By Stephen W. Hiemstra
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV).
An interesting conversation going on in missionary circles concerns the definition of a Christian. Is a Christian someone who has been baptized and confirmed? Or, is a Christian someone has consistently grown closer to Christ as a disciple? While only God knows truly who is saved, the definition of a Christian is important in understanding the role and articulation of the institutional church. This is particularly a problem in non-western countries where persecution threatens both life and livelihood.
In Paul’s ministry among the Galatians, the question of who is a Christian was upfront and personal. Is a Christian a sect within Judaism or an independent faith? Being circumcised identified one with the Jewish faith, but in the first century it more importantly marked one politically as a Jewish nationalist. And it was also not just something that your wife would notice. Entry into the temple in Jerusalem required a ritual bath (purified, e.g. Acts 24:18) and sports in the gentile world were also frequently practiced “in your birthday suit”! Both activities made circumcision a public event in a way that we might overlook today.
How does Paul answer the question of who is a Christian? Ironically, Paul stands with Moses when he said: Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart (Deuteronomy 10:16). In Paul’s words: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (v 6). Neither Moses nor Paul accepted the idea that by itself circumcision placed any claim on God. Faith working through love, as Paul says, speaks to changes in the heart.
Paul’s comments have immediate application in our cultural environment. In our context, Paul would say: neither baptized nor unbaptized; neither communicant nor non-communicant; counts for anything. Going through the motions to join a church does not count. The question remains: is your heart moving closer to Christ or not?
Movements of the heart might seem rather private but this does not imply that one can be a Christian incognito (secret Christian). Our freedom in Christ is freedom to love our neighbors as ourselves (v 14). Do you think that your neighbor will notice? If money and time are involved, do you think your spouse would notice? How about your kids?
In drawing healthy boundaries, Paul offers both a list of vices (vv 19-21) and a list of virtues (vv 22-23). Interestingly, while the list of virtues will not guarantee admission to heaven, practicing the vices will keep you out (v 21). In Paul’s mind, grace includes law, but is not limited by it.