Galatians 5:1 says,
1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again in a yoke of slavery.
In other words, do not become part of the Hagar company. Identify with Sarah and consider the New Jerusalem to be your mother. Do not go back into so-called “Christian Judaism.”
What is biblical freedom? Is it to be free from the Law? Is it to be free to violate any laws that a Christian finds disagreeable? No, it is quite the opposite. True freedom is to know the intent and mind of the Lawgiver and to be conformed to His mind. It is to follow the will of God and be led by the Spirit. The Spirit will not lead you into sin, but will teach you the true meaning of the Law.
Paul then embarks upon a discussion of circumcision, telling us that it is the sign of the Old Covenant, not the New.
2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.
Paul sees circumcision as a sign of bondage, that is, “an obligation to keep the whole Law.” He has already shown earlier that circumcision was the ritual which was necessary for a man to approach God in the physical temple in Jerusalem. It signified submission to the vow that Israel made to God at Mount Sinai, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8). In other words, it obligated men to be fully and totally obedient to the Law in order to receive life and blessing from God.
That vow itself, though well intentioned, turned out to be a form of slavery. Anyone knows this who has attempted to be perfect as a pre-requisite to salvation, or to be good enough to approach God. Christians themselves have had their own struggle with such doctrine. I certainly did in my early life until God reminded me that the pastors and missionaries around me were not perfect either. That small revelation set me free forever.
Righteousness Imputed by Faith
It all boils down to the root question: which comes first, faith or works? If works must come first, then of what use is the Holy Spirit? But if we understand that by faith we receive the Holy Spirit, who then begins to train us in righteousness and write the Law in our hearts, then we obtain a right perspective.
This was the core revelation of Martin Luther that set him free from the bondage by which the Church had enslaved him. He came to understand the imputation of righteousness in Romans 4.
3 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned [logizomai, “imputed, reckoned, accounted”] to him as righteousness.”
Luther saw that righteousness was imputed to us by faith, and that any infusion of righteousness must come subsequently by the work of the Holy Spirit. The definition of imputation is given by example in verse 17, saying, “A father of many nations have I made you.” God “calls those things which do not exist as if they existed.” In other words, God imputed multitudes of children to Abraham as if they existed already, when in fact he did not have a single son yet. Children were imputed to him because God called what was NOT as though it were.
Hence, when God imputes righteousness to a believer, God is calling him righteous as if he were. Faith makes us legally righteous, where God acquits us in the Divine Court and rules in our Favor. (This is what grace means.) Justification does not mean that we have been found innocent or sinless. It means that the penalty for our sin was paid by Jesus Christ, and that the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us as if we were Him.
Paul continues in Romans 4 to make the application to us,
23 Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned [logizomai] to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned [logizomai], as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered up because of our transgressions and was raised because of our justification.
In other words, even as God imputed righteousness and many children to Abraham, so also has He imputed righteousness to us. It is not that we are actually righteous, but that God calls what is NOT as though it were.
Having been found legally righteous, then, we can pursue a new life in Christ without having to worry about sins from the past or present iniquity yet in our members. We are not free to sin that grace may abound, but we receive the Holy Spirit to work within us so that the righteousness of Christ may be infused slowly into us over time.
This is the “freedom” that Paul sets forth in Galatians 5.
The Old Covenant says, “Perform the whole law or pay its penalty to maintain right standing before God.” The New Covenant says, “Jesus performed the whole Law perfectly and then paid the penalty which the whole world owed for its sin. If you place your faith in Him and His work, then the Law must rule in your Favor. You are identified with Him and as Him in the eyes of the Law, for you are part of His Body.”
This is our freedom, that the Law can no longer condemn us for our sin. This is NOT the freedom TO sin, but freedom FROM sin, that is, from the judgment incurred by our present imperfect condition.
Circumcision Seeks Justification by Obedience
Circumcision, when performed according to the intent of the temple priests, identified the person with the vow of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Circumcision made the child part of that company and obligated him to continue in the same obedience as a means of obtaining justification. Galatians 5:4 says,
4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by Law; you have fallen from grace.
If your defense before the Divine Court involves bringing forth your own portfolio of righteous acts, you will always stand condemned by the Law. Being “severed from Christ . . . you have fallen from grace.” In other words, you will fall from FAVOR in the eyes of the Court. The Court will never rule in your favor except you plead your case by the provision of the New Covenant established by the Court.
5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision, nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
Circumcision gives no advantage before the Divine Court, nor is it a disadvantage unless one uses it as an appeal for justification. All men are justified equally by faith alone, and that faith must be placed in the righteousness of Christ and in the power of the cross. “Faith working through love” is the only thing that “means anything.” In other words, faith is the only thing that the Judge finds relevant in His Court.
7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion [peismone, “influence, persuasion”] did not come from Him who calls you.
The word “persuasion” here is contrasted to “faith.” Faith comes by hearing the voice of God (Rom. 10:17), whereas persuasion comes by the carnal mind being convinced by some earthly influence. The Greek word peismone is derived from peitho, “to obey.” Vine's Expository Dictionary says that it “suggests a play on words.”
In other words, Paul used the term to indicate that they had been “persuaded” to go the route of justification by claiming “obedience” to the Law. When one appears in the Divine Court, one should follow the counsel of the Holy Spirit, who is the Paraclete, or Advocate (“comforter”) in a court of law. The Judaizers, however, had given counsel from their carnal minds which would not result in a Favorable verdict (grace).
9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. 10 I have confidence in you in the Lord, that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is.
The Judaizer in question will “bear his judgment, whoever he is.” He will be judged because he has presented his own works as grounds for his justification, using the Old Covenant method of attempted salvation. Take note also that there is judgment for sin for such people. This is one more indication that the Law was not put away, for it is the Law that will judge the man. Judaizers today should heed Paul's warning.
Circumcision and the Spirit of Ishmael
It is the spirit of Ishmael that persecutes others by attempting to establish the kingdom of God by violence and the arm of flesh. Hence, in Galatians 5:11 Paul engages in some irony, saying,
11 But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumblingblock of the cross has been abolished.
In other words, if Paul had been preaching circumcision, he would not have been persecuted by the synagogues during all of his missionary journeys. In fact, he would have been among the persecutors, as in his earlier days when known by his circumcision name, Saul.
If he had taught circumcision, the cross would have been abolished, and its offence, scandal, or stumblingblock would have been removed. The Jews were greatly offended by the idea of the crucifixion of a Messiah. To them, if He had truly been the Messiah, God would never have allowed Him to be crucified.
So Paul puts circumcision in direct contrast and opposition to the cross. His refusal to circumcise Greeks as a requisite to a (new) covenant relationship with God is the prime reason for his persecution. Paul believed that physical circumcision did indeed give men a covenant relationship with God—but it was the Old Covenant, not the New. And the Old Covenant bound men to the vow of perfect obedience that Israel made at Sinai, which had worked against them. Their transgressions meant that they would live perpetually as slaves trying to pay off the restitution to their debt to sin.
Keep in mind, of course, that Paul did not try to change any racial customs. He did not tell Jews to refrain from circumcision. As a custom, circumcision was neither good nor evil. The problem was in thinking that it placed a man under covenant, for this meant the Old Covenant, not the New.
One might argue that Abraham himself was circumcised, for Genesis 17:26 says,
26 In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son.
But Abraham's faith had come earlier, by which he was reckoned righteous, for Gen.15:6 says,
6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Paul points out in Romans 4:10 that He was reckoned righteous prior to his circumcision.
10 How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised, 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them.
Physical circumcision was a type and shadow of heart circumcision. So Abraham’s circumcision cannot be used to prove the need for circumcision under the New Covenant. To properly understand the story and the sequence of events, one must compare events correctly. In this case, faith brought righteousness to Abraham prior to circumcision. That is the essence of Paul’s argument.
For the same reason, when God ratified the covenant with Abraham, animals were killed to typify the sacrifice of Christ. One cannot argue that animal sacrifices should be used under the New Covenant, just because Abraham sacrificed animals. Though Abraham was the prime revelator of the New Covenant in those days, he still lived before the cross changed everything.
The two-step sequence, Faith and Circumcision, speak of Abraham and Moses—in that order. Abraham's circumcision prophesied of Moses who was yet to come later. So Paul rightly associates circumcision with Moses and the Old Covenant vow that Israel made at Sinai.
Abraham’s physical circumcision is also directly associated with Ishmael, who received it at the same time. That is the association that we must make.
12 Would that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.
This is a Hebrew expression. "Go do it to yourself, if you want, but leave me alone."
Freedom to Love
Our freedom in Christ is not a freedom to sin, but a freedom to love, even as Christ loved us.
13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
This requires some background explanation.
All men are sinners who cannot possibly pay the debt that they owe, according to the Law. So Jesus came to pay their penalty and set them free. In other words, He was our Redeemer. Leviticus 25:39-43 reveals to us the Laws of Redemption. When a man redeemed his near kinsman, the kinsman was to serve his redeemer, and the redeemer was not to abuse or oppress the kinsman. Verse 43 says to the redeemer,
43 You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God.
Verse 53 then says to the one redeemed,
53 Like a man hired year by year he shall be with him [the redeemer]; he shall not rule over him with severity in your sight.
We see from this that those who are redeemed are set free from the oppression and slavery of the non-family member, who has no love for the slave. A kinsman had the legal right to pay the debt of the slave. His slavemaster had no choice but to sell him to the kinsman. But the one being redeemed, then, was to serve the redeemer until the debt was paid, or until the Year of Jubilee.
Jesus was our kinsman-redeemer, not taking upon Himself the nature of angels, but flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14), so that He would qualify as a near-kinsman of mankind. For this reason, He was able to call us "brethren" (Heb. 2:12, 13). This gave Him the right to redeem all mankind, that is, all "flesh and blood." And He has done so, as 1 John 2:2 tells us,
2 And He Himself is the expiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
With this in view, we return to Gal. 5:13, where Paul makes the statement, "do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh." It is based on the idea that those who are redeemed are not free to do as they wish. They simply change masters. The first master did not love them; but their kinsman-redeemer does. The kinsman-redeemer is commanded not to mistreat his slaves.
So also is it with Jesus Christ, our Kinsman-Redeemer who has purchased us from the slavery of Mr. Sin. Jesus loves us and will not mistreat us, though we are His bondslaves. Yet we must continually remember that we were not redeemed so that we could now do as we pleased. We are not "free" to sin. The Law of Redemption says that we simply change masters.
Our new Master loves us and commands us to love one another as well, in order to conform to His character and the laws of His household. "Love" is not a replacement for the Law. Love IS the Law and always has been. "God is Love" (1 John 4:16). That is His very Nature. And out of His nature, He gave the Law to Moses. It was to tutor us how to love our neighbor and treat others equitably. Hence, the entire Law is summarized in one word—Love—or in one statement: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Our main problem is that, being carnally minded, we do not know how to love perfectly. In our natural state, we tend to oppress others when it is to our advantage. It is because of these "transgressions" that God put us under the tutor. It was to teach us how to love our neighbors as ourselves.
One might argue that the penalty of the Law is not an expression of love. But consider our own children. If we do not discipline our children, do we really love them? The penalties of the Law were designed to correct us as well. In fact, they are God's judgment for our failure to love.
The first four Commandments are summarized by the greatest Law, as Jesus said in Matt. 22:37, 38. We are to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind.
The last six Commandments are summarized by the second which is "like it," "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39).
This is what our Redeemer-Master has commanded His bondslaves to do. He wants all of them to become like Him.