This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments for Rev. McGeown, please post them in the comment section on the blog.
Two other things mentioned in verse 6 do not avail.
According to verse 6 there are two kinds of people “in Jesus Christ.” There are two kinds of Christians, two kinds of believers or two kinds of church members: the circumcision, believing Christians of a Jewish background; and the uncircumcision, believing Christians of a Gentile or pagan background.
In the New Testament “circumcision” is almost synonymous with “Jew.” Circumcision was the Jewish ceremony of initiation or the Old Testament sign of the covenant. In Paul’s day it was still the sign that distinguished the Jews from the other nations and the Jews boasted in their circumcision. The Judaizers thought that circumcision was so important that the Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved and justified before God (Acts 15:1). Moreover, circumcision signifies and represents the whole law, which is clear from the context: “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing; for I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:2–4).
Paul’s warning is sharp: if you are circumcised, which is the gateway into the law, you are placing yourself under the obligation to keep the whole law, which means that you must perish under the curse, and Christ shall profit you nothing. You cannot be justified through faith in Christ and at the same time seek justification through the law. Either you are justified through faith in Christ without the works of the law, or you seek (and fail) to be justified through the works of the law without Christ.
The second category of people in Jesus Christ is the uncircumcision. If circumcision avails nothing, does uncircumcision avail anything? Uncircumcision also avails nothing. “Uncircumcision” is a uniquely biblical word. It refers to the state of not being circumcised or the state of being a Gentile. Uncircumcision is shorthand for Gentile or heathen. In the churches of Galatia many of the members—perhaps the majority—had come from heathendom and were therefore uncircumcised. Paul does not require their circumcision, in fact, he resists it and vigorously opposes any attempt to circumcise Gentile converts (Gal. 2:3).
Paul addresses this issue also in 1 Corinthians 7:18–19: “Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing but the keeping of the commandments of God [is something].” A Jew who is converted out of unbelieving Judaism, and who therefore was circumcised, must not try to reverse his circumcision. Circumcision, says Paul, is nothing. A Gentile who is converted out of unbelieving paganism, and who therefore was not circumcised, must not become circumcised. Uncircumcision, says Paul, is also nothing.
The issue is this: circumcision avails nothing. Therefore, do not seek circumcision. And uncircumcision avails nothing. Therefore, do not seek uncircumcision either. The Jew must not boast against the Gentile because of his circumcision. The Gentile must not sneer at the Jew because of his circumcision. There must be no boasting in the church over such things, but mutual acceptance and love. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).
Since circumcision avails nothing, it is powerless to regenerate. It is powerless to justify. It is powerless to sanctify. The same thing is true of the whole law. The observance of feast days (passover, etc.) avails nothing. The adherence to dietary laws (abstinence from pork, etc.) avails nothing. The purification rituals of the Old Testament (sprinkling with water or blood, etc.) avails nothing. Obedience to the ten commandments avails nothing. No human work or observance avails anything, whether a Jew performs it or a Gentile performs it. They cannot avail because these things are not faith. Only faith avails, because only faith makes us partakers of Christ and all his benefits. Faith brings us into possession of Christ’s righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. Faith avails because Christ avails.
But Paul is not finished. He does not end verse 6 with the word “faith, but he further describes faith. What kind of faith avails? The answer is faith “which worketh by love.” The faith that avails is only that “faith which worketh by love.”
This text is controversial because it teaches that the faith that avails is a working faith. Of course, we must clearly understand this, lest we go astray.
That word “worketh” is the word from which our words “energy,” “energetic,” and “energize” are derived. The verb means “to put forth power,” “to be operative,” or “to display activity.” Faith, therefore, says Paul is active, even energetic in its activity. This verb “worketh” is used often in the New Testament. In Matthew 14:2 King Herod remarks about Jesus, “mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.” Herod thinks that Jesus must be a resurrected John the Baptist because of the miracles that he performs. In Ephesians 2:2 Paul writes about the devil, “the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.” The devil is energetically working in the unbelieving world, tempting them, enslaving them, and leading them into greater expressions of their total depravity. About his own preaching Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “…it is in truth, the word of God which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” According to 2 Thessalonians 2:7 the power of Satan works: “the mystery of iniquity doth already work.”
Faith works; it is not idle; indeed, faith that does not work is dead.
The question is, in what does faith work and in what does faith not work? Faith does not work for salvation. Faith refuses to work for salvation. Faith does not work for justification. In fact, Paul does not mention justification here, but merely the operation of faith in the Christian life.
Faith shows itself operative, active, and energetic by love. Faith displays itself “by love.” That is the only kind of faith that avails.
Rome misapplies this text, arguing from these words that justification is not by faith alone, but by faith and love, or by faith and works. But that is a gross twisting of Paul, especially in the great epistle written in defense of justification by faith alone. The apostle is not saying that love, as the fruit of faith, is a part of the ground of justification. The view of Rome and of the federal vision is that we are justified before God partly on the ground of Christ’s righteousness (his obedience, sufferings, and death) and partly on the ground of our works of love to God and the neighbour. But that is a heretical view of justification. We are not justified by love. We are not justified by good works done in love by the power of faith. We are justified by faith alone because that is the only instrument by which we receive Christ. In that sense, too, love does not avail: love is not the instrument by which we appropriate Christ; only faith is. Calvin writes on this passage:
There would be no difficulty in this passage, were it not for the dishonest manner in which it has been tortured by the Papists to uphold the righteousness of works. When they attempt to refute our doctrine, that we are justified by faith alone, they take this line of argument. If the faith which justifies us be that “which worketh by love,” then faith alone does not justify. I answer, they do not comprehend their own silly talk; still less do they comprehend our statements. It is not our doctrine that the faith which justifies is alone; we maintain that it is invariably accompanied by good works; only we contend that faith alone is sufficient for justification. The Papists themselves are accustomed to tear faith after a murderous fashion, sometimes presenting it out of all shape and unaccompanied by love, and at other times, in its true character. We, again, refuse to admit that, in any case, faith can be separated from the Spirit of regeneration; but when the question comes to be in what manner we are justified, we then set aside all works. With respect to the present passage, Paul enters into no dispute whether love co-operates with faith in justification; but, in order to avoid the appearance of representing Christians as idle and useless, he points out what are the true exercises of believers. When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle. Paul does not here treat of justification, or assign any part of the praise of it to love. Had he done so, the same argument would prove that circumcision and ceremonies, at a former period, had some share in justifying a sinner. As in Christ Jesus faith accompanied by love is commended, so before the coming of Christ ceremonies were required. But this has nothing to do with obtaining righteousness, as the Papists themselves allow, and neither must it be supposed that love possesses any such influence.
The meaning is this: just as faith without works is dead, (James 2) so faith without love is idle and worthless. Love is the means by which faith displays its power and its energy. Love is the servant of faith. Love is the fruit of faith. But love is no part of the ground of our justification. Faith is not the same thing as love, and love does not at all contribute to our justification before God.
Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” It’s not your loud—even loud orthodox—profession that will convince the world that you belong to Jesus Christ. It’s love; that’s how faith shows itself, as the inevitable fruit of faith. Nevertheless, faith is always first. It unites us to Jesus Christ, the fruit of which union is especially love.
Finally, what is love? Love for God is a desire for and a seeking after his glory. Love manifests itself in a conscientious keeping of his commandments. Love is motivated by gratitude. Love is maintaining close communion with God through his word and prayer. Love for the neighbor is a seeking his good, especially his salvation. Love does no ill to his neighbor, but love seeks the welfare of the neighbor in his position, life, purity, property, and good name. Love is a desire for and a seeking after fellowship with the neighbor where that is possible. If the neighbor is an unbeliever with whom fellowship is not possible, love still shows kindness and respect to the neighbor.
This, too, is the teaching of Galatians 5:13–15: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Petty squabbles in the Galatian churches were painful signs of a lack of love.
Faith does not work by circumcision. Faith does not work by uncircumcision. Those things are nothing and they accomplish nothing. Only faith avails, for only it makes us partakers of Christ. And yet faith is never alone, for it works by love. Love is the fruit of our faith. True faith is not vain, empty, idle, worthless faith, but active faith. It works by love.
 John Calvin, Calvin on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, ed. Rev. William Pringle, (Edinburgh: Hamilton, Adams & Co. London; and W. Curry, Jun. & Co. Dublin), 132–33 .