INTRO: I need to explain what is going on with the next couple of messages. We have dipped our toe in the water of legalism as it has been addressed in the book of Galatians so far. I am going to take a couple messages and jump into the entire pool of what legalism looks like for us today. We will divert slightly from the verse-by-verse study and explore a brief topical mini-series to comprehensively cover this subject. We have seen how legalism in Paul’s day added works to salvation, but that is largely not what modern-day legalism is in the church now. Legalism for us applies in the area of how we perceive our sanctification and how we portray our spirituality to others.
I. The Statements of Legalism
– You remember that game show called the $25,000 Pyramid? People gave clues and the contestant had to guess what category it was. This one would be “Things a Legalist Might Say.” To help us clarify what legalism looks like, here is a list of statements that a legalist might say or think.
1. God's love for me depends on what I do.
2. Meeting the expectations of others, especially those in my congregation or in positions of authority, is very important.
3. I try hard to obey God and it irritates me that others think they can get away with avoiding the same level of dedication.
4. My main goal in life is to try to gain God's favor by doing things that will impress him.
5. My sense of spiritual well-being is linked to a Christian leader or membership in my church rather than a personal relationship with God.
6. I tell my children not to do something in church or around other Christian families that I allow in my home.
7. I believe my way is the best way and that most other Christians may be sincere, but are sincerely wrong.
8. I sometimes worry that people might take advantage of grace if it's preached too much – people might think they can do anything they want.
9. After being around Christians for a while I feel drained – weary of putting up a false front.
10. It’s not possible that someone with lower standards than me could love God as much as me.
– I hope that after hearing those statements, you can immediately recognize they are full of pride, very shallow, and they miss the mark of the gospel.
II. The Specifics of Legalism
– Like the term Trinity, the word legalism is not used in the Bible, but instead describes principles clearly outlined in the Bible. Let me offer you a myriad of definitions and descriptions of legalism so we can all be on the same page. We need to know what we are talking out. The better we know the problem, the better we can avoid the problem.
A. Focusing on God’s laws more than a relationship with God. Legalism wrongly stresses rules over relationship. Rules over relationship – I like this definition because it not only tells you what the Christian life isn’t all about, it tells you what it needs to be all about. I can keep all the rules of being a good husband, but if I don’t have a relationship with my wife, I am not a good husband. The goal is not to be a stellar Christian on paper, but in practice. The standard of victory in the Christian life is found in how much your heart conforms to Christ, not how much your backside conforms to the church chair.
– It’s all form and no power. Beware of a religion that is all form and no godliness. Beware of a religion that is all works and no gospel. Beware of a religion that is all law and no grace. Avoid that religion, that is not of Christ.
B. Keeping external standards without a truly submitted heart. I love this next sentence: Legalism is a lifestyle of repeated attempts to constrain the flesh without changing the heart. This is the fundamental tenet of legalism today. There is a legalistic system which accepts salvation by faith, but makes spirituality a system of adhering to certain rules and regulations. There is a major de-emphasis on the Word of God and a major disregard for the grace of God.
– The problem is that many of us were brought up to love our standards, but not our Savior. We grew up in church, but not in Christ. We look the part, sing the part, dress the part, act the part, but our heart is far from God. We attached our spirituality to man-made rules to get the Christian police off our backs. It says, “I don't do the filthy five or the dirty dozen, so I am better than you and more spiritual. Or I do the big three, so I am spiritual.” It says, "I help God make me spiritual by keeping lists."
– Let me move this to the lowest shelf possible so all can reach it. That guy who has longer hair than you think he should just might love God more than you. That person with tattoos and piercings that you think are carnal and painful may just have a deeper grasp of God’s grace than you church lady. That person who tunes their radio to a different Christian station than you may just worship God with more sincerity and vibrancy than you.
– Haven’t you ever been amazed that some of the most straight-laced people are found to harbor some of the most scandalous sins? I hope you understand this in the deepest part of your soul. You can keep all the rules and have a heart that is far from God.
– Jesus reserved some of his harshest criticism for legalistic list-makers in Mark 7:6-8: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men."
C. Promoting personal pride and a distorted view of God and His grace. I also like this hot take: a legalist is someone who has one more standard than you do. A liberal is someone who has one less.
– Here’s the point, we all tend to think very highly of our own version of the Christian life. All our perspectives, opinions, and standards are right and balanced and perfect and there should be more people just like us. “People who don’t live the Christian life like me are either liberal compromisers far from Jesus or strict Pharisees, also far from Jesus.” We give off the impression many times that we have it all figured out. Our standards are the most balanced, our dress standards are hottest and modest, our hymns are the oldest, our music is the most worshipful, my view of God’s grace is the most accurate, my love for God as seen by my rule keeping is unquestioned. We divide people into simple categories: “You obey God more than me and it makes me uncomfortable. You obey God less than me and it makes me uncomfortable.”
– If I told you I was struggling with legalism issues, you might want to counsel me. But understanding the issue better, what if I told you that I was struggling with self-atonement, trying to justify myself in God eyes and others eyes? Would that make it more serious? What if I was leaning towards self-worship because I upheld these holy standards? Isn't that serious?
– Every attempt to achieve acceptance by God through my obedience to God is self-atonement with the ultimate purpose being self-worship. “Look at me, I helped God out!”
– Legalism distorts God and His grace because it makes us think of God as He-whose-love-and-favor-have-to-be-earned. It's not something to be taken lightly. Legalism says that Jesus' sacrifice wasn't quite enough, and that I need to tack on a few of my good works to ensure my right standing with God. God hates legalism because it belittles his great work of salvation.
– Don’t miss this: the contemporary form of legalism is that we are saved by grace, but then we live the Christian life in our own strength, essentially leaving grace behind, while trying to impress people and gain favor with God.
III. The Scriptures about Legalism
– We always want to establish our footing in the Word of God. The Bible has plenty to say against legalistic living and on the other side of the coin, plenty to say about how to thrive in the grace of God.
A. It’s a spiritual backslide. (9)
– This passage right here talks about Paul’s concern for the believers in Galatia. He sounds like Paul the pastor more than other texts in Galatians because you see his pastoral heart (key verse: 19). Paul begs them not to turn away from God’s grace to a pursuit of legalistic religion. Notice that he puts it in terms of a spiritual regression. How sad it is that you have come this far in your growth and understanding of grace, but you are going to turn back to weak and beggarly elements of the law. Weak means “feeble” and beggarly means “lacking.” Why would we turn back to a system that is lacking and more feeble than God’s grace? We tend to think we have arrived in the Christian life when we have higher standards than everyone else, but Paul calls that way of thinking a spiritual regression rather than a spiritual progression. If you are not as close to God as you used to be, you don’t have to guess who moved!
– There is nothing more disastrous or depressing than to see Christians spiritually regressing rather than spiritually progressing. That is exactly what these Galatians were doing. They were turning from grace to law. They were abandoning liberty for bondage. They were dropping out of the college of grace and enrolling in the kindergarten of law. They were leaving the mature words of grace and going back under the alphabetical sounds of the Law. Instead of being spiritual adults, they were a bunch of immature babes who were regressing in spirituality.
B. It’s an enslavement to works. (9)
– Prior to coming to faith in Christ, these believers were devoted to heathen gods like Zeus or Hermes. They were enslaved to idols and customs and religious rituals. It is the false religions that emphasize that you can be right with God by your works. Now, after you have known God and known the truth, you are going to put yourself back in bondage to those things? Whatever a person’s god is, they become enslaved to it and it traps them. Some people with the highest standards of dress and music and behavior are enslaved to man’s approval. They are enslaved to additions and lusts. They are enslaved to pride and arrogance because they think they are better than others. They are enslaved to pleasure and success and accomplishments.
– Paul calls this system of legalism weak and worthless. Why in the world, once you have been introduced to grace and had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, would you put yourself back in bondage to some system of works?
C. It’s an approval of man. (9)
– When I noticed this in verse 9, I absolutely loved it. Paul is talking about going back to the law and he is concerned that his teaching on grace was in vain (11). Concerning their salvation, he says “after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God...” Do not overlook this – the matter of salvation and sanctification is not just about “you knowing God,” it is about “God knowing you.” This is a key point of theology. The real issue of our lives is not what people think of us, but rather what God knows of us. It is whether or not God knows us because we have been clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It has nothing to do with our works; it is all about His grace and His Son.
– Modern-day legalism...if you go to church, sing songs, read the Word, and have high standards, thinking this is how you’re going to work to earn God’s favor, then you are no different from over one billion Hindus today who are bowing down to their gods. Paul is uncovering a scheme in the first century that is still active in the twenty-first century. It is subtle and deceiving. What if Satan’s strategy to condemn your soul involves not tempting you to do all the wrong things, but instead leading you to do all the right things with the wrong spirit? What if he is okay with you doing all these good things as long as you think that by doing them, you are working your way to God?
– “Well, I pray.” Big deal, Muslims pray. “I go to worship.” Hindus worship all day long. “I study the Bible.” So do JWs, and they can quote better than most Christians. “I go on missions trips.” So do Mormons.
– We can either make Christianity like every other world religion of routine and ritual, or we can step into the intimate presence of God. We need to walk with God as sons and daughters so that His Son Jesus Christ can be formed in us.