Paul’s Controversy

Galatians 5:2  Behold, I, Paul, say to you that if you are circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.

Those are pretty strong words. What should we tell the hundreds of millions of American men? Sorry. You missed the boat. You now have to obey every “jot and tittle” of the Law or you’ll go to Hell. Of course not. Nobody believes that the physical condition of being circumcised equates to a rejection of salvation by grace. What most people actually believe is that if a man voluntarily becomes circumcised as a religious act of obedience to God’s command, only then has he rejected Jesus’ work on the Cross. By legalistically adhering to an outmoded command, he acts as if Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished nothing.

That certainly sounds like a reasonable interpretation. It doesn’t condemn innocent children for things outside their control, and it emphasizes the liberty we have in Christ. It sounds good, but is it? Keeping in mind Peter’s admonition that a correct understanding of Paul’s letters requires a solid grounding in the Torah and Tanakh (2 Peter 3:15-16), perhaps we should  look a little further. Although the older Scriptures have plenty to say about circumcision and salvation by grace, we need look no further than the book of Acts.

Acts 16:3-4  Paul wanted him to go with him, and taking him he circumcised him, because of the Jews who were in those places; for they all knew that his father was a Greek.  (4)  And as they passed through the cities, they delivered to them the commandments to keep, the ones that were ordained by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

There is no question that Timothy voluntarily submitted to this circumcision. He was a grown man, after all. So Paul, who said that circumcision equaled damnation, circumcised Timothy? No! Paul, who said that you cannot be saved by circumcision, circumcised Timothy! In several places in Acts, Luke writes that the great controversy that followed Paul was whether or not a person must be circumcised and keep the whole Law of Moses in order to be saved (E.g. Acts 15:1). The Torah, the Tanakh, the teachings of Yeshua…all of these things stand against such a teaching. The issue was never about whether or not circumcision is a good or bad thing. It was always about salvation. The commandments “ordained by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem” said nothing about circumcision. In fact, they were specifically given to counter the Pharisaical teaching that a man must be circumcised and keep the whole Law in order to be saved. Yet Paul, before he goes out to spread the word against circumcision, circumcises his traveling companion!

Obviously, Paul was not opposed to circumcision nor to keeping the Law of Moses. However, he was adamantly opposed to keeping the traditions of men (that still to this day are commonly referred to as the Law of Moses or the Torah) and to keeping the Law for salvation. There were two parties fighting for control of the church in Galatia. On the one hand, there were the followers of James and Paul teaching them that salvation is only through faith in the grace of God, and that obedience to God’s laws can be learned over time. On the other hand, there were the Judaizers teaching that everyone must obey the Law first and submit to the authority of the rabbis and the centuries of tradition built up on top of the Law before they could be truly considered “saved.” When Paul wrote, “if you are circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing,” he was writing within the context of this argument. He was saying, “If you join the party of the circumcision and rely on that for your salvation, then the Messiah is wasted on you.”

I am not under the Law, nor is anyone else who has put their trust in God for their eternal salvation. That does not mean that the Law no longer applies to us. It means that we are not condemned by it. We don’t have to worry and stress about getting it perfectly. We can focus on serving God in our daily lives, on loving him and sharing his love with those around us while we use his Torah to help us learn what that really means.

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