Galatians 5:2: Christ of No Value?

Galatians 5:2 seems to express a limitation in the work of Christ. Doesn't this verse devalue the extent and efficacy of Christ's life and death? Can the submission to something as external as the rite of circumcision blunt the effectiveness of his sacrificial death?

The central theme of Galatians is that salvation is by faith and not by works; that justification (that is, a right relationship with God) is the result of the gracious gift of God's Son, not human achievement; that freedom from the bondage to sin does not come by even the most meticulous obedience to the law, but through the atoning death of Christ on the cross. This gospel was being undermined and perverted by the so-called Judaizers.

These Jewish Christians opposed the Pauline gospel as antinomian ("against law"), apparently believing that in addition to God's work in Christ, both Jewish and Gentile Christians needed to observe the law, including particularly ceremonial and cultic observances, such as special days, kosher foods and circumcision (Gal 3:1-7; 4:8-11, 17, 21-22). Paul calls them the "circumcision group" (Gal 2:12), because their demand for obedience to the Mosaic law from the followers of the Messiah expressed itself most specifically and radically in the demand that Gentiles, in order to become full members in the new covenant community, be circumcised (Gal 6:12).

That demand of the Judaizers Paul rejects uncompromisingly, because it sets up a criterion for salvation--namely, human achievement (Gal 3:3)--which lies outside God's way of salvation. To seek righteousness--which in this context does not refer to moral-ethical goodness, but conveys Paul's technical sense of "right relationship with God"--through observance of the law would be to "set aside the grace of God" (Gal 2:21).

Why is Paul so opposed to any intrusion of legal observance? One reason is worked out in the opening three chapters of Romans. While as a rabbi Paul seems clearly to have believed that complete obedience to the Mosaic law was possible (Phil 3:4-6), he was just as clearly convinced that such a path toward relationship with God led inevitably to self-righteousness, to pride in one's religious achievements, to boasting before others and God, and therefore to an implicit rejection of a stance of humility before the Creator. A second and perhaps more fundamental reason for rejecting the way of external, legalistic obedience was Paul's conviction that from the very beginning of redemptive history, the divinely established way toward saving relationship with God was by faith, not by works of the law (Gal 3:6-25; see also Rom 3--4).

On the basis of these convictions, Paul argues that if a system of law, even the Mosaic law, could impart life, then a right relationship with God "would certainly have come by the law" (Gal 3:21); but the only power the law has is to reveal our standing as sinners before a holy God and to show that we are finally dependent on his grace, receiving it in faith (Gal 3:18, 22-25).

That understanding of God's way of salvation, in contrast to the way of the Judaizers, elicits from Paul the charge that submission to circumcision [as a means toward right standing before and with God] means that Christ "is of no value" to them whatsoever (Gal 5:2). The bracketed phrase seeks to interpret Paul's meaning, in light of a parallel statement he makes in Galatians 2:21; namely, "if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing." The center of Paul's concern is of course that circumcision--which for Paul is "shorthand" for life lived in relation to the Mosaic law--understood and practiced as a means to righteousness, excludes the operation of God's grace. It is in fact the assertion that one can make it through personal achievement; as such it negates the necessity of the atonement.

For those who choose that way "Christ will be of no value," for the attempt "to be justified by law" leads to alienation from Christ and departure from grace. If we live "by the law," Christ and his atoning work have no value for us. But if we are "in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (Gal 5:6).