1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
“Christianity is a strait jacket—all those rules!” This is a common complaint heard from those who reject Christianity. Because they understand the message of the gospel to be a set of moral imperatives to live by, they believe that freedom lies outside of the Christian faith.
But such a view is completely the wrong. The exact opposite is true. Real freedom is found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not an idealistic way of looking at things. This is not a cute way of explaining Christian ideals. This is objective reality. And it is a serious reality. As Christians, we are called to live in liberty, to never return to bondage, or else we die. The Apostle Paul describes this important quest to live in the freedom of Christ by showing us the struggle to be free, the difficulty of living free, and the necessity of living free.
The first thing we see in this text is that freedom in Christ and bondage to the law are just as exclusive as they sound. You cannot be both. It is all or nothing. There is no middle ground between the gospel of liberty and the guilt of legalism. You are either free in Christ today or you are enslaved to the law. But for those who are free, the draw back to the prison from whence you came is very strong, and so Paul urges his audience to “stand firm” in the freedom Christ has given them.
Verse 2 begins with an exclamation intended to capture our attention. “Mark my words,” (NIV) Paul says. “Listen carefully to what I am telling you!” It’s as if he is standing in front of the prison cell, blocking the door in an attempt to keep us from going back in. He reminds us also who is talking: “I, Paul, say to you.” This is not a charlatan standing in our way, lying to us. These are the words of an apostle. He is the one calling us away from the slavery of the law and back toward the freedom we have in Jesus. Listen to what he is saying. “You don’t want to go back inside this prison. Trust me! You’re free! This is no joke; it is a great reality. And it is yours to enjoy.”
The prison to which these believers in Galatia are being tempted to return is described in Paul’s conditional warning in verse 2: “if you accept circumcision.” It was not the physical act itself that Paul was concerned about. He himself was a circumcised Jew and he had no objection to getting Timothy circumcised in order to further his missionary cause (Acts 16:3). But by “accepting circumcision” he meant viewing it as a requirement for salvation. Paul knew that the ritual itself never was, and never could be, the basis for God’s approval of an individual. Even when the sign of circumcision was first instituted, Paul pointed out that it was not the basis of Abraham’s righteous standing before God but only a seal of the righteousness he already had through faith (Rom 4:9-11).
In the same way baptism, which has replaced circumcision as a sign of the new covenant and is to be received by all Christians, is not something we have to submit to in order to be justified before God. Do not make the same mistake about baptism that the Judaizers made about circumcision. I don’t think it is helpful to encourage people to be baptized mainly because our Lord commanded it (though he did). We are to be baptized because in it we receive the seal of justification. In other words, we should encourage people to be baptized because of what God wants to give them through it. Baptism is a gift to be received, not a work to be done.
But here is an important question to ask at this point. Why would the non-Jewish believers in Galatia be tempted to embrace circumcision? It’s not like this is a particularly enjoyable procedure to undergo, especially for adult males in those days! What was the lure of this legalism for these Gentile Christians, and why does legalism still have such an appeal on people to this day?
One commentator points out that conversion to Christianity would have stripped Gentile believers of all the social benefits they had within society, since they would have broken all ties with the cult of the pagan deities they once worshipped. By accepting circumcision the Galatian Christians would have found acceptance with the Jewish Christians, giving them back some semblance of a social standing. And on top of that, the Judaizers had Scripture to back up their viewpoint! It is not hard to imagine that given this environment, the Galatian Christians would have felt that the lure of legalism was compelling.
I think this is the ultimate appeal of legalism, the desire to be accepted by others. Legalism compels people to submit to even extreme practices all for the sake of pleasing other people. And as we’ve said before, everything is legalism outside of the gospel of Jesus because legalism is about finding your identity in what you do rather than in what has been done for you by Christ. So I submit that even the irreligious are drawn toward legalism because it promises them a justification that they can see, namely, the acceptance of other people. It is much more difficult to embrace the gospel, as we will see in a moment.
But the main point of verses 2-3 is that there is no middle ground between the gospel of liberty and the guilt of legalism. As Paul says in verse 2, “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” None. As Paul wrote earlier in this book, “if righteousness were though the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21). On this the Scripture is quite clear. Jesus is of no value to you whatsoever if you seek any righteousness apart from him.
The flip side of this is verse 3. For those who “accept circumcision,” that is, those who trust in their obedience or their good deeds or their good behavior as the basis for God’s acceptance of them, they are “obligated to keep the whole law.” They cannot pick and choose which laws they want to obey. The Scripture states it this way elsewhere, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). So your good deeds get you nowhere with God if you fail to obey his commands at any point and at any time. God does not grade on a curve.
You must ask and answer this question for yourself. What is your hope and confidence before a holy God? The religious and the irreligious alike are prone to find confidence in what they’ve done: faithful church attendance, Bible reading, commitment to family, voting Republican (or Democrat), trying to be good, recycling, eating organic, reducing their carbon footprint, being more authentic, loving their neighbor, being better than the “Christians,” or simply living to make the world a better place. All of it is legalism. And if you find confidence before God because of any of these things, Christ will profit it you absolutely nothing.
The default of the human heart is to incline toward legalism. It’s the easiest way to live whether it looks like religion or irreligion. The gospel is an invitation to a “third way,” and it is the hardest way to live.
In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks is a convicted criminal who has been imprisoned at Shawshank for 50 years. Though he is well-liked by his fellow inmates, one day they find him holding a knife to the throat of another prisoner named Heywood. After they successfully talk Brooks out of killing the terrified Heywood, the other prisoners ask Heywood what he did to make Brooks so angry at him. “I didn’t do nothin’!” Heywood replies. “Just came in to say fare-thee-well. Ain’t you heard? His parole came through.”
In the next scene, some of the inmates are sitting outside, trying to make sense of Brooks’ strange behavior. Had Brooks simply lost his mind? One of the other prisoners, Red, explains. “The man’s been in here fifty years. This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothing but a used-up con with arthritis in both hands. Probably couldn’t get a library card if he tried. You know what I’m trying to say?”
The movie goes on to show the dangers of a man becoming “institutionalized.” Brooks can’t make it outside Shawshank. He lives in constant fear in a halfway house, working as a grocery sacker at the local supermarket. He ends up committing suicide because it was much harder for him to life in freedom than it was for him to live in the prison he had called home for so long.
It really is not easy to live free. This is why so many people stumble over the gospel. In verses 4-6 the Apostle Paul describes that living free in Christ means trusting in grace, waiting for the hope of righteousness, and living by faith that works through love.
Those who seek their justification by the law have been, according to verse 4, “severed from Christ” and “have fallen away from grace.” The word grace, though common enough in modern vocabulary, is a theological word that the Puritan poet Edward Taylor observed sums up the entirety of Christ’s work on our behalf. Taylor wrote, “Grace excels all metaphors. The varnish laid upon it doth but darken, and not decorate it: its own colours are too glorious to be made more glorious.” So to be “severed from Christ” and “fallen away from grace” means that we are abandoned by Jesus and left completely on our own. And what ought we to think of the value of our own efforts and deeds in comparison to the value of Christ’s life? Those who look to themselves for their justification will find no grace from a holy God who demands perfection and will not allow sin to remain in his presence.
Now we can debate whether or not a passage like this suggests that a true Christian could ever lose his salvation, but whatever position we take on that matter surely we must agree with this: If a person turn to legalism in any way, he has turned away from the grace of God offered to us in Christ and therefore has no basis by which to be assured of his acceptance before God. Those who trust in their own righteousness are doomed to perish, having been cut off from Christ. John Calvin observed, “Whoever wants to have a half-Christ loses the whole.”
If legalism is so dangerous, how can we detect it and so stay away from it? It is not always easy to identify it, but here are two things to look for.
1. A strict “cause and effect” view of suffering and prosperity. Those who live “under the law” see their relationship with God as an employee-employer relationship. We work for God, and then he pays us our dues. When things do not go well for them, they assume that God is punishing them for bad behavior. When things go well, they assume that it is because of their good behavior, and they take pride in how they’ve been living. While this may be a “fair” way for God to deal with us, I don’t know many people who would honestly prefer that God deal with them fairly!
Those who live under grace have a familial relationship with God. They know that while it is true that God discipline believers, he does so as a loving heavenly Father. He disciplines at times by giving to us and at other times he disciplines by taking away from us. Far from being arbitrary, he gives and takes away equally for our ultimate good. Those who live under grace know this and can say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” whether they suffer or whether they prosper.
2. External behavior over gospel transformation. It is much easier to get people to modify their behavior than it is to see them transformed by the gospel. Real gospel growth usually occurs over time, but we are not as patient as God is. So we reduce the gospel to moralism and want people to quickly accept our behavioral standards. But we need to understand that the Christian Church is full of sinners. That means that life together inside the church is messy, because we are sinners. Though we are declared righteous because God credits us with the righteousness of Christ, yet we must “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” When Jesus returns, only then shall we be like him (1 John 3:2).
It is this “hope of righteousness” that distinguishes the gospel from legalism. Both are concerned about righteousness, about things being just and correct and right. The word righteousness is the noun form for the verb justified in verse 4. The legalist is not satisfied with the promise of righteousness; he wants to be righteous now. Basing his justification on his performance makes it possible for him to do this. The legalist believes that God will accept him, offering his life as proof that God could not possibly reject him.
But the Holy Spirit teaches us that by clinging to grace, that is, by trusting in Christ’s righteousness rather than our own, we “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Those who believe the gospel long for complete righteousness, too; but they know that even that must be given to them by Christ on the last day. Righteousness is only partially realized in this world, and so we wait for its final fulfillment. The Christian believes that God will accept him because of Christ’s righteousness, but he also waits with great expectation for the final consummation when he will put off his sin once and for all.
When we understand and believe the gospel, we realize that our dependence on the grace of God means that nothing we do has any value in improving our status with God. As Paul says in verse 6, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumicision counts for anything.” All of our good deeds get us nowhere with God. And thank God that in Christ all of our sins take us nowhere away from God!
The only thing that counts is “faith working through love.” Here Paul clarifies that he is not saying that God does not care about how we live or can never be pleased with our lives. The faith through which we lay hold of Christ’s justifying righteousness is energized by love. Or, as Paul says elsewhere, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). This life in the Spirit is present whenever one has been justified by faith. Paul will deal more directly with this issue beginning in verse 13.
As difficult as it may be to live free, this does not diminish the importance of doing so. In verses 7-12, Paul pleads with the Galatians to return to the gospel of grace.
Paul often used the analogy of the foot race to describe the Christian life, and he does so again in verse 7: “You were running well.” But the race he has in mind is a marathon, not a sprint. The Christian life does not hinge on the decision we once made or the prayer we once prayed, but on the faith that we are called to believe.
The Christian life is also described in verse 7 as “obeying the truth.” We are commanded to live free! The Galatians had heard the gospel and had believed it. They were growing in the faith; they were “running well.” But then they were hindered from “obeying the truth” by the Judaizers who preached to them a different gospel. They had not been persuaded to this position from God, “the one who calls” them.
This is why it is crucial that every Christian becomes fluent in the gospel. Even slight deviations from the gospel will lead us far away from it. Or, as Paul put it in verse 9, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” We must devote ourselves to the historic Christian gospel and not tolerate any distortions of it, especially those that call us to contribute any of our own efforts to God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ.
Church beware! If it could happen in Galatia, it can happen here. Or anywhere, for that matter. The simple truth is that the gospel is not intuitive, so it must be proclaimed to us regularly. We are in a fight, a fight for our own souls. It is a fight for faith. It’s the same fight that Paul himself was in. At the end of his life, he was able to die with confidence. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). The greatest fight that Paul and millions of Christians have fought through the centuries is the one you are engaged in now. It is the fight to believe the gospel, to live in the freedom of God’s grace rather than in the bondage of your own self-salvation project.
And this is what the church is for, to help you fight the good fight of faith. Why are you in the church? What are you here for? Are you here for the sense of community and the nice friends you can make? Are you here to ease your conscience, to help you deceive yourself into thinking that by religious ritual you can become closer to God? Or are you here to fight with your brothers and sisters, to live in the freedom of Christ’s righteousness? If we can see that the stakes are this high, it would change our perspective on why the church matters for you and for your neighbor.
Now although the fight is real, let this not be a discouragement. Paul says in verse 10, “I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view.” He knew these people in Galatia. He knew their conversion was real. So he was confident that they would turn back to the gospel. He was certain that all those who belonged to Christ would persevere in their faith.
We probably cannot even imagine the kinds of dangers that will come our way, threatening to hijack our faith and lead us away from the gospel. The threat is real. It is powerful. But the gospel is stronger. And it is this confidence in the power of the gospel that keeps us in the fight until we breathe our last breath.
If what we have seen today is not enough to demonstrate the importance of this matter, then maybe this will. Take note of what Paul had to say about the Judaizers. In verse 10 he declares that “the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.” The penalty he refers to here is most likely the curse he pronounced on those who preach another gospel back in chapter 1. It is a call for God to consign to hell any who pervert the gospel of grace.
And in verse 12 Paul is even more explicit. “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” Although Paul does not mean to be taken literally, it completely misses the force of his words here to soften the blow by translating this verse ambiguously as we find in the Authorized Version, “I would they were even cut off which trouble you.” By “cutting off” Paul is referring to castration. He is speaking sarcastically. He is saying, “Since the Judaizers are so interested in cutting off the foreskin, I would rather they just keep on cutting until they have cut out their own testicles!” Such a person, according to Deuteronomy 23:1, would be excluded from the assembly of the Lord and so consigned to God’s judgment. It’s just another way for Paul to say, “May God damn those who proclaim any other gospel than the gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ.”
If it be objected that such strong words ought not be uttered by a Christian, let me cite Martin Luther’s comments on this verse. On the question of whether or not a Christian is permitted to curse, he said:
Why not? Howbeit not always, nor for every cause. But when the matter is come to this point, that God’s word must be evil spoken of, and his doctrine blasphemed, and so consequently God himself, then must we turn this sentence and say: Blessed be God and his Word, and whatsoever is without God and his Word, accursed be it; yea, though it be an Apostle or an angel from heaven.
To paraphrase the German theologian Karl Barth, if we do not know what is truly worth cursing then we do not know what is truly worth believing, and all of our theologizing is a waste of time.
This passage demonstrates to us that there are few things more important to the Christian life than the fight for faith and freedom found in the gospel. May we never take these things for granted. Rather, let us join in the fight day by day with our brothers and sisters knowing that this battle, too, belongs to the Lord!
 John M. G. Barclay, Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians, (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2005), 60, cited in Timothy George, Galatians, The New American Commentary, vol. 30, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1994), 356.
 Cited in Stephen J. Nichols, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 28.
 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 233.
 Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, ed. Philip S. Watson, electronic ed. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, n.d.), n.p.
 The actual quote is, “If we do not have the confidence of damnamus, we ought to omit credimus, and go back to doing theology as usual.” Cited in George, Galatians, 373.