To Abolish religious ritual as a basis for our salvation - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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To Abolish Religiour Ritual as a Basis for our Salvation



Gal.5:11 "But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed."

"Jesus plus…" is just plain wrong

Reading: Gal.5:1-12

People all over the world and in every period in history have been interested in the question:

"What must I do to be saved?"

And the emphasis has been firmly placed upon the little word "I"!

If salvation is to be secured then, we assume, we have to do that something ourselves. Men and women the world over like the idea that they are in charge; they like to think that they can determine whatever they want to concerning their future. In the words of the poem Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
     How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
     I am the captain of my soul.

And with this outlook men have come up with their religions and their practices convinced that they can somehow put themselves right with God.

So ingrained in the natural human heart are such thoughts that it has even come to influence Christianity. Men and women will still talk about Jesus as the Saviour but they will subtly add to him and his works things that they imagine will supplement or complete what he has begun. The result? A "Jesus plus" salvation package. And it really doesn't matter what that "plus" actually is just as long as they can be allowed to add something to the work of Christ.

We can understand why this is all so perilous and why it is so so wrong by looking at what was one of the thorniest questions for the Christian community in the 1 st century – the place of circumcision in relation to salvation. While the question of circumcision is no longer the burning issue it once was the principles at stake most certainly are!

Circumcision – a religious ritual
Circumcision was a religious tradition that formed part of OT Jewish law. To receive circumcision was to receive a physical sign which indicated that one belonged, outwardly at least, to the OT community of God's people.

True membership however was always more than this involving, as it did, not simply circumcision of the flesh but also a circumcision of the heart. To truly belong to God's people, even in the OT, was an inward matter above all:

Rom.2:29 "But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God."

When the sign of circumcision was received it carried with it an implied committment to keep the entire law. And this keeping of the law proved to be a heavy burden that nobody was ever able to bear (cf. Acts 15:10 part of Peter's speech at the Council of Jerusalem). It was the law's inability to render anyone right before God that demonstrated exactly how necessary it was for another means by which a person could be justified and it would have to be unrelated to the law and to law-keeping.

The message of the Christian church is that this "justification apart from the law" was not only announced in the OT but has now been secured for us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus came into the world he came as a Jew and described his ministry while on earth as being for the "lost sheep of the House of Israel". However when he summoned his apostles to give them his Great Commission immediately prior to his return to Heaven he made it clear that his significance now went way beyond the confines of Israel:

Mt.28:19-20a "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

Jesus was not only the Saviour of Israel but he was the Saviour of the World.

Circumcision – not part of the gospel message
The apostles soon set about their task and were successful in it. It was inevitable that questions would soon be raised: they were. How were Gentiles to be integrated into the church?

In OT days provision had been made for including Gentiles in the chosen people of God – a person could be added by submitting to the religious rite of circumcision. Was this to be continued into the NT era of the church?

In obeying Jesus' command to go and make disciples of all nations the apostles preached one very clear message. It was the message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph.2:8).

Preaching to Gentiles for the first time the apostle Peter declared:

Acts 10:43 "To him (Jesus) all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

Peter never mentioned circumcision and his preaching was honoured by the Spirit who fell upon those who heard him. Peter was amazed at what God did and responded not by proposing circumcision but baptism as a sign that these folk had been accepted by God.

Reports got out about what had taken place and when Peter returned to Jerusalem he was met with some criticism of what he had done. Peter explained how God had been so evidently at work and the general reaction of the church to his explanation was positive:

Acts 11:18 "When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.""

You might have thought that that would have been the end of the matter but it wasn't. The "circumcision party" (those who were persuaded that in addition to Jesus circumcision was an absolute necessity for salvation and for full integration into the church) waited for another opportunity to push their case for their particular version of a "Jesus plus" salvation package. They found that opportunity presented itself soon enough as Paul and Barnabas preached the same gospel of free grace:

Acts 13:38-39 "Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed (or justified) from everything from which you could not be freed (or justified) by the law of Moses."

Plenty of Gentiles heard this message for what it was – wonderfully good news – and they embraced it gladly:

Acts 13:48-49 "And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region."

Unbelieving Jews in the locality took offence at this movement amongst the Gentiles and stirred up considerable opposition against Paul and Barnabas. It wouldn't be long before some of the circumcision party within the church came from Jerusalem and tried to insist that unless circumcision was practised according to the Mosaïc tradition then a person couldn't be saved.

When they arrived there was quite some disagreement between them, on the one hand, and Paul and Barnabas, on the other. The matter was serious. It was decided that the question had to be settled with the recognised leadership of the church in Jerusalem.

Do you understand just how serious it was? The very gospel was at stake! While it might look on the surface like a squabble about minor practices that no longer concern us and which we don't worry about today, it drives to the very heart of what the gospel actually is.

The question was: "Is faith alone in Christ alone sufficient to save an individual or does faith in Christ only take us part of the way?" "Is there something else that has to be done in order for a person to be declared right with God?"

At that important Council meeting that took place in Jerusalem the apostle Paul declared that Jewish believers were saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and that Gentiles would be saved in exactly that same way. He then went on to describe how God had been at work among the Gentiles. When he and Barnabas had finished recounting all that God had done James gave his judgment that the Gentiles who so turned to God should not be troubled further.

The gospel of God's free grace triumphed and triumphed openly in that Council.

The religious ritual of circumcision was not essential to salvation because the death of Christ was fully sufficient in and on itself. Were circumcision (or any other religious ritual for that matter) be deemed essential then this was tantamount to saying that Jesus' death was insufficient and needed somehow to be topped-up with human effort/obedience etc.

This gospel of God's free grace of salvation "by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone" puts God in the driving seat and ascribes to him and to him alone all the glory that is to be associated with the salvation of guilty sinners. But until God illumines the human mind none of us naturally likes to be told that we can't contribute to our salvation. A salvation that is "all of grace" is a salvation that is the very anathema of human pride. How the human heart longs to be able to do something to contribute to its own salvation! How humbling it is to realise our total dependence upon the gracious undeserved generosity of God!

I still remember my conversation back in the early 1980s with a muslim student from Libya. He was concerned about his relationship with God but couldn't cope with the idea of grace and so he said to me:

 "Don't tell me what God has done for me, tell me rather what God requires of me."

The Offense of the Cross
Paul did not have an easy time preaching the gospel. He was frequently opposed by antagonistic Jews but he was also confronted by Jewish Christians too who had a hard time understanding the true nature of the gospel.

Paul knew that the cross (and when we speak about the cross we are speaking about the death that Jesus suffered) was a subject that stirred up strong feelings. In general the Gentile world thought that the idea of a crucified Saviour was pure folly while to Jews it was a real stumbling block because a man hung up that way on a tree was considered to be cursed by God. How could you possibly hang your entire hopes upon such a one? It just didn't seem to make sense.

But Paul kept on preaching the cross – "we preach Christ crucified" he declared knowing that what looked foolish in the eyes of men was in fact mightily powerful as God's way of salvation.

How easily Paul could have toned down his message and avoided all the misunderstanding and antagonism. All he needed to do was to add a little "plus" to his message to empty it of its scandalous nature but he refused to do so.

Had he preached circumcision, an understandable human deed, then the scandal of the cross, the offense of the cross, would have been removed but he refused to do so.
Why was Paul so stubborn? Was it just because he was an angular sort of person who delighted in being difficult?

No, of course it wasn't.

Paul preached grace. He believed that if a man or a woman could be put right with God through personal law-keeping then Jesus had died for no purpose (Gal.2:21).

But Jesus' death was full of meaning and was not some hopeless, purposely gesture.

It was because he understood that the death of Christ was a completely sufficient basis for the salvation of every sinner who would be saved that he also clearly saw that all religious rituals were to be set aside as contributing to salvation. He knew that the death of Christ set sinners free and that they were not now to submit themselves again to any yoke of slavery. To insist upon circumcision as a necessary element to accompany the death of Christ simply said the law had yet to be fulfilled. Did men and women really want to return to the old order of living under the unbearable burdens of the law in their desire to be declared right with God? The Jews had tried that method for centuries and never found it to work – how foolish Gentiles would be if they were to behave as the Jews of old!

In fact Paul made a very bold statement – neither circumcision nor uncircumcision had anything whatsoever to do with salvation! The Jew couldn't boast and say he had Jesus and plus he had circumcision but nor could the Gentile somehow boast that being uncircumcised he was more acceptable to God in the NT era. For in both cases it was wrong for people to look at anything other than Jesus Christ for salvation.

If God were to ask you why he should let you into his heaven I wonder what you would include in your answer. Well you'd mention Jesus of course but what else? If you quickly find yourself adding a reference to your family, to your church attendance, to your Bible reading, to your service then are you really in danger of putting your trust in a "Jesus plus" salvation? Those fine things are well able to exclude you from heaven – you must trust in Jesus alone!!

Jesus died so that we might not put our trust in any religious ritual as the basis of our salvation!

We must be very careful that we don't add our own preferred little religious rituals as a basis for our salvation. We are called to freedom because Christ has died to set us free.

And yet having been set free we are not going to use our freedom as licence for wrong-doing under the guise of saying that nothing else counts. We must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. The man or woman who has truly been set free by the death of Jesus Christ and declared righteous in God's sight will nevertheless seek to fulfil the law because love is the fulfilling of the law but all his efforts now flow from the fact that he is saved, these efforts are now the fruit of salvation and not the cause of it.


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