Doing the Whole Law
Anyone who is under the Law of Moses is obligated to keep all its required deeds and rituals, and therefore, risks coming under its curse.
In Galatians, Paul responds to teachings from certain “men from Jerusalem” who are disrupting the churches by claiming that male Gentiles must be circumcised to “complete” their faith.
This group may also be promoting calendrical observances and the Levitical dietary regulations.
The “Judaizers,” as Paul labels them, do not deny the need for faith, but they teach that once Gentiles become disciples of Jesus, performing at least some of the works required by the Mosaic legislation is necessary for completing their faith - to become full members in good standing of the covenant community:
- (Galatians 3:1-5) – “So foolish are you, having begun in Spirit, are you now to be MADE COMPLETE in the flesh?”
But the Apostle to the Gentiles will have none of this. He calls them “agitators” who cause divisions by compelling Gentiles to “live like Jews.”
And the real controversy is over the status of Gentiles in the covenant people. To be set right before God must a Gentile add circumcision and other works of the Torah to his faith in Jesus?
THE APOSTOLIC RESPONSE
The Apostle does not charge his opponents with compelling Gentiles to keep the entire Law. His remarks suggest they are insisting that Gentiles must keep only certain requirements, especially circumcision, but not necessarily every requirement demanded by Torah - (Galatians 3:10, 5:2-3).
In the letter’s propositional statement, Paul presents what he holds in common with his opponents (verses 15-16), and then he summarizes the areas of disagreement (Galatians 2:17-21):
- “We ourselves by nature Jews and not sinners from among the Gentiles, know that man is not declared righteous on the basis of the works of the law but through the faith of Christ Jesus; even we believed in Christ Jesus that we might be declared righteous on the basis of the faith of Christ and not on the basis of the works of the law; because from the works of the law will no flesh be declared righteous.”
Both he and the agitators believe that no man is put in right standing with God “from the works of the Law,” but instead, “from the faith of Jesus Christ.” But his opponents are adding requirements to this faith.
At issue is not good works in general, or human efforts expended to achieve justification, but specifically, the deeds required by the Mosaic Law. And these include circumcision.
And in this context, the “works of the law” can only refer to the requirements of the Torah given through Moses at Mount Sinai.
In chapter 3, Paul begins to present his arguments in support of his proposition, starting with an argument from experience – the Gentile believers in Galatia received the Spirit even though they were not circumcised, and THAT is irrefutable evidence that God accepted them into the covenant community on their faith and without the rite of circumcision.
DOING THE WHOLE LAW
Next, Paul presents arguments from Scripture by appealing to the example of Abraham whom he links to faith, righteousness, and the promised “blessing” for Gentiles. The Patriarch was “reckoned righteous” from his faith, and not from the “deeds of the law.” Therefore, all who are from faith are the “sons of Abraham.”
- (Galatians 3:10-13) - “For as many as are from the works of the Law are under a curse, for it is written, ‘Accursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.’”
In contrast, those who are “from the works of the Law” place themselves under its curse. The Law itself pronounces that all men who are under it are obligated “to continue in ALL the things written in the book of the Law, to do them” - (Deuteronomy 27:26).
The Law is NOT a pick-and-choose menu, but an all-or-nothing proposition. If one is under it, just observing the Sabbath or getting circumcised is insufficient to avoid its curse. One must do all that it requires.
Gentile believers who are contemplating the addition of circumcision to their faith must understand that much more is involved than the removal of the foreskin. The Torah requires covenant members to do ALL that is written in it, and those who are living from the “works of the Law” fall under its curse when they fail to do so.
At Sinai, Israel placed herself under the obligations of the covenant, and thereby also under its potential curse that is pronounced on all men who fail to continue in all things required by the Law. The Galatians are considering an act with potentially dire consequences.
Ten times in his letter, Paul connects the preposition “under” to the Law, and always negatively. Thus, he refers to those who are “under sin”, “under the Law,” “under a custodian,”, “under guardians,” and “under the elemental principles” of the world. Those who are “under the Law” are not classified as people “from faith.” Instead, they need to be redeemed “from under the Law” - (Galatians 3:22-25, 4:2-5, 4:21, 5:18).
Paul’s argument is covenantal. He does not argue against doing good works in general, but against placing oneself under the requirements of the Mosaic legislation, and the act of circumcision does precisely that.
The curse pronounced in Deuteronomy is not against all humanity or sin in general. It falls on ALL men who fail to do everything that the Law requires, but it applies only to those who are under it.
If Gentile believers choose circumcision, Jesus and his work on the cross will cease to benefit them. Instead, they must now keep the entire Law because submission to circumcision places them under its obligations.
- (Galatians 5:2-3) - “Behold! I, Paul, am saying to you. If you get circumcised, Christ will benefit you nothing. Moreover, I bear solemn witness again to every man getting circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”
And if they do so, the Galatians will cease to be under the new covenant instituted by the death of Jesus. It is one or the other. Christ endured the Law’s curse, so his followers must not (“You have been set aside from Christ, you who are to be declared righteous from the Law”).
According to Paul, “if righteousness is through the Law, then Christ died in vain.” Thus, anyone who teaches that faith in what God has done in Jesus is insufficient for determining membership in His people, intentionally or not, declares that his unjust death on a Roman cross was ineffective - that Jesus “died for nothing.”