The book of Galatians is among the most quoted and misunderstood letters of the Apostle Paul. As a result, many believe that in this letter, Paul released us from the need to keep the laws that define sin and righteousness. In this post, let us study Galatians and discover the truth it reveals about the New Covenant!
Paul was known to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. It was Paul who primarily went out of the Jewish community and reached out to those people who were once not part of the commonwealth of Israel.
Through his letter to the Galatians, Paul explained one important lesson that most Christians misunderstood. In fact, the book of Galatians is commonly used to teach that the law of God is no longer binding and that we can do whatever we want now as long as we “believe” in Jesus Christ.
However, is this what the book of Galatians really teach? Did Paul really get rid of God’s law through this letter? Most importantly, what does it really mean to be under the New Covenant?
In this post, let us take a look at the book of Galatians and see what it really says about the New Covenant, God’s laws, and the expectations for Christians today.
The core issue of the Galatian church
Most Bible scholars would agree that the letter to the Galatians was written between A.D. 40-50. As you can see, it has already been decades since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Yahshua the Messiah).
As expected, in the early years of the New Testament church, there came a big controversy that needed to be addressed. That’s one of the reasons that Paul wrote this letter.
He said in Galatians 1:6-7:
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
The Book of Galatians is primarily a letter dealing with a heretical and divisive issue instead of a letter to bring encouragement and instruction.
The issue Paul was trying to address here was the issue of circumcision. This issue has been so big and divisive that Paul has to write a forceful letter just to remove this heresy.
Notice how serious Paul was in putting a stop to this heresy:
And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased. I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off” (Galatians 5:11-12)!
If you read this in the original language, you would soon see that the language used was quite graphic. Paul was sarcastically saying that since these people were so insistent in teaching circumcision, why don’t they completely cut themselves off figuratively from the Body of Christ.
The problem with the circumcision doctrine
In the first century, as the Church grew, more and more non-Jewish people came to the truth. Some Jews kept on insisting that circumcision should still be required for gentiles to be part of God’s church.
This issue was so widespread that it was also described in Acts 15:1:
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
In verse 24 of the same verse, we read that these teachers came to the people of God without the right authorization and that they were beginning to trouble the minds of many.
The non-Jewish people of God during the first century were pressured to submit to this heretical teaching. To gain favor, promote unity, and eliminate the fellowship barrier among themselves, non-Jewish people gave in and submitted to the circumcision doctrine. Some refused to do so and the result was a great divide in the Body of Christ.
There was a BIG problem with insisting that circumcision was still required to receive salvation. False teachers were persuading gentile converts that justification will never be achieved by repentance, believing the Gospel, and accepting Yahshua’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin.
They taught that they still need to get circumcised to become a full-pledge servant of God!
To make things worse, part of the circumcision doctrine also includes that Christians should also follow the other temporary laws given at Mt. Sinai.
Circumcision doctrine undermined Christ’s great sacrifice
Many of the Christian converts were impressed with the circumcision doctrine. They feel that they need to be circumcised to be like the Jews and become part of the Chosen people of God.
Some gentile converts gave in and got themselves circumcised. While this may have led to some certain level of unity, compromising the truth about Christ’s sacrifice will only lead to a bigger problem in the future.
Instead of relying on God to justify Christians, they are now relying on physical requirements to help them get justified in the eyes of God.
Instead of relying on the sacrifice of Yahshua, they are now relying on the ritualistic way of worship to “earn” salvation.
Paul’s argument regarding justification
Paul, in addressing the issue of circumcision, emphatically wrote in Galatians 3:1-4:
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? 4 Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?
Paul was teaching the Galatians that justification does NOT come through the works of the law, in this case, through circumcision. Accepting circumcision and other physical ceremonies and rituals of the Old Covenant is a huge insult to the great sacrifice Yahshua has made!
Those who teach that people still need to be circumcised to become part of God’s church is denying the sufficiency of justification through Christ. They were, in effect, teaching that Christ’s death isn’t enough for us to get justified in the eyes of God.
Physical circumcision vs spiritual circumcision
Tracing the history of circumcision, we could see that it was part of God’s covenant with Abraham. We read in Genesis 17:9-14:
9 And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.
12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. 13 He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
As you can see, the Jewish people felt that they needed to be circumcised to be called Abraham’s descendants. Yes, circumcision is a physical sign that identified the Jews as descendants of Abraham.
However, for us, Christians, who are under the New Covenant and not under the Abrahamic Covenant, physical circumcision isn’t required anymore. You can do circumcision but it is not mandatory.
In the New Testament, circumcision is still needed, but it is no longer in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense. Instead of circumcising the flesh of the foreskin, we must circumcise our hearts!
Long before the establishment of the New Covenant, Moses already prophesied, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
What is the purpose of the circumcision of the heart?
It is for us to effectively love Yahweh our God with all our heart and soul.
God’s law was never the issue
Paul explained in Galatians 2:15-16:
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
In arguing against the need for circumcision, Paul clearly tells us that it is not through the “works of the law” that we are going to be justified, but by the faith, we have in Christ.
Now, notice: the issue in the Galatian church was NOT whether the law of God is good or bad.
The main issue was that people who advocate the circumcision doctrine were teaching that we can “EARN” our salvation through the works of the law.
Keeping the law of God will NEVER earn us our salvation. That is what Paul was clearly telling us in the book of Galatians.
The law of God defines what righteousness and sin are. What it can’t do is forgive us our sins and justify us. The law can only curse us with the death penalty for our sins but it can NEVER free us from that curse.
That’s the main reason that we need Christ’s atoning sacrifice to justify us. We don’t DESERVE Yahshua dying for our sins, but it was freely done by Yahweh and Yahshua out of their great love toward us.
As you can see, no matter how hard you keep the law of God, you will NEVER EVER be able to erase the death penalty it pronounces to those who break them. Thus, you can NEVER earn your salvation.
Salvation is a FREE gift from God.
This is the main reason that Paul explained:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:20-21).
We need to have the faith that Yahshua died for us and through His death, we are justified and given the opportunity to receive eternal life.
It is NOT through rituals, ceremonies, and physical circumcision that will get us justified.
Paul’s support of the Law of God
Far from abolishing the Law of God, Paul, in His letter to the Galatians, explained how we can be justified. However, this does not in any way support the notion that Paul was freeing us from keeping the Law of God.
In fact, he said in Romans 2:13:
“For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”
Paul was saying here that even justification is not available or possible for those people who refuse to follow the commandments of God.
Paul even made a conclusion in Romans 7:12:
“Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.”
With all these in mind, we can all agree to this one Biblical truth:
You can’t earn salvation through the works of the law, but it is equally true that you must keep the Law as a sign of your full obedience and submission to God.