Legalism – Can the Church Avoid It?

For the last two days, I decided that I was going to read the book of Galatians. One of the benefits of being in quarantine is that I now have no excuse to not study my Bible. However, I decided that as I was reading through the book, I was not going to just skim through it and make highlights here and there. I was going to examine the scriptures thoroughly write down all the thoughts I was having as I was reading.

In Galatians 1:6, Paul writes the following:

“I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”

The gospel that the Galatians were turning to was not one of born out of wrong intent (at least that we know of), yet Paul issues a strict warning and curse upon those in Galatia who had taught a different gospel. So what was this new gospel??

The Galatians had completely changed the gospel by forming one that based salvation on works rather than faith. We of course know that one is saved by faith and works (Gal. 5:13-15, Jam. 2:26). The Galatians had perverted the true gospel by stating that Christians had to live by the works of the Old Law. Although it isn’t mentioned explicitly, it can be assumed by looking at the context that circumcision is one requirement the church in Galatia was forcing its men to take part in.

In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul gives the example of him opposing Peter. I think that it is interesting that Paul did not oppose Peter just because he withdrew himself from the uncircumcised gentiles; in verse 14, we see that Paul opposed Peter when he “saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel.”

Peter did not withdraw himself just because he wanted to win over the circumcised, he withdrew himself because he feared the circumcision party (v.12). Prior to withdrawing himself, Peter was eating with the gentiles, likely to win them over. He was teaching them the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ coming to free and save everyone. By withdrawing himself out of fear of the circumcised party, however, he was teaching that the Gentiles were not free from the Law and had to live like Jews (v.14). This gospel was contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to free and save, not enslave and condemn.

The Galatians struggled with this. They were adding to the gospel that was given to them by Paul. They were still relying on the works of the Law to save them. By doing so, they were neglecting the very gift of Jesus Christ who redeemed them from “the curse of the Law” (Gal. 3:13). The Galatians had turned to legalism. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Legalism is defined as the excessive adherence to law or formula. They were binding where the gospel did not. By adding to God’s law, they were offending the cross and were living as if Christ never died for them.

Think about it for a second. Do we see this in the Church today?? Obviously, we have been called to good works and we have been called to possess the fruits of the spirit; but do we bind where the gospel does not? The Church has been called to be the body of Christ – a living and moving entity with the love of Christ at its core. We are commanded to worship God in Spirit and in Truth, not write our own truths.

With that being said, let us be quick to love, not judge (Gal. 5:14). Let us strive to help one another and carry one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Let us avoid giving into the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21) and focus more on giving our lives to the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25). Let us bear on our bodies the marks of Jesus (Gal. 6:17). When the world sees us, does it see Christ? Or does it see Pharisees?

 

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