This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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2Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.4You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.5For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.
The Spirit Testifies
The importance of Paul’s warning in these two verses is clear from the expression “Look” followed by an emphatic reference to Paul himself (cf. 2 Cor. 10:1) and the repetition of the warning in a second, explanatory sentence (cf. Gal. 1:9). A Gentile’s acceptance of circumcision was a sign of full conversion to Judaism and of a willingness to submit to the Jewish law as a way of life (e.g., Josephus, Jewish War 2.454; Jewish Antiquities 20.36–48). From Paul’s perspective, such a step would signal a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of Christ’s death to redeem the believer from the law’s curse and a vote of confidence in one’s own ability to keep the law and receive life by that means.
Paul has already argued at length, however, that the law requires total obedience from those who want to receive life by keeping it (Gal. 3:10, 12). This is something not only that no human being can do (Gal. 2:16; 3:11) but also that God did not intend when he gave the law (Gal. 2:21; Gal. 3:21). God gave the law to reveal the depth of human sinfulness and to prepare for the fulfillment of his promises to Abraham through the faith of both Jews and Gentiles in the gospel (Gal. 3:22).
In Romans 7:2, 6, Paul uses the Greek construction here translated “you are severed from” (katērgēthēte apo) to speak of believers’ freedom from or release from the law. The expression communicates that the object of the preposition has no impact, for good or ill, on the subject of the verb. Here, then, Paul uses the phrase to underline what he has just said about the person who adopts the Mosaic law in Galatians 5:2–3: that person has opted for the law over Christ, and this is the same as rejecting Christ altogether.
Paul explains why this is true in the verse’s final clause, “You have fallen away from grace.” God has graciously given Christ and his death as the fully adequate means of dealing with sin and of including human beings of all types within his people (Gal. 1:4; Gal. 3:13–14; Gal. 4:5). To accept this gift but to insist on conversion to Judaism in addition to it is to examine God’s gift and judge it inadequate to the task God claimed it would accomplish. It is to give God’s gift of Christ’s atoning death a lukewarm reception and thus express distrust in God.
God has removed the just curse of his law from us through the death of Christ and has begun to transform us into the loving people he created us to be.
In verse 4 Paul had described the Galatians’ interest in adding observance of the Mosaic law to Christ’s death as a mark of “you who would be justified [dikaiousthe] by the law.” He now uses the cognate noun of this verb, “righteousness” (dikaiosynē), to describe the correct posture of the believer before God. Believers are waiting for God’s verdict that they are free from punishment on the final day of judgment.1 Although they are waiting hopefully for this verdict, its realization is not in question, as the Spirit’s presence among them testifies (cf. Gal. 3:2–5, 14; Gal. 4:6, 29).
Paul often speaks of the justification of believers in the past tense (e.g., Gal. 3:6; Rom. 5:1; 1 Cor. 6:11) because it is something that happens when they first believe the good news that God’s gift of Christ’s atoning death has rescued them from the punishment they deserve and has reconciled them to God (Gal. 3:6; 5:1). Perhaps he envisions justification in the future here as a reminder that although the salvation of believers from God’s future wrath is certain, it will be fully realized only on the final day. It is important, therefore, to continue to trust in God’s gift of Christ’s redeeming work until that day.
Perhaps in view of the possibility that some Galatians have already been circumcised, Paul wants to make clear that the physical surgery itself is not the issue. Placing one’s confidence in not being circumcised would be just as problematic as placing one’s confidence in circumcision. In Romans Paul corrects a group of Gentiles who have become arrogant because they are not circumcised (Rom. 11:18, 20). Being right with God is a matter of “faith” in God’s gracious provision of Christ’s atoning death as the means of giving reconciliation and life to his people. It is not a matter of any human qualification, such as circumcision or lack of circumcision. The genuineness of justifying faith is evident in the way it works itself out in loving others, and such love, Paul will later say, is the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22; cf. “through the Spirit” in Gal. 5:5).
God’s Love Isn’t Earned
This passage insists that the gracious initiative of God in reconciling us to himself is the focal point of Christianity. The false teachers in Galatia were apparently only saying that the Galatians should add Jewish practices to their faith in Christ, and this must have seemed like a small step to take to ensure that they were under God’s favor—simply a matter of hedging their bets.
Paul, however, takes a dramatically antithetical view. To accept that one of the commands of the law (circumcision) is necessary to win God’s favor is to reject Christ entirely (Gal. 5:2–3). It is to make the gospel into something totally different (Gal. 1:6) and to lapse back into paganism (Gal. 5:12; cf. Gal. 4:9). Justifying faith is the full trust that although we are sinful creatures, with a tendency to rebel against God (Gal. 2:16; Gal. 5:13), God has removed the just curse of his law from us through the death of Christ (Gal. 3:13) and has begun to transform us into the loving people he created us to be (Gal. 3:27–29; Gal. 6:15). This all happens as a free gift of God and at his initiative, which is why Paul says that to deviate from this truth is to fall away from grace (Gal. 5:4) and why he addresses the Galatians as those who are “called” to freedom (Gal. 5:13). Whenever we add other religious elements to this essential truth of the gospel as a way of hedging our bets with God—pilgrimages, religious routines, giving to the church, supporting missionaries, or any number of other good deeds—we are stepping out of Christianity and into a different religion. It is not that any of these things are wrong (that too is heresy!), but if our motivation for doing them is to win God’s favor, then our motivation is wrong, based on a “different gospel” that, as Paul says in Galatians 1:6–7, is no gospel.
Luther spoke wisely on this point. Commenting on Paul’s approach to circumcision in Galatians 5:2, he wrote, “Paul is not discussing the actual deed in and of itself, which has nothing wrong in it if there is no trust in it or presumption of righteousness; but he is discussing how the deed is used, namely, the trust and the righteousness that are attached to the deed. . . . He is not saying that works in and of themselves are nothing, but that trust in works and righteousness on the basis of works causes Christ to be of no advantage.”2
This passage, then, reminds Christians of all times to live in the knowledge that God loves them and has shown his love for them through the death of Christ on their behalf and through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Faith in this truth works itself out in love; such love ends up fulfilling the law (Gal. 5:6, 14), but we do not win God’s love in the first place through practicing religious deeds, however good and noble they might be.
- For the understanding of “righteousness” both here and in the next paragraph see Douglas J. Moo, “Justification in Galatians,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century; Essays in Honor of D. A. Carson on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 186–190.
- Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5–6; Lectures on Galatians, 1519, Chapters 1–6, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen, vol. 27 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1964), 10–11.
This article is by Frank Thielman and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Volume 10) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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