Paul takes his argument up a notch. He desperately wants the Galatians to understand the seriousness of what they consider. He says if they continue in their wrong theology they will be severed from Christ and fallen from grace. Christ died for the very reason that mankind would no longer be required to be in perfect obedience to the Law to be saved. Thus the Christian life is based on faith and lived through the Spirit. Believers wait on righteousness rather than strive to be justified by righteousness. The false teachers want to put the Galatians back under the yoke of the Law and negate what Christ did. They will bear their own judgment. Paul’s desire is to keep them from bringing the Galatians under judgment too.
This verse is a transition between verses 21-31 of Chapter 4 and verses 2-12 of Chapter 5. It was for freedom that Christ set us free. At first reading this sounds sort of like saying, “It was for eating that we decided to eat.” Kind of similar to, “…become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (4:12). Sentences like these are at first hard to understand because they seem comically simplistic and almost nonsensical.
What Paul actually does in this first verse is to summarize the whole purpose for Christ’s death. Christ died to set us free. He died so that perfection is no longer required for salvation. This is the very heart of the gospel. Without Christ the only ones who can come before God are those who are perfect. And since humans are CONCEIVED in sin, perfection is impossible even before birth. Consequently, no human has the credentials to come before God and no human can do the slightest thing to affect this condition. Christ died to set us free from the bondage of perfection – it is the fundamental basis of His coming.
Since this is the case, Paul admonishes the Galatians to keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. To go back into slavery to the Law is to make what Christ did worthless. Whether the Galatians understand it or not, their behavior negates Christ’s death. To add the Law to the gospel is to make it no longer the gospel. To add another metal to pure gold is to essentially change it and make it by definition no longer what it once was.
In verses 2 and 3 Paul makes it clear to the Galatians what the stakes are in their following after the false teachers. For a Gentile to be circumcised means he agrees to observe the whole Law. This is different from a Jewish boy who is circumcised for traditional and ethnic reasons. A Gentile who agrees to circumcision does so to enter Judaism. To enter Judaism is to be bound by the Law. The Galatians who accept the false teachers’ claims that circumcision is required for salvation take on the yoke of slavery Paul just warned about. Circumcision equals justification by works of the Law – the WHOLE Law.
If they agree to be bound by the Law they no longer need Christ. Christ will be of no benefit to you. As mentioned above, Christ is not needed if salvation is a matter of works. Christ came to set us free from works. Obedience to the Law for justification equals no Christ and no gospel.
It is impossible to receive Christ, thereby acknowledging that you cannot save yourself, and then receive circumcision, thereby claiming that you can. – John Stott
The ultimate result of what the false teachers preach and the Galatians are beginning to believe is to be severed from Christ. If your belief is in the works of man, you take away any need for Christ. And if you do not need Christ then His death is not effective for you. You do not have Christ and you do not have His grace to save you. You are fallen from grace. No Christ, no grace. To be fallen from grace is to share the fate of Satan and his followers. Hell defined is the absence of God’s favor. Those in hell have been severed from Christ and cut off from His grace. This is what the Galatians are in danger of becoming.
Compare verse 4 with 2:20. The believer has been crucified with Christ. The legalist has been severed from Christ. The believer lives by faith in the Son of God. The legalist seeks to be justified by the Law. The believer knows Christ died for him and delivered Himself up for him. The legalist is fallen from grace.
Paul contrasts for the Galatians how they should live versus how they are being taught to live. A believer is not working his way to heaven. A believer does not improve his lot by obeying the Law. Instead of being severed from Christ the one justified by faith lives through the Spirit. Instead of being obligated to follow the whole Law the believer eagerly waits for the hope of righteousness. It is not about man at all – it is all of faith, the Spirit, and hope in God (note faith, hope, and love highlighted in these verses). The Galatians do not know what it is (or have forgotten what it is) to place their hope and trust wholly in their Creator. This is what they miss – this is the joyous Christian life they give up when they embrace the Law.
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything because it is not about human effort. The Galatians focus on the wrong thing. Christ died once for all. Nothing else is needed and nothing can be added. There are no gaps in the gospel. There are no holes waiting to be filled with the works of man.
Consider: These verses really describe the Christian life. Through the power of the Spirit and by faith in God we wait and hope for our ultimate and sure glorification (I Jn 3:2-3). We will be perfectly righteous one day but that day is not here yet. We have been declared righteous but we do not fully posses righteousness. Our salvation is immediate and finished but its effects are incomplete until we unite with Christ in glory.
There is actually great encouragement in this. If we have to wait, then it is clear that no one expects us to be fully righteous now. This is not a license to sin (Paul will cover this beginning in verse 13 of this chapter) but is a relief to the redeemed sinner. We do not want to sin but know we will – and it is imperative when we do that we remember that full righteousness is a hope for the future and not a present reality.
There is a great comfort and an exhortation in this word “wait.” The comfort is that the presence of a struggle with sin in this life is not a sign that we are lost. Perfection is not the test of spiritual life in this age. And that is a great comfort to saved sinners. – John Piper
The faith we live by works itself out in love. Faith is the means by which we receive salvation through the work of Christ and it makes its presence known in our behavior. Since we live through the Spirit (synonymous with in Christ Jesus in verse 6) our behavior is molded to become more like Christ’s. We become more and more like Him. And since He is love we become more and more typified by love.
We live a life of waiting rather than striving but our waiting is not passive. We do not improve our lot before God by proving our merit or commitment (circumcision), but since we live through the Spirit of the One who saves us we take on His characteristics and live by His power as we wait. And living by His power results in works of love. He is love and that love will work itself out in the life of the one who lives through Him. We do not strive but we act. We do not earn but we work.
Note too that the word for waiting here carries with it a sense of eagerness (the ESV translates it “…we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness”). Since we know a new earth and glorified body untouched by sin wait for us at the consummation of our salvation, we long for the day when the hope of righteousness is finally ours. We do not forget about this world or our responsibilities in it, but we see everything about our lives through the lens of eternity and long for the day when sin is finally conquered. Our eager hope actually makes us more effective in this life because it enables us to see this world in its relative significance to the next. We are more sensitive to the effects of sin on God’s created order – we know this is not how things ought to be or will be – but less concerned about what others with no hope make a priority.
Christianity – eagerly waiting for the next life while living through the Spirit in this one.
Paul turns his attention to the false teachers themselves. He asks the Galatians, “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” This is really Paul’s recurring question throughout the whole letter. “What happened? How could you forsake my gospel so quickly after I left? Who is it who has caused you to forsake what you know to be the truth?”
Notice that he says obeying the truth – not believing or trusting. The Galatians have stopped believing the truth and thus no longer live according to it. They do not celebrate the liberty they have in Christ. They no longer live as Christians live. They do not live in dependence on Christ and thus do not obey the truth of the gospel.
God called them by grace (1:6) – thus this persuasion did not come from Him.
Paul uses a proverb to warn them of the effects of the false theology. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough – this wrong teaching will spread from a few believers to many if it is left unchecked.
In verse 10 Paul says something that almost sounds strange when compared to verses 2-4. He says he has confidence in them in the Lord that they will not adopt a view outside of the gospel. He still considers them believers and thinks they will in fact heed his admonition in verse 1 – they will stand firm and not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
His confidence is in them IN THE LORD. Not them alone, but confidence in them while they are in the Lord. Just as in verse 6 where faith works itself out in love IN CHRIST JESUS, so the Galatians will stand firm only if they stand in the Lord. Paul’s confidence is that God will keep them even in the face of the influence of the false teachers.
He says the false teacher or teachers will bear his judgment. This goes right along with his warning that anyone who preaches a gospel different than the one he preached is accursed (1:8-9). The false teacher is severed from Christ and is attempting to sever others – his judgment is sure.
Paul’s statement in verse 11 is apparently a response to a claim by the false teachers that he agrees with their teaching on circumcision. It is a little strange that they would imply this after apparently trying to discredit him (remember that he felt he needed to state his biography and credentials in the first two chapters). It is also laughable that at this point in the letter the Galatians might still believe their claims.
Paul simply points out to his readers that if he were preaching circumcision he would not have any problems with the Jewish authorities who take every opportunity to persecute him. If he preached adherence to the Law there would be nothing that would invoke the wrath of the religious leaders. This is yet another damning mark against the theology of the false teachers – if it does not provoke persecution from orthodox Jews, then it is in fact not a new gospel at all.
He says if he preaches circumcision the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. The gospel message that salvation is all of God and cannot be earned by works is not popular with self-centered mankind. The cross causes problems. For the non-Spirit-filled man it is a stumbling block because he does not like to hear that he can do nothing to save himself. The cross divides those who comprehend the truth from those who cannot. The unrenewed mind cannot accept the cross and what it stands for. The natural man cannot get over the symbol of his own failings and the symbol of his inability to earn his place with God. The cross is where mankind divides.
Paul ends memorably in verse 12. He is so distraught and angry over the false and hellish theology of the Judaizers that he says he wishes they would emasculate themselves. Since they teach circumcision he wants for them to go all the way and castrate themselves. It is interesting to note that beyond the pain and lifestyle issues this would cause, it would also make them ineligible to worship in the assembly of God’s people (Deut 23:1).
While Paul’s words seem harsh, it is important to remember that castration is nothing compared to eternity in hell. The false teachers leading the Galatians away from the truth of the gospel (bringing them back under a yoke of slavery – making Christ of no benefit to them – severing them from Christ – making them fall from grace – hindering them from obeying the truth) are doing something much worse than emasculating them.
Paul presents two ways of life in this text:
- Free versus enslaved
- Obligated to keep the whole Law versus waiting for the hope of righteousness
- Severed from Christ versus living in Christ Jesus
- Fallen from grace versus living by faith
- Seeking to be justified by law versus faith working through love
- Christ of no benefit versus living through the Spirit
The same question applies after this text as applies to the whole book – why would anyone choose anything other than the gospel?
2 thoughts on “Galatians 5:1-12”
Really look forward to reading your exposition on Gal. 5:16-35.
It will be a two-part presentation – so much there!