A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 5:1-12. True and false religion.
b). The command.
Since ‘Christ has set us free’ and that ‘for freedom’, we must ‘stand fast’ in it and not ‘submit again to a yoke of slavery’. In other words, we are to enjoy the glorious freedom of conscience which Christ has brought us by His forgiveness. We must not lapse into the idea that we have to win our acceptance with God by our own obedience. The picture seem to be of an ox bowed down by a heavy yoke. (According to Arndt-Gingrich the verb ‘do not submit’ is passive and means ‘to be loaded down with’). Once it has been freed from its crushing yoke, it is able to stand erect again (cf. Lv.26:13).
It is just so in the Christian life. At one time we were under the yoke of the law, burdened by its demands which we could not meet and by its fearful condemnation because of our disobedience. But Christ met the demands of the law for us. He died for our disobedience and thus bore our condemnation in our place. He has ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us’ (3:13). And now he has struck the yoke from our shoulder and set us free to stand upright. How then can we dream of putting ourselves under the law again and submitting to its cruel yoke? This, then, is the theme of these verses, Christianity is freedom not bondage. Christ has set us free; so we must stand firm in our freedom.
From the general theme we come to the precise issue in verses 2-4, which is that of circumcision. The false teachers in the Galatian churches, as we have already seen, were saying that Christian converts had to be circumcised. You might think this a very trivial matter. After all, circumcision is only a very minor surgical operation on the body. Why did Paul make so much fuss and bother about it? Because of its doctrinal implications. As the false teachers were pressing it, circumcision was neither a physical operation, nor a ceremonial rite, but a theological symbol. It stood for a particular type of religion, namely salvation by good works in obedience to the law. The slogan of the false teachers was: ‘Unless you are circumcised and keep the law, you cannot be saved’ (cf. Acts 15:1, 5). They were thus declaring that faith in Christ was insufficient for salvation. Circumcision and law-obedience must be added to it. This was tantamount to saying that Moses must be allowed to finish what Christ had begun.
See how Paul describes their position in these verses. They are those who ‘receive circumcision’ (verses 2, 3), who are therefore ‘bound to keep the whole law? (verse 3), since this is what their circumcision commits them to, and who are seeking to ‘be justified by the law’ (Verse 4).What does Paul say to them? He does not mince his words. On the contrary, he makes a most solemn assertion, beginning *Now I, Paul, say to you* (verse 2). He warns them in three sentences of the serious results of their receiving circumcision: *Christ will be of no advantage to you (verse 2), you are severed from Christ and you have fallen away from grace* (verse 4). More simply, to add circumcision is to lose Christ, to seek to be justified by the law is to fall from grace. You cannot have it both ways. It is impossible to receive Christ, thereby acknowledging that you cannot save yourself, and then receive circumcision, thereby claiming that you can, You have got to choose between a religion of law and a religion of grace, between Christ and circumcision. You cannot add circumcision (or anything else, for that matter) to Christ as necessary to salvation, because Christ is sufficient for salvation in Himself. If you add anything to Christ, you lose Christ. Salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone.
In verses 5 and 6 the pronoun changes from ‘you’ to ‘we’. Paul has been addressing his readers and warning them of the danger of falling from grace. But now he includes himself and describes true believers, evangelical believers, who stand in the gospel of grace: *For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love* (verses 5,6). The emphasis in these verses is on faith. Two statements are made about it.
First, ‘by faith we wait’ (verse 5). What we are waiting for is termed ‘the hope of righteousness’, the expectation for the future which our justification brings, namely spending eternity with Christ in heaven. For this future salvation we wait. We do not *work* for it; we *wait* for it by faith. We do not strive anxiously to secure it, or imagine that we have to earn it by good works. Final glorification in heaven is as free a gift as our initial justification. So by faith, trusting only in Christ crucified, we wait for it.
Secondly, ‘in Christ what matters is faith’ (verse 6). Again Paul denies the false teaching. When a person is in Christ, nothing more is necessary. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision can improve our standing before God. All that is necessary in order to be accepted with God is to be in Christ, and we are in Christ by faith.
A word of caution is needed here. Does this emphasis on faith in Christ mean that we can live and act as we please? Is the Christian life so completely a life of faith that good works and obedience to the law simply do not matter? No. Paul is very careful to avoid giving any such impression. Notice the phrases that I have so far omitted. Verse 5: ‘For *through the Spirit*, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.’ That is to say, the Christian life is not only a life of faith; it is a life in the Spirit, and the Holy Spirit who indwells us produces good works of love, as the apostle goes on later to explain (verses 22, 23). Verse 6: ‘faith *working through love*.’ It is not that works of love are added to faith as a second and subsidiary ground of our acceptance with God, but that the faith which saves is a faith which works, a faith which issues in love.
Tomorrow: Galatians 5:7-12. 2). Teachers false and true.