Paul has a formula he likes to employ that goes like this: “Neither circumcision nor uncircimcision counts, but . . . .” This is the “rule” or “canon” of the new creation (canōn from Gal. 6:16). He uses it three different times in his preserved writings:
- Galatians 5:6 – “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (NIV)
- Galatians 6:15 – “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation."
- 1 Corinthians 7:19 – “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts."
Ethnicity doesn’t count. What matters is keeping the commandments of God. Although some point to this verse to say that we must obey the Torah, we know this is not the case from what Paul says just a couple of chapters later: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law" (1 Cor 9:20-21 ESV). Here Paul clearly distinguishes the Torah (law – nomos) from the law of God, which now consists in being under the jurisdiction of Jesus. This is how Paul can say that obeying God is all that matters! This is a word the Corinthians needed to hear.
Ethnicity doesn’t count. What matters is the new creation. In Christ, the new creation has come. All the promises of God are yes in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20). Second Corinthians 5:17 reads, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" Christ has come and delivered us from the present evil age and through his resurrection has ushered in the age to come in the here and now. The cross and resurrection is the pivot point of the ages and this is all that counts!
Ethnicity doesn’t count. What matters is only faith working through love. This verse would probably have been shocking to its first hearers. Throughout the letter, Paul has contrasted faith and works. For example, he makes this contrast three times in the scope of a single verse! Galatians 2:16 reads, "know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified." So, we are fundamentally called to trust God – but as James shows us with force: faith without works is dead. True faith “goes public” in good works. Saving faith is never static, but issues forth in love. And of course love is a fruit of the Spirit – who was promised as an end-time gift of the new creation (Isa 32:15, 44:3, Joel 2).
Circumcision doesn’t matter. But neither is there any special merit in uncircumcision. All that counts is keeping God’s commands, the new creation, and faith working through love.