Galatians 5:2-4,“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 accepts 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 from grace.”
As Reformation Day has come and gone, we have been reminded of the beauty of the truths of Scripture represented in the Five Solas, particularly that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. As Protestants, we dearly hold to these truths and like many of the Reformers, would hopefully be willing to give our lives for these truths if necessary. However, if we are not careful, we can believe “Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Solus Christus” in principle while denying these truths in practice.
The churches of Galatia had the same problem long before us. False teachers had crept in, and the church was “quickly deserting him who called (them) in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel,” (Galatians 1:6). These false teachers were proclaiming that circumcision was necessary for salvation, and, rather than “letting them be accursed,” the church has bought in wholesale to the deception. Thus, Paul writes, under the inspiration of the Spirit, an impassioned letter rebuking the churches and calling them back to truth of the gospel and justification by faith in Christ alone.
The Danger and Irony of Justification by Works
After giving the churches a charge to stand firm rather than submit again to the yoke of slavery, Paul gets to the heart of the imminent danger they were facing. He notes, “…if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” He is making it abundantly clear that if one is going to trust in works for salvation, then they must perfectly keep the law in its entirety.
As if that was not enough, Paul continues to say, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace.” Here before us is highlighted one the great ironies in striving to achieve a righteousness of our own. The irony is that in striving to be justified by works of the law, you actually severe (cut off) yourself from your only hope for true justification, Jesus Christ!
Legalism and works-based salvation undermine the holiness of God by falsely assuming the ability to meet or measure up to God’s standard. There is only One who has lived a perfectly righteous life. Christ came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). The perfectly righteous One then gave His life as sacrifice and substitute on our behalf, the righteous for the unrighteous. God raised Him from the dead, triumphing over sin and death and showing that the sacrifice was accepted and sufficient. Paul notes in Romans 5:25 that Christ was “raised for our justification.” Yet that justification comes through faith, not in our own scorecard of works, but in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
At this point, you may be thinking (and rightly so) that most believers today are not in danger of thinking circumcision is necessary for salvation. Sure! Yet that does not mean we aren’t capable of falling into the same line of thinking. Cross out “circumcision” and insert “Bible reading” or “prayer” or any other of the means of grace we have the privilege of enjoying. We have a tendency to keep a track record of these things and think we’re more righteous before God when we’ve prayed more recently or read our Bible every day this week! On the flip side, we think of ourselves as “bad Christians” or less righteous before God when we have missed a few quiet times or don’t share the gospel for a few days or weeks. When we think this way, we are buying into the lie that we earn our righteousness before God by our own works.
The ordinary means of grace are a precious gift from God. The Holy Spirit certainly works through Bible intake, prayer, evangelism, fellowship with the body, and other means of grace to grow us in holiness and Christlikeness. As believers, we pray for and depend on the Spirit’s help in making us disciplined in each of these areas. However, whether we are struggling or excelling in these disciplines, positionally, does not make us any more or less righteous before God. The perfect righteousness of Christ cannot be diminished and is in no need of being improved upon.
O Sweetest Exchange
It is this perfect righteousness of Christ that has been imputed to us by God in our justification. By God’s grace, He imputed our sin to Christ and Christ’s perfect righteousness to believers. In other words, Christ took our sin and the wrath of God against our sin upon himself, and we, as those who are trusting in Christ, have been credited with the very righteousness of Jesus. It is this truth that caused the author of the Epistle to Diognetus to write, “O sweetest exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of One should justify many sinners!”
Christian, your only hope for justification, to be legally declared righteous before God, is not found in your scorecard of works. It is found in the all-sufficient person and work of Jesus Christ, our Lord. We have been set free in Christ for the purpose of serving and honoring Christ. By God’s grace and the Spirit’s work, we can now read our Bibles, pray, evangelize, and serve in the local church, not slavishly as a desperate ploy to earn God’s favor, but as a joyful act of worship to Him for redeeming and adopting us through the blood of His own Son.