In the religion of humans, change is expected to be external and immediate. But in the religion of God, of the grace of Jesus, the work of the Spirit is internal and takes time.
A BIBLICAL THOUGHT – 1
“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh. But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”—Galatians 6:11–16 (NASB, emphasis added)
In our last biblical thought we discussed the contrast between the religion of humans and the religion of God. In the religion of humans, change is expected to be external and immediate. But in the religion of God, of the grace of Jesus, the work of the Spirit is internal and takes time.
Concerning this, and Paul’s use of the language of farming and the space between sowing and reaping, one of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, writes, “The person . . . who looks for quick results in the seed planting of well-doing will be disappointed. If I want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it will do me little good to go out and plant potatoes in my garden tonight. There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and reaping. During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and planting still other seeds.”1
In this issue we are coming to the end of the series “The Theology of Life” based on the book of Galatians. Here Paul is reviewing the issues that led him to write the letter in the first place: people changing the gospel of the grace of Jesus for another gospel—a gospel marked by human works and external obedience (circumcision). The temptation to make this change is ancient! It is at the very beginning of the Christian church. But Paul is arguing that there are motivations behind the desire to create a religion based on external things. Recently I read a powerful quote by author Timothy Keller that summarizes what is at stake in Galatia and in all Christian churches ever since: “The gospel is good news about what has been done to save you, not what you have to do to save yourself.”2
This is true Israel—those who depend on God to do the work for them and for others; who join Jesus in the ministry of reconciliation, of bringing people to the Father through the Son; and who have learned to love truth, and not just believe it.
So with this in mind, notice how Paul begins the conclusion of his letter: “For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh.” Paul is exposing the method of the preachers of the alternative gospel and showing the true intentions of those emphasizing the works of the law. His argument: They do not keep the law! They do not care about the law! They do not care about God or you! They only care about making you into their own image, so that they can boast in their finished work, in their work of making you into their image and likeness. So whenever someone who heard these preachers of the alternative gospel got circumcised, the preachers did not thank God; they thanked themselves for making another disciple—for making another person rely on them for truth, ethics, and life.
And within this context, Paul says, this is not my case!
What a contrast!
While some people in Galatia prided themselves in making people think and live as they did, Paul boasted in what Jesus did and does for people.
So our work, our job, is not to make people look like us, and show signs of external obedience. Far from it! Our job is to bring people to Jesus, so that in Him they can experience the joy of salvation, the joy of His completed work, and the joy of knowing that through Him we have the privilege of serving others in love, as He did. We are His workers; we are to sow the seed of truth and we are to wait for the work of the Spirit to begin in the life of those who believe.
Paul ends this section saying, “And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” This is true Israel—those who depend on God to do the work for them and for others; who join Jesus in the ministry of reconciliation, of bringing people to the Father through the Son; and who have learned to love truth, and not just believe it.
Think about this powerful quote from Ellen G. White: “Many take it for granted that they are Christians, simply because they subscribe to certain theological tenets. But they have not brought the truth into practical life. They have not believed and loved it, therefore, they have not received power and grace that come through sanctification of the truth. Men may profess faith in the truth; but if it does not make them sincere, kind, patient, forbearing, heavenly-minded, it is a curse to its possessors, and through their influence it is a curse to the world.”3
My dear reader, may we never lose sight of our true work—the work of bringing people to Jesus— so that we might boast in what Jesus does, not what we do, and let the truth take root in our lives.
A BIBLICAL THOUGHT – 2
“For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. . . . From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brandmarks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen.”—Galatians 6:15, 17–18 (NASB, emphasis added)
Now we conclude our journey through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It has been a wonderful experience for me to study and share these words, to be reminded of the gospel of grace of Jesus and its effect upon the lives of all who believe. It is a gospel that sets us free from the bondages of the old religion to live a life of freedom to love and serve God and others based on the accomplished work of Jesus.
In the last verses of the letter resides a final lesson. Before Paul says his final goodbye to the church, he reminds them that “neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” What is Paul saying here? When I read these words, I could not believe how appropriate and timely they are for any congregation.
Paul argues here that before the death of Jesus, the communal experience of worship and religion was divided between those who were circumcised and uncircumcised—those who were like “us” and those who were not like “us.” After Jesus’ death, as the young Christian church started expanding, the traces of the old religion were still present. People were still evaluating people by the dichotomy between “us” and “them.” This evaluation of the “other” got to the point where, as we saw previously, people tried to circumcise others in the Christian church so that “they” would become “us.” But the problem here is that this “becoming” took place by human effort—by human obedience to a law that was undone by the sacrifice of Jesus! So Paul argues that through Jesus’ sacrifice, all of the divisions that surrounded worship and religion are no more. And we know this because we remember Paul writing to the Galatians in chapter 3: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28, NIV).
When someone is in Christ, a new creation takes place. This new creation does not limit itself to the individual, but rather extends to the community as well! In the past, worship and religion were articulated by differences and distances. But now, in Christ, the church is a new creation, a new corporate reality. The divisions of the world do not apply to the church because those in Jesus are a new creation. And to live in this new reality means looking at the “other” in a radically new way! No more divisions, no more distances; we are all one in Jesus. The new creation God works in those who believe individually, leads into the new creation of a corporate reality.
Translating this to any church around the world, we are all one in Jesus. If we ever forget this, we will have forgotten one of the central teachings in the gospel.
My dear reader, may the gospel open our eyes to see that there are no walls in a church built by the Spirit. And as we move forward together, may we value people, may we value this unity we have in Jesus, and may we be thankful for the work of the Spirit in our midst. It is not only a work that Jesus prayed for, but it is the ultimate proof for the existence of God! So I would like to end our study with this prayer of Jesus: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20– 21, NKJV, emphasis added).
1 Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 3.
2 Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc), “The gospel is good news about what has been done to save you, not what you have to do to save yourself,” Twitter, May 14, 2019, 2:23 p.m., https://twitter.com/ timkellernyc/status/112836511166672 4864?s=20&t=FGlu58UhK4sD5kdjuMr mhQ.
3 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1898), 309.
Tiago Arrais, PhD, is a district pastor in Santa Fe, NM, USA.