Great Texts of the Bible
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love.—Galatians 5:6.
It is remarkable to notice how large a space in the history of mankind is occupied by controversies about religion; they have existed at almost all times, and in almost all countries; and sometimes, as, for example, in the early days of Christianity, and at the period of the Reformation in Europe, they have absorbed all other controversies into themselves, and have gathered, as it were, into a single focus all the scattered energies of men.
In the text St. Paul tells us (1) what is the non-essential, and (2) what is the essential of true religion, and we shall deal with it under these two headings.
“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision.”
1. The great controversy which embittered so much of St. Paul’s life, and marred so much of his activity, turned upon the question whether a heathen man could come into the Church simply by the door of faith, or whether he must also go through the gate of circumcision. The Jewish literalists in Galatia insisted on the rite of circumcision as necessary to salvation; they contended that Christianity was but a phase or form of the earlier religion which God had sanctioned, and that the ceremonial which had been enacted with so much minuteness of detail was not intended to pass away but to be good for all nations and for all times. It was contended on the other side that the revelation which God had made in early times was partial and incomplete, and that the regulations which He had sanctioned for the Jews were in their very nature temporary, and were from the first intended to pass away.
False teachers misrepresented the Apostle to both parties; accusing him to the Jews of undervaluing the Law, because he allowed the Gentiles to disregard it; affirming him to the Gentiles to be an abettor of superstition, because he permitted the Jews to conform to it. It was then that St. Paul, in the fiery indignation of his just wrath, advanced to the relief of those hard-pressed loyal Galatians who were still holding out against the Judaizers; designing at the same time to teach a wholesome lesson to all who, at the first proof of their faith, had deserted to the ranks of error; and moreover determined to destroy, as far as possible, the enemy’s power of doing mischief. “Neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision,” says St. Paul, “but faith.” You know, he says, that your salvation comes through faith. The proof that you have faith lies—in having faith. But, if you yield to the persuasion of the Judaizers, and suffer yourselves to be circumcised, you cease to have faith in Christ, you cease to benefit by His grace, and Christ will no longer profit you, as I protest and reiterate: in that case you put your trust in the Law, and you must trust to it alone, and be a slave to it in its entirety. In itself the act of circumcision has no effect; it is nought; but your accepting it now is a proof that you no longer trust to Christ, that you no longer have faith.
2. The controversy seems to be merely a controversy of the times; it concerns the distinctive ordinance of a people who were peculiar by choice and provincial by conviction. We see, however, that the ordinance of circumcision has a significance beyond itself. It stands not only for an item of ritual, but for the ritual interest of every heart. It represents here, in St. Paul’s words, not only an act of ceremonial conformity, but the attitude and bias of the conforming spirit. It is descriptive, not only of one act which religious people did, but of a religious tendency of thought, of a particular way of taking things, of a kind of religious life. Therefore, as St. Paul speaks of circumcision, and deals with it as a thing which, in itself, is unavailing, there rises before us as the object of his criticism a character rather than a deed—a character to which circumcision seems all-availing, to which a conventional rectitude, and a ceremonial consistency, and an ecclesiastical shibboleth are the things by which the world must stand—or fall. Because this man, this life, this character, is in the world to-day, the criticism still applies. Thus these words of St. Paul are the master-key to all the controversies which have raged, or are raging still, within the Christian Church, or within the still wider sphere of the religious life of mankind.
For circumcision much might be said from a Hebrew point of view. It was the sign of the covenant under the Old Testament dispensation. It had been solemnly commanded to Abraham, and he and his race had been circumcised; and to be uncircumcised was equivalent to being outside the covenant of promise. This was well known to the Apostle, and on occasion he could recall the fact that he himself had been circumcised the eighth day. But it was because the Jews prided themselves on their external descent from Abraham, without being at all anxious to know and to reproduce in their own lives the spirit and the character of the great patriarch, that St. Paul, in the preaching of the gospel, felt himself morally bound to encounter them with the most aggressive hostility. There could be no compromise between a gospel inspired and permeated by the pure inwardness of moral motives and a claim of superiority before God, founded on external observances, accidental advantages, or ancestral traditions of whatever kind. The thing that produced the spiritual result was not the rite but the truth, and therefore he felt that his function was to preach the truth and leave the rite to be administered by others. And so we can extend the principle here to all externalisms of worship, in all forms, in all churches, and say that in comparison with the essentials of an inward Christianity they are nothing and they do nothing.
When the zeal of a Christian doth leave the internals of religion, and fly to ceremonials, externals, or inferior things, the soul must needs consume and languish: yea, though you were sure your opinions were true, yet when the chiefest of your zeal is turned thither, and the chiefest of your conference there laid out, the life of grace decays within, and your hearts are turned from this heavenly life. Not that I would persuade you to undervalue the least truth of God; yet let every truth in our thoughts and speeches have its due proportion, and I am confident the hundredth part of our time and our conference would not be spent upon the now common themes. For as there are a hundred truths of far greater consequence, which do all challenge the precedency before these, so many of those truths alone are of a hundred times nearer concernment to our souls, and therefore should have an answerable proportion in our thoughts. Neither is it any excuse for our casting by those great fundamental truths, because they are common and known already. He is a rare and precious Christian who is skilled in the improving of well-known truths. I could wish you were all understanding men, able to defend every truth of God. But still I would have the chiefest to be chiefly studied, and none to shoulder out your thoughts of eternity. The least controverted points are usually most weighty, and of most necessary frequent use to our souls.1 [Note: Richard Baxter.]
3. Even in the full career of his denunciation of error, St. Paul preserves the balance of his judgment. Circumcision cannot avail you anything, he is insisting. But he pauses to add “nor uncircumcision.”
He speaks in criticism of another tendency, and he points the failure of another character. The ritualists trusted in the presence of a ceremony to save them; but the anti-ritualists were beginning to trust in the absence of one. They had gained, to some extent, the vision of the Christian’s liberty. They understood, to a degree, the preaching of our freedom in Jesus Christ. They had learned that the days of hard formality and of exacting usage were gone by. Especially among the Gentiles was there somewhat of a disposition to exult. They had heard it said that in Christ Jesus “circumcision” is unavailing. They were making, in consequence, a great deal of “uncircumcision.” It was a mystery to St. Paul that men should extol their bonds, and glory in ceremonial requirements. But it was at least equally a mystery to him that men should put their trust in merely theoretic freedom, and boast themselves of a liberty which they never exercised for the purposes of a higher faith or worthier manhood. Circumcision cannot avail anything, he has said; and then with clear reference to the temptation of those whose cause he was defending, he adds emphatically, “nor uncircumcision.”
O we boast us of our law,
Glory in our gospel light,
Pity those who cannot draw
Fresh the living water bright;
We are favoured, we are blest,
We have heard the joyful sound,
We are sons of God confessed,
We are free who once were bound.
Bless the Lord who unto us
Is in mercy plenteous.
Ah! but what if we are still
Walking on in sinful ways,
Keeping a rebellious will,
Lusting for the world’s poor praise?
What if we are growing old,
None the wiser for the rod?
What if we have faith in gold,
Not in either man, or God?
Shall we praise the Lord that we
Have nor faith nor charity?
Not the hearer of the word,
But the doer, he is just.
He who, knowing not the Lord,
Keepeth yet his soul from rust,
He who doeth what is right,
Bravely stands by what is true,
Faithful to his inner light,
Dark although it seem to you—
He is nearer God than they
Who know truth and disobey.1 [Note: Walter C. Smith, Thoughts and Fancies for Sunday Evenings, 97.]
4. True religion is not an outward thing. It does not consist in names or forms, in distinctions or privileges, in meats or drinks, in rites or ceremonies. These have their value. As long as we are here on earth, living in the flesh, we must have outward forms and symbolical rites. But such externals are not worth anything unless they make us grasp more firmly with our understanding, and feel more profoundly with our heart, the great truths of the gospel. It is a large attainment in Christian character to be able to say with St. Paul, Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing. Neither the one side nor the other touches the essentials.
The difference between art and nature shadows forth the difference between obedience in the Mosaic dispensation and the obedience of Christ. It is the difference between the artificial flower and the garden rose, between the sculptured figure and the breathing body; the one shaped from outside, the other determined from within. It is the difference between the mechanical and the vital; the one unsympathetic and constrained, the other organic, instinctive, voluntary, delightful. The law is henceforth put within our mind, written in our heart.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Gates of Dawn, 49.]
In the dusty room in the Interpreter’s House described by Bunyan in the Pilgrim’s Progress, we again have the Law and the Gospel, but this time under a new aspect and with a lighter touch. Formerly the Law kills, here it only irritates, producing that condition of confusion, turmoil, darkness, dirtiness, which is just the thing known as dustiness—a thing by itself. “I have had enough,” as Cheever makes Christian say, “of that fierce sweeper, the Law. The Lord deliver me from his besom!” The only thing which can remedy this morbidly irritated condition is the Gospel in its sweet, clean and allaying power. When a man finds its peace, the mirrors of the soul are clear again, and reflect truly the face of God and the things of the world.2 [Note: John Kelman, The Road, i. 58.]
“Faith working through faith.”
The antithesis of this text appears, in somewhat varied forms, in two other places in the Apostle’s writings. To the Corinthians he says, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.” His last word to the Galatians—the gathering up into one strong sentence of his whole letter—is, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” Now, all these assertions embody substantially the same opposition between the conception of Christianity as depending upon a ceremonial rite, and as being a spiritual change. And the variations in the second member of the contrast throw light on each other. In one, the essential thing is regarded from the Divine side as being not a rite performed on the body, but a new nature, the result of a supernatural regeneration. In another, the essential thing is set forth as being not an outward act but an inward principle, which produces appropriate effects on the whole being. In yet another, the essential thing is conceived as being not a mere ceremonial but practical obedience, the consequence of the active principle of faith, and the sign of the new life. There is an evident sequence in the three sayings. They begin with the deepest, the Divine act of a new creation, and end with the outer-most, the last result and object of both the others—deeds of conformity to God’s law.
1. A new creation.—St. Paul did not believe that external rites could make men partakers of a new nature, but he believed that, if a man would trust in Jesus Christ, the life of that Christ would flow into his opened heart, and a new spirit and nature would be born in him.
The story of the Christian Church is but the record of the fact that men have been born again, that old things have passed away, and all things have become new. One has only to think of the writer of these texts, and of the change from Saul the persecutor to Paul the Apostle, to have evidence of the reality of the new birth. One has only to think of Augustine, of Luther, of John Bunyan, to recognize that the new creation is one of the great facts of human experience. It commences with an awakening to the full consciousness of the dignity and lofty destiny of man as a moral being, and with a deliberate purpose and plan to carry it out to its legitimate consequences in the life of an essentially social animal. This is what in the New Testament narrative of apostolic preaching, and in many well-known religious biographies of recent date, is called conversion; and there can be no doubt both of the necessity and of the reality of such a process. Men come to know that a new strength has entered into their lives, and they recognize that it has come from no source within their previous experience. Need we wonder that they accept the Scripture explanation of the great fact, and say, “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”?
Plato describes earthly life as follows: “Men sit in a cavern with their backs towards the light. Therefore they only see the shadows or simulacra of what passes in front of the cavern. Whoever hits on the brilliant idea of turning round, sees the originals, the realities in themselves, the light.” So simple is it! Only to turn round, or be converted, in a word. But it is not necessary on that account to become a monk, ascetic, or hermit. I almost agree with Luther that faith is everything. Our deeds lag far behind, and need only consist in refraining from all deliberate evil. As a beginning, one may be content with not stealing, lying, or bearing false witness. If we have greater claims and wish to train ourselves into superman, we may. But if we do not succeed, we should not throw the whole system overboard, but ceaselessly commence anew, never despair, try to smile at our vain efforts, be patient with ourselves, and believe good of God. When the religious man falls, he gets up again, brushes himself, and goes on; the irreligious man remains lying in the dirt. Thus the whole art of life consists in not turning one’s back to the light.1 [Note: A. Strindberg, Zones of the Spirit, 112.]
2. Faith working through love.—Faith is the first act, or state, of the new creation. It is the new creature come to the consciousness of himself, of his relations to his Maker, of his surroundings and of his meaning. Certainly he must know and believe that there is a God; and he must understand His character, as a just as well as a beneficent Being; then he must become acquainted with God’s law, as holy and decisive, reaching to the inmost intents of the heart; and then, far above everything else, he must be forced to see plainly that—out of His sovereign grace—God has opened a way of pardon through an atoning death of His own Son. These must be known as primal truths under the gospel; then they must be believed, and that is faith.
Now faith, according to St. Paul, when once it lives in the soul, is all Christian practice in the germ. The living apprehension of the Crucified One, whereby the soul attains light and liberty, may be separable in idea, but in fact it is inseparable, from a Christian life. If the apprehension of revealed truth does not carry within itself the secret will to yield the whole being to God’s quickening grace and guidance, it is spiritually worthless. Faith, if it is to be good for anything, must be a working faith. If our faith puts us to sleep instead of awakening activity, if it sends us to bed instead of sending us to the field or the workshop, it is not worth having. It is a grace which saves and justifies, but it is also a grace “which worketh.” There must be correspondence between our emotional faith and our daily lives. In proportion as we feel fervent emotions of love towards God, so will our lives exhibit earnestness of purpose and activity of energy in “doing good” to the souls and bodies of our fellow-men. This sacred energy of the soul manifests itself in a life of holy love. It is set in active hostility to all forms of evil, to all selfishness, and to everything which tends to hinder its appropriation of Christ. So faith leads us into wider knowledge, into more active self-mastery, and to the growth of the whole man in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. It sets free every power of man for further growth and for ampler service. And the goal is the fulness of the stature of a perfect man in Christ Jesus.
The early Christians felt that virtue, like sin, was a subtle universal thing, entering into every act and thought, appearing outwardly in ten thousand diverse ways, diverse according to the separate framework of every heart in which it dwelt; but one and the same always in its proceeding from the love of God, as sin is one and the same in proceeding from hatred of God. And in their pure, early, and practical piety, they saw that there was no need for codes of morality, or systems of metaphysics. Their virtue comprehended everything, entered into everything; it was too vast and too spiritual, to be defined; but there was no need of its definition. For through faith, working by love, they knew that all human excellence would be developed in due order; but that, without faith, neither reason could define, nor effort reach, the lowest phase of Christian virtue.1 [Note: Ruskin, Stones of Venice, ii. ch. viii. (Works, x. 365).]
I never have stopped, I hope I shall never stop, to consider what set or sect of people are at work, if I thoroughly and entirely approve of the work. I may think the work incomplete; but, if it comes in my way, and I think it good as far as it goes, I do help it with the little power I have. Above all I would not in this age refuse help to a society because it did not state that it was working in Christ’s cause. I do believe we want all generous and good work recognized as Christ’s, whether conscious or unconscious. I think the tendency is very much for doubters to think the best work is done by benevolent unbelievers; to think our faith cramps our labours and narrows our hearts. I would like, so far as in me lies, to show them we care for men as men, we care for good as good. I never would deny faith. I care very little to express it anywhere but in life. How much these people lose by their omission I believe they will one day know. I think the time will come when all this round world will seem to them mainly precious, because it was made by a Father and redeemed by His Song of Solomon 1 [Note: Life of Octavia Hill, 184.]
3. Keeping the commandments of God.—As the new creation is the beginning of the distinctively Christian life, and as faith working through love marks the evolution of its growth, so the third thing, keeping the commandments of God, may be said to indicate its consummation. The loftiest purpose of God, in all His dealings, is to make us like Himself; and the end of all religion is the complete accomplishment of that purpose. “Be ye imitators of God as dear children,” is the pure and comprehensive dictate which expresses the aim of all devout men.
To become like Christ is to be one who keeps the commandments of God. For the Man Christ Jesus not only obeyed the Law in all its precepts, negative and positive; He was one in whom the full meaning of the Law, its higher and more ultimate purpose, obtained a glorious realization. The law marked out boundaries, defined the borders of action, but within these borders and subject to these limitations Christ Jesus showed in the fulness of a perfect human life the worth and value of that life the limit of which law had defined. Here there was in living, concrete form the realization of what law was meant to define, for the sake of which law was brought into existence. Now the new creature, born of God, growing by faith that works through love, just in proportion to its growth, is growing into the likeness of Christ, and so growing into the power of keeping the commandments of God, as Jesus kept them.
Do not let us understand by what is called a “commandment” a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflexion of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Song of Solomon 1 [Note: St. Basil.]
The question, in the last analysis, is between self and Christ, between works and grace. That is the evangelical crux of faith. It is quite true that “character is salvation,” and that goodness is goodness all the world over. Yet the fact remains that the more character and goodness we have, the less we are satisfied with it, and the more surely we are driven back on the redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ. Every advance in character only reveals more surely the infinite stretch of moral height and depth. And the more hopelessly we realize this, the more urgently do we feel our need of One to cast ourselves out on, good and evil alike, that we may lose all, and so find all in Him. After all, character is salvation: and there is a very real danger in any presentation of Christianity that would seem even to the most ignorant kind of man to disparage character. There is a popular hymn which contains the lines:
Doing is a deadly thing,
Doing ends in death.
And Joannes Agricola’s Calvinism leads him to the confident assurance that—
I have God’s warrant, could I blend
All hideous sins, as in a cup,
To drink the mingled venoms up;
Secure my nature will convert
The draught to blossoming gladness fast.
It is easy to see how dangerous such ideas may be to ill-balanced natures and untrained consciences.2 [Note: John Kelman, The Road, ii. 157.]
Blackie (J. S.), Lay Sermons, 299.
Clifford (J.), The Dawn of Manhood, 152.
Cooper (E.), Fifty-Two Family Sermons, 42.
Gibbon (J. M.), Evangelical Heterodoxy, 228.
Hatch (E.), Memorials, 89.
Hiley (R. W.), A Year’s Sermons, 55.
Horne (C. S.), The Soul’s Awakening, 61.
Iverach (J.), The Other Side of Greatness, 52.
Liddon (H. P.), Bampton Lectures for 1866, 284.
Maclaren (A.), Christ in the Heart, 229.
Maclaren (A.), Sermons Preached in Manchester, ii. 207.
Murphy (E. G.), The Larger Life, 121.
Pusey (E. B.), Selected Occasional Sermons, 1.
Robinson (C. S.), Studies in the New Testament, 169.
Ryle (H. E.), On the Church of England, 253.
Secker (T.), Sermons, v. 355, 383.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxii. (1876), No. 1280; xxvi. (1880), No. 1553; xxix. (1883), No. 1750.
Stanley (A. P.), Canterbury Sermons, 190, 205, 222.
Temple (F.), Rugby Sermons, iii. 181.
Tholuck (A.), Hours of Christian Devotion, 296.
Voysey (C.), Sermons (1876), No. 26.
Wilson (S. L.), Helpful Words for Daily Life, 46.
Woodward (H.), Sermons, 352.
Christian World Pulpit, xix. 26 (H. W. Beecher); xxi. 251 (H. W. Beecher); xlvii. 342 (J. Iverach); l. 262 (J. Iverach).
Church of England Magazine, xxxiv. 8 (R. Harvey).
Churchman’s Pulpit: The Lenten Season, v. 207 (B. Compton).