Boasting in the Cross

By Stephen Terry


Sabbath School Lesson Commentary for December 24 – 30, 2011


“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Galatians 5:6, NIV

According to Jewish practice, the “Bris” or circumcision ceremony is performed on the eighth day after birth for each male child. Failure to perform this rite is seen as rebellion against God and a rejection of the covenant relationship between Him and His chosen people. For over two thousand years prior to Jesus’ day this ritual marked the beginning of life for a male Jew. After such a lengthy period of practice, circumcision had become part and parcel with the Jewish identity. If you were a Jew, one of the chosen people, you were circumcised.  Even Jesus was circumcised. (See Luke 2:21)

One can see then the strength of the argument of those who would promote circumcision for the new Gentile converts to Christianity. The reasoning might go something like this. God through Moses commanded that if any foreigner wanted to participate in Passover, every male in his household needed to be circumcised. (See Exodus 12:48) When we break bread together in commemoration of the Last Supper, since that meal was a Passover meal, those who participate should be circumcised. Besides, Jesus Himself set the example with His own circumcision. Don’t we want to be like Jesus? The outward sign of circumcision is the evidence of surrender to the will of God. Therefore we must demonstrate the outward fruit of circumcision to testify to that inner surrender of the heart.

Arguments like this are advanced to promote many legalistic practices today. You hear this line of reasoning about things ranging from music, to worship styles, and even the celebration of holidays. There is no basis in the Gospels for any of these subjects to be addressed in this way, yet the arguments continue. However, Jesus was circumcised so if this kind of reasoning is to have any validity, certainly circumcision would be the prima facie example. But it isn’t. If one thing is clear from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, it is that circumcision no longer applies. How can that be if even Jesus was circumcised? Simply this, Jesus fulfilled all aspects of the legal requirements placed upon God’s followers in their stead.

The law created a debt of obedience, a debt that men could not pay. (See Jeremiah 13:23) God paid that debt for us through Jesus Christ. Sadly, even though the debt has been paid, some still want to pay it themselves. This is what those who promoted circumcision were seeking to do, and this is what those who promote outward obedience today seek to do. If we owe a debt for our automobile or our home mortgage and someone pays it off for us, wouldn’t it be foolish for us to go to the bank that we owed the money to and insist on paying the debt anyway? This is what we are seeking to do when we offer up our obedience for our salvation instead of simply accepting the obedience of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

Salvation is not dependent on our obedience. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8, NIV Salvation was freely offered through Jesus Christ “while we were yet sinners.” Obedience could not be a condition of such a gift. Only surrender can be.

Without Christ, we all try to make our way through life as best we can. Guided by our own lights as to what is right and wrong, we struggle to achieve understanding and bring balance to the chaotic world around us. Our inability to see into one another’s hearts and minds dooms our efforts which will ever fall short because of this incomplete knowledge. We cannot even see around the corner into our own futures to perfectly prepare for whatever may come, good or bad. How then can we ever believe that our efforts will accomplish a righteous life, let alone salvation?

Thousands of years ago, God gave Abraham a promise. Was Abraham better than anyone else at the time? He was the son of idol worshippers, and lived among those who did not know the true God. (See Joshua 24:2) The promise could not have been based upon obedience. Instead, it was God who promised and then Abraham believed. But even Abraham had his side journey into the works of legalism as opposed to faith. Instead of trusting God to fulfill the promise, Abraham decided he must do something to make it happen. Like Josh Turner singing the song “Me and God,” he was tempted to see himself as an equal partner with God in a contractual relationship with God. Since God had said what He expected in blessing Abraham through a son, then naturally Abraham’s part was to father a son.

With Sarah’s willingness to accept this kind of an understanding of God, Abraham had a child by her handmaid, Hagar. One can almost picture Abraham proudly standing before God after Ishmael’s birth and saying, “Look! I have the son you wanted. Now You can bless me as You said!” (See Genesis 17:18) But instead God told him, “…as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” Genesis 17:20-21, NIV

Of interest is that after God said this to Abraham, circumcision began to be a part of the relationship between Abraham’s descendants and God. Circumcision did not begin with Abraham or with Isaac. It began with Ishmael. Though Abraham was circumcised the same day, for the ninety-nine years prior God had never required circumcision of him. Far from being a sign of faith in God, circumcision was a reminder of Abraham’s failure to trust God. He had instead relied on his own flesh in accomplishing God’s purpose. However, even though the sign was probably meant to produce humble faith in God, it instead became a source of spiritual pride. The Jews pointed to their circumcision as evidence of their “chosenness.”

Paul rightly pointed out their error when he disclosed that circumcision was not the basis for a proper relationship with God. As is often the case with other points of contention among the body of believers, the issue of circumcision was not about providing benefit to the believers but to allow those who were pushing this theological point to have control over the hearts and minds of those who accepted their leadership regarding this issue. As Paul wrote, “…they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.” Galatians 6:13, NIV Paul’s desire was to add to the body of Christ. Their desire was to add to their own following.

Paul clearly identified the failure of Abraham through Hagar with the tendency to place our trust in our own understanding. He identified this with living according to the flesh or under the law. (See Galatians 4:21-31) He equates Hagar with Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. But Isaac, he calls the child of the promise, and he also says that we who are Christ’s are also children of the promise.

A promise is not a contract. It does not rely on the participation of two parties to be complete. A promise is the pledge of one party to perform a service for another without a necessity for the second party to provide anything. If I promise to buy you an ice cream, then the only obligation is mine to do what I said I would do. If I tell you I will buy you an ice cream if you are well-behaved, then that is a contract and not a promise. You fulfill your obligation to be well-behaved, and I fulfill my obligation to buy you an ice cream. A promise is unconditional, but a contract has conditions.

God’s love is a love of promise, an unconditional love. That is why Christ could die for us “while we were yet sinners.” God does not bargain with us concerning our salvation. He offers it freely and universally to all mankind. His love compels Him in this. So with such magnanimity, why does God simply not just take everyone into heaven? God has chosen not to violate our free will. He wants us to love him of our own desire and without compulsion. In order to have the freedom to love him, we must also have the freedom to choose not to. Although the gift of salvation if freely offered to all, some choose to decline the offer.

Satan works hard to convince as many as possible to do just that. His desire is to make salvation look so onerous that no one in their right mind would choose to accept it. A favorite method he employs is to so burden the Christian life with legalistic requirements that those who have accepted the proffered salvation turn back, and others who have not yet surrendered are driven off by the sight of so many unhappy saints burdened with the multitudinous minutiae required by legalistic obedience.

But this is not the Christian life. Some would have us believe that to be a Christian is to fasten on the chains of slavery to fulfill the whole law and thereby ensure salvation. But Christ fulfilled the law for us. He has set us “free from the law of sin and death.” (See Romans 8:2) As Paul went on to write to the Roman church:  For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.  And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Romans 8:14-16, NIV


This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry







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