The Yoke of Bondage

True Christians are distinguished as those who are brought out of error by exposure to the truth.

By Simon Padbury 9 March 2020 9 minutes read

True, born-again Christians can become so deluded by false teachers that they can compromise their belief in the gospel of Christ—for a while. But they do not lose their salvation.

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter of encouragement and challenge to the churches of Galatia when they were struggling with such a delusion. In the fifth chapter of his epistle he urges the Christians to “Stand fast…in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5.1). They were saved—Christ had made them free.

But some Jewish preachers1 (who are sometimes referred to as Judaisers), had been going around visiting the Christian churches after Paul had moved on in his missionary journeys. They taught that it was vital for the gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) converts to become circumcised. And, if they went through with this ceremonial operation, they would soon discover that, according to the Jusaisers, this was not all they needed to do to be saved.

The apostle warned: “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” (Galatians 5.2-3).

The Judaisers were preaching the necessity for circumcision only at first; but Paul knew that this was merely a tactic and that their agenda was to bring the Galatian Christians under the entire law of Moses (see Romans 2.25; 1 Corinthians 7.19). This was what Paul meant by the “yoke of bondage” (see Galatians 2.4; 4.21-26). The Judaisers’ doctrine clearly denied the sole sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. They argued against Christ’s gospel: “Except ye be circumsised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15.1; you need to read the whole pf Acts 15).

The Judaisers’ doctrine clearly denied the sole sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Paul warned the Galatians against this “another gospel, which is not another,” and he solemnly pronounced preachers of “any other gospel” than the true one to be liable to the Divine curse (Galatians 1.6-9).

But did Paul allow that Christians, if they get decieved by this or any other false gospel, can thereby lose their salvation—can they fall from grace?

The apostle argued forcefully, that those Galatian Christians who were now trying to be “justified by the law” (that is what they had been decieved into thinking, by the Judaisers) are “fallen from grace”—because Christ is “is become of no effect” to them if they need to be justified by the law. But they should have known all along (as Paul had previously taught them in his missionary work: Acts 16.6; 18.23), that their justification is all by grace through faith and not by any works of their own.

Understand the arguments of the two positions:

  • The Judaisers’ false gospel: unless you are circumcised (and unless you follow all the laws of Moses; we will tell you about all that later), you cannot be justified; you cannot be saved; you are not saved by believing in Jesus Christ.
  • Paul’s true gospel: the “grace of Christ” (Galatians 1.6) alone justifies and saves. Getting circumcised and becoming a debtor to the whole law of Moses cannot justify you or save you, because you can never keep it all. Therefore, if (having been deluded by the Judaisers’ teaching) you are trying to get justified and saved by the law, then you are (if the Judaisers’ teaching is true) as yet unsaved; and “Christ shall profit you nothing”; and “Christ is become of no effect unto you”; and we must conlude that “ye are fallen from grace” (Galatians 5.2-4).

If the Judaisers are correct, then you, Galatian Christians who have turned to follow their teachings, have not been saved! You have never profited from Christ, if their “another gospel” is right and the my gospel is wrong. Christ has had no effect on you. The Judaisers’ false gospel, if it were true, has “removed [you] from him [God] who has called you to the grace of Christ” (Galatians 1.6)—circumcision does not bring you closer to God, as they claim it does. And therefore, if they are right, you are still fallen from grace. That’s what the Judaisers are really saying. And I, Paul, marvel that you have been deluded into believing them!

Now, you need to know that you will never be saved that way, because if the Judaisers are right on this small matter of circumcision, then there is no salvation for you at all: you have the whole Mosaic mountain of the law ahead of you to climb and you will never make it to the top!

But, of course, the Judaisers were not correct. Their “another gosoel, which is not another” is a lie. Neither themselves nor any other fallen sinner could ever be justified by the law.

Paul’s summary statement of the Judaiser’s proposition, (“you [deluded Galatians] who are justified by the law”) was not an admission that they could lose their salvation—nor was it an admission that they were justified by the law, or that they could ever by justified by the law—because he knew that they were not actually justified by the law.

Seeing that Paul, the converted apostle of Christ and his gospel, knew that nobody is justified by the law, we therefore cannot interpret Paul as saying that they actually were fallen from grace. Paul was here arguing from his opponents’ position: “Suppose the Judaisers’ ‘another gospel’ is right—suppose you are justified by the law—what then? It means Christ is become of no effect to you, you are fallen from grace, and you have not only circumcision but a whole yoke of bondage upon you that you can never carry.”

So, we are to understand that Paul argued against the Judaisers’ false gospel without implying that those Christians can lose their salvation by being deluded by it, even though they were deluded and troubled by it at that time.

These Galatian Christians were, in their deluded minds, “removed from him who called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel” (1.6-7), but not in reality—they were still true Christians.

These Christians were, at Paul’s time of writing, deluded. The apostle puts it most strongly: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” (3.1). No less than Paul himself had set forth (i.e. preached, expounded) Jesus Christ crucified among them. He had leeked them in the eyes while he preached. He had turned and addressed each one of them in person from the pulpit, or whatever he stood or sat at in those days.

Paul still regarded them as true Christians. The apostle well remembered their personal history, from which he knew that they were true Christians notwithstanding their present delusion. And delusion it was, hence the term “bewitched”—the New Testament Greek word being translated here has the idea of being misled by fascination or persuasive charm, which the Judaisers excelled at.

Concerning the Galatian Christians, Paul knew that:

  • They “did run well” at first (5.7);
  • They had been made free—liberated by Christ (5.1);
  • They belonged to the free “Jerusalem which is above,” the mother of all true Christians (4.26) (i.e. they belonged to the gospel kingdom of Christ and its freedom from law-works);
  • Christ had, indeed, redeemed them from the curse of the law (3.13);
  • They had received the Holy Spirit, having “begun in the Spirit” (3.2-3,14);
  • They were children of the promise, who were born after the Spirit (4.28-31);
  • Because they were now adopted children of God, God had sent forth the Spirit of his Son into their hearts, crying, “Abba, Father” (4.6).
  • And most significantly, notice that Paul still included these Galatian gentiles as his own brothers and sisters in Christ—in that “our” when he opened his epistle with that affirmation that Christ “gave himself for our sins” (1.4).

Paul could not have affirmed that all these things were true of these Galatians if they had lost their salvation. No, they had not fallen from their state of grace while being deceived by the Judaisers.

Knowing therefore that he was dealing with true Christians, Paul grabs hold of them with his words and remonstrates with great strength of feeling out of an overflowing heart: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth…?” Paul considered them “foolish” for having been charmed and influenced by the Judaisers, because evidently, they had not thought the whole matter through and they didn’t understand the utter contradiction between the true gospel and this false gospel. And now they were
taking the “yoke of bondage” of circumcision and the whole law upon themselves because they had been deceived into thinking that the grace of Christ had not saved them.

No, don’t do that. The apostles of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, would not have you under that yoke: “And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment…For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well” (Acts 15.23-24,28-29).

True Christians are distinguished as those people who are brought out of error by exposure to the truth. They have the Holy Spirit as their teacher, and God brings them to a better understanding by sending them faithful witnesses in the form of preachers, friends, pastors, books, tracts, and so on.

Pre-eminently through all these means God uses the Holy Scriptures ministered by the Holy Spirit—which is how he recovered these bewitched Galatians.


  1. Paul understood well the “justification by the law” (by works) doctrine of these Jewish preachers, having believed and preached it himself, before he was saved by the “grace of Christ” alone. ↩︎