Introduction: For many weeks we have read, listened to, and thought about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We have been taught the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Today is a time to celebrate this good news! Often this is called “Reformation Sunday”, but we could just as well call it “Gospel Sunday,” since the gospel of Christ is the main point of the Reformation—that the Sovereign God saves sinners by the power of the gospel. Five great principles about the good news were proclaimed at that time, and we will do well to remember them today.
- According to the Scriptures alone
- By grace alone
- Through faith alone
- In Christ alone
- To God alone be the glory
However, these truths are not clear to everyone who claims to be a Christian. There has always been a struggle between those who believe in salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, and those who assume that salvation comes by grace through a ritual or through keeping rules. Both sides will talk about grace, but one believes that grace is from God’s sovereign action, the other that grace is controlled by human action, like participating in a sacrament.
We must understand that it does not matter what the ritual is. In the passage before us, the issue was circumcision. In other cases, it is baptism (whether by sprinkling or immersion); in still others, it may be an altar call or baby dedication. The form does not matter, as long as one believes that grace is given through the method. If you believe that someone “enters the covenant” or is “saved” by participating in the prescribed ceremony, then you are a ritualist. So Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians with a warning against such ritualists and with a call to loyalty to the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the good news about him.
I. The goals of the ritualist (6:12)
A. The immediate goal is to win others to their cause. People like to determine success by counting noses. “This must be right way to God, because so many people believe it!” Clearly, such people have never read (Matthew 7:13-14).
1. This is a “truth in numbers” philosophy. If people are rushing to a cause, then they assume that “God must be at work in it”. In this case the false teachers could say, “Look at the proof of our reverence for the law. All these men have been circumcised!”
Comment: This has the attendant benefit that one can brag about how many are prepared to unite with the stronger group.
2. There is also a “family solidarity” philosophy that often appears and usually keeps people mired in human religion.
Where there is nothing but an external religion, great uneasiness is often produced in families when some of the members, from conscientious principle, go not to the usual place of worship, or observe not the usual form of worship…. The great matter is not the conviction of the mind, but the bringing them back to the orthodox place of worship. If they can be got back again to the church, or to the chapel, or to the meeting-house—if the external conformity be but yielded, all is gained. And, indeed, what else can be expected? Where a person’s own religion is all of this external professional kind, how should he seek for anything more in another? [Brown, p. 161.]
Apply: There is often division in a family because of the gospel of Christ. Lk 12:51-53
B. The ultimate goal is to make a good impression in the flesh.
1. A ritualist will talk a great deal about the spiritual needs of people. He or she may even speak quite eloquently of their need of salvation.
2. But to a ritualist, Christianity is a religion of external ceremonies and practices. The inward and spiritual is overlooked. As long as you abide by the accepted ritual, you can fairly well do as you please.
Example: Some people trust in so-called sacraments like penance and the mass. They participate and then they’re free to live it up until the next sacramental ritual. Evangelicals play this same kind of game with prayer, Bible reading, church attendance and evangelism.
Illustration: Rome’s sacramental system; erroneous preaching and altar calls
Apply: Our concern should be if our relationship to God is one of the whole person, body and soul, and mind, emotions and will.
II. The motives of the ritualist
A. That of avoiding persecution (6:12)
1. Persecution comes because of the cross of Christ.
a. The cross “signifies the fact of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, as the expiation of human guilt—the only ground of human hope, superseding everything else as the foundation of acceptance with God (1 Cor 1:17-18; Ph 3:18).” [Brown]
b. The cross speaks of the inability of man to save himself. People do not want to admit that they are absolutely dependent on the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Pride is oneself is the fast-track to hell.
Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size. [Stott]
2. Circumcision provided a seeming way of compromise between the cross and Jewish law-keeping. “It is possible… that these Judaizers, if they were Christians at all, were attempting to avert the antagonism of Jews to the gospel message by showing their willingness to make Gentiles submit to Jewish scruples.” [Guthrie]
Point: You cannot take something that is very important to one group and unimportant to another as a point of compromise. One group will always try to swallow the other alive.
Illustration: Tongues speakers at L’abri
B. That of boasting (6:13)
1. Some people delight in having influence over the minds of others. They love to be able to say, “Those people do as they do and believe as they believe because we taught them.”
2. This is contrary to the true Christian principle that we are to boast only in the Lord (1 Cor 1:31).
Illustration: Since we are an independent church without even any ties to an association, it is easy to forget the love of statistics in many groups. Too many times in encounters with pastors of such churches, the first thing I have heard is how many are attending their church.
III. The weakness of the ritualist: the failure to keep the law (6:13)
A. The truth of human inability
1. No man is able to obey God perfectly; therefore, there is no hope of salvation by the law. Rm 3:19-20.
2. The reason is sin’s radical corruption of people (Rm 3:9-18).
B. The practical failure
1. Remember that in Scriptural theology, reliance on circumcision brought with it an obligation to keep the whole law (cf. 5:3).
2. It is in the face of this all-inclusive demand that the ritualists were failures. Circumcision they could keep, and perhaps some other laws, but they could not keep the whole law.
Illustration: I attended a “university of rules”. One of the rules, which was posted in every dorm room was, “Griping Is Not Tolerated.” It was the rule everyone disobeyed.
Conclusion: The cure for ritualism is not laxity, but faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. May we trust in him, think on him, and live for him!