Paul was concerned that the Galatian Christians suffered so many things in vain (3:4; 4:10). This implies that these Christians were at risk of losing their eternal inheritance. One can be a Christian and still suffer eternal loss, if one does what the Galatians did. We must to understand what they did wrong, so that we can plead with God to protect us from that error.
5:2-4 explains the error in clear language:
“… if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. … You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace”.
The danger therefore arises when Christians receive circumcision, but circumcision, in itself, is not the danger. “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” (5:6; 6:15). But if that is true, why are people “severed from Christ” if they “receive circumcision” (5:3)?
The danger of circumcision lies in what it leads to. Circumcision is only the door into something much greater, namely to live like Jews. The “circumcision party” not only compelled Gentiles Christians to be circumcised, but also to live like Jews (2:14). This means to live according to the Law, which in Galatians is specifically the Law of Moses (3:17; 4:24-25).
But to live according to the Law of Moses is also not, in itself, the real danger. The real danger rather lies in the thinking behind observing those laws, namely to seek “to be justified by law” (5:4), which means to be put right with God by one’s own efforts (3:3).
If I think I can save myself, by complying with the rules, then I think that I don’t need God’s grace, which is manifested in Christ. Then I myself have become the basis for my hope of eternal life. It is this thinking that causes people to be “severed from Christ”.
People that believe that one has to earn your salvation by your own works will always create a large number demanding rules and regulations as a barrier against sin because they will soon realise that they are not able to keep God’s law. They will invent rules and regulations to force themselves to obey God’s law. A system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation:
- Turns the mind away from God. It turns the mind to self, which is filled with sin of every kind.
- Depicts God as merciless and disinterested in human suffering, and therefore leads people to treat their fellow human beings without mercy; disinterested in their suffering.
- Kills the love for God, and when love for God dies, love for fellow beings also perishes.
- Lead to selfish and narrow-minded criticism all who fails to comply. Criticism kills compassion. Men become self-centred judges, spying on one another.
The Judaism of Paul’s day is a good illustration of the consequence of a system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation. They observed a myriads of traditions (1:14) which the rabbis accumulated around the Law of Moses over hundreds of years, until it was very difficult to learn all these humanly devised laws in a single lifetime. The purpose of the traditions was to act as a fence to safeguard the Jews from breaking the Law of Moses, but the end result was the opposite. Their religious services did not humble the attendees with a sense of their own weakness. They were not filled with gratitude for the great privileges that God had given them, but with spiritual pride. Their minds were set on the self; myself, my feelings, my knowledge, my ways. They intruded into things where a person’s conscience should be his guide, and judged one another in matters that lay between the individual and God. They made their opinions and views and interpretations of Scripture the criterion for others and in their hearts condemned one another for failing to come up to their ideals, assuming that they knew what other people’s motives are.
It was from this danger that Paul was anxious to protect the Gentile Christians from by warning them against the first step towards this system, which is circumcision, and this is the danger that we still face today.