On God’s Salvation, Galatians and the Instrument (Sept-Dec 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

By Jay Guin

The instrumental debate in the Restoration Movement goes back to Civil War times, meaning that we’ve had 150 years to refine and sharpen our arguments. Both sides have gotten pretty good at making them — and at ignoring what the other side says.

It’s often been said, by both sides, that the dispute is ultimately all about hermeneutics, and indeed , it is. But the fork in the road is not where we normally say. It’s not really about what the early Christian bishops wrote, nor about the meaning of psallo;, nor about how to read the silences of the scriptures. Not really. Of course, those arguments matter and need to be addressed, but they aren’t the core of the disagreement.

It’s really about who God is and his eternal plan for his people. Did God send Jesus to save us to worship a cappella? Or did he have entirely different purposes in mind? That’s the question.

And it’s the most important question in the entire debate. You see, once we decide that God is the sort of God who might damn over a piano, we begin to worry about whether he might also damn over how we use the church treasury, whether women wear hats to church, or whether elders are re-affirmed. Once you envision a God who damns over such things, there’s really no end to the rules that your God might damn you over.

For any student of Restoration Movement history, the fruit of our teaching is seen in our countless divisions. Of course, we aren’t alone. The Baptists and many other denominations are severely divided as well. But that hardly excuses our behavior. Rather, it just tells us that we aren’t alone in our failure to understand who God really is.

(Imagine that a father tells his son to cut the grass. The son agonizes over whether the instructions should be interpreted to permit him to listen to his iPod while he works — or does the father’s silence imply a prohibition? He fights with his sisters over the correct interpretation and even divides the family, because he loves the father too much to tolerate the presence of those who disagree. He soon begins to wonder whether “grass” includes weeds. He agonizes so much he never cuts the grass — but he presents his father with an excellent grammatical analysis of the command.)

(Luke 6:43-44 ESV) 43 “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.”

Rather than seeking to justify a body of teaching that has led to sin, that is, division upon division — we should instead re-investigate the scriptures to see what God truly calls us to be.

Galatians

The Bible is filled with texts that speak to this issue, but I thought I’d point out a series of passages that are rarely discussed in this context. We begin in Galatians 2 —

(Galatians 2:3-5 ESV) 3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in — who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery — 5 to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

Paul begins by describing his visit with the apostles, and points out that Titus, a Greek, was not required to be circumcised. However, there were members of the Jerusalem congregation who insisted that Titus be circumcised, but Paul did not yield “even for a moment.” Why? To “preserve” the gospel for the Gentiles.

Now this decision by Paul proved very fateful. He was hounded by the circumcision party throughout his missionary journeys, and the churches he founded were torn apart by those who argued the necessity of circumcision. It would have been much easier just to submit to their scruples and have Titus and other Gentile converts circumcised. It would have kept peace in the church. In a sense, it would have produced unity. It would have ended the controversy!

But Paul refused to submit “even for a moment.” Why? Well, for two reasons. First, if Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved, conversion of Gentiles would have been harder. Paul wasn’t willing to slow his mission — seeking and saving the lost — for peace.

Second, as Paul argues, requiring circumcision as a requirement to be saved (or stay saved!) contradicts the “truth of the gospel.”

(Galatians 2:11-14 ESV) 11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Notice what happened in Antioch. Cephas (the apostle Peter) refused to eat with the uncircumcised Gentile Christians “fearing the circumcision party.” To get along with brothers who had scruples, Peter broke fellowship with fellow Christians! There are things we can and should do to submit to brothers with scruples, as Paul teaches in Rom 14, but breaking fellowship with fellow Christians is not one of them!

Indeed, Paul declared Peter’s refusal to fellowship the Gentiles as “not in step with the truth of the gospel,” and he says Peter “stood condemned” for this sin! Peter, the Rock, leader of the apostles, stood condemned because he drew the lines of fellowship too narrowly — so he could get along with brothers with scruples. Think about that one long and hard.

Did someone suggest there is safety in withdrawing from those who don’t honor our scruples? That we should break fellowship just to be sure of our salvation? It doesn’t work that way! Indeed, the fact that we see condemnable conduct as a path to safety demonstrates how very far removed our thinking can be from the truth of the gospel.

But why didn’t Paul just have Titus circumcised — making peace in the brotherhood — and yet teach the truth of the matter? Why wouldn’t it have been enough to teach the truth of the freedom the gospel grants while submitting to the scruples of the legalists just to get along? Well, because freedom that can’t be exercised isn’t freedom.

(Galatians 2:16 ESV) 6 yet 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.

Faith justifies, and works do not. If we submit to those who teach a works-based gospel, we affirm their teaching, and that contradicts “the truth of the gospel.” It’s not an option.

Some want to narrow “works of the law” to the Law of Moses. We don’t need to cover that question because, regardless of the meaning of “law,” we know what “faith” means. And Paul’s point is not so much that “law” is bad as “faith” is sufficient. The important thing, then, is the definition of “faith.”

And this passage tells us. It’s believing “in Jesus Christ.” The faith Paul preaches is not a systematic theology. It’s what we confess just before we’re baptized. The faith of a 12-year old coming to Jesus, confessed in a sentence, is enough. You don’t have to take two semesters of hermeneutics or church history to have faith.

(Galatians 5:1 ESV) For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Paul declares circumcision for the sake of fellowship or salvation to be a “yoke of slavery.” Indeed,

(Galatians 5:2-4 ESV) 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Yes, a Christian can fall from grace. One way to do it is to defeat the gospel by insisting on salvation by some means other than faith in Jesus.

There is no compromise with legalism allowed. If we teach or practice a circumcision as a test of fellowship, as a mark of the church, or as a salvation issue, we are required to “keep the whole law.” It’s not because circumcision is part of the Law of Moses. Circumcision was actually part of God’s covenant with Abraham, made centuries earlier. It’s because circumcision is not faith.

If you want to be saved by faith in Jesus, you must recognize the sufficiency of faith in Jesus. (Paul does not, of course, teach license. Those with a genuine faith will seek to do God’s will and won’t live in rebellion, as Paul explains in Galatians 2:17-21 and 5:16-26.)

(I get so upset when an author declares that we might fall from grace by worshiping with an instrument, and then cites Galatians 5:4 as authority — when Galatians 5:4 teaches the opposite! We can fall from grace by basing salvation and fellowship on something other than faith in Jesus and love for others.)

(Galatians 5:5-6 ESV) 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

How could Paul speak more plainly? Hope comes “by faith.” The only thing that “counts for anything” is “faith working through love.”

If we take Paul at his word here at the culmination of his epistle, the reason circumcision can’t be a test of fellowship or a salvation issue or even something that “counts for anything” is that it’s neither faith nor love. Obviously, people of faith and love can be circumcised (or sing exclusively a cappella), but they can’t insist that faith is inadequate unless combined with exclusively a cappella music.

Paul makes clear what he means by “love” —

(Galatians 5:13-14 ESV) 13 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. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Faith working through love” is all about believing in Jesus in such a way that we are led to truly love our neighbors. True faith works — through love. Faith serves because faith loves.

And here we find the mission of God in a phrase. God saved us, through faith, so that we could be added to his Kingdom and join with him in serving the world in love. That’s God’s mission, and those are what matter. Nothing else “counts for anything.”

Or as Paul writes,

(Galatians 6:14-15 ESV) 14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

Circumcision doesn’t count for anything. Neither does uncircumcision. What matters is “a new creation,” that is, being transformed to be like Jesus. And that’s what matters — because Jesus showed us how to love our neighbors by how he lived. Living like Jesus, therefore, is the true mark of a Christian (someone who is Christ-like!).

In Galatians, therefore, Paul shows us a better hermeneutic. Rather than picking apart the many biblical passages about circumcision and debating endlessly whether it’s still a command, Paul tells us to ask: Is it about faith in Jesus? Is it about love for our neighbor? Is it about being transformed to be like Jesus?

And if we sing, without or without a drum kit, in praise of Jesus, Lord of the Universe and Son of God, it’s about faith in Jesus. And if we sing, with or without a guitar, to edify our brothers and sisters in the faith and to draw an unbelieving visitor to his knees so that he’ll declare, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:25 ESV), then it’s also about love. And if our singing helps us draw closer to Jesus, to become more like him, by elevating our thoughts and feelings, instructing and admonishing one another with gratitude, then it’s about being transformed — even if there’s a piano playing while it happens.

You see, the very notion that whether the instruments are right or wrong might depend on silences or the writings of Clement of Alexandria utterly misunderstands the nature of the gospel. The gospel is simply not about such things.

And freedom isn’t freedom if we can’t exercise it. If concerns for fellowship and “unity” make it impossible to ever actually exercise our freedom, then we contradict Paul’s decision regarding Titus. Rather, we submit to those who would “bring us into slavery.” That’s not unity. Rather, that’s returning to Egypt.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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