Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (NIV)
Everyone needs the grace of faith expressing itself through love. I didn’t grow up committed to learning the Bible or following Christ. I pretty much went my own way throughout childhood, and especially the teenage years. I still remember what it felt like to not follow in the way of Christ. My view of the world was jaded, believing that most of humanity were basically uncaring self-absorbed creatures. I also knew the darkness of my own heart. When people, as I did long ago, view the world and self this way, there is a tragic loneliness where no one reaches out to the other, since everyone is guarded. A person and a world devoid of grace and reliant on law is, at best, a harsh place; and, at worst, a sort of dystopian nightmare.
It seems people who have a graceless past and only looked out for themselves often have a temptation to embrace strict rules when they become Christians. They know what it feels like to not have Jesus in their lives, so they sometimes, out of fear of returning to the old life, go beyond Scripture and impose standards on themselves, and then others, to keep on the straight and narrow to avoid sin.
If, or when, that happens, the Apostle Paul has something to say about it. Embracing certain practices to obtain or maintain righteousness mean diddly-squat in God’s kingdom. Here is how the Common English Bible version translates Paul’s words to the church who went down the path of strict outward rule-keeping:
“You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace! We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith. Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.” (Galatians 5:4-6, CEB)
A form of Christianity which ignores God’s grace in favor of controlling one’s own faith through certain rules is not Christianity at all, and Paul would have nothing to do with it. His position was clear and pointed:
“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses but serve each other through love.” (Galatians 5:13, CEB)
Grace is the currency of God’s kingdom, flowing freely through love. God has your back. With him we need not be guarded. God’s grace forgives, and never runs out. God’s love endures and never withdraws. When we get a hold of this essential and beautiful truth about God, the only rule we want to keep is Paul’s admonition to the Roman church:
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8, NIV)
So, are there any practices, rules, beliefs, or doctrines you impose on yourself which are burdensome to you? Why do you do them? Do you expect others to do them, too? What would change if you threw grace and love in the mix?
It must continually be borne in mind that love does not foster an antinomian spirit of being against the law because love itself is the fulfillment of law. Paul, again, explained his reasoning:
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10, NIV)
The Apostle Paul’s issue was not so much with circumcision itself as it was why the church wanted to practice it to begin with. Circumcision has always been an outward sign of an invisible reality – for the Jewish people – a truth which seemed lost on the Gentile churches. Paul’s agitation and frustration had to do with the church’s reason for considering circumcision. Much like the star-bellied Sneetches of Dr. Seuss’s classic story, the impetus behind wanting circumcision was to leverage power and superiority over others.
A vision of a new egalitarian society of redeemed persons based in the finished work of Jesus Christ (grace) was at risk, and Paul was going to address any imposed practices of exclusion (law) which would compromise and erode true community. Methinks the Apostle Paul and Dr. Seuss would have gotten along well together:
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.
—The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss, 1961
Gracious God, your love has extended so far as to give your one and only Son on our behalf. Through Jesus, I embrace the faith and love gifted to me through his redeeming work. Help me to daily die to myself and my propensity for outward rule-keeping, and to live the gracious life you died to procure for me in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.