What Really Matters
Topic: Christian Life Basics Passage: Galatians 5:6
WHAT REALLY MATTERS
An Exposition of Galatians 5:6
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: June 4, 2023
Series: Stand-Alone Sermons
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Here at South Paris Baptist Church we hold the Bible in highest regard. The Bible is God’s Word, and as such it carries unique and divine authority, and by it we come to know God and are equipped to live a life that is pleasing to Him. We dig deeply in Holy Scripture for sound doctrine and for discerning the path of righteousness. We mine these sixty-six books for choice treasures that are more valuable than gold and for beautiful sights that are more breathtaking than the Grand Canyon. Like the faithful saints of old, we meditate frequently on the instruction of the Lord, because the Lord’s instruction is our delight, and it is incomparably greater than the thoughts of men.
And yet, every now and then we need a reminder of what Scripture is all about. Scripture has a point, but the sad testimony of human history is that so often people who possess Scripture miss the point. Jesus asked Nicodemus,
“Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10)
Later Jesus told religious Jews who studied the Scriptures:
“… you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:37:40)
Then there is that famous parable that Jesus told about the good Samaritan. In contrast to the compassionate and generous Samaritan, it was a Jewish priest and a Levite who first saw the poor man who had fallen among robbers and been left half-dead in the road, but these dutiful religious people “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31, 32).
It is exceedingly easy and common to possess the Scriptures in your hand and to use the Scriptures as a great tool for religious ceremonies and official pronouncements, but to miss the point. The possibility of missing the point of Scripture is not a good reason to ignore Scripture. However, the possibility of missing the point is a good reason to be diligent to pay attention to Scripture without missing the point.
Scriptural knowledge was never intended to be the end goal. Scripture knowledge – biblical truth, sound doctrine – is the key and necessary means to a larger goal. What is this larger goal? This larger goal is actually knowing, trusting, and loving the Lord, and walking with Him, and demonstrating love for Him in a beautiful array of moral excellence and good fruit.
The fact of the matter is that Scripture teaches us that God made us for right and healthy relationships. Our entire life is supposed to be live with an orientation to others: first and foremost, to the Lord, and second, to other people. God’s design for your life is that your life be free of self-preoccupation. You’re not the primary character in your own life story. It’s not about you doing and producing and advancing and achieving for your own sake. It’s not about you making a name for yourself or building your own brand. God gave you His Word in order to free you from your egotistical and insecure pursuit of your own self-made glory, and to free you to find contentment and joy in honoring the Lord and serving others.
Of the many friendships I have experienced over four-and-a-half decades, one of the most unique has been a friendship cultivated with Pastor Mark. Pastor Mark lives in Ohio, and he was Charlotta’s pastor who officiated our marriage thirteen years ago. I have never lived in Ohio, but over the course of many visits to Ohio for many years now, I often have lunch or coffee with Pastor Mark when I’m in town. One conversation at a time – one conversation every year or two – we have built a meaningful fellowship. One of the special aspects to this fellowship is that I have observed growth in Pastor Mark over the years. When you see someone on a weekly basis, you often don’t notice the growth that is taking place. But when you only drop in on someone once every 12 or 18 months, if you do it often enough, you might discern a pattern of growth from year to year. A few years ago we were having lunch (at an Asian restaurant, if I remember correctly), and Pastor Mark told me how it had been impressed upon him in a very clear way that life as God intended it is all about right relationships. It’s not complicated. Scripture says:
“[Love] the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
This central idea that true life is about healthy relationships has captured Pastor Mark’s mind and shaped his ministry over the past few years. Just nine days ago we were sitting in Starbucks together and he brought it up again. He hasn’t gotten over it. The two greatest commandments are still at the forefront of his mind. It was in that conversation that my heart was drawn to share this message today.
I don’t want anyone to ever think that digging deep into the teaching of “the Law and the Prophets” is about anything other than growing people who love God with their whole being and who demonstrate practical and energetic love for their neighbor. When Jesus said that “[on] these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”, He wasn’t giving us permission to ignore the Law and the Prophets. Instead, He was telling us to keep our eyes on the point. The point of the Law and the Prophets – the point of the Book of Genesis – is to cultivate in you a heart for God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and to instruct you in the path of loving conduct toward other people. That’s the point. So before we return to Genesis, I thought it would be helpful to all of us to remember that the goal of all biblical instruction is to promote our walk with the Lord and our love for other people. And since we are incapable of successfully achieving right and healthy relationships in our own wisdom, we need all of Scripture in order to show us the way of the Lord and shape us into godly people.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
With that in mind, let me read Galatians 5:6. Holy Scripture says:
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
UNDERSTANDING THE TEXT
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a gold mine of sound doctrine. In the midst of this gold mine, Galatians 5:6 is a pivotal verse. At the risk of oversimplifying Galatians, we can say that Galatians 1:6-5:5 sets forth the priority of faith, and that Galatians 5:13-6:10 sets forth the priority of love. Near the meeting point of these two sections, Paul brings both concepts together: the only thing that really matters is “faith working through love”. In this context, the word “faith” summarizes a right and healthy relationship with the Lord, and the word “love” summarizes a right and healthy relationship with other people, especially with our fellow believers. These two realities, faith and love, are not disconnected from each other, but are tightly connected: true faith is alive and active and working, and it works “through love”. In other words, a right and healthy relationship with the Lord produces right and healthy relationships with other people. Love is the fruit of faith!
“in Christ Jesus”
Let’s first take note of the opening phrase: “For in Christ Jesus”. Paul is talking about what really matters for people who are in fellowship with Christ. One of the most common ways that Paul describes believers is by saying that believers are in Christ or that believers are blessed in Christ. Christ is the Mediator in whom we have taken refuge, and Christ the Mediator mediates to us every spiritual blessing that the Father intends for those whom He has redeemed. For example:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, italics added)
“Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christwith every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless in him.” (Ephesians 1:3-4, italics added)
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (Galatians 3:13-14, italics added).
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesusyou are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christhave put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:25-28, italics added)
Outside of Christ, nothing counts for anything: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Outside of Christ, there is no salvation. Outside of Christ, everything is rubbish. Outside of Christ, everything is disintegrating and breaking apart. Outside of Christ, there is condemnation and accursedness and unrighteousness. Outside of Christ, people are alienated from God. Outside of Christ, people are apt to locate their primary identity and worth in their cultural heritage, or in their social and economic status, or in their sexual identity. Lest anyone take Galatians 3:28 out of context, Paul’s point about there being “no male and female” in Christ Jesus has nothing to do with modern gender bender theory. Paul is simply saying that all Christian believers, regardless of cultural or personal characteristics, are fundamentally unified in their enjoyment of fellowship with God through Christ. Christ brings every believer into the fullness of fellowship with God: nothing you bring to the table can add to the fullness of what Christ gives, and nothing you bring to the table can detract from the fullness of what Christ gives. Christ in the same all-sufficient Savior for all of His people, and all of His people – men and women both – are one in Him. In Christ, we are unified members of God’s family. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. In Christ, we are forgiven and freed from condemnation. In Christ, the smile of God is upon us and every spiritual blessing is ours.
This phrase “in Christ Jesus” highlights the fact that to be connected to Christ is to inhabit the greatest possible place, but to be disconnected from Christ is to inhabit the worst possible place. Galatians 5:2-4 says,
“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:2-4)
Earlier Paul had said that “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Galatians 3:26) Faith is essential – not faith in faith, not vague faith feelings, but faith in Christ. But if people never get firmly established in faith and proceed to throw away the truth of the gospel, and instead of trusting the Lord they trust their own effort to keep the law, then Paul says that such people are doomed: “Christ will be of no advantage to you”; “You are severed from Christ”; “you have fallen away from grace”. Christ and His grace prove advantageous and efficacious to those who trust Him, but “Christ will be of no advantage” to anyone else.
We shouldn’t be naïve as to the danger of spiritual drift. Paul wrote this letter “[to] the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2). Although these churches had been instructed in the truth of the gospel, they were in grave danger of turning back. Let these verses sink in:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1)
“[My] little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.” (Galatians 4:19-20)
“You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7)
G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” There are numerous ways by which Christian churches might be tempted to abandon the gospel or get bedeviled in deceit and error. The particular error that was troubling and bewitching the Galatian churches was the error of Jewish law-keeping. False teachers were saying something like this: in order to be truly saved, in order to be perfectly justified in God’s sight, in order to be a first-class Christian, you men must be circumcised as a badge of your allegiance to the Mosaic Law, and then you must proceed to keep the totality of the Mosaic Law. These false teachers weren’t denying that Jesus is the Messiah, but they were denying that Jesus is enough: trusting Jesus isn’t enough; trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice isn’t enough; trusting in what Jesus has accomplished isn’t enough. Instead, these false teachers had a Jesus plus something else mentality: it’s Jesus plus circumcision; it’s Jesus plus observing special “days and months and seasons and years” (Galatians 4:10); it’s Jesus plus the “works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). In this false teaching, Jesus is important but He’s not enough: Jesus isn’t enough to justify you in God’s sight and adopt you into God’s family and send the Holy Spirit into your life. Instead, this false teaching puts the burden on you to achieve and perform what the law requires as the basis of your acceptance with God. Anytime people come along and load you up with a program of steps and strategies, rules and regulations, to-do lists and checklists, with the promise that if you do these things, then you will find favor in God’s sight, they are troubling you in much the same way that the Judaizers were troubling the Galatians. They are “[distorting] the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7) and “[hindering] you from obeying the truth” (Galatians 5:7).
“neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything”
The truth, however, is that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything” (Galatians 5:6). We learned in Genesis 17 that the Lord gave the physical sign of circumcision to Abraham and his descendants. Circumcision as an outward and visible sign of a spiritual reality, namely, faith in God’s promise, was a good thing. But now that God’s promise has been brought to fulfillment through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the sign of circumcision is obsolete. The man who is physically circumcised is not advantaged on account of being circumcised. Christ is the all-sufficient Savior for the circumcised believer, and the circumcision adds nothing to what Christ so freely gives. The man who is not physically circumcised is not disadvantaged on account of being uncircumcised. Christ is the all-sufficient Savior for the uncircumcised believer, and the uncircumcision subtracts nothing from what Christ so freely gives. Of course, within the Old Testament context women weren’t circumcised at all. As Paul mentioned in Galatians 3:28, women are not disadvantaged on account of being women. Christ is the all-sufficient Savior for women, and they enjoy full inclusion in the riches of salvation. Men and women, Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, are equal beneficiaries of the grace of Jesus, and they gather round the table of the Lord as one family. We have Jesus, and in Jesus we have everything that really matters. Therefore, church family get-togethers and church family meals are not an occasion for envy or pride or one-upmanship or showing off or shaming others. Instead, church family get-togethers and church family meals are an occasion for mutual enjoyment in the riches that we share together in Christ. Always remember this when we partake of the Lord’s Supper.
“but only faith working through love”
So, circumcision and uncircumcision don’t count for anything. What does count? What does matter? “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6, italics added) “[Faith] working through love” is what really matters in Christ Jesus.
As I mentioned earlier, the word “faith” summarizes a right and healthy relationship with the Lord. The single word “faith” is shorthand for faith in God, for trusting the Lord, for believing and treasuring the gospel, for relying on God’s gracious promises. If a man relied on circumcision or on observing special feast days or on keeping specific commands, then the man is really relying on himself and what he has experienced and what he has accomplished. Such a man is attempting to justify himself and make himself acceptable to God. But the way of faith is to trust the Lord to justify this filthy sinner through the blood that He shed on the cross. Paul describes the way of faith earlier in the letter:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Galatians 1:3-5)
Comment: This is our anchor!
“… we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)
Comment: We are not in covenant relationship with the law, which gives us directives but can’t give us life. Instead, we are in covenant relationship with Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us and who gives us life.
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?” (Galatians 3:1-6)
Comment: We receive the Spirit, and walk in the Spirit, and experience God’s powerful presence among us, not because we have achieved a certain level of obedience, but because we hear and believe the gospel of Christ crucified!
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:10-14)
When Paul says that the only thing that really matters is “faith working through love”, the foundational “faith” part means that we are trusting the Lord. Our attachment is not to the law, but to the Lord. Our focus is not on what we do or ought to do, but on what Christ has done. We don’t fix our eyes on commandments and regulations, but on the crucified Redeemer. We don’t look for the blessing of God at the end of a series of steps that we have to take, but we look for the blessing of God freely given at the cross. We don’t come to God on the basis of what we have accomplished in our own strength, but we come to God sinful and weak and overwhelmed by the waywardness of our own hearts and yet at the same time we behold the slaughtered Lamb and we rely on His sacrifice. And as that happens, the Father adopts us as sons, clothes us with grace, and furnishes us with the Holy Spirit – not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to His abundant mercy through Christ (see Titus 3:5, Daniel 9:18). And this grace that abounds to sinners renders all our self-justifying steps and strategies, all our self-justifying rules and regulations, all our self-justifying to-do lists and checklists as fundamentally worthless. As Paul says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7-9). Christ is better than ten thousand lifetimes of religious devotion. Ten thousand lifetimes of religious devotion would always fall short of the glory of God. But Christ brings you all the way to the Father.
So, when Paul says that the only thing that really matters is “faith working through love”, faith means that our feet are standing on the grace of Jesus, that our hearts are planted solidly in Him. Jesus alone is our immovable Rock, our strong Refuge, our perfect Righteousness, our glorious Redeemer. By faith we become God’s sons and daughters, and we “receive the promised Spirit” (Galatians 3:14) who powerfully transforms our lives. And this powerful transformation takes us into that second word: “love”. In Christ Jesus the only thing that really matters is “faith working through love”. The word “love” summarizes the right and healthy way by which we must relate to other people.
When you are walking the path of biblical Christianity, what you discover is that there are always two ditches, one on each side of the road. In terms of Galatians 5:6, “faith” avoids the ditch of relying on one’s own effort to keep the law, and “love” avoids the ditch of lawlessness. Paul holds the law in high regard, not as a burden to be obeyed in order to be justified, but as a beautiful light that shows justified-by-grace believers how to walk in love.
In just a moment I’ll read some portions of Galatians 5:13-6:10, but before I do that let me simply say that God created us for right and healthy relationships with one another. God’s intention is for us to build things together. From the very beginning, as we learned in Genesis 1-2, God designed human beings to build marriages and families and extended families, to build cultures and civilizations, to build mission teams and relational networks. Before Adam and Even fell into transgression, the mission was to take the beauty of the garden of Eden and, from that mission center, to fill the whole earth with the glory of the Lord. After Adam and Even fell under judgment, the mission is to take the message of the gospel to the world. The risen Lord gave perfect expression to this gospel mission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) This great commission implies that we are called to build disciples, and to build groups of disciples (called local churches), and to build ministries to be carried out by Spirit-filled disciples in Spirit-led congregations.
What does all this have to do with love? Everything. It is impossible for unbelieving, self-reliant, and self-absorbed people to build the beautiful things that God wants to build through His people. And just to take the “love” part of it, it is impossible to for people to build good and beautiful and godly things together if their fundamental disposition toward each other is unloving and selfish. As we will see in just a moment, when we are unloving, we actually destroy people – and by extension, we destroy the very things that we were supposed to be cultivating and nurturing. How many marriages, how many families, how many congregations, how many ministries, have been derailed by lovelessness? Brothers and sisters, God’s will is that we who believe in Christ live as builders and encouragers and edifiers and restorers and helpers. God has brought you into the way of faith and bestowed His Holy Spirit upon you so that you live fully and freely as someone who builds and encourages and edifiers and restores and helps – indeed as someone who not only can benefit others but also can work with others to strengthen families and strengthen congregations and shine brightly for the Lord as lights of faithful love in this crooked generation. Listen to Paul’s instruction in the latter part of his letter:
“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 5:13-15)
Comment: We are either serving others from a heart of love, or we are devouring others.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:16-21)
Comment: The way of faith is totally incompatible with lawlessness. The way of faith is totally incompatible with disobedience to the moral dictates of God’s law. The way of faith, by which we receive the Spirit and are transformed by the Spirit, is to walk in a manner that is consistent with the moral beauty of God’s law, the focus of which is neighborly love (as Paul said in Galatians 5:14).
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:22-26)
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)
Comment: We are called to be humble restorers and gracious burden-bearers.
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:7-10)
Brothers and sisters, we are all tempted by “the desires of the flesh”. When we give into those desires, we simply add additional injuries and frustrations into this impatient, chaotic, and mean-spirited world. The Lord invites us to be refreshingly counter-cultural, and heavenly, in our manner of life. What your spouse needs, what your children need, what your Christian brother or sister needs, what your neighbor needs, is not for you to be full of yourself so that you use them to benefit yourself. You don’t need to benefit yourself, because Christ has already bestowed all of His benefits upon you, and you can’t improve upon that, so don’t try. Instead you have been equipped as a servant to go forth in Christ’s power to serve others, to rejoice in others, to make peace, to gently restore, to come alongside and help, and to do good to all. Don’t plot and scheme to get your way. Instead, plot and scheme to love other people in tangible ways. Build up, don’t tear down. Give generously, don’t take selfishly. Be gentle with people, not harsh. Never get tired of doing good, but let the way of love always be fresh and invigorating to your faithful heart. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”