The New Word for “Legalism”

Of all of Paul’s frustrating remarks in the first three chapters of Galatians, 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)

The gospel of Christ can be perverted. More on that in a moment.

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, through Galatia, 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.

Their plan was to teach these fresh disciples that, in order to accept Jesus as the Messiah (and the Jewish Messiah!), they must also abide by the Jewish law.

But Paul had never shared anything like that with his church plants.

As a matter of fact, he was physically beaten in two cities because of his message that freed people – Jews and Gentiles – from the Jewish Law, grafting them, instead, into a message of grace.

So when these detractors went to Paul’s church plants, to preach a law-requirement 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.” A perversion of the gospel, in fact.

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?

This one statement superseded all of the Jewish law requirements Paul’s new converts faced, even as it speaks to the very heart of what we call “legalism.” Or, in other words, a perverted gospel.

God is so big, so all-consuming, that we can’t earn his favor. Believing we can earn anything from God is a complete distortion – perversion – of the gospel.

But what is this gospel? Paul identified it in the first few verses of this letter: That Jesus willingly “gave himself for our sins,” and that God, by raising Jesus from the dead, delivers us from the present evil age, because (get this!) he wants to.

This happened because it was God’s will for it to happen. Because it gave God pleasure. Because he wanted to. 

God does not operate within our ability to earn his favor, because we can’t. What gives him joy is that he saves us, because we can’t save ourselves. It gives the Father joy to deliver us from this present evil age, because the Father knows the present evil age is a machine built to subdue us.

In the four cities mentioned above, each had a sizable Jewish population. But history attests that the Jewish population in those cities were merely tolerated, never celebrated. It was the gospel of Jesus, though, that brought Jews and Gentiles together, in a culture that was notorious for keeping them apart.

But Paul’s detractors, in a bid to undo Paul’s efforts, told these emerging groups of believers that in order to accept the Jewish Jesus, they had to, also, accept, and live by, the Jewish Law – which was an obscure law code for Gentiles who had no clue what any of that meant.

So, yes, the gospel can be perverted. It still can be.

I love the local church when it functions in holiness and purity. It is, as Paul wrote to the Colossians, the place where God’s reconciliation with the world is most apparent. It is meant to be the “place” where holy relationships are maximized in the midst of a hostile world. It is meant to be the “place” which encourages and shapes and makes disciples of Jesus.

But local churches are often tempted to operate within an unhealthy nexus of power that surreptitiously requires people to invest, even at dangerously unhealthy levels, in order to be accepted by the culture of that particular local church.

(See the entire letter of Galatians for proof … or either of the Corinthian letters!)

And, when the local church does this, it perverts the gospel, because instead of liberating, it shackles. (It’s important to note that Paul knew how dangerous this was, even drawing attention to the the attraction of the messenger, whose beauty can distract you from this perversion.)

Heed carefully the words of Martin Luther, which he wrote in his own commentary on Galatians, in 1535:

Grace remits sin, and peace quiets the conscience. [But] the world brands this a pernicious doctrine. The world advances free will, the rational and natural approach of good works, as the means of obtaining the forgiveness of sin. But it is impossible to gain peace of conscience by the methods and means of the world. Experience proves this. Various holy orders have been launched for the purpose of securing peace of conscience through religious exercises, but they proved failures because such devices only increase doubt and despair. We find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the world of grace.

Again, Luther wrote this in 1535.

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)

What would happen, if, for wanting an influx of laborers in the vineyard, we prayed and fasted for God’s Spirit to invade the lives of those who consistently meet during our church gatherings?

In fact, to revisit the gospels, this was precisely Jesus’ formula for church-growth:

… therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (Matthew 9:38)

Labor. Yes, it is tough. It will require effort. But this labor should never be induced by guilt. It should always be holy, crafted from the very throne of heaven itself.

Because any other labor is slavery.

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