Living in Liberty Galatians 5:1–12
Patrick Henry wrote, “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” Swayed by the impassioned words of this great patriot, the Revolutionary Convention was moved to arm the American colonies for their coming struggle against the British.
In like manner, Paul dealt with a liberty-or-death issue facing the Galatian church, which needed to arm itself against the Judaizers’ deadly doctrine of circumcision. The Judaizers taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation, but if this doctrine were embraced, it would strip the church of its freedom in Christ and put it in the death grip of legalistic bondage.
Knowing that the Judaizers would try to sway the Galatians to their position, Paul armed the new believers with a biblical defense, a quick-hitting arsenal of practical exhortations designed to destroy the shackles of legalism and prove that believers should continue to stand in the liberty provided through Christ.
Command to Stand in Liberty
Paul began by commanding the Galatians to “Stand fast [keep on standing], therefore, in the liberty [freedom] with which Christ hath made us free” (v. 1). This was the theme of the apostle’s letter and the end result of justification by faith. This command functions as a summary of the doctrinal section of the epistle (Gal. 3–4) and an introduction to the practical section (Gal. 5:1–6:10).
Not only were the Galatian believers to stand in liberty, but they were to shun legalism: “and be not [stop being] entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (v. 1). Legalism has a twofold effect on people who are caught in its web. First, they are like animals or birds ensnared in a trap, the trap being legalistic Judaism—a system of religious dos and don’ts. Second, they are under “the yoke of bondage,” a picture of servitude. Peter used the term yoke at the Jerusalem Council when he referred to yoking Gentile believers to the Law, which neither past generations of Jewish people nor the apostles were able to bear (Acts 15:10).
Although Christians are to throw off the yoke of legalism, they must put themselves under Christ’s yoke, which is described as “easy” and “Light” (Mt. 11:29–30). Dr. Warren Wiersbe has well said, “The unsaved person wears a yoke of sin (Lam. 1:14); the religious legalist wears a yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:1); but the Christian who depends on God’s grace wears the liberating yoke of Christ.”1
Consequences of Succumbing to Legalism
Paul used the issue of circumcision to illustrate his point concerning liberty. The Judaizers taught the Galatians that they had to be circumcised to be saved, but the apostle reminded them, “if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (v. 2).
Paul was not condemning the practice of circumcision, for he had Timothy (whose mother was Jewish) circumcised in Galatia so that he could have a ministry among his people (Acts 16:1–3). He was not saying that Galatian believers who were circumcised had lost their salvation, for Jesus clearly stated that those who are given eternal life “shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand … [nor] out of my Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:28–29). He was not saying that the Galatians had already turned to the Judaizers’ practice of circumcision. The words if ye be indicate a hypothetical situation; Paul was saying that if the Galatian believers allowed themselves to be circumcised they would promote a false teaching that would have no spiritual benefit for their salvation. The Jerusalem Council also had to deal with this problem.
Paul warned the Galatian believers of four consequences they would experience if they succumbed to the legalists’ demands. First, if they were circumcised, Christ would profit them nothing (v. 2). In other words, those who believed that circumcision was necessary for salvation, spiritual growth, and advancement or that it bestowed added grace to their spiritual lives would be adding works to saving faith. By so doing, the believers would be supplementing Christ’s work with human works, thereby making Christ of no profit to themselves (cf. 2:19–20; 3:3, 12; 4:3, 9; 5:7, 18).
Second, any believer who embraced the Law by practicing circumcision would be “a debtor [obligated or bound] to do the whole law” (v. 3). God presented the Mosaic Law as a unified system, and those living under the Mosaic system were legally obligated to keep all of its commandments; failure to do so put people under its curse (cp. 3:10; Jas. 2:10). People could not simply pick and choose the laws they wanted to keep; they had to keep the whole Mosaic system if they chose to put themselves under it. But, as Paul taught earlier in this epistle, Christians must die to the Law to gain life in Christ (2:19–20).
Third, “Christ is become of no effect” for those who were trying to be “justified by the law” (v. 4). Paul was not speaking about their position in salvation but about their present spiritual experience in Christ. The apostle often referred to the Galatians as brethren and used the personal pronoun we (linking them to himself as fellow believers) throughout this epistle. Furthermore, the words become of no effect (katergeo) mean to render inoperative. When Christians put themselves under the Law in order to be justified or sanctified, they are making Christ inoperative in their spiritual walk, which can result in a fall from grace (v. 4) or being cut off from the blessings and fellowship of the indwelling Holy Spirit needed to live fruitful lives in Christ.
Fourth, embracing the Law would result in being cut off from “The hope of righteousness [which is] by Faith” (v. 5). Again, Paul was not referring to salvation but to the completed righteousness that believers will experience at their glorification (Rom. 8:29–30). At the moment of salvation, believers receive the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith. But it is the completed “hope of righteousness” that believers are eagerly awaiting. They hope for the day when the Lord will come to rapture them away, resulting in their glorification, the consummation of their salvation (Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 15:51–52). Those living under the Law had no assurance that God would declare them righteous; only those who by faith receive Christ possess this personal assurance—an assurance that is confirmed by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:16).
In concluding his illustration on circumcision, Paul said, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love” (v. 6). In other words, circumcision plays no role in salvation, nor does it please God. God is pleased by faith working through the love principle, because love is a fulfillment of the Law (v. 14). Those living by faith are energized through love, not by some external legalistic system. Therefore, people who put themselves under a bankrupted legalistic system cut themselves off from the life of liberty and fellowship that Christ has lovingly provided.
Confronting the Saints over Legalism
Paul abruptly concluded his argument on circumcision and confronted the Galatians about their readiness to embrace legalism by comparing their Christian experience to a race, one of the apostle’s favorite metaphors. “Ye did run well [conducted yourselves honorably]; who did hinder you [cut you off] that ye should not obey the truth?” (v. 7; cp. Rom. 9:16; 1 Cor. 9:24–26; Gal. 2:2; 2 Tim. 4:7). In other words, the Galatians had run the Christian race superbly in the past, but someone had thrown them off stride, causing them to stumble, slowing down their progress toward the goal. The word who refers to the Judaizers, who were trying to compete and complete the race through legalism and self-effort rather than by faith. The apostle assured them that “This persuasion [the Judaizers’ seductive words] cometh not of him [God] that calleth you” (v. 8). Simply put, God never calls people to salvation through self-effort but by the gospel through faith (Eph. 2:8–9).
Paul compared these false teachers and their doctrine to leaven: “A little leaven leaventh the whole lump” (v. 9). Leaven is often used in the Bible as a symbol of evil or corruption. Jesus warned His disciples to be on guard against the “Leaven [false teachings] of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (Mt. 16:6, 12). Paul referred to immorality within the church as leaven (1 Cor. 5:6). False doctrine, if not dealt with, will spread within a church, causing its complete corruption. The point of Paul’s analogy is clear. Just as a little leaven placed in dough soon spreads throughout the entire batch, so the Judaizers’ false teaching, if allowed to exist, would permeate the entire Galatian church. Like leaven, doctrinal heresy works its way through a church slowly, often unnoticed, until it has corrupted the whole congregation. False teaching cannot be controlled, reasoned with, or dealt with slowly but must be quickly removed.
Although the Galatians were leaning toward the Judaizers’ position, Paul said, “I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded” (v. 10). Paul had a settled confidence in his heart that the Galatians would not turn from the truth of the gospel to embrace the false doctrine being propagated by the Judaizers. In fact, he wanted the one responsible for troubling or disturbing the Galatians to “bear his judgment, whosoever he be” (v. 10). He wanted to see the full weight of God’s grievous judgment fall on any of the Judaizers who attempted to lead these babes in Christ into the destructive doctrine of legalism (cp. Mt. 18:6; 2 Pet. 2:9). Paul was probably referring to the future day of God’s judgment as well as to present-day church discipline.
Countering the Seductive Legalists
Unable to counter Paul’s argument, the Judaizers attacked the apostle, accusing him of preaching circumcision whenever it suited his purpose. They charged that he preached the necessity of circumcision to Jews but not to Gentiles. True, Paul had preached circumcision before his conversion. True, he had Timothy circumcised because he was from a Jewish background (Acts 16:1–3). True, he did not allow Titus (a Gentile) to be circumcised (Gal. 2:3). But he never promoted the practice as being necessary for salvation. In fact, Paul refuted such accusations, first because he was being persecuted by Judaism: “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution?” (v. 11). The fact that Paul suffered persecution at the hands of Judaism disproved the Judaizers’ accusation. Second, if Paul were still preaching the need for circumcision, “Then is the offense of the cross ceased” (v. 11) or become inoperative. The cross was an offense or stumbling block to the Jews (Rom. 9:33; 1 Cor. 1:23) because it provided freedom from the Mosaic Law through Christ’s death. If Paul had preached circumcision (which he did not), then the cross no longer would have been an offense to the Jews.
Paul concluded this section of his letter with a sarcastic comment to discredit the Judaizers: “I would ‘they were even cut off [mutilated] who trouble you” (v. 12). Paul wished that the Judaizers who were troubling the Galatians would go beyond circumcision and completely emasculate (castrate) themselves, as some heathen priests did. (This is a reference to Cybele, a Phrygian goddess, whose priests and many of her followers castrated themselves.) Paul was implying that if, like the pagans, the Galatians believed that legalism could earn them divine favor, they should go to the pagan extreme of self-mutilation. But such an act would, according to the Mosaic Law, disqualify them from God’s service. Paul made the point that circumcision (Law keeping) could not contribute to a person’s justification or sanctification.
Oswald Chambers provides a fitting conclusion to Paul’s exhortation: “Always keep your life measured by the standards of Jesus. Bow your neck to His yoke alone, and to no other yoke whatever; and be careful to see that you never bind a yoke on others that is not placed by Jesus Christ … There is only one liberty, the liberty of Jesus at work in our conscience enabling us to do what is right.”2
May we, like Paul, cast off the chains of legalism and choose to stand in Christ’s liberty.
- Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Galatians (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), Vol. I, 713.
- Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest (New York, NY: 1935), 127.