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The Threat of Legalism: Galatians 5:1-12

The Threat of Legalism
Galatians 5:1-12

Central thought: God's standards of forgiveness and faithfulness are sufficient and in no need of additions.

The Setting

On his first missionary journey Paul had evangelized the southern region of the province of Galatia (what is now south-central Turkey). Acts 13 and 14 record the known details of that mission effort. At some point after this first missionary journey, Paul penned the present epistle.

Paul's epistle to the Galatians is primarily concerned with the rise of a Judaizing sect which sought to bind upon the Galatians (particularly the Gentiles) certain Jewish practices in accordance with the law of Moses. The issue focused on the role of circumcision in salvation (see Acts 15:1-5). Must the Gentiles be circumcised to be saved? Or asked another way, is obedient faith in Jesus Christ sufficient for salvation? How will the Gentiles be saved: by the work of circumcision or by faith in Christ?

It seems clear that after a recent visit of Paul to the Galatian churches certain Judaizers traveled through the region adding to Paul's gospel of salvation through faith in Christ. These antagonists had, in fact, perverted the gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:8,9). They had turned the grace of God into a legalistic code.

The Text

Verse 1. Paul contrasts the Judaizer's method of salvation with Christ's by using the terms freedom and bondage. "Bondage" refers to the requirements that the Judaizer's were placing upon the Gentiles. They enslaved the Galatains by again making their salvation dependent upon their own moral worth, or how well they could keep the law. While the Gentiles had never been under the law of Moses, they were in danger of being enslaved "again" (see Gal. 4:8-11). Before Christ came they stood condemned by God's law (see Romans 1:18-32; 2:12-16). The Judaizers were placing them in the same position they were in before grace was offered them: they were seeking salvation by their own moral deeds and worth. Since no one is righteous and we are all law-breakers, this served to enslave the people to their sin. This was a "yoke" that even the Jewish fathers could not bear (see Acts 15:10).

Verses 2-4. The distinction Paul is pressing is a serious one. To accept the law as a means of salvation is to reject the grace of God. If we believe that we can by our own moral worth, deeds and strength enter into a relationship with God, then we have no need for God's grace. To accept circumcision at the hands of the Judaizers is to accept the full yoke of the law. Circumcision involves a commitment to keep the whole law, and when one commits himself to the law as a means of salvation, he has no need of Christ. If righteousness could have come through perfect obedience to the law, then there would have been no need for Christ (see Gal. 2:21). Consequently, to accept circumcision under these circumstances is to lean on one's own righteousness for salvation rather than on the gift of forgiveness given through the grace of Christ. We fall from grace when we no longer fully rely on God's grace in Christ for our salvation.

Verses 5, 6. It is not by perfect obedience to the law that we receive righteousness. Perfect obedience would earn the righteousness, but no one except Jesus himself has done it. On the contrary, through faith in Christ we wait (eagerly expect) for the righteousness which Christ will give when he returns again. We do not perfect ourselves through circumcision or through law-keeping. Rather, we are perfect only when Christ gives us righteousness through faith. Consequently, the real issue is whether or not one has faith. It is fundamentally indifferent whether or not one is circumcised. Circumcision is does not bring righteousness neither does it hinder it (unless it is understood as the Juadizers did, that is, as a work of righteousness which merits God's favor). The only thing that really matters before God with respect to salvation is succinctly stated by Paul as a faith which works through love.

There is no clearer statement in Paul concerning the nature of the faith about which he writes than this one. When Paul thinks of faith he places three ideas in conjunction. First, he sees faith as fundamentally one's reliance on God and his righteousness. This is in contrast to the way the Judaizers approached salvation through obedience to the law. Faith is trust in God's grace rather than trust in our own righteousness. Second, he sees faith as active and obedient. The faith which justifies is a faith which works (see James 2:14-26). Paul does not mean acts which seek to earn merit, but rather a faith that is willing to serve and obey God. Paul elsewhere calls it the "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). Third, this faith and service is motivated by love. It is an obedient faith which is directed by love. It is this kind of faith which justifies.

We wait for the righteousness that will be given to us from above. We do not work for a righteousness that comes from within ourselves. Our hope depends upon Christ who is our righteousness, rather than on our own moral worth. As a result, we wait for this hope through the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God who assures us that this hope is truly ours, and it is he who produces in us the fruits which render our hope viable.

Verses 7-9. The trouble in Galatia had not come from within, but from outside the churches. While at one point they were running the Christian race well, someone has upset the situation with false teaching about the means of salvation. Someone had, in fact, hindered their running by cutting in front of them. Their progress, then, has been impeded and even reversed. They are no longer following the same course, and this change of course did not come from God who called them to their original path. It comes from the bad influence, the "yeast," of those who have come into the congregation.

Verses 10-12. Paul assures the Galatians that these troublemakers will pay the penalty of their teaching. God will bring them under condemnation. Paul even thinks that if they see so much righteousness in circumcision, they "had better go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves" (New English Bible). The irony here is more acute when it is recognized that according to the law of Moses eunuchs were debarred from the assembly of God (Deut. 23:1).

Verse 11 reflects a charge that was made against Paul. He was accused of changing his preaching to suit the circumstances. When he was with the Jews he preached circumcision, but when he was among the Gentiles he did not. Paul's response is simple: if he still preached circumcision as a means of salvation, he would not be persecuted. The fact that he suffered persecution indicates higher motives than mere expediency or deceit. In fact, it was the Judaizers who preached circumcision to avoid circumcision (Gal. 6:12).

The Lesson

The definition of legalism in our modern culture is difficult. Its difficulty does not lie in the text of Scripture, but in our blurred vision of Scripture. Simply stated, legalism involves adding to the conditions of salvation laid down by God. Whenever one adds to God's standards of faithfulness or God's conditions of salvation, he has bound something which ought not to be bound.

The fundamental problem about legalism is recognizing it. There are so many abuses of the term as well as misapplications of it that the waters are muddied. This creates a confusing state in which no one claims to be a legalist but where many are.

As in all discussions of our relationship with God, Scripture alone is the final standard and only God through Scripture can set the conditions of salvation. Legalism intrudes when anyone mandates a further condition of salvation or an additional standard of faithfulness which is not set down in Scripture.

But there is a deeper problem then mere additions to the law of God. The problem is one's approach to the law itself. If one approaches the law as a means of salvation, then he forfeits grace. How will one be saved: by perfect obedience to the whole law or by the forgiveness of God through grace? When one adds to the conditions of salvation or the standards of faithfulness, he reverts back to a law-keeping method of salvation since he sees the need to require more than God requires. Faith in Christ is no longer sufficient for the legalist. Rather it is faith in Christ plus something else. In the case of the Judaizers it was circumcision, but in the modern legalist it may be something else. Why are people so unwilling to accept simple grace instead of demanding more of themselves than God does? Believe in Christ, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31).


1. In what sense would Gentile Christians become enslaved "again" when they were never under the law of Moses?

2. How can one try to be justified by the law?

3. What does it meant to wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit?

4. How does Paul define justifying faith in the passage?

5.What does a "working faith" involve?

6. What kind of freedom is Paul discussing in this passage?

7. What do we learn about these troublemakers from this passage?

8. How do you react to Paul's irony in verse 12? Is it unchristian?

9. Respond to the last question in the lesson text above. Why do you think this is true?

10. Do you see any forms of legalism in your circumstances?


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