We skip to chapter 5 for the sake of space.
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
V. 1 recalls that Paul had said in chapter 3 that the Law enslaves because we can’t obey it. Even if we only add circumcision as a salvation requirement, it destroys the gospel. Paul won’t allow even the first step toward legalism.
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.
You see, if you add one command, well, you have to add them all. And no one can meet that standard. Law — any law — can only save if you obey all law perfectly. If you can’t meet this standard (and no one can), then the choice isn’t fewer laws or easier laws. It’s salvation by faith. It can’t be salvation by faith + some laws or salvation by faith + better laws. No, it’s just salvation by faith.
We’d love for the system to be: faith + “laws we feel strongly about but not laws that seem less important to us.” We wish the system to be subjective or defined by the history of our denomination. We won’t admit it to ourselves, but we like being able to pick! — to be free to be gracious about some things but strict about others. But as much as we’d like to be the pope of the Church of Christ, the scriptures don’t give us that option. It’s either “obligated to keep the whole law” or “justified by faith.” Take your pick!
Moreover, Paul most definitely doesn’t say “the ceremonial law.” It’s “the whole law.” You see, to add circumcision as a condition of salvation is to declare faith in Jesus — and Jesus himself! — insufficient. And Paul will have none of that.
4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
“Severed from Christ” could be well translated “made Christ ineffective.” Either way, Paul says twice in one sentence that the result of seeking salvation other than by faith is damnation. It’s strong, strong language.
Some argue that “justifies” refers only to our initial salvation and that works become the standard after our baptism, but Peter’s error (in chapter 2) was years after his initial salvation. I addressed this misunderstanding in an earlier post.
Remember: the mistake was not seeking salvation through Judaism. These were followers of Jesus. Their mistake was adding laws to faith in Jesus as requirements to be saved.
And the mistake wasn’t in seeking to obey the whole Law. They just wanted to add circumcision and some holy days (Gal 4:10). No, having to obey the whole law is the penalty if all you do is demand faith + circumcision.
You see, insisting on circumcision as a path to salvation is denying that Jesus is our Savior. You see, it’s an effort to save yourself through obedience. (We must, of course, obey, but not to be saved.)
5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
Paul now returns to the Spirit — which we received by faith — and which gives us hope. And if Paul mentions hope and faith, surely he’ll shorly mention …
6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
… love. It’s not the circumcision that damns. It’s the seeking salvation through circumcision.
Why, Paul? Why doesn’t circumcision count for anything? Why?
Because it’s not faith and it’s not love. Period. The only things that “count” — justify — are faith in Jesus and love. And “only” means only. The “only” is what makes the argument work. After all, if there had been no “only,” then circumcision could have been added, because circumcision doesn’t keep you from having faith in Jesus or loving your neighbor. It’s the “only” that makes circumcision ineffective — even damning.
And it’s the “only” that makes it not only sinful, but potentially damning, to add a cappella music as a condition of salvation. It’s not faith or love of our neighbors either!
The Judaizing teachers would doubtlessly argue that they submit to circumcision out of love for God — and this is an even higher love than love for our neighbors! And I’m sure that was true. But it’s not faith in Jesus and it’s not love itself. And seeking salvation by making circumcision a requirement makes the entire Law a requirement.
Just so, when we insist on instrumental music as a requirement to be saved, we also add getting the Lord’s Supper right as a condition of salvation. And the love feast. And the officers of the church. And who appoints them. And how they might be removed. And how many children an elder must have. And whether we can insist that an elder step down if his wife dies. And divorce and remarriage. And the Pauline exception. And every other doctrine that we have ever disputed over. EVERY ONE. Insist on one and you’ve insisted on them all, because there’s no stopping place.
The reason the advocates for the gospel of the 20th Century Churches of Christ have never been able to say where the line stops is the same reason the Judaizing teachers couldn’t stop with circumcision. It’s all or none. Paul said so. And he was right. There’s no logical or scriptural place to stop adding laws as requirements to be saved once you’ve added one.
And when we start piling obligation upon obligation, we turn the gospel of grace into slavery — and we divide and divide — and we make our baptisms a mockery of the cross.