jesus Christ returns, He will again establish these aspects of divine rule, but this time over all the earth as the " King of kings" (Revelation 17:14; 19:19-21). Righteous governance, with many similarities to the administrative system given to ancient Israel, will then be applied to all peoples and nations (Isaiah 2:2-4).
As noted earlier, "It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith" (Romans 4:13, NIV)—which includes forgiveness of sins and empowerment to fully obey God. Therefore, since Jesus Christ is our Redeemer and Savior, it is only though the gift of faith that we may receive, from God through Christ, deliverance from sin and its consequences (Ephesians 2:8).
Galatians 3:19: "Added . . . till the Seed should come"
To underscore the importance of Christ's role in redemption, Galatians 3:19 notes that (temporary) law "was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made . . ."
Once Christ came and died for those transgressions, justification by grace through faith became available to all who believe and repent.
That justification did not become available through circumcision as a reward earned by "works of law." It is available only as a gift—through faith— just as Abraham was justified by faith. The sacrificial, ceremonial aspects of the law given at Sinai were indeed made unnecessary once Christ (the "Seed") had come. But the eternal, spiritual "royal law" of God (James 2:8) continues for Christians today.
Regrettably, many twist Paul's words out of context to contradict statements he himself made.
In Romans 2:13 Paul says emphatically, "Not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified." Justification is not even available to those who refuse to be "doers" of the law—that is, the spiritual and eternal law of God.
An important prerequisite for forgiveness and empowerment through justification is repentance (Acts 2:38), which includes not merely sorrow over past lawbreaking but commitment to obey God's law from that point forward.
Only then may one receive the Holy Spirit that provides the "power and love and self-control" needed to overcome sin (2 Timothy 1:7, New Century Version). The fact that justification is given only to the "doers" of God's spiritual law makes His law essential to that process.
Because no one can earn forgiveness by "works" or "deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28-30) and no one can succeed in full obedience to God on his own, Paul asks, "Do we then make void the law through faith?" His answer: "Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law" (verse 31).
Even in Galatians 3:21 Paul plainly confirms that the law and the promise don't oppose but support one another: "Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law."
The law and the promise each have a role in "bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10). But each role is distinct.
The law explains righteousness and condemns sin. And the symbolic aspects of the law looked forward to redemption. But a pardon for sin is available only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the promised Redeemer.
To achieve the objective of the New Covenant, God's great spiritual laws must be written in the hearts and minds of those who are pardoned and redeemed so they will have the character to serve Him faithfully for all eternity (Hebrews 10:16).
But before that can happen, the justice of God first has to be satisfied through justification by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
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