Why you cannot swap out circumcision with all other laws/commandments in Galatians 5
There are those within the sovereign grace community who struggle to distinguish between different ideas that use the same term, the same familiar word. Words can have different meanings, different intents, given the context, or the particular definien(s) in play. The word “law” is the definiendum, it has different definiens (sub-definitions if you will) that define it. Mix these up and you will get very mixed up indeed, even mixed up in your doctrine, your perceptions, and/or your way of life.
As I have stated before, the word “law” (as it relates to its use in the Bible) can refer to (1) the entire Bible; (2) the Books of Moses (as distinguished from the Psalms, Prophets, etc.); (3) the spiritual law of God, which remains God’s extant law for us today (that preceded Moses, as evidenced by the Book of Genesis, etc., seeing that God was punishing people for sin way before Moses came on the seen); (4) The law of ordinances, and so on. Fail to grasp the different contextual uses and you will fail to cease from promoting error and confusion.
Consider the following two passages:
Galatians 3:1 “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? 2 This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the WORKS OF THE LAW, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by THE FLESH?”
Galatians 3:10-12 “For as many as are of THE WORKS OF THE LAW are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed [is] every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, [it is] evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And THE LAW IS NOT OF FAITH: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.”
Far too many people, myself included at one time, want to lump all facets, all types of biblical law into the interpretation of the passages above. They claim that you can substitute any act, work, or commandment into them… seeing that the instruction, the intent of it, isn’t limited to just circumcision. In a sense they are right, and in a sense they are very, very wrong — what matters is (1) proper definitions [rarely will they define their use of the terms] and (2) proper context [rarely will they (a) put forth fully developed arguments with sufficient scriptural prooftexts and/or (b) harmonize all on-point passages so as to proactively address potential counters]. I will attempt to address both aspects.
First, note that the historical context of the events in Galatians was both simple… and deadly. False brethren, called Judaizers, were coming into Christian camps, coming within the assembly of the true saints of Christ, and telling them that essentially “they were not really saved, they were not truly born again, and/or that they couldn’t ‘really be true Christians’ if they had not yet been circumcised.”
These Judaizers were outright stating that these people, many of whom were truly saved, weren’t ‘really saved,’ because (1) real salvation requires circumcision and/or (2) “if they were really saved, really and truly saved, then they would have been obedient to the Abrahamic/Mosaic tradition, and would have evidenced their salvation by being circumcised.”
This error was a dangerous one, and all who speak out against it (then and now) are right to do so. However, what they are not right in doing is twisting the context to promote false (anomian/antinomian) doctrine.
The problem is that circumcision, being part of the law, is part of a specific type of law. It is indeed Abrahamic in a real sense, and Mosaic in a real sense, but it falls under a very specific category, a very specific type of law… that being, “the law of ordinances.” You cannot swap out circumcision with just any aspect of God’s spiritual, or temporal, law. We have to be prudent here, we have to use discernment, and proper judgment. To do so, we must consider what the Bible actually states about the law of ordinances, particularly as it pertains to the New Testament era. Consider,
“Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. 9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. 10 And YE ARE COMPLETE IN HIM,
which is the head of all principality and power: 11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with [him] through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. 13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 14 BLOTTING OUT
the handwriting of ORDINANCES
that was AGAINST US,
which was CONTRARY TO US,
and took it out of the way, NAILING IT TO HIS CROSS;
15 [And] having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”
We see that circumcision, as with all of the other aspects of the law of ordinances (ceremonies, rituals, sacrifices, etc.), has been done away with, blotted out, nailed to the cross of Christ. As a result, God deems it deadly, egregious sin to try to entangle anyone with such again. God wants no one under the bondage of the law of ordinances in particular, or the law of Moses, as a whole. The Book of Hebrews makes it abundantly clear that Christians are never to go back to the Mosaic (ceremonial/ritual/sacrificial/related) system. Again, all who warn against such error are completely justified in doing so…. so long as they do not go beyond the truth, into error. It is when they stretch the intended application to promote abstaining from efforts to keep/observe/obey God’s commands (those that remain for us today, in the New Testament era), that the very serious problems start.
Now, let’s get into the the big pieces, the heavy hitters. Let’s get into those things that should utterly crush the notion that Galatians somehow speaks out against godly obedience / commandment-keeping.
Firstly, we must note that there is a massive difference between (1) stating that true Christians obey God’s extant (spiritual) law, and seek to keep His commandments; and (2) stating that in order to get saved, stay saved, or “truly be saved,” a person must engage in a now obsolete, abrogated, religious ceremony (one that Christ Himself blotted out on the cross). The difference between the two positions is like the difference between the brightest day and the darkest night. Clearly, with all of the verses in the Bible telling us that Christians obey God’s law, and keep God’s commands, we have to see that there is a major distinction between that, and what the Judaizers were doing. It requires powerful blindness, and/or ignorance of Scripture (I know, I was under it myself), to get this messed up, to get this mixed up.
Secondly, consider the Apostle Paul’s own words concerning the relationship between circumcision, and godly commandment-keeping:
1 Corinthians 7:18-19
“Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing,
and uncircumcision is nothing,
but the keeping of the commandments of God.”
I like how John Gill, and a multitude of other faithful saints, understood this passage. John Gill was absolutely correct that in Christ, circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing… but the keeping of God’s commandments, that IS something. Mr. Gill put it this way
“[the keeping of the commandments of God] that is something; not that the commands of God, and the observance of them, are of any avail to procure the pardon of sin, acceptance with God, justification in his sight, and eternal salvation; yet they are of moment, as they are the commands and ordinances of God; and ought to be kept in faith and fear, as they were delivered from a principle of love, and with a view to the glory of God; and though for keeping of them there is no reward of debt, yet in keeping of them there is a reward of grace; peace of mind is had, and the presence of God enjoyed; obedience to them, upon Gospel principles and motives, is a fruit of grace, an evidence of faith, and of the new creature; it is the ornament of a Christian profession, and is profitable to men.”
The Apostle Paul is stating that if you are already circumcised, or if you remain uncircumcised, it means nothing either way in God’s eyes. What matters, i.e., what is pleasing to God and edifying to the Body of Christ, is the keeping of the commandments of God (in love), which includes, abstaining from returning to the Old Testament law of ordinances. Part of keeping God’s extant commands is abstaining from engaging in that which He has put away, forever. When we persist in engaging in it for religious purposes, out of feigned holiness and sanctification, it angers the Lord. Why? Because it is rebellion against Him and His commands; it is a violation of His holy (spiritual/extant) law.
This evil is magnified when someone not only insists on circumcision for religious purposes (purposes purported to be for the Lord or in the name of the Lord), but makes these obsolete ordinances requirements for being, remaining, or “truly evidencing that one is…” saved. One is bad because it pertains to the individual sinning; the other is worse, because it pertains to getting others to join in on that sin.
Thirdly, note that there is a simple means of proving the point. If these men (remember, I was once one of them) claim that circumcision can be swapped out with any other form of law-keeping, then lets put it to the test. Let’s see how wise, or more importantly, how biblical the following sounds — but first, consider:
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
4 Christ is become of no effect unto you,
whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.”
Note that the above is the actual quote, covering the true God-ordained instruction that the Lord has for us today. Now let’s switch it up a bit. Let’s alter it with other commands, other aspects of the law, and let’s see if it really holds up the way the anomians/antinomians claim that it does (when they argue “it’s not just circumcision, it’s ‘any aspect of the law’).
Galatians 5:1-4 (modified) “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that IF YE [ABSTAIN FROM FLESHLY LUSTS per 1 Peter 2:11], Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that ABSTAINS FROM FLESHLY LUSTS, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.”
Galatians 5:1-4 (modified) “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that IF YE [OBEY THE COMMAND TO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY as mentioned in James 2:11 ], Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that [OBEYS THE COMMAND TO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY], that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.”
Galatians 5:1-4 (modified) “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that IF YE [OBEY THE COMMAND TO KEEP YOURSELVES FROM IDOLS found in 1 John 5:21], Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that KEEPS HIMSELF FROM IDOLS, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.”
Galatians 5:1-4 (modified) “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that IF YE [OBEY THE COMMANDMENT TO NOT KILL, i.e., TO NOT COMMIT MURDER], Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that ABSTAINS FROM COMMITTING MURDER, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.”
Galatians 5:1-4 (modified) “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that IF YE [FLEE FORNICATION, as commanded in 1 Corinthians 6:18], Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that FLEES FORNICATION, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.”
How’s it looking so far? Does it seem biblical to you that we can swap out circumcision with just any former/current biblical command? We can indeed swap it out with any former/current command if those keeping these commands are doing so to get saved, or to stay saved, etc. Indeed, if they are doing it to ‘establish a righteousness of their own,’ or to “maintain the righteousness” that Christ supposedly established for them, then it is sin… grievous, deadly, sin.
However, if they are striving to obey these commands, to keep these commands, out of a love for Christ, in newness of life, by the power of the Spirit of God, then saying that their works of godly, God-enabled obedience equates to Christ profiting them nothing (and them being debtors to do the whole law as a result) is infinitely beyond absurd. It has to stop.
Fourthly, you cannot pit the Apostle Paul (who wrote by the Holy Spirit) against the Apostle Paul (who wrote by the Holy Spirit). Paul states in:
“But now we are DELIVERED FROM THE THE LAW [i.e., being under its curse, demands, judgments, as we were when we were apart from the Righteousness of Christ], that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve [i.e., serve God, and His law] in newness of spirit, and not [in] the oldness of the letter.”
It should be abundantly clear that the Apostle Paul is evidencing that serving/obeying/keeping the law is a blessed thing.
Likewise, when he goes on to say in verse 25
“I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself SERVE THE LAW of God; but with the flesh the law of sin…”
…we know that He cannot be talking about the “law of ordinances” put away (blotted away, nailed away) at the cross… Nor can he be accusing anyone of dead works for desiring to rightly serve the law, seeing that the word “serve” (douleuō, G1398
) truly means to be a slave to, to serve, to do service, to obey, to submit to, to yield obedience to, and to obey one’s commands and render to him the services due.
” To drive the point home even further, Paul doesn’t just say he serves
it, but that he emphatically serves
it. The Apostle Paul stresses the matter, truly hammering it home, by using the Greek word men (G3303)
which means truly, certainly, surely, indeed!
The Apostle indeed
serves the (spiritual/extant) law of God after the inward man… despite the flesh serving the law of sin.
CONCLUSION: I cannot stress enough, the anomian/antinomian spirit is strong in grace circles, and many have little desire to let go of said error. Far too many insist on demonising *Christian* obedience to the law, Christian commandment-keeping; confusing and conflating it with bondage to the Mosaic law in general, and/or bondage to the nailed-to-the-cross law of ordinances in particular. They do not distinguish, they do not harmonize all relevant Scripture, they just repeat the same rote arguments, as if in doing so, it will “really make it so.” And yet, we must harmonize all relevant words (terms), verses, and passages. We cannot just hobby-horse one (erroneous) interpretation, ignoring all of the other relevant passages, and call it being faithful to God and scripture.
Finally, God promises in:
“A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my spirit within you, and CAUSE YOU
to walk in my statutes, and YE SHALL KEEP
my judgments, AND DO
I can assure you, I trust God over anomians, over antinomians, and over those true brethren who act like such for a season, or seasons. God works in His people, causing them to obey, to keep His commands, all to the degree that He afore-ordained. And yet, all the more (more and more), we should strive to obey/keep/serve the law, out of heart-felt service to God, praying for grace, mercy, and strength to do so. Remember:
“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have ALWAYS OBEYED
[note that the key words are often right there in front of us], not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, WORK OUT your own salvation
with fear and trembling [i.e., living in true love and faith; striving lawfully against sin; labouring to be obedient; using the means God Himself has established for us to do so]. 13 For it is God which worketh in you
both to will and to do of [his] good pleasure.”
To God be the glory,