A Commentary by John Stott
Is the essence of the Christian religion outward or inward? We must answer that Christianity is fundamentally not a religion of external ceremonies, but something inward and spiritual, in the heart.
But the Judaizers concentrated on something outward, namely on circumcision. In verses 12 and 13, they are described not only as ‘those who receive circumcision’ themselves, but as those who ‘would compel you to be circumcised’ or (NEB) ‘are trying to force circumcision upon you’. It is with justice that they are sometimes called ‘the circumcision party’. Several times in these pages we have considered their party-cry, ‘unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1); they thus denied that salvation was by faith only.
Why did they do this? Paul is very outspoken. Verse 12: they *want to make a good showing in the flesh* or (NEB) ‘to make a fair outward and bodily show’. Verse 13:…*That they may glory in your flesh*. Notice the repetition of the word ‘flesh’. Circumcision was performed on the body. It is quite true that God gave it to Abraham as a sign of His covenant. But in itself it was nothing. Yet the Judaizers were elevating it to an ordinance of central importance, insisting that without it nobody could be saved. But how could an outward and bodily operation secure the salvation of the soul or be an indispensable condition of salvation? It was palpably ridiculous.
Yet the same mistake is made today but those who attach an exaggerated importance to baptism and teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Baptism is important, as circumcision was important. The risen Christ gave baptism to the church, as God gave circumcision to Abraham. Baptism is a sign of covenant membership, as circumcision was. But both baptism and circumcision, however great and spiritual the truths they signify, are themselves outward and bodily acts. And it is absurd to magnify such things as indispensable means of salvation and then to go on to boast about them. It was a kind of obsession with ‘ecclesiastical statistics’, as Dr Cole puts it, bragging about ‘so many circumcisions in a given year’ just as we might brag of so many baptisms or confirmations.
What, then, is of central importance? Verse 15 supplies the answer: *For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation*. What matters primarily is not whether a man has been circumcised or (baptized) or not, but whether he has been born again and is now a new creation. Circumcision was, and baptism is, an outward sign and seal of this. The circumcision of the body symbolized the circumcision of the heart (cf. Rom.2:29). Similarly, baptism with water symbolizes the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And it is a lamentable tragedy when men become so topsy-turvy in their thinking that they substitute the sign for the thing signified, magnify a bodily ceremonial at the expense of a change of heart, and make circumcision or baptismthe way of salvation instead of the new creation. Circumcision and baptism are things of the ‘flesh’, outward and visible ceremonies performed by men; the new creation is a birth of the Spirit, an inward and invisible miracle performed by God.
Throughout history God’s people have tended to repeat this same mistake. They have debased a religion of the heart into a superficial, outward show, and God has repeatedly sent His messengers to reprove them and to recall them to a spiritual and inward religion. This was the great fault of Israel in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, when God through the prophets complained, ‘this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13). Jesus applied this Scripture to the scribes and Pharisees of His day and exposed their hypocrisy (e.g.Mk. 7:6,7). A similar religious formalism marked the medieval church before the Reformation, and eighteenth-century Anglicanism until Wesley and Whitfield gave us back the gospel. And so much contemporary ‘churchianity’ is the same – dry, dull, dismal and dead, largely an external show. Indeed, it is natural to fallen man to decline from the real, the inward and the spiritual, and to fabricate a substitute religion which is easy and comfortable because its demands are external and ceremonial only. But outward things matter little in comparison with the new creation or the new birth.
This is not to say that the bodily and the external have no place, for what is in the heart needs to be expressed through the lips, and what is inward and spiritual in religion needs to have some outward expression. But the essence is the inward; outward forms are valueless if inward reality is lacking.