The New Word for “Legalism”

I wonder if Paul had a strategic plan for all of his church plants.

Maybe he put together some pamphlets, and distributed them in the cities.

Maybe they said that within five years, there would be new facilities in the heart of these Roman towns, each with a large staff. New small groups! Greater involvement in our young adults! Awesome children’s ministries, filled with volunteers!

Obviously not. He had something else on his mind, when he wrote Galatians. And of Paul’s frustrating remarks in the first three chapters, this is the one that is most telling:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6, 7; NIV84)

Because, really, other than God’s grace, what else is there in life? Do we really, truly think we can add more life to people, other than what can already be found in Jesus? More on that in a minute, though.

There are lots of ways to date Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I won’t go in to them here, but I will tell you that I think it was Paul’s first epistle, written shortly after his first trip to the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe.

Soon after he left those cities, and returned to Antioch, he met a group of people visiting from Jerusalem, who not only came to check on the Gentile believers in Antioch, but who would then leave Antioch and travel north, to make a surprise visit to the church plants in those four cities.

And this group, according to Paul, came to undo everything he taught.

They brought with them a strict requirement of the Jewish law, as a part of accepting Jesus.

Paul had never shared anything like that with them.

As a matter of fact, he was physically beaten in two cities because of his law-free, grace-filled message.

So when these people went to those cities, to preach a law-requirement, grace-filled message, he got a little upset.

A lot upset, actually. Their religion-filled, tradition-based, ethnic law-filled teaching was, in fact, not a “gospel at all.”

Later, in Galatians 3:3, Paul wrote this:

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

Which is a profound statement, if you stop to think about it. There is no way to attain the freedom of God by our own personal effort. This one statement superseded all of the Jewish law requirements Paul’s new converts faced, even as it speaks to the very heart of what we call “legalism.”

God is so big. So mighty. So all-consuming. We can’t earn his favor. Believing we can earn anything from God is a complete distortion of grace. As a matter of fact, it’s something else entirely, and it’s what the Hindu faith calls “karma.” It’s the teaching that the gods, or the God, gives you what you deserve.

Yet God does not operate within our ability to earn his favor, because we can’t earn his favor.

But we know that. In our 90-day reading of the New Testament, Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, was clear that no law, no religion, could ever offer salvation.

There is so much drama in these new churches though, so much interplay between personalities. In cities that only tolerated the Jewish population, now were being forced to accept Jewish religious requirements, even as they accepted Jesus. This is an extreme injection of religious requirements.

Which is incredibly relevant.

Without even knowing it, I imagine most of us, in American churches anyway, place some sort of religious requirements on believers. We don’t really call it that, though. We call it by a much sneakier word:


We construct ideas, ministries, plans, goals, all with the aim to “involve” those who regularly attend our worship gatherings. We make packets and meetings and strategies and pamphlets. We love those things. We print them. Preach them. Write about them. Then admire our work. And we like these plans, because they make us think we can control the outcomes.

Because the modern American church, for the most part, has replaced the word “legalism” with the concept of “involvement.”

We have to “involve more people.” We have to “recruit more people.” We have to “hire more people.” We’ve come to believe that the true sign of a growing church is having people happy to serve in our system of church, and as our church vision sees fit.

And anyone who doesn’t like our church plan, or who wants something else, is seen as a renegade. They aren’t authorized by our strategic plans. And heaven forbid God raises new and fresh ideas in our church gatherings that weren’t forecasted by our goal-setting committee members — especially by people fasting and praying and seeking God’s will in their lives.

We’ve come to believe “involvement,” according to our church plan, is life-giving. And that is obviously not true.

Paul wrote it like this:

If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. (3:21; NLT)

There is no way to obtain life with religion, or “law” as Paul called it. And there is no way to obtain life with “church involvement.” Here’s the big question, though, no one seems to ask:

Isn’t the spirit of God, in our lives, enough? Shouldn’t God’s spirit move us to be a force in the kingdom, instead of strategic ten-year church plans?

Seriously. If we, as church leaders, just want to involve people to inflate our numbers, and our organization, isn’t that a little strange? Doesn’t that seem like we are trying to fashion a version of the kingdom that looks a lot like – can i say it? – an American business organization?

And doesn’t it seem, to outsiders, that the only way they can be accepted into our organization is if they involve themselves in our plans and ministries and groups?

Who would really, honestly, want that? What guy would give up their Sunday afternoons of NFL games for our church vision? What family would give up their only day, together, for another organization that requires our “involvement?”

If you were an outsider, would you?

Wouldn’t it be better if we, as church leaders, discarded our strategic plans, and began to pray and fast for God’s spirit to invade the lives of those who consistently met during our church gatherings?

What if we put a pamphlet together that said this:

Our Ten Year Vision!
Pray, Fast, Worship Daily!
Invite the Spirit in our Lives Daily!
And Hold On for Whatever God Has For Us!

No more legalism. No more involvement. No more strategic plans. No more church vision planning meetings.

Just God. Just the spirit. Just Jesus.

And the kingdom as God wants it. Not as people sipping coffee at a table would want it.

As hard as this statement is for us to hear, God desires even more for our church than what we imagine it could be. Because we serve a God who does more than what we can imagine. Or plan.

It reminds me of Doc Brown, at the end of the 1985 movie Back to the Future, when he told Marty this:

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

We still don’t.


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