The Essence of Galatians: Circumcision or the Cross? Part 1

Galatians 6:12-15 (6:14) “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Galatians is a book that pits circumcision as the means of EARNED RIGHTEOUSNESS against faith in Christ and His death on the cross as the means of IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS. Let’s study this concept.

First we must understand that “circumcision” serves as a very broad term in Galatians. When Paul speaks of “circumcision” in this epistle, he is speaking not just about the Jewish practice of circumcision, but he is including in the word all the Jewish traditions and rituals that made up the Jewish religion. “Circumcision” is short-hand for keeping the Law and for obeying all the traditions of the elders and for observing circumcision and for keeping the Sabbath and for staying separate from all the Gentiles and so on. Basically for Paul in his context, “circumcision” is a comprehensive word for all of religious Judaism.

So “circumcision” serves as a metaphor for all the man-made attempts of achieving righteousness through man’s efforts. In Paul’s day, the only religious system that made any attempt at earning righteousness was Judaism, but that is not true in our day. In fact, all religious systems that attempt to achieve righteousness by means of what a person does would fall under the heading of “circumcision.” So today this would include Catholicism and formal Protestantism and all the so-called Christian cults and would also include any church that relies upon works and duties and external practices to make its people acceptable to God.

Now second, we also must understand what righteousness is. “Righteousness” is an absolute term, not a relative term. You either have righteousness or you do not. It is an “either/or” situation, not a scale. It is absolute. Just as you are either righteous or you are unrighteous, so you either have the righteousness that God requires or you do not. There is no third option. There is no gray area in between. So what is the righteousness that God requires? In the Bible, when righteousness is used in a doctrinal sense it means that you are viewed by God as being completely without sin AND that your every thought, word and deed are perfectly in accord with the will of God. Thus we see that sin is the primary problem for the human who would be righteous. “How can I be righteous before a holy God when I have already sinned countless times and I know that I still wrestle against sin and I know that in my flesh dwells a constant desire to sin?” This is the critical question for every human being. Every human being must be brought to the place where they recognize their own sin and they realize that their sin separates them from the living God and brings them under His wrath and condemnation. Then how do we answer the critical question? How does the sinner obtain the righteousness of God?

In the book of Galatians and throughout all of human history there are two possible paths to obtain righteousness. One path is the path of “circumcision,” the path of relying upon the religious things that you do to remove your sin and to perfectly align your will with the will of God. So you attend church or you participate in the sacraments or you give your tithe or you do your Bible study. You do your duty, trusting that, in the end, God will see that you worked pretty hard and that you were a nice guy and you only rarely lied or cussed and you never cheated on your wife. When God compares all your effort with that of the other guys, He will certainly let you into heaven. Thus you are trusting in “circumcision” and relying on your works to make you righteous before God. “After all, it’s working hard at achieving righteousness that God wants, isn’t it?” That’s the path of circumcision.

The other path to righteousness is the path of the cross. This is the man or the woman who says, “I myself am utterly bankrupt of any and all righteousness. I am a sinner and deserve God’s wrath for my sin. I have no defense and no excuse. But I know that there is a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to earth and died on Calvary’s cross so that, through His atoning death and His imputed righteousness, I will be viewed as righteous by the living God. I throw myself on His mercy and on His grace and plead for His blood to avail for me.” It is the path of the cross that allows a sinner to obtain righteousness and it is this path that Paul preaches in Galatians.

So the key to understanding and applying the book of Galatians is to see the danger of “circumcision” and the freedom provided by trusting in the cross of Christ as our means to righteousness.

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