Circumcision vs. a 'New Creation' in Christ

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The Jewish practice of requiring gentiles (non-Jews) to be circumcised to be accepted into their fellowship threatened the unity of the early Church. The apostles held a special conference at Jerusalem to address that issue so that the right perspective of justification through faith in and of Christ would not be distorted.

In a letter sent to gentile congregations at the end of that conference, the apostles confirmed in writing that they were all in agreement on this matter. They explained, “We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said” (Acts 15:24 Acts 15:24For as much as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, You must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Those disturbing the churches in Antioch and other areas tried to convince Christian gentiles that “unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1 Acts 15:1And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brothers, and said, Except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

The New Testament talks about a circumcision of the heart. But even Moses had long before prophesied: “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6 Deuteronomy 30:6And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.
American King James Version×
, NASB).

Paul also confirms this, writing that “he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:29 Romans 2:29But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
American King James Version×
, NASB). Thus, true Jews—true Christians—are those who are circumcised spiritually, with the rebellious spirit of the human mind resisted, suppressed and subdued in obedience to God through His Spirit.

Of those who insisted that believing gentiles should observe the outwardly symbolic aspects of the law, many were motivated by a desire for harmony with the non -Christian Jewish community. But as was covered in chapter 2, those aspects of the law are no longer required. The book of Hebrews explains this thoroughly. But that epistle had not yet been written when the issue of circumcision of gentiles led to a crisis in Galatia.

Paul emphasizes the importance of Christ’s death

In addressing this same matter, Paul explained to the Galatians: “As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12 Galatians 6:12As many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.
American King James Version×
).

In the early New Testament Church, certain false teachers attempted to persuade gentile converts that they could not be justified (have their sins forgiven) by simply repenting, believing the gospel, and accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.

Instead, they were teaching that justification was possible only if they were physically circumcised and adhered to other temporary laws that were given at Mt. Sinai. The apostles rejected this argument categorically. Paul forcefully argued against it in his letter to the Galatians.

The gentile Christians in the province of Galatia were being enticed to accept circumcision so that fellowship barriers between them and the Jews would be dropped. Jews limited their interaction with gentiles to mostly business activities. Eating together at the same table was banned. Even Peter at first hesitated to go against this taboo (Acts 10:25-29 Acts 10:25-29 25 And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him. 26 But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man. 27 And as he talked with him, he went in, and found many that were come together. 28 And he said to them, You know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come to one of another nation; but God has showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean. 29 Therefore came I to you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask therefore for what intent you have sent for me?
American King James Version×
).

Whoever was enticing the Galatians argued that circumcision is essential to be fully accepted among God’s people (the Jews). Circumcision would have opened the fellowship door for gentiles to the entire Jewish community. It also would have removed much of the tension between the Christians and the nonbelieving Jews.

But trying to resolve that issue with circumcision threatened to create a much greater identity issue. Physical circumcision only identified the Jews as natural descendants of Abraham. God was offering Jews and gentiles alike both justification and salvation as His children through Jesus Christ, not through fleshly circumcision. Protecting their properly perceived identity as the justified children of God was what was at stake.

Therefore, the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was to make it clear that becoming adopted descendants of Judah (the great-grandson of Abraham from whom the term Jew is derived) through circumcision offered the gentiles nothing in regard to salvation. Even circumcised Jews had to be justified through the blood of Christ and afterward live a Spirit-led life.

Nevertheless, many of the Christian gentiles in Galatia were impressed (or intimidated by) the circumcision argument. They saw it as a reasonable way to change their ambiguous social identity as neither idolaters nor Jews.

God inspired Paul to see the whole picture very differently. What the Galatian gentiles were being enticed to accept would have changed their entire perception of how important Christ’s sacrifice was to them. It would have clouded their understanding that justification is by the grace of God through faith in Christ’s shed blood and the faithful obedience that comes through Christ’s indwelling by the Holy Spirit.

Paul perceived that this change would have tacitly presented circumcision and diligent obedience to the law as the way to obtain eternal life. It threatened to undercut their faith in Christ as their Savior and Redeemer. It could have obscured the fact that by justification through faith they had already obtained a better identity as the children of God and heirs to the promise made directly to Abraham than they could ever obtain through physical circumcision.

His point was, they did not need to be adopted as Jews to become “sons of God” (Galatians 3:26 Galatians 3:26For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
American King James Version×
) and receive eternal life.

Justification is not “through the law”

Paul responded, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21 Galatians 2:21I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.
American King James Version×
, NRSV). Perceiving obedience to law through physical means (including the circumcision law) as a way of justification would imply that faith in and of Christ as our Redeemer and Savior is unnecessary or insufficient.

In effect, it would have shifted justification from the realm of mercy and empowerment through faith to the realm of lawful debt —to what could be earned through diligent natural effort in obedience. That would have ignored the fact that Scripture declares that all mankind is “under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Galatians 3:22 Galatians 3:22But the scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.
American King James Version×
, KJV).

After having sinned, the most diligent attention to the observance of law—any law—that one could possibly achieve could never earn forgiveness.

The miracle of a “new creation”

We must, as Paul, emphasize that the New Covenant is about circumcising the heart —becoming a “new creation” in Christ. It is the miracle of God writing His law in our hearts and minds through the gift of the Holy Spirit, not through physical circumcision.

So how is the Holy Spirit to be received? That was made clear at the beginning of the Church—on the day the Holy Spirit was first given to the disciples.

“Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ ” (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
American King James Version×
).

No works of any kind can earn for us the remission of sins or the gift of the Holy Spirit! Though conditioned on repentance and faith, both are nonetheless gifts of mercy as a result of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

Therefore, Paul goes straight to the heart of the matter: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh [i.e., circumcision]?” (Galatians 3:1-2 Galatians 3:1-2 1 O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth, crucified among you? 2 This only would I learn of you, Received you the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

Accepting the need for physical circumcision, and possibly other ceremonial works of law, would have been a tacit denial of the sufficiency of justification through Christ. It would have substituted physical “works of law” for His sacrifice and help.

The law is not the issue

The issue was not whether the law of God is good or bad. It was whether keeping that law can earn forgiveness of sin and eternal life and whether human effort can even meet God’s requirements of true obedience. Paul’s point was that by “works of the law” one earns nothing in regard to justification. The very idea that one could earn personal forgiveness and salvation is absurd.

The law defines sin and sets the penalty for it. That has never changed. But the law does not and cannot forgive sin. It provides no way to buy back or reclaim innocence after one commits sin.

So Paul explains that, once transgressions have been committed, it is futile to seek forgiveness and justification through the “works of the law”—because “as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’ ” (Galatians 3:10 Galatians 3:10For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
American King James Version×
).

Notice that the curse—the penalty of death—is placed on those who fail to do everything in the law. The law itself is not the curse. The law demands the curse of death for all who are disobedient, not for anyone who has always been obedient—as was Jesus Christ! The curse (death) falls not on someone who keeps the law, but on those who break it.

The spiritual guilt and resultant death penalty for all of humanity was placed on our Savior, Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Christ allows us to be forgiven of our sins and justified. Forgiveness comes not from any works that we do because He, who alone never sinned, bore that ” curse” of death that we have earned with our sins. Unless we repent—quit sinning (John 8:11 John 8:11She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said to her, Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.
American King James Version×
)—we will perish (Luke 13:3-5 Luke 13:3-5 3 I tell you, No: but, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think you that they were sinners above all men that dwelled in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, No: but, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish.
American King James Version×
).

We are crucified with Christ

If we repent with faith that Christ died in our place, Paul explains that we are considered “crucified” with Him. “For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20 Galatians 2:19-20 19 For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live to God. 20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
American King James Version×
, KJV).

That Jesus Christ had to pay the death penalty the law demands for transgressions shows that God still regards His law as binding. Its conditions had to be met.

Jesus met the law’s punitive requirement in our place so that God’s grace could be made available to us. Therefore, continues Paul, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21 Galatians 2:21I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

Paul’s conclusion is based on these essential truths:

Once the death penalty is incurred, law cannot release those who are guilty from that penalty.

Therefore, Jesus Christ bore the death penalty for our transgressions at His crucifixion.

Once we acknowledge through repentance that we have sinned, if we have faith in Christ’s death as lawful payment for the death penalty we deserve and commit to now obeying Him with His help, then God reckons us as having “died to the Law”—and, therefore, reconciled to Him.

For us to be reckoned dead to the law, the law must still be in force. Justification would be meaningless if no law existed to be transgressed.

Only by having our death penalty forgiven may we become “children of God” and “joint heirs with Christ” of the eternal promise made to Abraham (Romans 8:16-17 Romans 8:16-17 16 The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: 17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
American King James Version×
).

Circumcision was merely the physical sign that identified the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh. Though it had symbolic value for the people of Israel, it provides nothing for justification and is of no use in the cancelation of guilt.

Therefore, the attraction that some of the Galatians had for the offer of circumcision to solve their relationship problem with the Jewish community—primarily not to “suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12 Galatians 6:12As many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.
American King James Version×
)—was about to threaten their relationship with God.

It was misleading them concerning what is really important to being accepted as His holy people. That acceptance cannot be earned by any “works of the law”—and certainly not by circumcision.

The social context of Galatians 3

Some of Paul’s reasoning in the third chapter of Galatians is closely linked to the analogy he constructs in chapter 4.

A minor son of a Roman estate owner was not acknowledged as his heir until the owner officially declared the child’s kinship to him later in life. A minor boy’s family status was little different from that of a trusted family slave.

The boy was probably treated very well, but legally he had few rights. A custodian (often an adult slave) was set over him as his guide and trainer in self-discipline. His custodian also guarded him as he went to and from the locations where he would receive his more formal schooling.

Paul compares such a minor son’s family status to that of a slave (Galatians 4:1 Galatians 4:1Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differs nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all;
American King James Version×
). His ultimate status in regard to the family inheritance was to be determined at a later date.

Physically the people of Israel were the sons of Abraham and potential heirs of the promise God gave to him. But their transgressions had put them in a state of bondage to sin. It brought on them the death penalty—invalidating their immediate claim to the eternal inheritance God had promised to Abraham through his righteous Seed, Jesus Christ.

It put them in need of a way to be forgiven—to be justified and remain justified. For a limited period of time—until Christ would come and offer His life for their sins (and for the sins of all people)—they were given a temporary “custodian.” This custodian—the rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices—richly typified Christ.

For them or anyone else to inherit eternal life, they must become the “sons of God through faith” (Galatians 3:26 Galatians 3:26For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
American King James Version×
). This is done through what the Scriptures refer to as justification— being made right with God through the cleansing of an unjust past and receiving the spiritual help needed to obey from the heart. That is Paul’s focus in the book of Galatians.

The temporary law as Israel’s custodial guard

When God established the people of Israel as a nation, He did not immediately free them from their bondage to sin. But He did put them under a “custodian” to guard them from totally abandoning hope in the future redemption promised Abraham and his descendants.

Therefore, Paul begins comparing the instructive body of Levitical, ritualistic, ceremonial, sacrificial, temple-based law (which began to be received at Mt. Sinai and which included circumcision) to the promise given to Abraham. That system of law became their custodial guardian in much the same way the custodian described above guarded an estate owner’s son.

For example, Hebrews 10:1 Hebrews 10:1For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.
American King James Version×
speaks of “the law” that is no longer necessary: “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.”

While the general term “the law” is used in this verse, the context clearly shows that the reference is only to the specific category of the sacrificial law.

The major purpose of the book of Galatians is to explain that justification, becoming right with God, does not come by human effort alone. Works of law—any law, whether of man or God—cannot save us. Only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can forgive sins and justify us. And only Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit can keep us right with God.

The book of Hebrews gives this same explanation: “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

“And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:13-15 Hebrews 9:13-15 13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh: 14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? 15 And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.
American King James Version×
).

Sacrifices could only render purification in a physical and communal sense. They could not forgive sins in the spiritual sense of the word. True spiritual redemption and forgiveness of sins comes only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The fact that animal sacrifices are no longer needed has no bearing on the underlying spiritual laws of God, which are still necessary and required.

As Hebrews 8:7-10 Hebrews 8:7-10 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. 8 For finding fault with them, he said, Behold, the days come, said the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: 9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, said the Lord. 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
American King James Version×
states: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord.

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’”

Under the former covenant, God spelled out penalties for disobedience. And He gave them symbolic reminders that they would need a sacrifice (Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of their sins.

What is included in the “law of God”?

Paul refers to “the whole law” in Galatians 5:3 Galatians 5:3For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
American King James Version×
. It was not limited to just the spiritual principles that define sin.

In it are three main categories of laws that were codified for Israel at Sinai. Each category serves different objectives.

First, the law contains the Ten Commandments and many other commands, precepts, statutes and judgments that permanently distinguish righteousness from sin. These laws reflect God’s divine nature of outgoing love (compare 2 Peter 1:4 2 Peter 1:4Whereby are given to us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
American King James Version×
; Matthew 22:37-40 Matthew 22:37-40 37 Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
American King James Version×
). The fundamental principles were known by God’s servants long before Moses.

This category of law was not temporary. It did not originate at Sinai and did not end with Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. The laws in this category, including the Ten Commandments and other regulations of daily spiritual life, are “holy and just and good,” and Paul said that with his heart he “served” them (Romans 7:12-25 Romans 7:12-25 12 Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. 13 Was then that which is good made death to me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent to the law that it is good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwells no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. 19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
American King James Version×
).

Second, “the whole law” contains symbolic regulations pointing to Christ’s role in solving humanity’s problem with sin. These physical sacrifices, offerings and ceremonies filled a temporary need. And they did it very well! Yet their observance is no longer required. Hebrews 9:9-10 Hebrews 9:9-10 9 Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; 10 Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.
American King James Version×
explains this clearly. Jesus became the sacrifice for sin they represented.

Third, the law had regulations that enabled the administration of governance in ancient Israel. Ordinances setting punishments for specific transgressions fall into this category. Such national ordinances—though given to a people not yet having received the Holy Spirit—are still useful as examples of good, sound and godly judgment.

As Paul explained to Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16 2 Timothy 3:16All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
American King James Version×
). Those ancient writings are filled with principles and examples that explain and illustrate righteous behavior. This is one of the reasons Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4 Luke 4:4And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
American King James Version×
).

The reason for the Sinai Covenant

Paul wanted the Galatians to understand a major purpose for the Sinai Covenant, particularly the entire body of temporary law given with it. That purpose was to prepare the people of Israel for genuine repentance and justification through Christ at a later time.

Therefore, many temporary features were given to them through Moses. Those symbolic features served as a “reminder” of guilt and the need for redemption, but they could not “take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4 Hebrews 10:1-4 1 For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. 2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. 3 But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. 4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
American King James Version×
).

They kept the Israelites constantly aware of their need for a Redeemer. In the writings of later prophets, God revealed much more information about that future Redeemer.

Those symbolic and temporary aspects of law were necessary for the duration of the time covered by the Sinai Covenant. But with the coming of the Redeemer—who is both the Savior and High Priest of all who are redeemed—they are no longer required. “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Hebrews 7:12 Hebrews 7:12For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

That partial change in the law (not a rejection of the eternal aspect of law itself) included only limited features within the entirety of what was spoken at Sinai.

The New Covenant’s primary focus is to provide forgiveness for sin (as foreshadowed in the Sinai Covenant) and to create righteous thinking and will to act accordingly in the inner person. It accomplishes this by writing the same fundamentals of the spiritual and unchanging “law” given to Moses in the heart and mind rather than on merely external objects such as tablets of stone.

It also provides the gift of the Holy Spirit—for “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 2 Timothy 2:15Study to show yourself approved to God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
American King James Version×
). The Holy Spirit supplies the internal motivation and drive needed to obey those laws of God that distinguish good from evil (Romans 8:7-9 Romans 8:7-9 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. 8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
American King James Version×
).

Abraham’s example of faith

In both covenants, God’s law defines sin and contrasts it with righteousness. But law does not and cannot forgive sin. To make this point clear, Paul gives the Galatians a history lesson.

He refers back to the covenant made with Abraham—the foundation on which both the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant are based. That covenant contained the “promise” that Abraham’s “Seed” would obey God perfectly so as to qualify in all respects as the Redeemer of “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3 Genesis 12:3And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.
American King James Version×
; Galatians 3:7-29 Galatians 3:7-29 7 Know you therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel to Abraham, saying, In you shall all nations be blessed. 9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. 10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that does them shall live in them. 13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. 15 Brothers, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man cancels, or adds thereto. 16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He said not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to your seed, which is Christ. 17 And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot cancel, that it should make the promise of none effect. 18 For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. 19 Why then serves the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness should have been by the law. 22 But the scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up to the faith which should afterwards be revealed. 24 Why the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. 26 For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you be Christ’s, then are you Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
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).

Since Jesus Christ is that Redeemer, it is only though faith in and of Him—and not merely through attempting on one’s own to obey “works of law”—that deliverance from sin’s penalty and from sin itself is made possible. Abraham’s faith is offered as the prime example we should emulate in this regard.

“It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (Romans 4:13 Romans 4:13For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
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, NIV). Of course, that faith was coupled with and demonstrated by Abraham’s obedience.

Paul is making the point that since “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Galatians 2:16 Galatians 2:16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
American King James Version×
, KJV). He continues, “For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Galatians 3:18 Galatians 3:18For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.
American King James Version×
).

To grasp all that Paul is saying, we must understand both aspects of justification. In some places Paul’s focus is on reconciliation— dealing with “sins that were previously committed” (Romans 3:25 Romans 3:25Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
American King James Version×
), the emphasis being on the blotting out of transgressions through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. In other places he focuses on remaining justified through continued obedience—also possible only through Christ.

The law’s purpose

Since justification did not come through the legal system given to ancient Israel , Paul asks, “What purpose then does the law [its temporary and “custodial” aspects] serve?” In the same verse he answers: “It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19 Galatians 3:19Why then serves the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
American King James Version×
).

Without the preexisting, unchanging law of God there could be no transgressions or sins—hence no guilt and no need for forgiveness and justification or a Savior. Therefore, in addition to explaining righteousness, the law of God also defines and condemns transgressions. Because of transgressions of preexisting law, the sacrificial and ceremonial laws were added as merely temporary and disciplinary reminders of sin, as Jeremiah 7:21-23 Jeremiah 7:21-23 21 Thus said the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Put your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat flesh. 22 For I spoke not to your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: 23 But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people: and walk you in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well to you.
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makes clear.

The promises made to Abraham were spiritual and are the same promises made to the people of God today, to those who have repented and received the Holy Spirit. God’s people today, just as righteous Abraham (see Genesis 26:5 Genesis 26:5Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
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), must keep the unchanging law of God that defines sin—though it cannot forgive sin.

The sacrificial and priestly aspects of the law symbolized the redemption from guilt that Christ’s shed blood would make available in the future. But now, because He has been sacrificed as the true “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 John 1:29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.
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), those mere symbolic aspects of law are no longer required.

The law’s principles of governance taught the people of Israel to look to God as their supreme Ruler. When Jesus Christ returns, He will again establish these aspects of divine rule, but this time over all the earth as the ” King of kings” (Revelation 17:14 Revelation 17:14These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.
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; Revelation 19:19-21 Revelation 19:19-21 19 And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. 20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. 21 And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat on the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.
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). Righteous governance, with many similarities to the administrative system given to ancient Israel, will then be applied to all peoples and nations (Isaiah 2:2-4 Isaiah 2:2-4 2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. 3 And many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
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).

As noted earlier, “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (Romans 4:13 Romans 4:13For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
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, NIV)—which includes forgiveness of sins and empowerment to fully obey God. Therefore, since Jesus Christ is our Redeemer and Savior, it is only though the gift of faith that we may receive, from God through Christ, deliverance from sin and its consequences (Ephesians 2:8 Ephesians 2:8For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
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).

Galatians 3:19 Galatians 3:19Why then serves the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
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: “Added . . . till the Seed should come”

To underscore the importance of Christ’s role in redemption, Galatians 3:19 Galatians 3:19Why then serves the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
American King James Version×
notes that (temporary) law “was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made . . .”

Once Christ came and died for those transgressions, justification by grace through faith became available to all who believe and repent.

That justification did not become available through circumcision as a reward earned by “works of law.” It is available only as a gift—through faith— just as Abraham was justified by faith. The sacrificial, ceremonial aspects of the law given at Sinai were indeed made unnecessary once Christ (the “Seed”) had come. But the eternal, spiritual “royal law” of God (James 2:8 James 2:8If you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you do well:
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) continues for Christians today.

Regrettably, many twist Paul’s words out of context to contradict statements he himself made.

In Romans 2:13 Romans 2:13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
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Paul says emphatically, “Not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified.” Justification is not even available to those who refuse to be “doers” of the law—that is, the spiritual and eternal law of God.

An important prerequisite for forgiveness and empowerment through justification is repentance (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
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), which includes not merely sorrow over past lawbreaking but commitment to obey God’s law from that point forward.

Only then may one receive the Holy Spirit that provides the “power and love and self-control” needed to overcome sin (2 Timothy 1:7 2 Timothy 1:7For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
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, New Century Version). The fact that justification is given only to the “doers” of God’s spiritual law makes His law essential to that process.

Because no one can earn forgiveness by “works” or “deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28-30 Romans 3:28-30 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. 29 Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: 30 Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.
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) and no one can succeed in full obedience to God on his own, Paul asks, “Do we then make void the law through faith?” His answer: “Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31 Romans 3:31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yes, we establish the law.
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).

Even in Galatians 3:21 Galatians 3:21Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness should have been by the law.
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Paul plainly confirms that the law and the promise don’t oppose but support one another: “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.”

The law and the promise each have a role in “bringing many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10 Hebrews 2:10For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
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). But each role is distinct.

The law explains righteousness and condemns sin. And the symbolic aspects of the law looked forward to redemption. But a pardon for sin is available only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the promised Redeemer.

To achieve the objective of the New Covenant, God’s great spiritual laws must be written in the hearts and minds of those who are pardoned and redeemed so they will have the character to serve Him faithfully for all eternity (Hebrews 10:16 Hebrews 10:16This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, said the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;
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).

But before that can happen, the justice of God first has to be satisfied through justification by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

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