Galatians 5:2-4 ESV
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
In chapters 1-4 of this letter, the apostle Paul has set forth the gospel message of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. Now he intends to apply this teaching vigorously to the situation in Galatia. Speaking with the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, he expects the Galatians to make immediate changes in their beliefs, attitudes, words, and actions. These changes must be in conformity with the grace of God in the gospel. After the bridge verse (5:1), Paul instructs the Galatians to cling to Jesus Christ alone as their only hope of being right with God. Then the remainder of the letter will set forth the new covenant way of life in the Spirit. Paul uses some strong words to do this. But strong words are necessary when professing Christians listen to error like the Galatians did. It is no small error to listen to teaching that is contrary to the gospel of Christ! So then, he begins by restoring them to right thinking. To have true change, we must always start with the inner person of the heart, and that means starting with the mind. The right order is first the mind, then emotions, then the will.
The title of this message is taken from the NIV translation of the Greek particle, which could also be translated as “Look! See! Listen!” It is a word that demands attention. The apostle wants them to listen to him, since he is Christ’s apostle. His address (“I, Paul, tell you”) commands attention, and it can be taken in three ways: as I, Paul, a spokesman authorized by God, or as I, Paul, who truly loves and cares for you, or as I, Paul, yes this is what I teach, regardless of what others say I teach.
Exposition: In this paragraph, Paul proclaims three principles that they must keep clear in their minds.
I. First principle: In justification, Christ is all or nothing (5:2).
A. He starts with a warning: Do not let yourselves be circumcised.
1. In itself, circumcision does not matter for the new covenant believer (cf. 5:6). But the heart attitude behind an action does, and Paul is concerned about the heart. If circumcision is regarded as something indifferent and insignificant, then it doesn’t matter (cf. Ac 16:1-3; 1 Cor 7:17-19). But if circumcision is thought to be necessary for (full) acceptance with God, then it is dangerous. It is retrogression back to a fulfilled covenant, and that dishonors Christ and takes a person away from trusting only in him.
Quote: “Actions derive their moral character from the circumstances in which, and the principles from which, they are performed. To eat bread and drink wine in commemoration of Christ’s death, had not our Lord commanded us to do so, would have been a superstitious usage—a piece of will worship. To do so now that he has commanded it is an important part of Christian worship.” [Brown, p. 112]
2. Therefore, Paul had to contend, and so must we, against any act that subverts the pure teaching of salvation by grace alone. “What has the Lord clearly and exactly said” is our starting point.
B. The reason for the warning is that Christ must be received as a person’s all in all for justification, or he is not received at all.
1. There is no “Christ plus” system of salvation, like Christ plus baptism, or Christ plus rule keeping, or Christ plus the mass. “Whoever wants to have a half-Christ loses the whole” (Calvin).
2. Paul wants his readers to grasp the tragedy of people who are only partially interested or partially committed to Jesus Christ.
Illustration: Imagine that you were in shark-infested waters. I think you would decide that it would be wisdom to be totally in a boat, instead of in the water clinging to the boat with one hand and to a life preserver with the other. You might say, “But two are better than one!” But if one is the place of safety, then it is better to be fully committed to the one, and to let go of the other.
Transition: In verse two, Paul states what a person loses by seeking justification by law—Christ. In verse three he reveals what a person gains—an obligation to obey all the law.
II. Second principle: The law (old covenant) demands all or nothing (5:3).
A. The Holy Scriptures consistently declare that the law is a unit. You cannot have a “cafeteria style” approach to the law.
1. Consider the biblical evidence (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10; Js 2:8-11).
2. The law always brings obligation with it. To put yourself under it means that you are required to do all that it says. Those who teach sanctification by the law should put this to their hearts before they teach their wrong ideas.
B. Paul gives a straight-forward application.
1. He warns them, as individuals, of their personal responsibility in this matter. People in our time hate the idea of personal responsibility, but the Lord teaches it in his word. You are responsible to be consistent with the ideas and principles you claim to accept.
2. This points us to the danger of ignorance of the Bible. This danger lies in the path of those who seek to restore what Christ has fulfilled and set aside by his saving work. It also lies in the path of those who invent new laws for people to obey.
Apply: This is one reason that you need to be in one of our small groups. Invest part of your life in what is crucial to the well-being of your eternal soul. Start with one of our morning groups next Sunday.
III. Third principle: You cannot combine justification by the grace of Jesus Christ with an attempt to justify yourself by keeping the law (5:4).
A. The cost of such an attempt is alienation from the Lord Christ.
1. The only way to have Christ is to trust in him. If a person does not, he or she is alienated from Christ, having no part in him (cf. Jn 3:36). “It is impossible to receive Christ, thereby acknowledging that you cannot save yourself, and then receive circumcision, thereby claiming that you can” (Stott).
Illustration: Think of the frustrated child who demands that he can tie his own shoes and then refuses to let the parent help, but at the same time, he continually fails to tie them properly and then wants the parents help.
2. Thus in clear terms Paul states that the issue is Christ. Do they have a saving interest in him? Do they believe in the all-sufficiency of the salvation he accomplished?
B. The cost of such an attempt is to fall out of grace.
1. Paul is not talking about losing one’s salvation. If you are seeking justification by the law, you have never really known what it means to be justified by grace. You cannot lose what you do not possess.
2. To fall out of grace is to remove oneself from the realm of grace; it is to refuse to be saved by grace.
Illustration: “I don’t want my money in that bank! I’ll put it in another!” That may be fine if the subject is banking, but there is only one Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Point: There is a real danger of apostasy to the merely religious, who have never really trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
Quote: “Some would bind us at this day to certain of Moses’ laws which like them best, as the false apostles would have done at that time; but this is in no wise to be suffered. For if we give Moses leave to rule over us in anything, we are bound to obey him in all things; wherefore we will not be burdened with any law of Moses. We grant that it is to be read among us, and to be heard as a prophet and a witness-bearer to Christ, and moreover, that out of him we may take good examples of good laws and a holy life; but we will not suffer him in any wise to have dominion over our consciences. In this case, let him be dead and buried, and let no man know where his grave is—Deut 34:6” [Luther, quoted by Brown].