What is the message of Galatians?


Don’t get circumcised!

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all (5:2, all quotes from the NIV).

Fair enough, but not particularly relevant to most of us.

Can we say more? What was Paul’s problem with circumcision?

Was it that circumcision was a work – something we do – and salvation is meant to be a free gift of God’s grace?

Don’t get circumcised, because all you need is faith?

Salvation is indeed a free gift, but this doesn’t stop Paul giving the Galatians plenty of things to do (or not to do). For example, he commands them to ‘serve one another humbly in love’ (5:13). Is that a work – something we do – that threatens to undermine the gospel of the free grace of God? Surely not.

So is it a matter of our attitude to our works? Our lives ought to be full of good works. But these works should emerge organically from within, as the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (5:22). In other words, is the problem when we ‘rely’ on our works (3:10), and when we are ‘trying to be justified’ by what we do (5:4)?

Don’t get circumcised, if by being circumcised you are trying to earn God’s approval?

This doesn’t seem to work either. If Paul’s only problem with the Galatians being circumcised was that they were doing it for the wrong reasons, then why doesn’t he say that? Circumcision, for Paul, isn’t an example of a good thing that might be done for bad reasons. On the contrary, it is clearly a bad thing that should not be done at all!

But what was wrong with circumcision? Had Paul not read his Bible? Are not the Gentiles invited to live among the people of Israel and be circumcised (Exodus 12:48)?

This, I think, brings us nearer to the heart of the letter. Previously it was good for Gentiles to be circumcised. But now things are different. Something of cosmic significance has happened. And that something is identified by the most frequent (nontrivial) word in the letter: Christ.

So what was Paul’s problem with circumcision? It is a way of saying that you wish Christ had not come. It marks you out as belonging to the ‘present evil age’ (1:4) rather than to the ‘new creation’ (6:15). It marks you out as a slave rather than as a child of God. And it marks you out as a person of the flesh rather than as an heir of the promised Spirit.

This is why I think we are missing the point whenever we read Galatians without centring on Christ. Yes, God is wonderfully gracious. Yes, salvation is a free gift. Yes, we should never try to earn our salvation. But this was already true under the Old Covenant, and this is not what Galatians is about. Galatians is about Christ: his coming, his death, and his resurrection, and about the new age of the Spirit that he has ushered in.

Don’t get circumcised, because Christ has set us free.

So what is the relevance for us? Paul associates circumcision with a whole cluster of activities. He links it with the rest of the Law of Moses (5:3). He links it with the (Jewish or pagan) observation of ‘special days and months and seasons and years’ (4:10). And he links it with the ‘acts of the flesh’, such as sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred and drunkenness (5:19-21). So perhaps we could generalise:

Don’t get circumcised (or live according to the flesh in any way), because Christ has set us free.

But if that was the problem with circumcision, then what was the appeal of circumcision? Why were these ‘agitators’ (5:12) trying to ‘compel’ the Galatians to be circumcised (6:12)? Paul is blunt about this.

Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh (6:12-13).

By persuading Gentile Christians to be circumcised, these people were (1) avoiding persecution, and (2) trying to look good in the eyes of others. This is the exact opposite of Christ’s attitude, and of Paul’s attitude. Both Christ and Paul (1) faced persecution, and (2) looked bad in the eyes of others. Hence the emphasis on the cross of Christ in Galatians. For example:

Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished (5:11).

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (6:14).

But why would persuading Gentile Christians to be circumcised help these people to avoid persecution? Two suggestions. First, Christianity would have been less offensive to the Jews if Gentiles believers were themselves becoming Jewish (by being circumcised). Second, as Tom Wright suggests in a video, Jews in the Roman world were given special dispensation not to worship the emperor. So if an uncircumcised Christian man refused to worship the emperor, this could lead to persecution. But if he was circumcised (i.e., if he became Jewish), he could avoid being persecuted for refusing to worship the emperor.

So perhaps we could express the message of Galatians in this way:

Don’t try to save your flesh by being circumcised (or by living according to the flesh in any way), because Christ has set us free.

The paradox of the gospel is that we have been set free in order that we might die – to the world (6:14), and to our fleshly passions and desires (5:24).

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (2:20).

But as we die with Christ, we put our faith in God, who ‘raised him from the dead’. And we live in confident hope that ‘whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life’ (6:8) and will one day ‘inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:21).

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (6:9).