In Galatians 5, at the apex of his argument, after four chapters of elaborate explication, Paul declares a profound principle—one that the reader is to understand as being just as true as can be: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”(5:6).
This faith-love principle is stated this way to make clear that circumcision is nothing and hence cannot be a condition of salvation. Why is it nothing? Because it has nothing to do with faith or love. Plain and simple.
Now we have to study Paul (and the rest of Scripture) to put some meat on the bones of these few words, but we can’t explain them away or treat them as a mere rhetorical flourish. They are true—so true that those who ignored them were declared alienated from Christ! That’s quite enough to get my attention! They are so true that they overruled the covenant of circumcision that went all the way back to Abraham! You see, for saved people, nothing else counts.
Here we see God’s covenant with Abraham being fulfilled in Christ — in a way that ends positive commands, such as circumcision, leaving behind nothing but faith and love. Does it sound radical? It should. It is. But it’s how Paul reasons. It’s how he reaches his conclusions about how Christians and churches should behave.Therefore, we need to learn to think the same way.
The word translated “counts” in the NIV is “avails” in the KJV. The NASB says “means anything.” The ESV says “counts for anything.” “Avails” is actually closest to the original Greek; it’s just that modern English no longer uses “avails,” except in “unavailing.” Something is unavailing if it was tried and didn’t work. Something “avails” if it accomplishes its intended purpose.
What purpose does Paul have in mind?
(Gal 5:4-5) You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.
Paul is speaking of justification. Should we seek justification by law or by faith in Jesus? Only faith produces hope. Law does not. The only thing that avails (achieves justification and hope) is faith working through love.
Justification is a legal term, and refers to a judge’s verdict of not guilty. It’s God’s announcement that we’ve been acquitted and found righteous. What shows us to be righteous in the eyes of God: obedience to positive commands such as circumcision? Or faith in Jesus? Paul says faith in Jesus — and that anything else is a “different gospel” (chapter 1).
So what is the faith element? Well, it’s the gospel. It’s how we’re saved. And how we’re saved profoundly influences how we are to live our lives as saved people.
Recall that in Gal 2, Peter has refused to eat with the Gentiles and was severely rebuked by Paul —
(Gal 2:14-16) When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
Notice carefully how Paul reasons: discriminating against Gentiles violates “the truth of the gospel.” All are “justified … by faith in Jesus” and not by observing the law. Because the law doesn’t justify us, the law doesn’t show who is saved and who is not. You see, Paul is saying, the terms on which we’ve been saved define how we are to live as saved people.
Thus, because God accepts Gentiles based on faith, not law, we Jews must accept Gentiles based on faith, not law. It’s really that simple.
I’ll offer a series of examples from 1 Corinthians.
(1 Cor. 1:11-13) My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?
When Paul is confronted with a church divided over personalities, and perhaps disagreements over doctrine, Paul answers by reminding his readers that only Jesus was crucified for them and that they were baptized into only one person: Christ. And as Christ is not divided, neither may they be divided.
Notice that Paul’s argument is centered on Christ as a person—not a recitation of rules. He concludes that the terms on which the Corinthians were saved define how they are to live. They were saved by one person into one person and thus must remain one.
In another passage, Paul explains how our salvation impacts our sexual conduct—
(1 Cor. 6:15) Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!
The fact that we have been added to the one body of Christ means that our bodies must be kept holy. If Jesus is holy, then we, as part of Jesus, must also be holy! Paul could have said that there’s a law against fornication, but he chose instead to reason from the essence of the gospel.
When Paul is asked whether the Corinthians may eat food sacrificed to idols, he again turns to the gospel for guidance—
(1 Cor. 8:4-6) So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
Paul’s argument has two elements. First, remember the sovereignty of God. How can there be idols when God is the One True God and Jesus is the One True Lord?
Second, when we were saved we committed to live “for” God and “through” Jesus. Thus, to us idols are nothing at all and so food sacrificed to them has been sacrificed to nothing at all. It’s just not a problem.
But while God’s absolute sovereignty gives us freedom, the commitment we made when we were saved sometimes limits what we are free to do—
(1 Cor. 8:7,10-11) But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. … For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.
You see, as the gospel declares, Christ died not only for me but also for you. Therefore, your salvation is just as important as mine. Therefore, my freedom never extends so far that I may interfere with the salvation of another Christian. Hence, I may have to decline to eat certain foods if my eating could tempt my brother to sin.
In chapter 12, Paul deals with jealousy among the Corinthians over gifts of the Spirit. He reasons —
(1 Cor 12:26-27) If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
The gospel — faith — brings us into the body of Christ as one. Therefore, we should rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. The oneness we were added to when we were saved has to be realized in actual unity.
We now shift briefly to a verse in Colossians—
(Col. 3:11) Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Why are there no distinctions between races and social classes? Because “Christ is all,” that is, sovereign, and because Christ “is in all.” All are saved on the same terms and thus we should treat them all the same. If God treats them the same, so should we.
Indeed, when we are saved, we are added to the same body, indwelled by the same Spirit, and become one. Fleshly distinctions thus disappear. And this inevitably forces us to face up to a passage in Galatians—
(Gal. 3:26-28) You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Why is there neither “male nor female”? Not what do we wish the answer to be, but what is the reason Paul gives? Plainly, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Just as was true in Colossians, as we have all been accepted by God on exactly the same terms and added to exactly the same one body, as we have all been “clothed with Christ,” we are one and thus God makes no distinctions based on matters extrinsic to the gospel.
It has often been argued that this passage is only addressing the terms of salvation, so that after we are saved, there are indeed gender distinctions. But for this to be so, the terms of our salvation—the very gospel—cannot determine how we live as Christians after we’ve been saved, and yet plainly it does. Indeed, the fact that the terms of the gospel dictate what it means to live the Christian life is one of the most fundamental of all Biblical principles. Many other examples can be given.
The point is that when Paul is asked a question, he doesn’t pull out a rulebook and tell us what the rule is. He doesn’t tell what is authorized or not. He doesn’t speak about silences. Rather, he reminds us of the sovereignty of God and the gospel. He returns us to the terms on which we are saved—and then tells us how these terms apply to our particular facts by assuming that surely we realize that how we were saved tells us how to live.