“For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” (Galatians 5:6)
Much of Paul’s letters to the newly-founded Christian churches revolved around clearing up doctrine that had some believers confused. He sought to set the record straight for those who debated whether or not they should adhere to the original Jewish law, or if the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was enough to redeem them before God. Paul, previously a devout Jew who kept every aspect of the Hebrew law, was uniquely equipped to share its original intent, and also its rightful place in light of the cross.
#1 Apostasy, Consecration, and Covenant
The importance of the Law was deeply ingrained in the Jews that became followers of Christ. The Law was the very foundation of Hebrew culture, given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:3-7). It was a sign that they had been set apart from the other nations, that God’s divine favor rested upon them above all other peoples. They were specially chosen to receive God’s love, and be the mechanism by which His will would be worked in the world.
The Law also served the purpose of providing a means for the people to atone for their sins, and to be able to present themselves as righteous in God’s sight. When sin entered the world, mankind was cast out from the presence of the Lord (Genesis 3:22-23). An atoning sacrifice was needed to cover for the sin of the people; large portions of the Old Testament are devoted to the precise conditions needed to offer a “pleasing sacrifice” to God that would be acceptable for the forgiveness of their sins.
However, the terms of this covenant were not perfectly sufficient to remove sin completely. Even worse, the people made a habit of abandoning devotion to that covenant. They sought after the gods of the neighboring nations, and despite warnings given by prophets and holy messengers, the people repeatedly turned their backs on God.
#2 Already Covered by Christ
Jesus Christ was sent to earth to be that perfect sacrifice. He was made to take on the sins of the entire world, so that by His death He could provide atonement or the forgiveness of sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). All that is left for us to do is to accept Him as that atoning sacrifice, and we can be made right with God again (John 1:12, Romans 10:9).
As the Christian church began to include believers from among the Gentiles, a debate arose as to what would be required (Acts 15). Some believed that simple faith in Jesus was enough to save them from their sins; others insisted that they should keep the entire Jewish law, as their forefathers did. After hearing from Paul and the other apostles, they made the decision that the minimum required to be saved from their sins was a simple belief in Jesus Christ. They also made a few concessions on some prohibited activities, which would have already been in line with the spirit of Jesus’ teachings. It was at that point that they came to believe that the binding nature of the Law itself was released by the power of Holy Spirit and their forgiveness was won by the blood of Jesus.
#3 Accepting Circumcision or the Cross
In this passage from Galatians, Paul is attempting to explain this principle to his readers. He describes the freedom won by Christ, and says that returning again to the Law would be tantamount to putting back on shackles that we were just freed from (Galatians 5:1).
The specific issue Paul identifies is that of circumcision. It was a sign to other nations that the Jews were set apart for God, and often became a stipulation to new Gentile believers that they had to be circumcised, or else they would not be considered true believers. Paul makes the point that the outward sign of circumcision is a claim to be bound by the entire Law, which means that they were ignoring the power of Jesus Christ as sufficient to save them.
For modern Christians, circumcision has different meanings and benefits, and we cannot draw a direct parallel today. However, we can say that being bound by a particular set of rules or regulations instead of living in the freedom that God grants us is a form of legalism that denies the power and authority of the cross. For Paul, whether or not a Gentile believer obeyed every single rule in the Jewish law was an unnecessary burden. What mattered was their faith and the expression of that faith in their lives.
#4 Atonement Created by Compassion
“Faith which worketh by love” is a theme shown in other letters found in the New Testament. The book of James is often shown as the pinnacle of this truth in the Bible. It denies that faith is gained by our actions alone, but it does confirm that our faith is demonstrated through those works (James 2:18). Our actions do not save us, but they are an outward sign of the salvation God has already worked in us.
Paul’s main point in these verses, which also reinforced the teachings of Jesus, was that saving faith at work in our lives through the Holy Spirit will make itself known by our actions (Matthew 7:17-18). By loving God with everything we have, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, we actually fulfill the whole Law (Matthew 22:40) and show ourselves to be true believers.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.