There’s a scene in The Shawshank Redemption in which an old inmate named Brooks is about to be paroled after fifty years of incarceration. But he’s scared of getting out. Prison is all he knows. So he attacks another inmate in order to stay.
Some of the other prisoners think that Brooks has gone crazy. But Morgan Freeman’s character explains that Brooks has been “institutionalized”:
“These walls are funny. First, you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
When you’re institutionalized, you’d rather be in prison than be free.
The Galatians were institutionalized.
They had been trapped in the prison of religious legalism and works salvation for a long time. That’s all they knew. But then Paul came preaching the gospel. Salvation is free! Christ paid it all! Only believe! The Galatians believed it and were free. They got paroled, or rather, they got pardoned!
But then, like Brooks, they got nervous. They found the idea of freedom hard to bear. Some legalists came to Galatia preaching the necessity of works for salvation and it looked like the Galatians were going to go back to the religious prison they left. Why? They were institutionalized. So Paul counseled them:
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage (Gal 5:1).
What bondage? The Galatians had begun observing the Jewish liturgical calendar (Gal 4:10). Now they were considering getting circumcised. Paul had to remind them that Christ paid it all and that justification was by faith apart from works. What could circumcision possibly add to that finished work?
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love (Gal 5:6).
We’ve all been institutionalized.
We’ve all grown up with a works salvation mindset—in our religions, schools, workplaces, families, and marriages. All those things teach us that we need works to succeed. What’s the American dream? Work hard and one day you’ll really be happy. It’s secular works salvation.
In other words, you might not be tempted to get circumcised, but you will be tempted by your own version of circumcision—your own version of salvation by works.
For example, I have friends who won’t eat red meat on Fridays during Lent. They eat fish instead. That’s their version of circumcision. That’s their religious bondage. Paul could have said to them:
For in Christ Jesus neither eating the Filet-O–Fish on Fridays nor eating the Quarter Pounder avails anything, but faith working through love.
Other people might feel pressured to go to Wednesday night prayer meeting every week because that’s what “real” Christians do. That’s their version of circumcision. Again, Paul could have said:
For in Christ Jesus neither going to Wednesday meeting nor missing Wednesday meeting avails anything, but faith working through love.
Other people might think they should avoid mowing their yard on Sundays. To them Paul could have said:
For in Christ Jesus neither mowing nor not mowing on Sunday avails anything, but faith working through love.
Those are all different versions of “circumcision.” They are all evidence of having an institutionalized mindset. Instead, we need to maintain a mindset of Christian freedom.
If you want to eat a Filet-O-Fish, then do it. You’re free. Just don’t think it adds anything to your salvation. Don’t think that the cross is not enough. Don’t get lured back into the uncertainty and guilt of salvation by works theology.
You got out of prison. Now stay out.