It appears that, more than ever before, we desperately need to answer the question, “What does Modern Judaizing look like?” The Judaizers were, of course, those false brethren who secretly came into the newly found church to spy out the freedom that Christians had in Christ. We don’t have people creeping into our churches insisting that we need Christ plus circumcision to be saved. We laugh at even the idea that such nonsense could happen in our Reformed churches. So, can we simply wipe our brows with a sigh of relief and go forward knowing that we are not susceptible to such perversion of the Gospel? Are we only to see in the doctrine of Mormons and the JW’s a false Gospel and another Jesus? How are we to apply the teaching of Galatians to our own lives? Is it to be found in certain ecclesiastical settings in which doctrinal distinctions are taken seriously by men who profess to believe them (as some haveÂ suggested here and here)? How are we to understand in a careful manner a modern application of the problem of the Judaizers?
The book of Galatians is one of the most important, and yet, most difficult, books in the Bible. The glorious doctrine of justification by faith alone is expounded and defended throughout, on acc0unt of the legalism of the Judaizers aimed at the Gospel that Paul preached. One of the difficulties that the interpreter of Scripture is faced with is making a modern day application that is consistent with historical uniqueness of the Judaizing heresy. Paul, at the beginning of this book, explains to the church that if anyone comes preaching a different Jesus, or another Gospel, they should be accursed to the deepest part of Hell. It was not simply about being cut off from the covenant community (i.e. the social and ecclesiastical dimensions of justification) that Paul saw under attack, it was the soteriological dimension that was at stake–the question of how a man or woman was accepted as righteous by God.Â Paul had strenuously maintained that it was all based on the Person and finished work of Christ. It was not anything done in us or by us that caused our acceptance with God. Christ was made a curse for us, so that the blessing of Abraham (i.e. justification and the reception of the Spirit) might be ours by faith alone in Christ Jesus. The insistance that one needed to be circumcised in addition to trusting in Christ was to intimate that Christ did not provided a full and free salvation apart from anything we do. Paul ties the whole thing together at the end of Galatians when he explained that the Judaizers were seeking to avaoid persecution for the cross of Christ, and were wanting to boast in the flesh (human accomplishments). Very basically, it appears that the basic error of the Judaizers was not adding circumcision to the New Covenant people of Christ–it was in adding anything the finished work of Jesus for salvation.
J. Gresham Machen, in his Notes on Galatians, drew out, so very nicely, a careful application of the principle argument of Galatians to the church today when he wrote:
The particular form of merit which they induced men to seek was the mertit of keeping the Law of Moses, particularly the cermonial law. At first sight, that fact might seem to destroy the usefulness of the epistle for the present day; for we of today are in no danger in desiring to keep Jewish fasts and feasts. But a little consideration will show that that is not at all the case. The really essential thing about the Judaizers’ contention was not found in those particular “works of the law” that they urged upon the Galatians as being one of the grounds of salvation, but in the fact that the urged any works at all. The really serious error into which they fell was not that they carried the ceremonial law over into the new dispensation, whither God did not intend it to be carried, but that they preached a religion of human merit as over against a religion of divine grace.
So the error of the Judaizers is a very modern error indeed, as well as a very ancient error. It is found in the modern church wherever men seek salvation by “surrender” instead of by faith, or by their own character instead of by the imputed righteousness of Christ, or by “making Christ master in the life” instead of by trusting in His redeeming blood. In particular, it is found wherever men say that “the real essentials” of Christianity are love, justice, mercy, and other virtues, as contrasted with the great doctrines of God’s word. These are all just different ways of exalting the merit of man over against the cross of Christ; they are all of them attacks upon the very heart and core of the Christian religion. And, against all of them the mighty polemic of this epistle to the Galatians is turned. 1
1. Skilton, John H. ed. Machen’s Notes on Galatians (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publications, 1977) p. 10