About a week after my son was born, he developed a fever and ended up in the hospital. Zane was weak. He wasn’t eating well. His oxygen was low. It turned out it was all due to a urinary tract infection. Then, as I was talking to the doctor about Zane’s condition, he asked if we’d like to circumcise him. And being the theological nerd that I am, I naturally thought about Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Error Creeps In
Galatia was a province in what is modern-day Turkey. A province is like a state. Galatia was the equivalent of Texas, or Minnesota, or New Jersey. In other words, we aren’t dealing here with a single church, but with a network of churches, scattered throughout the province. And as it turns out, they were all abandoning the saving message:
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed (Gal 1:6-9).
Paul was upset. And bewildered. How could they be apostatizing so quickly? How could they be turning from the truth, to error?
What was this different, perverted, accursed gospel they were turning to?
Instead of believing in justification by faith, apart from works (Gal 3:14), it seems that someone had convinced the Galatians they had to be circumcised to be saved, and Paul was having none of it:
Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love (Gal 5:2-6).
Not Much to Ask
As I was standing there, looking down at my week-old son, discussing circumcision with the doctor, and thinking about this passage, it struck me how insignificant of a “work” circumcision is. If circumcision was a condition of salvation, it wouldn’t be asking for much.
Think about what it involves.
First, circumcision is insignificant. It’s the removal of a teeny tiny piece of skin. It’s not like you’re plucking out an eye, cutting off a hand, or donating a kidney. It’s not a big sacrifice. You’ll never miss it.
Second, circumcision is brief. It isn’t major surgery. The procedure doesn’t take more than few minutes and it heals in seven to ten days. So you’re not left worse off. Actually, from what the doctor told me, there are medical benefits to being circumcised.
Third, circumcision is passive. The baby doesn’t do anything (except cry and squirm). The doctor or mohel (“circumciser”) does all the work. Circumcision is a work that is done to you, not by you.
So as I was holding little Zane, I thought that, as far as conditions of salvation go, circumcision is relatively easy, especially when you’re a week-old baby.
Nevertheless, Paul said that adding circumcision to the condition of salvation was teaching a different, perverted, accursed gospel.
It doesn’t take much to corrupt the gospel—any work will do.
If you add anything to faith—even a work as insignificant, brief, and as passive as circumcision—you’ve lost the saving message.
Once you’re under Law, you’ve crossed the line. You’ve gone from blessing to curses (Gal 3:10-14), from redemption to bondage, and you’ve fallen from grace (Gal 5:4).
Do you see that Paul’s message to the Galatians was radical doctrine? Do you see that it’s still a radical message today!
Most churches do not believe it.
I don’t just mean the Catholics and the Orthodox and the Mormons.
Most Evangelicals don’t believe it either!
They don’t believe that simple faith in Jesus’ promise of life is enough to be saved. Instead, they snidely call that mere “intellectual” assent or easy-believism. And in its place they preach hard-believism, or hard-worksism, or cheap-law.
In other words, they teach we must do good works to be saved, either faith plus works, or faith that works. Both options make works a condition of salvation. And what works must you do to be saved? They can come up with long lists of things to do. Sell your house. Say a prayer. Be celibate. Don’t murder. Fast. Leave your job. Walk an aisle. Go on a crusade. Become a missionary. Don’t steal. Stand on street corners giving out tracts in the freezing cold. Dig wells of water in Africa. Don’t eat meat on Fridays. Commit yourself to God. Be martyred. Go door to door. Don’t swear. Take communion. Get baptized. Say your daily prayers. Give money. Don’t think dirty thoughts. Feed the poor. Take in the homeless. And on and on it goes.
Now, most of those are good works. They have an important place in the Christian life. But they aren’t conditions of salvation.
If you want to keep the gospel pure, you have to be radical. You have to be crystal clear that we are justified by faith, apart from all and any works, even one as insignificant, brief, and passive as circumcising a little baby.
I was in a shop the other day with a little sign that read, “No job too small.” To paraphrase, when it comes to the gospel, no deed is too small to corrupt the saving message.
It’s by faith alone, or not at all.