Early in my teaching career, I was leading a class of seventh grade students through the book of Galatians. During class discussion a student - whom I will call “Tom” - raised his hand, clearly frustrated with the passage we were reading.
“I don’t understand what the big deal is about circumcision!” Tom exclaimed. “Isn’t it just like baptism or something?” Diplomatically (and trying hard not to laugh) I suggested that Tom discuss the topic with his parents when he got home.
The next day as I was greeting the students entering my door, Tom glanced at me with a scowl on his face. When I asked what was going on, he simply replied, “It is NOT like baptism!” before hurrying to his seat.
Tom’s misunderstanding about the… mechanics of circumcision notwithstanding, he actually had an excellent question - why is it that circumcision comes up so frequently in the New Testament? Why is Paul so preoccupied with it?
Circumcision was one of the requirements of the Law of Moses given to the Jews. While many of the commandments in the Law are common moral rules observed by every culture (“Thou shalt not murder”), others are unique instructions given to the Jews (“Do not trim the sides of your beard.”) Circumcision was in the later category, and it came to symbolize the sort of obedience to the whole law expected of observant Jews.
During Paul’s ministry, the early church was still debating which laws from the Old Testament Christians - particularly Gentile Christians - should be expected to obey. Some teachers, sometimes referred to as the “Judiazers,” insisted that, if you were going to follow God, you had to follow the entirety of the Old Testament Law. In effect, they required that Gentiles convert to Judaism in order to become Christians. Apparently even Peter and James initially belonged to this camp.
Paul firmly disagreed with this view. He insisted that we are not saved by the things we do - whether obedience to the law, baptism, or circumcision - but by having faith in Christ. In his view, Christ had already done all the work needed for us to be reconciled to God. Requiring Christians to jump through a number of hoops before coming in suggested that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross hadn’t been enough.
Ultimately, Paul’s belief that Christ is enough for our salvation won out. But Christians are still frequently tempted to trust in their own good deeds to earn God’s love - the money they donate to the church, their political allegiances or their theological purity. But as Christ told us - and Paul reminds us - the only way to the Father is through trusting in Him.
What is it that you are trusting in? Are you hoping that your good deeds will win you favor with God? Are you relying upon Christ’s righteousness or self-righteousness to put you in good standing with God?
Spend some time in prayer today asking God to show you what you are relying on - and asking Him to help you put your full confidence in Him.