OVERVIEW – Anyone who is under the Law of Moses is obligated to keep all its required deeds and rituals – Galatians 3:10.
In his Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul responded to teachings from certain Jewish Christians that were disrupting the churches of Galatia. A key point of contention was the claim that male Gentiles must be circumcised to “complete” their faith. Additionally, they may have pressured believers to keep the calendrical observances of the Mosaic legislation and conform to Jewish dietary regulations.
The “Judaizers,” as Paul labeled them, did not deny the need for faith; rather, they taught that once Gentiles came to faith in Jesus, performing at least some “works of the Law” was necessary to complete their faith:
- (Galatians 3:1-5) – “So foolish are ye, having begun in Spirit, are you now to be made complete by the flesh?”
But the Apostle would have none of it. He labeled them “agitators” who were causing divisions by compelling Gentiles to “live like Jews.” The real controversy was over the status of Gentiles in the covenant people. To be a member in good standing, must a Gentile add circumcision and other works of the Torah to his faith in Jesus?
PAUL’S RESPONSE. He did not charge his opponents with compelling Gentiles to keep the entire Law. Some verses indicate they insisted that Gentiles must keep only certain requirements, especially circumcision, but not, necessarily, every requirement demanded by Law given through Moses – (Galatians 3:10, 5:2-3).
The Apostle’s main proposition is recorded in Galatians 2:15-21, where he presented what he held in common with his opponents (verses 15-16), then summarized the areas of disagreement (verses 17-21):
- “We ourselves by nature Jews and not sinners from among the Gentiles, know that man is not declared righteous on the basis of the works of the law but through the faith of Christ Jesus; even we believed in Christ Jesus that we might be declared righteous on the basis of the faith of Christ and not on the basis of the works of the law; because from the works of the law will no flesh be declared righteous.”
What he and his opponents held in common was that no man is put in right standing with God “from the works of the Law,” but instead, “from the faith of Jesus Christ.” The agitators were adding requirements to this faith. At issue was not good works, but the deeds required by the Mosaic Law, which included circumcision. In the context of this letter, the “works of the law” can only refer to the requirements of the Torah given through Moses.
In chapter 3, Paul began to present his arguments to support the proposition, beginning with an argument from experience, the receipt of the Spirit while the Galatians were yet uncircumcised. This was irrefutable proof that God had accepted Gentile believers on their faith, and without the rite of circumcision.
DOING THE WHOLE LAW. Next, Paul presented arguments from Scripture. He appealed to the example of Abraham and linked him to faith, righteousness, and the promised “blessing” for Gentiles. The Patriarch was “reckoned righteous” from his faith, not from the “deeds of the law,” therefore, all who are from faith are the “sons of Abraham.”
- (Galatians 3:10-13) – “For as many as are from the works of the Law are under a curse, for it is written, ‘Accursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.’”
In contrast to those “from faith,” those who are “from the works of the Law” place themselves under its curse. The Law itself pronounced that all those under it are obligated “to continue in ALL the things written in the Book of the Law, to do them” – (Deuteronomy 27:26).
The Law was not a pick-and-choose menu, but an all-or-nothing proposition. If one is under it, just observing the Sabbath or getting circumcision is insufficient to avoid its curse. One must do all that the Law requires.
Gentile believers contemplating the addition of circumcision to their faith must understand that much more is involved than the removal of the foreskin. The Torah requires members of the covenant community to do all that is written in it, and those who are living from the “works of the Law” fall under its curse if they fail to do so.
At Mount Sinai, Israel placed herself under the obligations of the covenant, and thereby, under its (potential) curse. The curse was pronounced against all who failed to continue in all that the Law required. The Galatians were considering a decision with potentially dire consequences.
In his letter, Paul connected the preposition “under” to the Law ten times, and always negatively. Thus, he referred to those who are “under sin”, “under the Law,” “under a custodian,”, “under guardians,” and “under the elemental principles” of the world. Those who are “under the Law” are not classified as people “from faith.” Instead, they need of redemption “from under the Law” – (Galatians 3:22-25, 4:2-5, 4:21, 5:18).
His argument was covenantal. He was not arguing against doing good works in general, but instead, against placing oneself under the requirements and obligations of the Mosaic Law. The act of circumcision did just that; it obligated the man under it to do all that the Torah demanded.
The curse pronounced in Deuteronomy was not against all humanity or sin in general. The curse fell on ALL who failed to do everything that the Law required; it applied only to those who were under it.
CONSEQUENCES OF SUBMISSION TO TORAH. If Gentile believers choose to get circumcised, Jesus and his work on the cross ceases to benefit them. Instead, they must now keep the entire Law, because submission to circumcision places them under the covenant made with Israel at Sinai.
- (Galatians 5:2-3) – “Behold! I, Paul, am saying to you. If you get circumcised, Christ will benefit you nothing. Moreover, I bear solemn witness again to every man getting circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”
If the Galatians placed themselves under Torah, they would cease to be under the covenant instituted by the death of Jesus. It was one or the other. Christ endured the Law’s curse so his followers would not – (“You have been set aside from Christ, you who are to be declared righteous from the Law”).
According to the Apostle Paul, “if righteousness is through the Law, then Christ died in vain.” Thus, anyone who teaches that faith in what God has done in Jesus is insufficient for determining membership in His people, intentionally or not, has declared that his unjust death on a Roman cross served no real purpose, that, effectively, he “died for nothing.”