As we have been journeying through Galatians together one thing is
perfectly clear. Galatians is an expose of the subtle seduction and
hidden snare of legalism. Our flesh loves legalism and it is the fallen
nature’s default mode. We must be proactive in dealing with it.
Legalism stifles our joy and steals our freedom. It sucks the serotonin from the soul. Paul in Galatians 3:1ff asks penetrating questions that uncover the source of all legalism is unbelief, i.e. self reliance. “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected (matured) by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-4). In Chapter four Paul warns the Galatians about turning back to the elementary principles, i.e. the idolatry of religion which is legalism. He calls this conversion a return to weak and worthless elementary principles of the world. They are weak because they have no power to enable or transform and they are worthless because they are bankrupt and have no life in themselves.
At this point a definition of legalism is in order. Legalism could be defined as any attempt to rely on self effort either to attain or maintain our justification before God. It can be attempted either through following religious laws or following our own autonomous self-prescribed law. Boiled down to its essence, legalism always seems to have one thing in common: its theology denies that Christ alone is sufficient for salvation. It always adds some additional element on our part such as self effort, covenant faithfulness, or merit as being necessary. For example, anyone who teaches that a Christian can lose his or her salvation is in essence denying the sufficiency of Christ to save to the utmost. They believe their sin is greater than Christ’s grace. But Christ’s righteousness is not only efficient for our salvation but sufficient as well. His once-for-all sacrifice put away sin for all time in those He has united to Himself. His salvation also means that He not only saves at the beginning but preserves us to the end, sealing us in His perfect righteousness. Any attempt to add our covenant faithfulness as a part of the price of redemption is an “attempt to attain our goal by human effort” and thus is a complete misunderstanding of the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must with Paul reject any and all attempts to attain or maintain a status before God based on any actions on our part. Salvation is of the Lord!
Let’s now look at some of the nuances that legalism can possess. Legalism can fall into the error of using the Mosaic covenant as though it is now the covenant between you and God. This happens when we fail to realize that the Mosaic covenant’s purpose was a national covenant between God and Israel. God blessed Israel as a nation if she obeyed and cursed Israel if she disobeyed. If we operate with a quid pro quo arrangement with God, meriting His blessing by our obedience (which is always flawed) or receiving condemnation and punishment by our disobedience we are not living under grace but under law. We also insult and denigrate the merit of Christ’s obedience for us and the infinite value of His death as a propitiation in our place. Our obedience matters because it is an expression of a grateful child’s desire to please His Father, not because it obligates God to bless us.
Another nuance of legalism is intuitive to all fallen creatures. I work and put God in debt to me and as a result He owes me a good life, as I define a good life. This is nothing more or less than works righteousness. God is the employer, I am the employee and my paycheck is m reward for fulfilling my obligation. The Gospel turns this on its head. The Gospel says Christ
has worked and by virtue of that work God freely gives us His grace and we owe Him a life of obedience motivated by gratitude.
We are often confused about sanctification. Legalism slips in the back door and smuggles in works righteousness. We are sanctified as much by faith as we are justified by faith. But legalism deceives us in thinking we are made holy by doing a prescribed set of works that are different in every church context. If we use the proper means, God will owe us the blessing of godliness. God has done His part, justification in which we rest but now we must do our part, sanctify ourselves by our works. You need the work of Christ as much for sanctification as you do for justification. We do cooperate in our sanctification but it is secondary not primary and a response not a cause. We work because God works in us to will and to do His good pleasure.
Legalism also affects our identity. It suggests that our worth or worthlessness, our self esteem and self satisfaction or the lack thereof, rest upon our works. Legalists never have the humility or boldness that the Gospel gives. In terms of humility the legalist can’t see his or her sin because it undermines the project of self justification. This blindness shows itself in pride, judging others, a profound insecurity and a feeling of dread and condemnation. There is no confidence or boldness before God because the jury is still out. Works righteousness will never give you peace with God, self or others. This is why the church is so often charged with hypocrisy. Our blindness to our sin as legalists enables us to wear a mask of pretense that we are better than others. Remember the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple. The Pharisee found his worth by comparing his resume with the lowest sinners whereas the tax collector found his worth in the mercy of God.
The legalist always lives with the sword of Damocles hanging overhead. For the legalist, sin results in judicial displeasure and punishment. God will get you if you fail. This drives the legalist to post salvation attempts to maintain his judicial standing before God through good works, covenant faithfulness, merit etc. This is why groups or cults that teach self justification are so busy, active and committed. Their motive is not gratitude but fear and pride.
Legalism has a deadly twin brother called moralism. Moralism is the veneer approach to Christianity that is recognizable for being skin deep. Moralism is the attempt through self effort to attain godliness by a systematic change of behavior. This is the definition of the righteousness of the Pharisee. The outside of the cup was clean but the inside is full of wickedness. The tombs are whitewashed but are full of dead men’s bones. They tithe mint, anise and cumin but neglect weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy and compassion. Jesus radicalized the law of God in the Sermon on the Mount by internalizing the law. It’s not obedience by our conformity alone but obedience issuing from a renewed heart. Moralism is decent, nice, respectable and commendable, but deadly. It is sola boot strapus theology. It is shallow, brittle and often hides a mean spirit.
Finally legalism undermines assurance of God’s acceptance. If our assurance is contingent upon our works then its reality will fluctuate with our most recent good performances or achievements. Our focus will be on what we do and not on what Christ has done outside of us. If our justification depends on our sanctification our assurance will be nil.
The solution to this insidious cancer of legalism is to learn the alien language of grace. What are you relying on at the end of the day? What is the basis for your justification and sanctification before God? Is it your work or His? Let us all learn to strive to enter His rest.