Galatians Set Me Free From Legalism
Are you free from legalism? Reading and studying Galatians in 2009 set me free—28 years after becoming a Christian. This freedom and exhilarating liberation came from reading John Stott’s excellent commentary on Galatians. I read Galatians dozens of times since 1980. I knew it was about freedom. I assumed it proclaimed freedom from sin. But I was stunned to discover that the freedom Paul spoke of was freedom from legalism–the idea that you must add or do something else in addition to believing in Jesus in order to be saved and to be regarded and welcomed as a complete Christian of good standing in the church.
How to make the apostle Paul very angry. All Christians say that faith in Jesus and the gospel is all we need for life and salvation. But practically some Christians and churches communicate–explicitly or implicitly–that faith in Christ is not quite enough. In Paul’s day, Jewish Christians (the Judaizers) taught the Gentile Christians that in addition to believing in Christ they must keep Jewish traditions–circumcision, dietary laws, special days–in order to become “fully Christian.” This so outraged Paul that he did not express any pleasantries or thanksgiving after his introduction (Gal 1:1-5), as he did in his other 12 epistles. Instead he immediately launched into them (Gal 1:6ff) by directly confronting and accusing them of deserting Christ and distorting, changing and perverting the gospel (Gal 1:6b-7). To those who taught that additions to the gospel were needed (which is no gospel at all), Paul cursed them with God’s curse…twice in two verses (Gal 1:8-9). Boy was he mad!
A junior rebuking a senior publicly. Compared to Peter, Paul was a “junior” apostle. Yet, in that orderly structured hierarchical Jewish culture, Paul rebuked Peter publicly (not privately). Then he openly shared and circulated this embarrassing and shameful account in a letter to be read in all the churches (Gal 2:11-14). Today it is like sending out a mass email to everyone in the church! Imagine Peter, the rock of the church (Mt 16:18), committing such a basic sin and getting publicly rebuked by a junior! Peter’s sin was “deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14) when he withdrew from eating together with Gentile Christians. By his behavior he was saying that Jewish Christians were better than Gentile Christians because they kept the tradition of Jewish dietary laws. By making this distinction Peter communicated that the gospel of God’s grace was insufficient for salvation and good standing as a Christian. He was stating by his action that justification was not just by faith, but also by the works of the law (Gal 2:16).
For over 25 years, without realizing it, I added to the gospel whenever I taught the Bible. Basically, I added (strictly enforced!) all the activities of the church to the gospel: marrying by faith, no dating without permission, writing out answers to Bible study questions, preparing Bible study binders, writing testimonies, going fishing, feeding sheep 1:1, never ever missing any church meetings (don’t you dare!), always wearing a tie in church, addressing other Christians with titles, etc. None of these “additions” were necessarily bad or wrong. In fact, I thought I was a “cut-above” Christian, not a nominal Christian. But I inadvertently communicated that Christ alone or the gospel alone was insufficient and inadequate to be regarded as a good Christian. So today, I’m done writing testimonies along with being done with…
- going on campus,
- preparing Bible study binders,
- having 1:1 Bible studies,
- restricting dating among singles,
- teaching “marriage by faith,”
- giving “message training”,
- “training” people,
- attending “mandatory” church meetings,
- attending all Bible conferences,
- addressing fellow Christians with titles,
- “copying” messages and manuscripts, etc.
I’m not opposed to any of the above and would encourage some people to seriously consider them, if they are so inclined. But I am convinced that putting any undue emphasis or pressure to conform to any church practices and traditions would invariably teach what Paul calls “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” (Gal 1:6-7). To Paul, such “Bible teachers” should castrate or emasculate themselves (Gal 5:12). Worse yet, it invites an eternal curse from God (Gal 1:8-9).
Are you free from legalism? Or do you feel that something else is required from you in addition to your faith in the gospel?
There are countless good commentaries on Galatians. The books I have read and do not hesitate recommending are:
- John R.W. Stott, The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968).
- Timothy Keller, Galatians For You, God’s Word For You (Epsom, Surrey, England: The Good Book Company, 2013).
- Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2005).