Paul's list of the negative results of getting circumcised and trying to be justified by law is prefaced by strong reminders that he is speaking with authority: Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you (v. 2). Again I declare to every man (v. 3). There must be no doubt about his warnings. They come from Paul, "an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father" (1:1).
His warnings are given to those who are getting circumcised. The present tense indicates that the process has just begun. Paul wants to stop the slash of the knife. This is the first explicit reference in the letter to this fact that the Galatians are being circumcised. Since the surgical procedure of circumcision has no theological significance to us today, it is difficult to understand why Paul is so upset about it.
In Paul's day circumcision was the mark of belonging to the Jewish nation. For a Gentile to get circumcised in the Greco-Roman world, where circumcision was repugnant, indicated that inclusion within the Jewish nation had become a very high priority for him. But why would inclusion in the Jewish nation become so extremely important to Gentiles? Paul understood their motive as trying to be justified by law. In other words, they thought they could gain God's approval only by belonging to the Jewish nation. This meant they did not consider faith in Christ to be a satisfactory basis for God's approval. They were being convinced that faith in Christ had to be supplemented with identification with the Jewish people through circumcision and law observance.
Paul lists four inevitable, negative consequences of adding such a supplement to faith in Christ. First, Christ will be of no value to you at all (v. 2). If you start to trust in circumcision to gain God's blessing, then you have stopped trusting in Christ. If you do not trust in Christ, then Christ is of no value to you. When you put your trust in your own position or performance for God's blessing, you are indicating that who you are and what you have done has more value that who Christ is and what he has done. You have turned your back on Christ.
Second, the consequence of getting circumcision is the obligation to obey the whole law (v. 3). Evidently the Galatians thought that by observing a few important laws they could identify themselves as full members of the Jewish nation and thus secure God's blessing for themselves. But Paul now informs them that the law is a vast, interdependent network of legal codes. Getting circumcised indicates that you are relying on keeping the law for God to bless you. If you are relying on the law, then you are obligated to keep the whole law. You cannot be selective. You have embarked on an impossible mission. Once you have decided to base your relationship with God on your performance, you will not be graded on a curve. You must get 100 percent all the time.
The third and fourth consequences of following the demands of the false teachers are given in verse 4: You . . . have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. No doubt the rival teachers had assured them that keeping the law was not abandoning their faith in Christ; it was the way to "attain your goal" (3:3)—perfection—in Christian life. But Paul says that those who regulate their lives by the law are removed from the reign of Christ over their lives. If you trust in your own efforts to keep the law, then you are no longer trusting in God's grace. Circumcision or Christ, law or grace: these are exclusive alternatives. You cannot have it both ways. You must choose.
The danger of apostasy, falling away from grace, must have been very real, or Paul would not have used such strong language. If we use the doctrine of eternal security to deny the possibility of falling from grace, we are ignoring Paul's warnings. People who ignore warnings are in great danger. Just observe the person who sees the warning sign of a sharp curve and a fifteen-mile-per-hour speed limit but keeps driving at seventy miles per hour.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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