Cancelled. Due to weather. Bummer. Some guys and I were going to hike the nearby Foothills Trail (part of it, anyway) last Friday, but the forecast was for a lot of rain, including thunderstorms, so we didn’t go. What to do with my morning now? I was drawn to read Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. I did, straight through, and it was one of those times in the Word when the meaning opens up like a spectacular flower. I saw Galatians in 3D!
Those friends of Paul’s were being influenced by legalists. Without going into a long explanation of the setting for Galatians, I’ll just say that there were teachers saying that in order to fully experience salvation, it was necessary to obey Old Testament laws and fulfill extra-biblical requirements, including the rite of circumcision.
We could have a big ol’ discussion and debate about what legalism looks like today. Let’s just say for now that any system of belief that requires you to do good works (moral or religious) in order to be accepted by God or receive His blessings is legalism. Legalism primarily has to do with how one is saved, but also describes the view some have of sanctification, or spiritual growth. An outgrowth of legalism is the development of extra-biblical rules that supposedly ensure the keeping of the primary laws, neither of which is the means to salvation or spiritual growth. (See Matthew 15:1-20 for Jesus’ view on this.) Paul deals with both the salvation by works and the spiritual growth by rule-keeping forms of legalism in Galatians. His statement linking both forms of legalism is in 3:2-3, “This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”
Legalists teach works salvation/sanctification, expect others to adopt this way of life, and often criticize and condemn, or at least distance themselves from, people who don’t. Why would anyone believe this, practice it, and impose it on others? Why are there legalists?
Bing! As I neared the end of Galatians, I saw these words: “As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ . . . they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh” (6:12-13). Paul, the Holy Spirit-inspired writer of these words, exposed the legalists’ motive. Here it is:
Legalists want to look good.
“Make a good showing in the flesh” means have a good appearance. They wanted to avoid the hostility (“that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ”) that came from their family and neighbors who opposed the gospel of grace. Being accepted by a certain group of people was very important to them, so important that they would pervert the gospel of the grace of God in order to have it.
“That they may boast in your flesh” means they wanted the Galatian Christians to conform to legalistic requirements so that they could talk about their influence and following. “Look at how many people conform to our standards!” Legalists want to impress people with their success in getting their followers to adopt codes of conduct rather than patiently teaching believers to walk in the Spirit.
People who are scrupulously careful about their actions, lifestyle, and appearance, are not necessarily legalists. People who are less scrupulous may in fact be legalistic. The issue is not outward appearance. That’s the point.
Legalism is an issue of belief, first of all. Do you believe that you are saved by works? That’s legalism. “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Do you believe that you are a better Christian, or closer to God, or will receive blessings from him because you do the right things? That’s bondage. “You, brethren, have been called to liberty” (Gal. 5:13).
Then, legalism is an attitudinal issue. How much of a factor is others’ view of you when you make lifestyle choices? Do you often wonder what other people will think? Is that the primary motivation for how you live out your Christianity? Are you seeking to impress people? Are you afraid you will be criticized or condemned? As a Christian leader, is the appearance and conduct of your followers a badge of honor for you?
Bringing up legalism raises many questions. I’ll probably pick the topic up again. For now, let’s take Paul’s words to heart, immediately following his exposure of motivations for legalism: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). The remedy for legalism is the cross. Our only boast is Christ.