People often use Galatians in the fight against legalism, and rightfully so. In the letter, Paul is combating legalism in the lives of the Galatian Christians. Many of them are abandoning the true gospel of Jesus Christ for Judaism. They would rather work to earn their salvation than trust in the grace of Christ’s atoning work. But these days it seems the legalism label gets slapped on anything that smells of telling someone else what God requires of them. As one who tends towards legalism, I understand the dangers of believing your good works can save you. I know what it’s like to prefer a list over faith in the work of Another. I know what it’s like to turn down my nose at someone who does things differently than me, or worse does things that I have deemed unacceptable in God’s eyes (but really isn’t as bad as I think). And to turn the finger even more towards me, I know what it’s like to swell with sinful pride over my own perceived good Christian behavior, if that’s even possible.
But what concerns me about the quickness to call many things legalism is that I think it’s missing a larger point, and one that Paul makes repeatedly in Galatians. Legalism is the belief that your good works save you. Legalism is the belief that obedience to the law, whether it’s God’s law or another law, is what secures your salvation. The Jewish people believed their faith rested on this obedience. They were wrong all along.
Paul is not writing to the Galatians encouraging them to abandon obedience to God or even good works. In fact, he spends a good part of Galatians 5 talking about obedience. He even goes so far as to distinguish between walking by the Spirit and walking by the flesh. In Paul’s (and God’s) eyes those are two very different things. Galatians 5:16-24 says:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
Essentially Paul is saying that if we are saved by Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, there will be a distinctiveness to our life—i.e. good works. This doesn’t mean those works save us, make us better than others, or even give us grounds for boasting. Rather those good works prove that we were even saved to begin with. Those who “inherit the kingdom of God” are those who are redeemed by Christ. Our obedience is not our ticket to heaven bought by us. It’s our proof of purchase, and Christ is the one who purchased us.
My concern with the quickness to define any call to obedience or faithfulness as legalism is that it misses the reason for which we were called—to give God glory. God gets all the glory when we walk humbly with him. Our meager lives of faithfulness tell a wonderful story of what God has done in our lives through Christ. When we diminish faithfulness to the Savior we diminish that testimony.
Paul knew better than anybody what it was like to be tempted to boast in his own righteousness. He was a former Jewish leader who rarely did anything wrong in the world’s eyes. But instead of telling Christians to let grace be grace, namely abandon the law, he tells them to do something even greater. He tells them to walk by the Spirit. He tells them to put on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things defy the law because they are impossible to do on our own, which is why he tells us again in Galatians 6:9 to “not grow weary in doing good.” Christians are called to good works. Christians should expect faithfulness of one another. Christians should want to live according to the fruit of the Spirit. But Christians also know that apart from Christ all our faithfulness is in vain.
Legalism is a serious sin with serious consequences. But so is lack of faithfulness. Both acts lead to disastrous conclusions. As Christians, we should fight them both with the very weapons Paul uses, namely the Holy Spirit. It is only through his abundant work that we will be able to stand against legalism and licentiousness in our own hearts.