The Expositor's Bible

Epistle to the Galatians

Rev. Prof. G. G. Findlay, B.A.

The Doctrinal Polemic
Chapter 3:1 - 5:12

Chapter 20


"Behold, I Paul say unto you, that, if ye receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I testify again to every man that receiveth circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Ye are severed from Christ, ye who would be justified by the law; ye are fallen away from grace. For we through the Spirit by faith wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love."—Ga 5:2-6

SHALL the Galatians be circumcised, or shall they not? This is the decisive question. The denunciation with which Paul begins his letter, the narrative which follows, the profound argumentation, the tender entreaty of the last two chapters, all converge toward this crucial point. So far the Galatian Churches had been only dallying with Judaism. They have been tempted to the verge of apostasy; but they are not yet over the edge. Till they consent to be circumcised, they have not finally committed themselves; their freedom is not absolutely lost. The Apostle still hopes, despite his fears, that they will stand fast. The fatal step is eagerly pressed on them by the Judaisers, (Ga 6:12,13) whose persuasion the Galatians had so far entertained that they had begun to keep the Hebrew Sabbath and feast.— (Ga 4:10) If they yield to this further demand, the battle is lost; and this powerful Epistle, with all the Apostle’s previous labour spent upon them, has been in vain. To sever this section from the polemical in order to attach it to the practical part of the Epistle, as many commentators do, is to cut the nerve of the Apostle’s argument and reduce it to an abstract theological discussion.

This momentous question is brought forward with the greater emphasis and effect, because it has hitherto been kept out of sight. The allusion to Tit 3:2:1-5 has already indicated the supreme importance of the matter of circumcision. But the Apostle has delayed dealing with it formally and directly, until he is able to do so with the weight of the foregoing chapters to support his interdict. He has shattered the enemies’ position with his artillery of logic, he has assailed the hearts of his readers with all the force of his burning indignation and subduing pathos. Now he gathers up his strength for the final charge home, which must decide the battle.

1. Lo, I Paul tell you! When he begins thus, we feel that the decisive moment is at hand. Everything depends on the next few words. Paul stands like an archer with his bow drawn at full stretch and the arrow pointed to the mark. "Let others say what they may; this is what I tell you. If my word has any weight with you, give heed to this:—if you be circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing."

Now his bolt is shot; we see what the Apostle has had in his mind all this time. Language cannot be more explicit. Some of his readers will have failed to catch the subtler points of his argument, or the finer tones of his voice of entreaty; but every one will understand this. The most "senseless" and volatile amongst the Galatians will surely be sobered by the terms of this warning. There is no escaping the dilemma. Legalism and Paulinism, the true and the false gospel, stand front to front, reduced to their barest form, and weighed each in the balance of its practical result. Christ—or Circumcision: which shall it be?

This declaration is no less authoritative and judicially threatening than the anathema of chap. 1. That former denouncement declared the false teachers severed from Christ. Those who yield to their persuasion, will be also "severed from Christ." They will fall into the same ditch as their blind leaders. The Judaisers have forfeited their part in Christ; they are false brethren, tares among the wheat, troublers and hinderers to the Church of God. And Gentile Christians who choose to be led astray by them must take the consequences. If they obey the "other gospel," Christ’s gospel is theirs no longer. If they rest their faith on circumcision, they have withdrawn it from His cross. Adopting the Mosaic regimen, they forego the benefits of Christ’s redemption. "Christ will profit you nothing." The sentence is negative, but no less fearful on that account. It is as though Christ should say, "Thou hast no part with Me."

Circumcision will cost the Galatian Christians all they possess in Jesus Christ. But is not this, some one will ask, an over-strained assertion? Is it consistent with Paul’s professions and his policy in other instances? In ver. 6, and again in the last chapter, he declares that "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision nothing"; and yet here he makes it everything! The Apostle’s position is this. In itself the rite is valueless. It was the sacrament of the Old Covenant, which was brought to an end by the death of Christ. For the new Church of the Spirit, it is a matter of perfect indifference whether a man is circumcised or not. Paul had therefore circumcised Timothy, whose mother was a Jewess, (Ac 16:1-3) though neither he nor his young disciple supposed that it was a religious necessity. It was done as a social convenience; "un-circumcision was nothing," and could in such a case be surrendered without prejudice. On the other hand, he refused to submit Titus to the same rite; for he was a pure Greek, and on him it could only have been imposed on religious grounds and as a passport to salvation. For this, and for no other reason, it was demanded by the Judaistic party. In this instance it was needful to show that "circumcision is nothing." The Galatians stood in the same position as Titus. Circumcision, if performed on them, must have denoted, not as in Timothy’s case, the fact of Jewish birth, but subjection to the Mosaic law. Regarded in this light, the question was one of life or death for the Pauline Churches. To yield to the Judaisers would be to surrender the principle of salvation by faith. The attempt of the legalist party was in effect to force Christianity into the grooves of Mosaism, to reduce the world-wide Church of the Spirit to a sect of moribund Judaism.

With what views, with what aim were the Galatians entertaining this Judaic "persuasion"? Was it to make them sons of God and heirs of His kingdom? This was the object with which "God sent forth His Son"; and the Spirit of sonship assured them that it was realised. (Ga 4:4-7) To adopt the former means to this end was to renounce the latter. In turning their eyes to this new bewitchment, they must be conscious that their attention was diverted from the Redeemer’s cross and their confidence in it weakened. (Ga 3:1) To be circumcised would be to rest their salvation formally and definitely on works of law, in place of the grace of God. The consequences of this Paul has shown in relating his discussion with Peter, in Ga 2:15-21. They would "make" themselves "transgressors"; they would "make Christ’s death of none effect." In the soul’s salvation Christ will be all, or nothing. If we trust Him, we must trust Him altogether. The Galatians had already admitted a suspicion of the power of His grace, which if cherished and acted on in the way proposed, must sever all communion between their souls and Him. Their circumcision would be "the sacrament of their excision from Christ" (Huxtable).

The tense of the verb is present. Paul’s readers may be in the act of making this disastrous compliance. He bids them look for a moment at the depth of the gulf on whose brink they stand. "Stop!" he cries, "another step in that direction, and you have lost Christ."

And what will they get in exchange? They will saddle themselves with all the obligations of the Mosaic law (ver. 3). This probably was more than they bargained for. They wished to find a via media, some compromise between the new faith and the old, which would secure to them the benefits of Christ without His reproach, and the privileges of Judaism without its burdens. This at least was the policy of the Judaic teachers. (Ga 6:12,13) But it was a false and untenable position. "Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou art a doer of the law."; (Ro 2:25) otherwise it brings only condemnation. He who receives the sacrament of Mosaism, by doing so pledges himself to "keep and do" every one or its "ordinances, statutes, and judgments"—a yoke which, honest Peter said, "Neither we nor our fathers were able to bear". (Ac 15:10) Let the Galatians read the law, and consider what they are going to undertake. He who goes with the Judaists a mile, will be compelled to go twain. They will not find themselves at liberty to pick and choose amongst the legal requirements. Their legalist teachers will not raise a finger to lighten the yoke, (Lu 11:46) when it is once fastened on their necks; nor will their own consciences acquit them of it’s responsibilities. This obligation Paul, himself a master in Jewish law, solemnly affirms: "I protest (I declare before God) to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to perform the whole law."

Now this is a proved impossibility. Whoever "sets up the law," he had avouched to Cephas, "makes himself a transgressor". (Ga 2:18) Nay, it was established of set purpose to "multiply transgressions," to deepen and sharpen the consciousness of sin. (Ga 3:19 Ro 3:20 4:15 5:20) Jewish believers in Christ, placed under its power by their birth, had thankfully found in the faith of Christ a refuge from its accusations. (chap. 2:16 Ro 7:24-8:4) Surely the Galatians, knowing all this, will not be so foolish as to put themselves gratuitously under its power. To do this would be an insult to Christ, and an act of moral suicide. This further warning reinforces the first, and is uttered with equal solemnity. "I tell you, Christ will profit you nothing; and again I testify, the law will lay its full weight upon you." They will be left, without the help of Christ, to bear this tremendous burden.

This double threatening is blended into one in ver. 4. The pregnant force of Paul’s Greek is untranslatable. Literally his words run, "You were nullified from Christ —  κατηργήθητε π Χριστο — brought to nought (being severed) from Him, you that in law are seeking justification." He puts his assertion in the past (aorist) tense, stating that which ensues so soon as the principle of legal justification is endorsed. From that moment the Galatians cease to be Christians. In this sense they "are abolished," just as "the cross is" virtually "abolished" if the Apostle "preaches circumcision" (ver. 11), and "death is being abolished" under the reign of Christ. (1Co 15:26) He has said in ver. 2 that Christ will be made of none effect to them; now he adds that they "are made of none effect" in relation to Christ.

Their Christian standing is destroyed. The joyous experiences of their conversion, their share in Abraham’s blessing, their Divine sonship witnessed to by the Holy Spirit mall this is nullified, cancelled at a stroke, if they are circumcised. The detachment of their faith "from Christ" is involved in the process of attaching it to Jewish ordinances, and brings spiritual destruction upon them. The root of the Christian life is faith in Him. Let that root be severed, let the branch no longer "abide in the vine" — it is dead already.130

Cut off from Christ, they "have fallen from grace." Paul has already twice identified Christ and grace, in Ga 1:6 and 2:21. The Divine mercies centre in Jesus Christ; and he who separates himself from Him, shuts these out of his soul. The verb here used by the Apostle (ξεπσατε) is commonly applied (four times, e.g., in Ac 27) to a ship driven out of her course. Some such image seems to be in the writer’s mind in this passage. These racers made an excellent start, but they have stumbled; (ver. Ga 3:3) the vessel set out from harbour in gallant style, but she is drifting fast upon the rocks. This sentence is the exact opposite of ‘stands in the grace,’ Ro 5:2 (Beet).131

That he who "seeks justification in law has fallen from grace, " needs no proof after the powerful demonstration of Ga 2:14-21. The moralist claims quittance on the ground of his deservings. He pleads the quality of his "works," his punctual discharge of every stipulated duty, from circumcision onwards. "I fast twice a week," he tells his Divine Judge; "I tithe all my gains. I have kept all the commandments from my youth up." What can God expect more than this? But with these performances Grace has nothing to do. The man is not in its order. If he invokes its aid, it is as a make-weight, a supplement to the possible shortcomings in a virtue for the most part competent for itself. Now the grace of God is not to be set aside in this way; it refuses to be treated as a mere succedaneum of human virtue. Grace, like Christ, insists on being "all in all." "If salvation is by grace, it is no longer of works"; and "if of works, it is no more grace". (Ro 11:6) These two methods of justification imply different moral tempers, an opposite set and direction of the current of life. This question of circumcision brings the Galatians to the parting of the ways. Grace or Law—which of the two roads will they follow? Both they cannot. They may become Jewish proselytes; but they will cease to be Christians. Leaving behind them the light and joy of the heavenly Zion, they will find themselves wandering in the gloomy desolations of Sinai.

2. From this prospect the Apostle bids his readers turn to that which he himself beholds, and which they erewhile shared with him. Again he seems to say, "Be ye as I am, brethren"; (Ga 4:12) not in outward condition alone, but still more in inward experience and aspiration. "For we by the Spirit, on the ground of faith are awaiting the hope of righteousness" (ver. 5).

Look on this picture, and on that. Yonder are the Galatians, all in tumult about the legalistic proposals, debating which of the Hebrew feasts they shall celebrate and with what rites, absorbed in the details of Mosaic ceremony, all but persuaded to be circumcised and to settle their scruples out of hand by a blind submission to the Law. And here, on the other side, is Paul with the Church of the Spirit, walking in the righteousness of faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit, joyfully awaiting the Saviour’s final coming and the hope that is laid up in heaven. How vexed, how burdened, how narrow and puerile is the one condition of life; how large and lofty and secure the other. "We," says the Apostle, "are looking forwards, not backwards, to Christ and not to Moses."

Every word in this sentence is full of meaning. Faith carries an emphasis similar to that it has in Ga 2:16 3:22; and in Ro 4:16. Paul supports by contrast what he has just said: "Your share in the kingdom of grace is lost who seek a legal righteousness (ver. 4); it is by faith that we look for our heritage." Hope is clearly matter of hope, the future glory of the redeemed, described in Ro 8:18-25, Php 3:20,21, in both of which places there appears the remarkably compounded verb (π-εκ-δεχόμεθα) that concludes this verse. It implies an intent expectancy, sure of its object and satisfied with it. The hope is "righteousness’ hope"—the hope of the righteous—for it has in righteousness its warrant. The saying of Ps 16., verified in Christ’s rising from the dead, contains its principle: "Thou wilt not leave my soul to death; nor suffer Thine holy one to see the pit." This was the secret "hope of Israel,"132 that grew up in the hearts of the men of faith, whose accomplishment is the crowning glory of the redemption of Christ. It is the goal of faith. Righteousness is the path that leads to it. The Galatians had been persuaded of this hope and embraced it; if they accept the "other gospel," with its phantom of a legal righteousness, their hope will perish.

The Apostle is always true to the order of thought here indicated. Faith saves from first to last. The present righteousness and future glory of the sons of God alike have their source in faith. The act of reliance by which the initial justification of the sinner was attained, now becomes the habit of the soul, the channel by which its life is fed, rooting itself ever more deeply into Christ and absorbing more completely the virtue of His death and heavenly life. Faith has its great ventures; it has also its seasons of endurance, its moods of quiet expectancy, its unweariable patience. It can wait as well as work. It rests upon the past, seeing in Christ crucified its "author"; then it looks on to the future, and claims Christ glorified for its "finisher." So faith prompts her sister Hope and points her to "the glory that shall be revealed." If faith fails, hope quickly dies. Unbelief is. the mother of despair. "Of faith," the Apostle says, "we look out!"

A second condition, inseparable from the first, marks the hope proper to the Christian righteousness. It is sustained "by the Spirit." The connection of faith and hope respectively with the gift of the Holy Spirit is marked very clearly by Paul in Eph 1:13,14: "Having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit, who is the earnest of our inheritance." The Holy Spirit seals the sons of God—"sons, then heirs". (Ga 4:6 Ro 8:15-17) This stamps on Christian hope a spiritual character. The conception which we form of it, the means by which it is pursued, the temper and attitude in which it is expected, are determined by the Holy Spirit who inspires it. This pure and celestial hope is therefore utterly removed from the selfish ambitions and the sensuous methods that distinguished the Judaistic movement. (Ga 4:3,9 6:12-14) "Men of worldly low design" like Paul’s opponents in Galatia, had no right to entertain "the hope of righteousness." These matters are spiritually discerned; they are "the things of the Spirit, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him". (1Co 2:9-14)

If faith and hope are in sight, love cannot be far off. In the next verse it comes to claim its place beside the other two: "faith working through love." And so the blessed trio is complete, Fides, amor, spes: summa Christianismi (Bengel). Faith waits, but it also works;133 and love is its working energy. Love gives faith hands and feet; hope lends it wings. Love is the fire at its heart, the life-blood coursing in its veins; hope the light that gleams and dances in its eyes. Looking back to the Christ that hath been manifested, faith kindles into a boundless love; looking onward to the Christ that shall be revealed, it rises into an exultant hope.

These closing words are of no little theological importance. "They bridge over the gulf which seems to separate the language of Paul and James. Both assert a principle of practical energy, as opposed to a barren, inactive theory" (Lightfoot). Had the faith of Paul’s readers been more practical, had they been of a diligent, enterprising spirit, "ready for every good word and work," they would not have felt, to the same degree, the spell of the Judaistic fascination. Idle hands, vain and restless minds, court temptation. A manly, energetic faith will never play at ritualism or turn religion into a round of ceremonial, anesthetic exhibition. Loving and self-devoting faith in Christ is the one thing Paul covets to see in the Galatians. This is the working power of the gospel, the force that will lift and regenerate mankind. In comparison with this, questions of Church-order and forms of worship are "nothing." "The body is more than the raiment." Church organisation is a means to a certain end; and that end consists in the life of faith and love in Christian souls. Each man is worth to Christ and to His Church just so much as he possesses of this energy of the Spirit, just so much as he has of love to Christ and to men in Him. Other gifts and qualities, offices and orders of ministry, are but instruments for love to employ, machinery for love to energise.

The Apostle wishes it to be understood that he does not condemn circumcision on its own account, as though the opposite condition were in itself superior. If "circumcision does not avail anything, neither does uncircumcision." The Jew is no better or worse a Christian because he is circumcised; the Gentile no worse or better, because he is not. This difference in no way affects the man’s spiritual standing or efficiency. Let the Galatians dismiss the whole question from their minds. "One thing is needful," to be filled with the Spirit of love. "God’s kingdom is not meat and drink"; it is not "days and seasons and years"; it is not circumcision, nor rubrics and vestments and priestly functions; it is "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." These are the true notes of the Church; "by love," said Christ, "all men will know that you are My disciples."

In these two sentences (vv. 5 and 6) the religion of Christ is summed up. Ver. 5 gives us its statics; ver. 6 its dynamics. It is a condition, and an occupation; a grand outlook, and an intent pursuit; a Divine hope for the future, and a sovereign power for the present, with an infinite spring of energy in the love of Christ. The active and passive elements of the Christian life need to be justly balanced. Many of the errors of the Church have arisen from one-sidedness in this respect. Some do nothing but sit with folded hands till the Lord comes; others are too busy to think of His coining at all. So waiting degenerates into indolence; and serving into feverish hurry and anxiety, or mechanical routine. Let hope give calmness and dignity, buoyancy and brightness to our work; let work make our hope sober, reasonable, practical.

"These three abide—faith, hope, and love." They cannot change while God is God and mart is man. Forms of dogma and of worship have changed and must change. There is a perpetual "removing of the things that are shaken, as of things that are made"; but through all revolutions there "remain the things which are not shaken." To these let us rally. On these let us build. New questions thrust themselves to the front, touching matters as little essential to the Church’s life as that of circumcision in the Apostolic age. The evil is that we make so much of them. In the din of controversy we grow bewildered; our eyes are blinded with its dust; our souls chafed with its fretting. We lose the sense of proportion; we fail to see who are our true friends, and who our foes. We need to return to the simplicity that is in Christ. Let us "consider Him"—Christ incarnate, dying, risen, reigning, -till we are changed into the same image, till his life has wrought itself into ours. Then these questions of dispute will fall into their proper place. They will resolve themselves; or wait patiently for their solution. Loyalty to Jesus Christ is the only solvent of our controversies.

Will the Galatians be true to Christ? Or will they renounce their righteousness in Him for a legal status, morally worthless, and which will end in taking from them the hope of eternal life? They have nothing to gain, they have everything to lose in submitting to circumcision.  


[130] Comp. John xv. 5, 6, where in ἐβλήθη, ἐξηράνθη, there is a like summary aorist.

[131] Comp. 2 Pet. iii. 17; for the figure suggested, Eph. iv. 14; 1 Tim. i. 19.

[132] Acts xxiii. 6; xxiv. 15; xxvi. 6-8; comp. John vi. 39, 40, 44.

[133] "Working through love," not wrought (R.V. margin). The latter rendering of the participle is found in some of the Fathers, and is preferred by Romanist interpreters in the interest of their doctrine of fides formata. Paul's theology and his verbal usage alike require the middle sense of this verb, adopted by modern commentators with one consent. The middle voice implies that through love faith gets into actionis operativeefficaciousshows what it can do. Comp., for Pauline usage, Rom. vii. 52 Cor. i. 6, iv. 12; Eph. iii. 20Col. i. 291 Thess. ii. 132 Thess. ii. 7; and see Moulton's Winer's N. T. Grammar, p. 318 (note on dynamic middle).