Galatians and Legalism
Our first priority as believers is to get to know the book of Galatians well. This is not easy because the devil hates the Gospel and Galatians is saturated with it. Therefore he will use all of his devices—laziness, busy-ness, self satisfaction, pride, etc. to prevent you from understanding this book. The book itself, being so focused on the Gospel, is counterintuitive and it takes work to understand its doctrine and the implications for living that flow from it. It is easy to miss Galatians’ main point.
In summary, Galatians is written to oppose legalism in all its forms. It is not against the law of God and its proper use but it exposes the law’s misuse. It confronts the pride, hubris and arrogance of the human heart which assumes man can do something to earn his acceptance with God. Legalism asserts that this can be done by keeping the commandments of God and fulfilling all religious rituals precisely. In Las Vegas lawlessness is a terrible scourge but a more serious and subtle problem is legalism. The reason is that legalism undermines Gospel holiness and without Gospel holiness there can be no true and authentic obedience to the laws of God and man. The following article will attempt to do two things. It will put the spotlight on the abysmal failure of legalism to produce Gospel holiness in people and it will highlight the power of the true Gospel to produce real godliness among us.
So what is legalism anyway? It is any attempt to gain or maintain acceptance with God through doing good works that are commanded by Him. Works of the law are prescriptions for holiness (Gal. 2:16-17). The Judaizers were attempting to persuade the predominantly Gentile church in Galatia to undergo circumcision and submission to the law of God as a means of achieving full status as the people of God and also to enable them to overcome sin and attain holiness. Some of these regulations included matters of diet (clean and unclean foods), religious washings and sprinklings, keeping of holy days and circumcision (Gal. 4:9-10, 5:2-3, 2:12).
So what are the identity markers of legalism? It always shows itself by its proud despising of others (Gal. 2:11-14). A legalist compares his obedience with the lack of obedience of others and feels smug and superior. He does not want to be contaminated and so he separates himself from sinners and outcasts, i.e. people he regards as inferior. A legalist is also known by his blindness to the power of the Gospel. There is no brokenness or weakness or inadequacy, but there is an illusion of control, strength and adequacy. In Galatians 3:15 Paul notes that the legalists in Galatia gloried in their status as Jews by birth and distinguished themselves from “Gentile sinners.” They were blind to their own attempts to sin by trying to be God by being good. Legalists are also known by the propensity to quarrels and conflicts with the brethren (Gal. 5:15). It is ironic, to say the least, that the ones who claim to be law keepers, i.e. they love God with all their heart, mind and strength and their neighbors as themselves are driven by deicide and fratricide. They bite and devour one another. They are Christian cannibals.
Being always right and having to always be better generates a lot of conflict and quarreling. Finally legalists are known by their boasting spirit over religious activities (Gal. 6:13). To boast is to take credit for oneself regarding a perceived status. It is the polar opposite of glorifying God. It is taking credit for my goodness achieved through my religious performance of activities. Legalism is ugly, is it not?
So, what does Galatians say is the result of doing the works of the law? It places us under a curse (Gal. 3:10). It cancels out or nullifies the power of the Gospel to deliver from sin and to produce holiness (Gal. 2:21). It overthrows the Holy Spirit’s power and ministry (Gal. 3:1).
What is the curse of the law? It is to be condemned by God the perfect Judge, for not perfectly obeying “all things written in the book of the law” (Gal. 3:10). It is to be placed in a state of death (separation from God) and publicly shamed and humiliated as a condemned person such as being hanged on a tree (Gal. 3:13). How did Christ take away the curse of the law? He took it away by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13). He did it by hanging and dying on “a tree”, i.e. a cross. This act takes away our sins. Through faith we receive Christ as our substitute, and all His righteousness and merits are placed to our account and all our sins and demerits are placed to His account (Gal. 2:16, 3:11; 2 Corinthians 5: 21). Is it possible to trust both in Christ’s death for our sins and in our keeping of the law? God forbid! Paul shudders at the thought that anyone would ever think that he needed anything more than Christ’s infinite righteousness to be justified by God (Gal. 3:1-3). There are two different ways of justification. The law says do this, obey and then live. Christ’s Gospel tells us that we find life in what He has done and obeyed for us and it is ours when we believe, not in what we do but in Him and His work.
But we legalists are so blind! We are often blind to the difference between the law and the Gospel (Gal. 3:10-14). We fail to distinguish between them. The law commands but cannot empower. The Gospel empowers and enables true obedience. Legalists are blind to the knowledge that the law condemns us (Gal. 3:19). The law has never been the means to justify sinners. It’s true purpose is to expose, condemn, convict and drive us to our only hope, Jesus Christ. Legalists are blind to the knowledge that the law requires perfection in all things for justification. The Gospel is not “do your best and Jesus will make up the difference with His grace”. The biggest problem the legalist has is a failure to repent of “doing his best”. This prevents the legalist from fully resting on Christ alone. Legalists are blind to the power of the cross to take away all sins and to give a holy life as a free gift. And, finally, the legalist is blind to the receiving nature of faith which puts us in possession of a free justification and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This brings us to the critical role of faith (not works) in saving us. Apart from Christ, faith has no power at all. But it is a special grace because it alone can unite us to Christ. Faith marries us to Christ and we receive all of His benefits. Neither baptism nor good works or even our repentance can do this. Faith unites us to Christ. It is the nature of faith to trust or depend on Christ. This trust is called a receiving of Christ and makes us one with Him. When we receive the Gospel by faith we receive a number of benefits that the works of the law could never give us. We have peace with God, a clean conscience and we know our sins are forgiven by Christ.
We also have the Holy Spirit working powerfully in our lives as adopted sons of God. We are free from the curse and bondage of the law and now have a new power to resist the flesh and by love to serve one another.
Legalism makes salvation joyless. It leads to a hardened heart that is self righteous and compassionless. It is a confusing and damning counterfeit of authentic Christianity.
Legalism comes from human pride and is deeply rooted in every one of us. It is simply man filled with religious wisdom of his own making which leads him to think there is something good in himself and other people that God can use in a cooperative justification. You cannot cooperate with your justification because you are under a curse and Christ—not you—died to remove that curse.
Legalism quickly leads into Phariseeism through man’s satisfaction in his religious activity and attainments and puts the focus on outward obedience and the opinions of other religious people. As such it binds the conscience with chains and hinders the work of revival, because only the person who knows he is unconditionally loved by God can feel free to confess and forsake his sins and put on Christ’s renewing love.
By contrast, the Gospel puts the spotlight on Christ’s holy work and His substitute righteousness. The message of Christ’s atonement becomes a liberating word because it comes as a promise of pure grace which is claimed by a humble faith. It brings revival because it shows how the worst sinner, or even the most self-righteous “good” person, can pass from being under the curse of the law into a state of justification and acceptance with God. This justification begins as God’s once-for-all declaration that the believer is pardoned and accepted by God as a son. This son receives the gift of the Spirit through this same act of justification by faith and delights in God as Father, and though free from the law he now fulfills it by loving his neighbor as himself. The means for this passage from the curse to justification is faith, not the works of the law. It is of faith, so that we would all be compelled to boast in the cross alone and not in anything we can add to Christ’s work. We are justified by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone who died to life the curse from our lives.
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