It is difficult to imagine ever being freed from slavery and then actively seeking to return to bondage. Yet that’s exactly what the Galatians are attempting that has prompted this letter from Paul.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. 10 I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. 11 But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. 12 I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.
Christ set the Galatians free in order that they might remain free, according to Paul (5.1). Because of this, Paul exhorts the Galatians to continue standing firm in that liberty, and not enslave themselves with the Law again. When people submit themselves to the authority of the Law, they are subject to the entire Law (5.3). The Law is a cruel taskmaster, and impossible to completely obey—the more obedient one is to it, the more self-righteous and odious they become (remember the Pharisees?). The Galatians’ choice to be legalists puts them at odds with God’s method of salvation, which is grace. They are cutting themselves off from Christ (5.4), or being rendered inoperable (αταργεω) in their spirituality in Christ. Paul points out that the Galatians are either seeking justification by grace or justification by Law; they cannot have both (5.4). This is the whole purpose for the letter: to shine a light on their choice so that they don’t make it blindly—to show them the worthlessness of the path they have thus far been choosing. Since Paul calls them “brothers,” we know he’s talking to Christians. Is he suggesting that the Galatians have lost their salvation? Not exactly. The spirit of this letter is not one of anathema—Paul isn’t condemning or cursing the Galatians; he’s trying to teach them the gospel more accurately. Their ignorance on grace justification has led them to become ineffective, or inoperable, in Christ. To suggest that a sin or mistake or lack of learning has resulted in the Galatians’ loss of salvation would be illogical: if this is true, for example, then one small step under the Law would result in a loss of salvation. It is preferable, rather, to see the intent of the letter and this part of the letter in the context of time. Paul is attempting to correct wrong behavior on the Galatians’ part. Now that they’ve had a light shined on legalism, they can better choose which method of justification they want. If they embrace justification by faith, they will be waiting for the hope of righteousness like other Christians (5.5). If they embrace legalism, they will be rejecting Christ. Which will become their pattern? A person with full knowledge of the grace vs. works paradigm who actively chooses the way of legalism is openly rejecting Christ and knows it. This is not a person who “loses” his salvation; it’s a person who actively doesn’t want it. Our Calvinist brothers would say that he didn’t truly get saved the first time; we Arminians would suggest that this passage fits with our understanding of the one ability God gives us through His prevenient grace: the ability to choose. In keeping with that, those who keep choosing legalism over Christ are actively choosing to reject grace.
Early in their lives, I had to teach my sons not to play in the street. Believe me, it wasn’t a situation in which I simply said “don’t do it,” and they humbly obeyed. There were moments when their game of catch led them to the street. They didn’t accidentally end up there; they actively chose to go into the dangerous street and play. Had they made that a pattern, there was a significant chance that they could have been killed. Over time, they accepted my instruction and didn’t play in the street; they were not killed by passing cars. Just because they played in the street a few times didn’t mean automatic death (hyper-Wesleyan salvation loss); it meant that they needed to be corrected in order to avoid that. And just because I wanted them to be alive didn’t mean they could wander in the street any time they wanted without consequence (Calvinist). Similarly, Paul corrects the Galatians from their behavior—and now that they’ve had this light shined on this issue, they must willingly stay in the yard of grace or willingly go play in the street of legalism. They now know the consequences. The individual or group of people who has led them down this path of legalism is doing a very bad thing, and Paul has strong feelings toward them. In fact, he claims he wishes that legalism teacher would just go ahead and “humiliate” himself (5.12). The word that he actually employs here is ἀποκόψονται—to castrate. Paul is not happy with the false teacher.
One fact becomes abundantly clear in Galatians: you can’t serve both legalism and Jesus. If you choose obedience to a code of rules as your method of salvation, you aren’t saved from anything—period. You have been set free from the rules; you now walk in grace, and you should be receiving instruction, growing, correcting your path, and in so doing becoming a beacon for others. Where is your faith? Is it in Christ, or in you? Paul’s imperative to the Galatians is for you as well: stand firm and do not enslave yourself again to legalism. God will gently lead you in the path you should walk. And how do you hear from Him? You cultivate a habit of reading His Word and praying, and you cultivate relationships with others in the community that He founded, the Church. You hear from God in your prayer time and in church. He speaks to you in the quiet of the morning, and in community. Don’t try to cling to just one; His voice is consistent in your quiet time and in your church community, and that’s how you know you’re hearing from Him.
The rules are done. Now you’re free. Live like it.