The Perfectionists

“You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Galatians 5:7-15.

The Galatians had received the good news from Paul with joy. Christ had died to make them free, and all their sin was washed away. After Paul moves on, others come to tell them they still have to keep the law to REALLY be free. And until they do, they are still unworthy sinners. So they thought they could keep their freedom by being more perfect and keeping the law. But they could not be perfect. And their freedom became bondage to striving for perfection.

This is no longer about circumcision. No one is checking for that anymore. But it is still relevant because legalism can always find an issue to hang its hat on. There will always be imperfections that someone will demand must be eradicated. Then, that becomes the terms of your freedom instead of being forgiven by the Son of God. You cannot be free until you are faultless, even though you were justified by God Himself.

We fulfill the law when we love one another and serve one another, even if we do it imperfectly. Because, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9).

False Brothers

“Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” Galatians 2:1-5.

Christ’s relationship to the Jewish law was a life and death controversy in Paul’s time. Jews who accepted Christ as Messiah may have accepted that He was the beginning of a new order, but often struggled with the idea that He was also the end of something else. After all, if the blood of Christ was sacrificed for our sins, do we now stop the regular offerings of the blood of bulls and goats, and undo that whole atonement infrastructure that has marked the Jews for thousands of years? The idea of throwing out any part of God’s Law, as given to Moses, was considered heresy.

Paul not only preached that Christ was the end of the Law; he had the scholarship practices to demonstrate that God was planning to do this. As it was written in the Psalms:

“In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.'” Psalm 40:6-8.

The sacrifices for sin were less important than actual obedience, and delight in obedience. So the symbols and outward signs, like circumcision, that you were one of God’s people are unnecessary if you are changed inwardly. This is important enough to make Paul a heretic to the Jews, and to make them false brothers to him, trying to make him a slave.