Standing Fast In the Liberty By Which Christ Has Made Us Free (See 5:1)
The Razor’s Edge Of Religion
In Rocky Mountain National Park there lies a ‘razor’s edge’–a portion of the Continental Divide. You know the time-worn explanation of this ‘divide’: if a raindrop falls on the Continental Divide, it will either flow into the drainage that winds up in the Pacific Ocean, or else in the Atlantic.
There is one area in the Park where two rivers originate within yards of each other. The immediate terrain is fairly gentle — no giant razor blades standing up out of the earth to prove to wide-eyed tourists that this whole divide thing is for real. But, nevertheless, these two streams carry the moisture away to decidedly different locations: the Colorado flows down through tortured canyons to the Pacific waters of Baja, California; and the Cache la Poudre, flowing east, loses itself in the North Platte, then the Missouri, the Mississippi, and finally, the Atlantic.
Up until now, in the epistle to the Galatians, it is possible that Paul’s readers might still wonder why he was so agitated and so dogmatic about the Judaizing teachers that had worked their way into the Galatian churches. Even if their doctrine was “another gospel” than what he had preached, were their teachings really all that bad? (After all, they still taught that Jesus was the Messiah, didn’t they?)
But Paul now leads his readers up to an overlook of the religious ‘continental divide.’ He shows them the razor’s edge that divides true religion from false; that determines whether one’s end will be salvation or damnation. Like two streams meandering not far from one another, the difference can sometimes be subtle and beguiling.
“Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing!” (v. 2) Circumcision sounds, to the modern reader, like such an innocuous thing — certainly not a matter of sin. Paul would agree that it is a non-essential thing . . . unless it indicates a matter of principle.
The principle was this: circumcision was the initiation into the whole body of Jewish tradition and ceremony. To be circumcised at the direction of the Judaizers was to accept the obligation to carry out obedience to the whole body of Jewish law.
No doubt pious-minded people observed the reverence and rectitude of these teachers and were attracted to their teaching — just as in our day people are attracted by aspects of Mormonism, Islam, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Circumcision was billed as an honorable and worthy yoke to bear.
But Paul calls circumcision “a yoke of bondage” (v. 1). He sees neither hope or glory in it. He personally had gone that route and could recall its intolerable weight: “I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law” (v. 3). He recognized what the unsuspecting Galatians didn’t–that circumcision, under these circumstances, marked a return to rank Phariseeism and the wearying burden of works-righteousness.
Beyond that, it must be emphasized that to explore the one watershed–even to dip one’s toes into one of its streams–means that one no longer stands in the other watershed: “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (v. 4).
ANY time that a person is led to rest his hope of standing righteous before God in something other than Christ’s atonement, his eyes are off of the cross. His faith is in something other than in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. He stands in a watershed that feeds only despair and self-righteousness.
By contrast, in the watershed that begins on the other side of the divide — that begins with the Spirit imparting “the hope of righteousness by faith” (v. 5) — there is the hope of salvation promised in Jesus’ name.
And there is more. There is “faith working through love” (v. 6). Paul will later speak of the true fruits of the Spirit. There needed to be an encouragement of these fruits, because the fruits of legalism were apparent among the Galatians. They were very much side-tracked from their gospel-beginnings (v. 7). A warning was in order not to “bite and devour one another” (v. 15).
There were some who, along with their legalistic doctrine, were sowing discord in the congregation. First of all, there was the confusion introduced by the false doctrine. Consciences were burdened, and the Gospel was obscured. Secondly, it is the nature of legalism to elevate oneself, and to view others in a patronizing or overbearing way. [Here is where Jesus warns about removing that plank from one’s own eye, before taking it upon oneself to remove the speck from someone else’s eye (Luke 6:41-42).] The unity that the Lord requires among His people is shattered. Finally, there is that strange, but all too real, interplay between legalism and liberalism. When people abandon the gospel and seek justification by their own deeds, the law of true love (Rom. 13:9) is the first thing to suffer. Astonishing abuses can occur in the name of ‘righteousness.’
Those who are called unto salvation by faith in Jesus Christ are called to view a broad and sweeping vista of love–the Lord’s love for us, and the wide open landscape of opportunities for us to serve one another.
Christian liberty is about loving others from a heart reborn (v. 13); not about doing things in hopes of earning something from God. It is to this liberty the Spirit calls us.
May God grant that in this liberty we stand firm, never to test the waters of legalism.
–Pastor Peter Reim