The Expositor's Bible

Epistle to the Galatians

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

The Epilogue
Chapter 6:11-13

Chapter 29


"For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God."—Ga 6:15,16

VERSE 14 comprehends the whole theology of the Epistle, and ver. 15 brings to a head its practical and ethical teaching. This apothegm is one of the landmarks of religious history. It ranks in importance with Christ’s great saying: "God is a Spirit; and they that worship Him, must worship in spirit and truth". (Joh 4:21-24) These sentences of Jesus and of Paul taken together mark the dividing line between the Old and the New Economy. They declare the nature of the absolute religion, from the Divine and human side respectively. God’s pure spiritual being is affirmed by Jesus Christ to be henceforth the norm of religious worship. The exclusive sacredness of Jerusalem, or of Gerizim, had therefore passed away. On the other hand, and regarding religion from its psychological side, as matter of experience and attainment, it is set forth by our Apostle as an inward life, a spiritual condition, dependent on no outward form or performance whatsoever. Paul’s principle is a consequence of that declared by his Master.

If "God is a Spirit," to be known and approached as such, ceremonial at once loses its predominance; it sinks into the accidental, the merely provisional and perishing element of religion. Faith is no longer bound to material conditions; it passes inward to its proper seat in the spirit of man. And the dictum that "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision nothing," (Ga 5:6 1Co 7:19) becomes a watchword of Christian theology.

This Pauline axiom is advanced to justify the confession of the Apostle made in ver. 14; it supports the protest of vv. 12-14 against the devotees of circumcision, who professed faith in Christ but were ashamed of His cross. "That Judaic rite in which you glory," he says, "is nothing. Ritual qualifications and disqualifications are abolished. Life in the Spirit, the new creation that begins with faith in Christ crucified—that is everything." The boasts of the Judaisers were therefore folly: they rested on "‘ nothing." The Apostle’s glorying alone was valid; the new world of "the kingdom of God," with its "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost," was there to justify it.

1. For neither is circumcision anything.—Judaism is abolished at a stroke! With it circumcision was everything. "The circumcision" and "the people of God" were in Israelitish phrase terms synonymous. "Uncircumcision" embraced all that was heathenish, outcast, and unclean:

The Mosaic polity made the status of its subjects, their relation to the Divine covenant, to depend on this initiatory rite. "Circumcised the eighth day," the child came under the rule and guardianship of the sacred Law. In virtue of this mark stamped upon his body, he was ipso facto a member of the congregation of the Lord, bound to all its duties, so far as his age permitted, and partner in all its privileges. The constitution of Mosaism—its ordinances of worship, its ethical discipline, its methods of administration, and the type of character which it formed in the Jewish nation—rested on this fundamental sacrament, and took its complexion therefrom.

The Judaists necessary therefore made it their first object to enforce circumcision. If they secured this, they could carry everything; and the complete Judaising of Gentile Christianity was only a question of time. This foundation laid, the entire system of legal obligation could be reared upon. (Ga 5:3) To resist the imposition of this yoke was for the Pauline Churches a matter of life and death. They could not afford to "yield by subjection—no, not for an hour." The Apostle stands forth as the champion of their freedom, and casts all Jewish pretensions to the winds when he says, "Neither is circumcision anything."

This absolute way of putting the matter must have provoked the orthodox Jew to the last degree. The privileges and ancestral glories of his birth, the truth of God in His covenants and revelations to the fathers, were to his mind wrapped up in this ordinance, and belonged of right to "the Circumcision." To say that circumcision is nothing seemed to him as good as saying that the Law and the Prophets were nothing, that Israel had no pre-eminence over the Gentiles, no right to claim "the God of Abraham" as her God.

Hence the bitterness with which the Apostle was persecuted by his fellow-countrymen, and the credence given, even by orthodox Jewish Christians, to the charge that he "taught to the Jews apostasy from Moses". (Ac 21:21) In truth Paul did nothing of the kind, as James of Jerusalem very well knew. But a sentence like this, torn from its context, and repeated amongst Jewish communities, naturally gave rise to such imputations.

In his subsequent Epistle to the Romans the Apostle is at pains to correct erroneous inferences drawn from this and similar sayings of his concerning the Law. He shows that circumcision, in its historical import, was of the highest value. "What is the advantage of the Jew? What the benefit of circumcision? Much every way," he acknowledges. "Chiefly in that to them were entrusted the oracles of God". (Ro 3:1,2) And again: "Who are Israelites; whose is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the lawgiving, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom is the Christ as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever". (Ro 9:4,5) Eloquently has Paul vindicated himself from the reproach of indifference to the ancient faith. Never did he love his Jewish kindred more fervently, nor entertain a stronger confidence in their Divine calling than at the moment when in that Epistle he pronounced the reprobation that ensued on their rejecting the gospel of Christ. Lie repeats in the fullest terms the claims which Jesus Himself was careful to assert, in declaring the extinction of Judaism as a local and tribal religion, that "Salvation is of the Jews". (Joh 4:21-24) In the Divine order of history it is still "to the Jew first." But natural relationship to the stock of Abraham has in itself no spiritual virtue; "circumcision of the flesh" is worthless, except as the symbol of a cleansed and consecrated heart. The possession of this outward token of God’s covenant with Israel, and the hereditary blessings it conferred, brought with them a higher responsibility, involving heavier punishment in case of unfaithfulness. (Ro 2:17-3:8) This teaching is pertinent to the case of children of Christian families, to those formally attached to the Church by their baptism in infancy and by attendance on her public rites. These things certainly have "much advantage every way." And yet in themselves, without a corresponding inner regeneration, without a true death unto sin and life unto righteousness, these also are nothing. The limiting phrase "in Christ Jesus" is no doubt a copyist’s addition to the text, supplied from Ga 5:6; but the qualification is in the Apostle’s mind, and is virtually given by the context. No ceremony is of the essence of Christianity. No outward rite by itself makes a Christian. We are "joined to the Lord" in "one Spirit." This is the vital tie.

Nor is uncircumcision anything. This is the counterbalancing assertion, and it makes still clearer the bearing of the former saying. Paul is not contending against Judaism in any anti-Judaic spirit. He is not for setting up Gentile in the place of Jewish customs in the Church; he excludes both impartially. Neither, he declares, have any place "in Christ Jesus," and amongst the things that accompany salvation. Paul has no desire to humiliate the Jewish section of the Church; but only to protect the Gentiles from its aggressions. He lays His hand on both parties and by this evenly balanced declaration restrains each of them from encroaching on the other. "Was any one called circumcised?" he writes to Corinth: "let him not renounce his circumcision. Hath any one been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised." The two states alike are "nothing" from the Christian standpoint. The essential thing is "keeping the commandments of" 1Co 7:18,19.

Christian Gentiles retained in some instances, doubtless, their former antipathy to Jewish practices. And while many of the Galatians were inclined to Legalism, others cherished an extreme repugnance to its usages. The pretensions of the Legalists were calculated to excite in the minds of enlightened Gentile believers a feeling of contempt, which led them to retort on Jewish pride with language of ridicule. Anti-Judaists would be found arguing that circumcision was a degradation, the brand of a servile condition; and that its possessor must not presume to rank with the free sons of God. In their opinion, uncircumcision was to be preferred and had "much advantage every way." Amongst Paul’s immediate followers there may have been some who, like Marcion in the second century, would fain be more Pauline than the Apostle himself, and replied to Jewish intolerance with an anti-legal intolerance of their own. To this party it was needful to say, "Neither is uncircumcision anything."

The pagan in his turn has nothing for which to boast over the man of Israel. This is the caution which the Apostle urges on his Gentile readers so earnestly in Ro 11:13-24. He reminds them that they owe an immense debt of gratitude to the ancient people of God. Wild branches grafted into the stock of Abraham, they were "partaking of the root and fatness" of the old "olive-tree." If the "natural branches" had been "broken off through unbelief," much more might they. It became them "not to be high-minded but to fear." So Paul seeks to protect Israel after the flesh, in its rejection and sorrowful exile from the fold of Christ, against Gentile insolence. Alas! that his protection has been so little availing. The Christian persecutions of the Jews are a dark blot on the Church’s record.

The enemies of bigotry and narrowness too often imbibe the same spirit. When others treat us with contempt, we are apt to pay them back in their own coin. They unchurch us because we cannot pronounce their shibboleths; they refuse to see in our communion the signs of Christ’s indwelling. It requires our best charity in that case to appreciate their excellences and the fruit of the Spirit manifest in them. "I am of Cephas," say they; and we answer with the challenge, "I of Paul." Sectarianism is denounced in a sectarian spirit. The enemies of form and ceremony make a religion of their Anti-ritualism. Church controversies are proverbially bitter; the love which "hopeth and believeth all things," under their influence suffers a sad eclipse. On both sides let us be on our guard. The spirit of partisanship is not confined to the assertors of Church prerogative. An obstinate and uncharitable pride has been known to spring up in the breasts of the defenders of liberty, in those who deem themselves the exponents of pure spiritual religion. "Thus I trample on the pride of Plato," said the Cynic, as he trod on the philosopher’s sumptuous carpets; and Plato justly retorted, "You do it with greater pride."

The Apostle would fain lift his readers above the level of this legalist contention. He bids them dismiss their profitless debates respecting the import of circumcision, the observance of Jewish feasts and Sabbaths. These debates were a mischief in themselves, destroying the Church’s peace and distracting men’s minds from the spiritual aims of the Gospel; they were fatal to the dignity and elevation of the Christian life. When men allow themselves to be absorbed by questions of this kind, and become Circumcisionist or Uncircumcisionist partisans, eager Ritualists or Anti-ritualists, they lose the sense of proportion in matters of faith and the poise of a conscientious and charitable judgment. These controversies preeminently "minister questions" to no profit but to the subverting of the hearers, instead of furthering "the dispensation of God, which is in faith." (1Ti 1:4) They disturb the City of God with intestine strife, while the enemy thunders at the gates. Could we only let such disputes alone, and leave them to perish by inanition! So Paul would have the Galatians do; he tells them that the great Mosaic rite is no longer worth defending or attacking. The best thing is to forget it.

2. What then has the Apostle to put in the place of ritual, as the matter of cardinal importance and chief study in the Church of Christ? He presents to view a new creation.

It is something new that he desiderates. Mosaism was effete. The questions arising out of it were dying, or dead. The old method of revelation which dealt with Jew and Gentile as different religious species, and conserved Divine truth by a process of exclusion and prohibition, had served its purpose. "The middle wall of partition was broken down." The age of faith and freedom had come, the dispensation of grace and of the Spirit. The Legalists minimised. They practically ignored the significance of Calvary. Race-distinctions and caste-privileges were out of keeping with such a religion as Christianity. The new creed set up a new order of life, which left behind it the discussions of rabbinism and the formularies of the legal schools as survivals of bygone centuries.

The novelty of the religion of the gospel was most conspicuous in the new type of character that it created. The faith of the cross claims to have produced not a new style of ritual, a new system of government, but new men. By this product it must be judged. The Christian is the "new creature" which it begets.

Whatever Christianity has accomplished in the outer world—the various forms of worship and social life in which it is embodied, the changed order of thought and of civilisation which it is building up—is the result of its influence over the hearts of individual men. Christ, above all other teachers, addressed Himself directly to the heart, whence proceed the issues of life. There His gospel establishes its seat. The Christian is the man with a "new heart." The prophets of the Old Testament looked forward to this as the essential blessing of religion, promised for the Messianic times. (Heb 8:8-13) Through them the Holy Spirit uttered His protest against the mechanical legalism to which the religion of the temple and the priesthood was already tending. But this witness had fallen on deaf ears; and when Christ proclaimed, "It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing," when He said, "The things that defile a man come out of his heart," he preached revolutionary doctrine. It is the same principle that the Apostle vindicates. The religion of Christ has to do in the first place with the individual man, and in mart with his heart.

What then, we further ask, is the character of this hidden man of the heart, "created anew in, Christ Jesus"? Our Epistle has given us the answer. In him "faith working by love" takes the place of circumcision and uncircumcision—that is, of Jewish and Gentile ceremonies and moralities, powerless alike to save. (Ga 5:6) Love comes forward to guarantee the "fulfilling of the. law," whose fulfilment legal sanctions failed to secure. (Ga 5:14) And the Spirit of Christ assumes His sovereignty in this work of new creation, calling into being His array of inward graces to. supersede the works of the condemned flesh that no longer rules in the nature of God’s redeemed sons. (Ga 5:16-24)

The Legalists, notwithstanding their idolatry of the law, did not keep it. So the Apostle has said, without fear of contradiction (ver. 13). But the men of the Spirit, actuated by a power above law, in point of fact do keep it, and "law’s righteousness is fulfilled" in them. (Ro 8:3,4) This was a new thing in the earth. Never had the law of God been so fulfilled, in its essentials, as it was by the Church of the Crucified. Here were men who truly "loved God with all their soul and strength, and their neighbour as themselves." From Love the highest down to Temperance the humblest, all "the fruit of the. Spirit" in its clustered perfection flourished in their lives. Jewish discipline and Pagan culture were both put to shame by this "new creation" of moral virtue. These graces were produced not in select instances of individuals favoured by nature, in souls disposed to goodness, or after generations of Christian discipline; but in multitudes of men of every grade of life—Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, wise and unwise—in those who had been steeped in infamous vices, but were now "washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God."

Such regenerated men were the credentials of Paul’s gospel. As he looked on his Corinthian converts, drawn out of the very sin of heathen corruption, he could say, "The seal of my apostleship are ye in the Lord." The like answer Christianity has still to give to its questioners. If it ever ceases to render this answer, its day is over; and all the strength of its historical and philosophical evidences will not avail it. The Gospel is "God’s power unto salvation"—or it is nothing!

Such is Paul’s canon, as he calls it in ver. 16—the rule which applies to the faith and practice of every Christian man, to the pretensions of all theological and ecclesiastical systems. The true Christianity, the true churchmanship, is that which turns bad men into good, which transforms the slaves of sin into the sons of God. A true faith is a saving faith. The "new creation" is the sign of the Creator’s presence. It is God "who quickeneth the dead". (Ro 4:17)

When the Apostle exalts character at the expense of ceremonial, he does this in a spirit the very opposite of religious indifference. His maxim is far removed from that expressed in. the famous couplet of Pope:

"For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;

His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right."

The gospel of Christ is above all things a mode of faith. The "new creature" is a son of God, seeking to be like God. His conception of the Divine character and of his own relationship thereto governs his whole life. His "life is in the right," because his heart is right with God. All attempts to divorce morality from religion, to build up society on a secular and nonreligious basis, are indeed foredoomed to failure. The experience of mankind is against them. As a nation’s religion has been, so its morals. The ethical standard in its rise or fall, if at some interval of time, yet invariably, follows the advance or decline of spiritual faith. For practical purposes, and for society at large, religion supplies the mainspring of ethics. Creed is in the long run the determinant of character. The question with the Apostle is not in the least whether religion is vital to morals; but whether this or that formality is vital to religion.

One cannot help wondering how Paul would have applied his canon to the Church questions of our own day. Would he perchance have said, "Episcopacy is nothing, and Presbyterianism is nothing; -but keeping the commandments of God"? Or might he have interposed in another direction, to testify that "Church Establishments are nothing, and Disestablishment is nothing; charity is the one thing needful?" Nay, can we even be bold enough to imagine the Apostle declaring, "Neither Baptism availeth anything, nor the Lord’s Supper availeth anything, -apart from the faith that works by love"? His rule at any rate conveys an admonition to us when we magnify questions of Church ordinance and push them to the front, at the cost of the weightier matters of our common faith. Are there not multitudes of Romanists on the one hand who have, as we believe, perverted sacraments, and Quakers on the other hand who have no sacraments, but who have, notwithstanding, a penitent, humble, loving faith in Jesus Christ? And their faith saves them: who will doubt it? Although faith must ordinarily suffer, anal does in our judgment manifestly suffer, when deprived of these appointed and most precious means of its expression and nourishment. But what authority have we to forbid to such believers a place in, the Body of Christ, in the brotherhood of redeemed souls, and to refuse them the right hand of fellowship, "who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we"? "It is the Spirit that heareth witness": who is he that gainsayeth? Grace is more than the means of grace.

"And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace be on them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God." Here is an Apostolic benediction for every loyal Church. The "walk" that the Apostle approves is the measured, even pace, the steady march148 of the redeemed host of Israel. On all who are thus minded, who are prepared to make spiritual perfection the goal of their endeavours for themselves and for the Church, Paul. invokes God’s peace and mercy.

Peace is followed by the mercy which guards and restores it. Mercy heals backslidings and multiplies pardons. She loves to bind up a broken heart, or a rent and distracted Church. Like the pillar of fire and cloud in the wilderness, this twofold blessing rests day and night upon the tents of Israel. Through all their pilgrimage it attends the children of Abraham, who follow in the steps of their father’s faith.

With this tender supplication Paul brings his warnings and dissuasives to an end. For the betrayers of the cross he has stern indignation and alarms of judgment. Towards his children in the faith nothing but peace and mercy remains in his heart. As an evening calm shuts In a tempestuous day, so this blessing concludes the Epistle so full of strife and agitation. We catch in it once more the chime of the old benediction, which through all storm and peril ever rings in ears attuned to its note: Peace shall be upon Israel. (Ps 125:5) 

[148] Στοιχήσουσιν: comp. ch. v. 25.