It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Look! I, Paul, tell you that if you have yourselves circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who has himself circumcised, that he is obligated to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who seek to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. 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. [Gal5:1-6]
Freedom from what?
Paul opens his remarks with the statement: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free”. In view of what many currently understand to be the gospel, they would assume such freedom must relate to deliverance from God’s punishment for human sin. But that is not the case, either in Paul’s reference here or in Jesus’s statement recorded in the Gospels that “if the Son shall set you free you shall be free indeed” (Jn8:36). In the apostle’s case he is referring to the Torah, its regulations and the Christian’s exemption from its requirements. In Jesus’ statement it pertains to deliverance from the dominating power of sin, and that is a recurring theme of Paul as should be becoming evident. This passage also makes it abundantly clear that what might appear to be Paul’s anti-law rhetoric in Galatians is directed at those wishing to reinstate Torah: “I, Paul, tell you that if you have yourselves circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (v2). Why? Because “every man who has himself circumcised is obligated to keep the whole Law (v3). This is not a tirade against law itself, for to the chagrin of many Western theologians, even an unregenerate Paul had delighted in God’s law in his inner man (i.e. his spirit). The problem Paul had identified in the passage to which I have to keep referring (Rom7) was the degenerate condition of the “vessel” that the eternal spirit of man temporarily inhabits. Paul variously describes it as “the flesh”, “the body of sin” or “body of this death” (vv22-24). But as that apostle exultantly declares when concluding that passage, the matter has been resolved for the Christian by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (v25). For through baptism, “Our old self has been crucified with Christ in order that our body of sin might be nullified such that we might no longer be under its sinful dominion (Rom6:6). For what purpose? “So that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who no longer act in accordance with the instincts of the flesh but with the spirit” (Rom8:4)
So, far from despising the law, the Christian is intended to fulfil its requirements! As to what Paul means by “the requirement of the law”, he specifies that later in the chapter: “the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall LOVE your neighbor as yourself” (v14). For after all, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom13:9). It will astonish many that duty to God is not directly mentioned in Paul’s summary of the Law – it all pertains to our relations with other human beings. Likewise in Jesus’ definitive passage on final judgement, there is no mention of service to God (or indeed religious faith), only one’s response to one’s fellows. Hence, “When did we help You Lord when you were so in need?” “Truly I tell you in as much as you helped the least of these whom I regard as My own kindred, you did it to Me” (cf. Mt25:40). This mystery pertains to the vastly broader benign providence I have been outlining which I won’t expand upon here (see earlier post). However, for the Christian, unlike the Mt25 “sheep”, a personal knowledge of Christ is essential as is dutiful service to God. It is why we were recreated (2Cor5:17) – to relate more fully to God even whilst in mortal flesh so that in turn we might fulfil still greater expectations in the ages to come (Rev3:21 &19:7).
Falling from grace
As for those, like myself in the past, who understood it to be impossible to fall from grace, the people Paul was addressing had done just that (v4). They had nullified what their Lord, Master and Saviour had achieved for them through His Passion. Apart from acting as a universal propitiation for sin (1Jn2:2), Jesus had “cancelled the written code with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col2:14NIV). That “written code with its regulations” was of course the Torah. As decreed by angels (Gal3:19), the Law had been established for the people of God – those chosen to be a holy nation and priesthood for the world (cf. Ex19:6; 1Pet2:9). The Law was to act as their guardian and instructor until Messiah should come. But now He had come and so had the Holy Spirit after His ascension. As prophesied in the Old Testament God’s law was to be written in His peoples’ hearts by the Spirit (Heb8:10). And as Paul has just indicated, Christians have been empowered and spiritually provisioned to fulfil the requirement of God’s Law themselves, not through divine proxy (Rom8:4; James2:8).
Faith working through love
So, walk according to the spirit rather than the flesh and fulfil the heart and purpose of the law. But forget the Law: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love (v6). Much as some might wish to dissemble, “πίστις δι’ ἀγάπης ἐνεργουμένη” can mean nothing other than “faith working through love”. And when that concept has been apprehended, what I have been explaining above, especially regarding Christ’s teaching on final judgement, together with the vastly broader benign providence being outlined will more readily fall into place.