Galatians 5:1-6, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accept circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Paul opens this portion of his letter to the church in Galatia with a resounding message: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (5:1). What a prospect that we far too easily pass over, that in Christ we can experience freedom.

And yet, we still may have a question at this point: freedom from what? Paul goes on to talk about staying away from the “yoke of slavery” we were once bound to, but what is that yoke specifically that Paul is referring to?

Based off of the context of the passage in verses 2-6, and of the entire letter, it becomes clear that Paul is primarily talking here about the “yoke” of Jewish ceremonial laws. In Galatians, Paul elsewhere preaches the exclusivity of his gospel of grace (1:6-10) and, implicitly, how the law falls short. He shares a story of his confrontation with Peter over matters of the law (2:11-14). He reminds his audience that we are justified by faith alone (2:15-3:29). He explains how Christ came to the world “born under the law” that he might “redeem those who were under the law” (4:4-5). The Jewish laws and how they fit in the gospel message were certainly at the heart of Paul’s concern in this letter.

Returning to our passage, Paul attempts to re-focus his reader to his point. “Look,” he says. “I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (5:2). What does Paul mean? Paul is suggesting that for the Galatians to feel obligated to obey in this matter for justification cuts against the entire grain of the message of Paul’s letter and of Christ’s gospel. To save ourselves, we would have to “keep the whole law” (v. 3). Not only this but as verse 4 explains, there would be no need of Christ. For what does Christ die if we have our own plan of self-salvation? What a waste! “By the law…you have fallen away from grace” (5:4).

Paul is essentially saying in this passage that there is nothing we can add on to Christ’s finished work for saving faith, not only because His sacrifice was perfect, but because our every attempt to save ourselves is futile. Where our works cannot save us in the least, however, Christ’s work can save us to the uttermost (Heb 7:25).

How are we saved, then? “Through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (5:5). That’s a lot of theological language, but it’s a simple point: Instead of working, we are waiting. We expectantly wait for God to make us righteous; not “righteous” as in able to do good deeds day to day, but in being counted “righteous” by God in Christ when the day has come for our justification to be enacted.

Paul closes this passage with an important point: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (5:6). The point is that it is not circumcision itself that is the issue – the true issue is conditioning salvation upon receiving circumcision or any other ceremonial law that has been fulfilled in Christ. When Christ demands of us to “be perfect” in Matthew 5:48, this is meant to highlight our inadequacy for the task, Christ’s perfection in imputing His righteousness to us, and our responsibility to pursue holiness. What God wants more than a legalistic faith or even a “religious” faith, is a faith centered on Christ’s finished work.

This year (2017) we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. One of the core doctrines close to the heart and passion of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers was justification by faith alone or sola fide. I’m grateful for the legacy of Paul, Luther, Calvin, and many preachers today who continue the tradition of preaching justification by faith. It is a doctrine we cannot exhaust proclaiming. Even the smartest, strongest Christians need this reminder in the midst of life: that there is nothing we can do of our own accord to win God’s favor, but God has so loved us that He sent Christ to say, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).