For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who called you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine; and he who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But if I, brethren, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the stumbling block of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!
Verse 6 of our text is one of the most important verses in the whole book. I want us to spend most of our time with it. But first, let's take a brief walk through verses 7–12. I think they function mainly as a warning about how serious the main issue in verses 5 and 6 really is—the issue of whether faith is sufficient for receiving the fullness of God's blessings, or whether some of those blessings must be earned by works.
Heed These Warnings
Verses 7 and 8: "You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who called you." So the first warning is that the persuasion to forsake the path of faith for the road of works is not a divine persuasion. In fact, it comes from those elemental spirits of the universe who are no gods (4:3, 8). You have swerved out of the narrow path and begun to enter the broad road that leads to destruction—like a marathon runner who takes a wrong turn and finds himself in a dead-end street, or worse. "You were running well"—you were shot out of the blocks by the Spirit, and you were relying on him every step of the way for guidance and power. But this new turn you've made—God didn't teach you to make that turn; and if God didn't, you know who did!
Verse 9 gives another warning: "A little leaven leavens the whole lump." This may mean that a few leaders in the church with a legalistic mentality will soon corrupt the whole church. Or it may mean that legalistic self-reliance in one little area of your life (like circumcision) will destroy your whole life (see 5:2). In either case, the dreadful seriousness of motives in the Christian life is evident. There are motives that come from depending on God, and there are motives that come from depending on yourself—and the difference is a matter of life and death.
Verse 10 expresses Paul's confidence that the new believers in Galatia will agree with this letter and turn back to faith, and his confidence that those who go on teaching legalism will be judged. "I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine; and he who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is." As much as we might like (indeed, as Paul might have liked!) to motivate people solely by the beauty of Christ's love and power, neither we nor Paul can ignore the reality of judgment. "It is appointed unto men once to die and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Not to warn the Galatians about this would be like trying to get someone to step off the railroad track to smell the beautiful honeysuckle but not telling them a train is coming. Paul warns people that judgment is coming.
The Cross, Not Circumcision
Then verse 11 seems to be an answer to someone's objection: perhaps the Judaizers said that even Paul himself teaches circumcision sometimes, as when he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1–3). Paul denies the charge: "But if I, brethren, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the stumbling block of the cross has been removed." Paul says that he preaches the cross not circumcision and that is why he is so often persecuted—because the cross is a stumbling block. The cross makes people either ecstatically happy because their sins are forgiven or vehemently angry because every ground for boasting is removed. If Paul still preached that circumcision can obligate God to bless us, then he would avoid a lot of persecution, but the stumbling block of the cross would be gone—and with it, forgiveness of sins. The death of Jesus on the cross for our sin is such a radical indictment of our sinful condition and such a complete satisfaction of God's justice, that any attempt to save ourselves except through faith is a naïve compliment to ourselves and an insult to the fullness of Christ's atonement. So Paul does not preach circumcision.
And of those who do, he says in verse 12, "I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves." Which probably means something like: they would do a lot less harm if they castrated themselves than if they circumcised you. There is no escaping the fact that these are harsh words, shocking words. And all that simply goes to show how shocking and serious the issue is.
Faith Versus Works
So let's go back to verse 6 now and spend the rest of our time focusing on the real issue at stake in Galatia. Verse 5, you recall, said that a day is coming when every person's final verdict will be announced and those who are in Christ will be made perfect in righteousness (implying that we are not yet perfect). The way we wait for that day is not through our own power by works of law but through the Spirit by faith. Then verse 6 is added as a ground or argument for why we wait through the Spirit by faith and not through the flesh by works of law like circumcision: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love." The reason we live by faith and not by works is that works have no power to win blessing from God. In fact, they offend God by nullifying his free grace. But faith has power to win all things from God because it honors God's free grace. Trusting God to perform his promises puts him on his honor and wins the free gift of life.
Someone may ask, "Is there really that big a difference? Isn't faith just as much a work as circumcision? What's the big difference?" One of the clearest answers to that question is given in Romans 4:4, 5, "Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." Notice in verse 4 what it means to live by works: it means to have the mindset of an employee with God as the employer in need of your service. When you do what he needs, then he owes you wages. That's the essence of legalism or works religion: us working for God and him paying us the wages we are due. Then notice in verse 5 what it means to live by faith.
First, it means that you stop thinking of yourself as an employee and God as an employer—you stop working for God in this sense. "To one who does not work." Faith is not added to works, and works are not added to faith. Faith excludes works, because faith has a totally different mindset. God is not the employer who needs my labor and pays me for it. I am the needy person in this relationship, and God is the workman who has all the know-how and power and integrity to meet all my needs. So in the mindset of faith I never work to supply any deficiency God has. He is always working for me to supply all my deficiencies.
The Heart of Works and the Heart of Faith
Let's put it another way. The human heart, your heart, produces desires or longings like fire produces heat. Your heart is defined by its longings. As surely as sparks fly upward, your heart pumps out desire after desire. So we should be able to define faith and works in terms of this stream of longings that gush up out of the heart all day long. The heart that is set on works (flesh) desires the thrill of feeling its will and its body rise victoriously to some challenge. The heart that is set on works will attempt to scale a vertical rock face, or take on extra responsibilities at work, or risk life in the combat zone, or agonize through a marathon, or perform religious fasting for weeks—all for that wonderful thrill of conquering a challenge by the force of its will and stamina of its body. Even though the heart that is set on works often expresses its love for independence and self-styled pleasure by rejecting courtesy and decency and morality, its the same heart of works which also gets disgusted with animal dissipations and sets out to find the real thrill of self-denial and courage and personal greatness. The heart that is set on works longs for the thrill of feeling itself overcome great obstacles.
But the heart that is set on faith is very different. Its desires are no less strong; but what it desires is the thrill of feeling God rise victoriously to a challenge in us and through us. Works wants the thrill of feeling itself overcome an obstacle. Faith wants the thrill of feeling God overcome an obstacle. Works longs for the joy of being glorified as capable and strong and smart. Faith longs for the joy of seeing God glorified for his capability and his strength and his wisdom. In its religious form works accepts the challenge of morality, conquers its obstacles through great exertion, and offers the victory to God for his gratitude and applause and recompense. Faith also accepts the challenge of morality, but only as an occasion to become the instrument of God's power, and when the victory is achieved, faith rejoices that all the glory and thanks belong to God. These are two religions that exist side-by-side in every church and O, how I hope this series on Galatians is helping you take the right side!
What Faith Takes Away from the Heart
Now with that understanding of faith and works, let's ask why genuine faith inevitably produces love, according to Galatians 5:6. Paul isn't saying that we are justified by two things: faith and works of love. He is saying we are justified by one thing, faith, and this faith is of such a nature that it produces love like a good tree produces good fruit. Being a loving person is absolutely essential to being saved, because the faith which saves by its very essence works through love. Therefore, it is tremendously important that we see how saving faith produces love.
We need a definition of love first of all. Let's try this one: We love other people when we stop using them as means to supply our deficiencies and instead rejoice in the divine enablement for us to supply their deficiencies. "Love seeks not its own"—but rejoices in what happens when you are gripped by the truth that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).
Now how does faith inevitably make you into a person like that? Faith works in two ways. It produces love by what it takes away from the heart and by what it gives to the heart. Faith takes away from the heart guilt and fear and greed. It takes away guilt because it is confident that "Christ died for our sins" (1 Corinthians 15:3) so that "in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses" (Ephesians 1:7). Faith takes away fear because it is confident that "God works for those who wait for him" (Isaiah 64:4). He promises to help, strengthen, and protect (Isaiah 41:10). He will work all things together for our greatest good (Romans 8:28). Therefore, faith banishes fear. And faith takes away greed because it is confident that Christ is greater wealth than all the world can offer (Hebrews 11:26; 13:5, 6; Philippians 3:8). So faith pushes guilt and fear and greed out of the heart.
And is it not guilt and fear and greed that keep us from being loving people? We feel guilty, and so we wallow in self-centered depression and self-pity, utterly unable to see, let alone care, about anyone else's need. Or we play the hypocrite to cover our guilt and so destroy all sincerity in relationships. Or we talk about other people's faults to minimize the guilt of our own. And so guilt destroys love.
And we feel fearful. So we don't go up to a stranger after the service on Sunday but make a beeline for the car. Or we reject a call to missions as too dangerous. Or we waste money on excess insurance. Or we get swallowed up in all manner of little phobias that utterly blind us to the needs of others and make us preoccupied with ourselves. And so fear destroys love.
And we feel greedy. So we spend money on luxuries, money that ought to go to the spread of the gospel. We don't undertake anything risky lest our precious possessions or financial future be jeopardized. We focus on things instead of people, or see people as resources for our advantage. And we hold grudges year in and year out because we are greedy for the sweet taste of revenge. So, along with guilt and fear, greed destroys love.
So it isn't hard to see, is it, that when faith pushes out guilt and fear and greed, it frees us for love? All of our unloving behavior can be traced back to a failure to rest in God's promises (which are all based on the cross, Romans 8:32).
What Faith Gives to the Heart
But I said that faith produces love not only by what it takes away from the heart (guilt, fear, greed) but also by what it gives to the heart. Faith gives the heart an appetite for the thrill of experiencing God's power moving in us and for us as we do his will. Faith cherishes the experience of having God overcome obstacles in our lives. In other words, faith not only takes away the barriers to love; it also provides a positive impulse to move us to love.
When all guilt and fear and greed have been removed by the assurances of God's forgiveness and love and power, what force will move us out of our contented living rooms to take upon ourselves the inconveniences and suffering that love requires? What will propel you to greet strangers when you feel shy, to go to an enemy and plead for reconciliation when you feel indignant, to tithe when you've never tried it before, to speak to your colleagues about Christ, to invite new neighbors to a Bible study, to cross cultures with the gospel, to admit you're a homosexual and want help, to create a new ministry for alcoholics in the area, to give an evening to drive a van, or a morning to pray for renewal? None of these costly acts of love just happens. They are propelled from the heart by a new appetite—the appetite for the thrill of experiencing God's power in your life. Faith loves to rely on God and see him work miracles in us. Therefore, faith pushes us into the current where God's power flows most freely—the current of love. Faith produces love because in acts of love we feel the power of God conquering our sin, and conquering Satan, and transforming the world.
To sum up. Works like circumcision avail nothing with God, but faith working through love avails everything. Works is the mentality of being God's employee, providing him with services he needs so that he will pay us our due. Faith does not work for God, but always trusts in God as the worker who meets our needs. The heart set on works hungers for the thrill of feeling its will and body rise victoriously to some challenge and it loves praise. But the heart set on faith hungers for the thrill of feeling God rise victoriously to a challenge in and through us, and it loves for him to be praised. This is the faith that produces love.
What is love? We love other people when we stop using them as means to supply our deficiencies and instead rejoice in the divine enablement to supply their deficiencies. Faith produces this love inevitably because it takes away the barriers to love like guilt and fear and greed. The heart that rests in God's promises cannot remain guilty, fearful, and greedy. And faith produces this love because it creates a new appetite for the thrill of feeling God show his mercy in and through us. This appetite propels us into the activities where that power flows freest, namely, the activities of love.
Therefore, "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith (only) working through love."