This one line in Galatians chapter five is the cause of much misunderstanding: “every man who lets himself be circumcised is obligated to keep the whole law” (verse 3). A historic interpretation is that if you do part of the law, you have to do it all. Since no one can do it all, you are, by participating in circumcision, engaging in a hopeless quest. An adjacent interpretation is that by “doing the law,” one engages in worthless practices because the sacrifices of the Old Testament cannot save.
These interpretations do not do justice to this text. Paul is dealing with people who believe that by accepting circumcision, festival observances, and dietary restrictions, that they are now “in” with God and nothing else need be done. Paul’s point is just the opposite. You cannot stop with these. You have to go on and do the whole law – which involves loving one another. The entirety of the law is summed up in this command: “Love your neighbor as your self.” Indeed, Paul’s point is not that Christians should not do the Law, but rather that they must keep it entirely! The law commands living by faith (Galatians 3:12). You must do that. The law commands loving and living in harmony with brethren (5:14). You must do that. You cannot pick and choose the commands and expect that God will owe you His blessing because you’ve done the things you find easy.
Galatians was written shortly after the Jerusalem gathering of Acts 15 on Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 16 – 18). You should get the impression that the whole “you can only be saved by being a Jew” controversy has left Paul seething at the impertinence of this false teaching. When he discovers that the Galatian christians have been infected with it, he fires off this angry letter and it arrives without so much as a salutation.
The Jewish false teachers are urging gentile converts to become Jews and to accept the identifiers of Judaism: circumcision, festival day observance, and dietary restrictions. If they will but become Jews and act Jewish, God will grant them His blessings. In fact, the implication is that God will owe them His blessings.
Several points are vitally important to understand.
First, the business of “observing the law” (mentioned four times in Galatians) doesn’t mean “obey the Old Testament.” The phrase occurs only in Galatians and Romans and is confined to the particular matters Paul mentions: circumcision, festival day observance, and dietary restrictions. Galatians is not a diatribe against keeping the Old Testament. In fact, Paul requires obedience to it. It is a polemic against requiring Jewishness to be saved.
Second, near the end of chapter two, Paul writes (in most English translations): “the life I live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God.” In fact, Paul actually writes in the Greek text that he lives by the faith of the son of God. It is an important distinction. Paul isn’t saying faith in Jesus isn’t required (he will say it is required many times in his letters). He isn’t saying Jesus had faith and that’s enough, we don’t have to. He is saying Jesus had faith and we should have the kind of faith Jesus had. The phrase occurs seven times in the New Testament and only in Paul’s writings (Romans 3:22,26; 3:26; Galatians 2:16, 20; 3:22; Philippians 3:9).
It makes a difference does it not? It’s one thing for me to “believe” in Jesus. It’s another to have Jesus’ faith. That gives us all something to aim for.
The book of Galatians is the earliest letter we have from Paul. It was written on his second missionary journey, probably from Corinth, and addresses Christians in the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe in Asia Minor. Galatians is also the book theologians most often go to when opposing “legalism” in Christianity.
“Legalism” is a “quid pro quo” religion that says if you keep the commands, God owes you blessing. Two items are significant in this thinking: First, that God’s blessing is “up to you.” Second, is that you can put God in your debt by the way you live.
A “quid pro quo” religion is easy if you define the commands narrowly: do you go to church on Sunday? Are you faithful to your spouse? Do you tell the truth? If we could narrow the important commands to these, we’d be good.
In Galatia, the commands had been narrowed to three: keeping certain religious holidays, observing Jewish dietary laws, and practicing circumcision. These had been staples in the Jewish faith for a long time and since Christianity grew out of Judaism, the carryover was obvious. By doing these three, you certified you were one of God’s people, you “observed the law” and God owed you blessing.
But that, of course, left out faith. It also left out holy living.