Galatians 5:7-12 and Legalism

In Galatians 5:7-12 Paul expresses the belief that if someone tries to keep part of the Law, he must keep all of the Law.  If this refers to just the Works of the Law (circumcision and table fellowship), then where is the application to the church after the “parting of the ways,” when Judaism and Christianity became clearly separate entities?  Usually pastors will preach against “legalism” at this point and then draw an analogy between Jewish practice and some current version of legalism.  For example, if a church has recently installed a drum set on stage, the pastor might try to defend a more modern form of worship by strongly implying that people who want piano and organ music only are legalists.  Fill in your own modern practice (fashion, style, etc.) and you will get the idea.

This can be exceedingly lame, not to mention a misunderstanding of what Paul is getting at in the book of Galatians.  In Galatians, the people who are attacking Paul are saying that a Gentile cannot be saved unless they conform to the Works of the Law.  This is a critically important issue, if Paul is right, the Gentiles in Paul’s churches are not even right with God because they fail to keep the Law.  On the other hand, if Paul is right, then the people who do rely on “works of the law” for their righteousness may also be unsaved.

With respect to present-day legalism, I would ask two questions:

What effect is legalism having? Paul reminds his church that God would not hindered them in by requiring the to convert to Judaism, but he has done something in their life which may be even more of a burden!  The  Lord had given them a radically new life; He had not let them  run freely in order to trip them up and burden them down (v. 8).  They are now in Christ, they are adopted into the family of God and now everything is different!  Legalistic rules in the modern Church can have the effect of separating us from that new life by creating a list of things by which we can say we are “righteous.”  (We dress right, listen to the right music, vote for the right candidates).

Where  will  legalism  lead? Paul  is confident that the Galatian Christians will realize their error return to the free life (v. 10a).   But what about someone who does continue to insist that people follow some “work of righteousness” in order to be “actually saved”?  It is dangerous, since if we are going to believe Galatians, it can lead to a person not ever accepting Christ as savior but thinking that they are saved. God  does not treat false teachers lightly Indeed,  since  He  holds  those  who teach  more  accountable (James   3:1)

Maybe I just committed the same preachy lameness I decried in the first paragraph.  I do believe that modern legalism is a sin, one is not right before God because of conformity to a community standard of any kind; one is only saved through the person and work of Jesus.  Take your shots.

24 thoughts on “Galatians 5:7-12 and Legalism

  1. I liked the distinction you made in the first paragraph to say that the legalism that Paul is addressing is not the same legalism that traditionalists are accused of today. In fact, I think that we are downplaying the power of Paul’s words to claim that it is the same. The legalism that Paul was addressing was contrary to the gospel that Paul preached. I can’t not say that it was an additional act that was being advocated since Dr. Loverin spoke out against Martin Luther reading sacraments (the legalism of his day) into the works of the law. If we try define legalism as dressing right, listening to the right music, voting for the right candidates, we get a biased reading of scripture. This bias detracts from the intent of the message to keep the gospel the gospel. The point Paul is trying to make is that we should not read our culture into the gospel. Therefore, we cannot try to use Galatians to define an older culture as legalism and a newer culture as the true gospel. Instead the gospel should stand alone so that it is accepted by all cultures by not creating a culture clash.

    • I like you statement Zach, that we should not read our culture in the gospel. Like you said each generation it seems has a new form of legalism that detract from the very nature and essence of God. We become programmed to do rather to be what God calls us to be.

      Legalism just seems to suck out God and replaces him with either ourselves or idols in a sense. We then transform ourselves into a being that is cut off from culture, and God. We have then allowed to take over and segragate ourselves from the relationships that we must have. God.

  2. There is inevitable danger in the leading of legalism; it has the potential to lead to hell. Kemper said: “Instead the gospel should stand alone so that it is accepted by all cultures by not creating a culture clash.” The gospel should be able to stand alone and legalism leads away from the source of salvation, I would say that it puts up a deceptive front on salvation. Heb. 10:4 says that ‘it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.’ We need to understand that salvation was never possible by any rules, law or behavior that someone followed. Ryrie’s Dispensationalism states this clearly: “The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement of salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.” (Ryrie 115). Legalism can become the object rather than God and this leads to a misconstrued and erroneous faith that cannot save. I think of many Catholics that I have met in my life. For them the rules they follow and the works they do will save them, but this is not true. This is not to say that all legalism disregards salvation through faith, but the danger is there. Yet it is such a blessing to understand that during this current dispensation there is no requirement for salvation other than believing in God’s grace. There is no law or requirements that our content of faith must fulfill. We may in fact desire to do many things and work out our faith, yet nothing; no rules, regulations or legalism are required of us. (I Cor. 3:10-15/Rom. 5-6). So although it may be strong to say that legalism will lead to hell, its can work deception that leads away from the true knowledge of salvation.

  3. Nice.
    “Yet it is such a blessing to understand that during this current dispensation there is no requirement for salvation other than believing in God’s grace. There is no law or requirements that our content of faith must fulfill.”

    I know we are saved by the faith given to us, and P. Long gave me something to think about. “one is only saved through the person and work of Jesus.”

    Pretty basic point of salvation right? With the gospel being so simple, how is everything so much more complicated than that? I know this is a running on a different trail, but why doesn’t this allow people to be considered a part of the body of Christ? Where is the point of emphasis? Jesus or Law? Maybe both?

    And I quote P.Long. – Take Your Shots.

  4. I have to agree with both Caleb and Zech, legalism can certainly lead to hell but the way that we see it today is much different than what was seen in Paul’s day. Legalism today usually acknowledges that salvation is by grace through faith but you could be called a legalist because you do not do certain things, like go to the movies or wear certain clothing or have certain music in your church.

    Like Zech said: “In fact, I think that we are downplaying the power of Paul’s words to claim that it is the same. The legalism that Paul was addressing was contrary to the gospel that Paul preached.” The only time that we can parallel Paul’s words with our legalism is if we are saying that we cannot do something or we have to do something like, say, only sing hymns or only wear certain clothing or only read a certain version of the Bible TO BE SAVED. There may be times that we decide that it is in our best interest to not go to the movies or not watch tv or not listen to certain music. This should mean that we are setting boundaries in our faith so that we do not sin. However, our culture looks at this and proclaims that we are leglaists and condemns such action.

  5. I think Zach is right, we should not try to read our culture into what Paul is trying to say. Paul was saying something totally different to them. I do not think that it is a good excuse to try to do whatever you want.

    I think that legalism is a big issue in our churches today. We are so focused on the practices and traditions of our church, rather than on the preaching and the teaching. I went to a school/church where they were very legalistic. It was so crazy. I was telling some of my unsaved friends about what they do there and they told me that they would never want to be saved because of how that organization was being run. I think that it is sad when Christians argue about stuff and the world see it and they do not want to come to Christ because of how we as christians are acting.

    There can never be enough rules to make us not sin. I think that is the problem with Christians. We think that if we make rules about everything, than people will not break them. Well, we are all sinners so we are going to break them. But when we do we need to be forgiving. Rules are a good thing, but sometimes they can be a hinderance. We just need to be careful with the rules that we make.

  6. Dude, (saying that word always dumbs down what follows, but I’ll use it anyway) religious piety has been the true enemy of Grace since the beginning. The belief that we don’t need God and can pull ourselves up by our own boot-straps has lead to the burn out of SO many Christian men and women that its insane to try and pretend that anyone (mainly you) hasn’t tried it. I mean every other cult and religion out there does this. This is what makes the Gospel of Grace so amazing, it is unique to our God! This SO floors me! All you gotta do is take it on God’s word and your sins are forgiven, no special underwear or kool-aid required.

    • Dude (when I use it things get better) I would like to follow PJ with a visual, hopefully it will clear the skies of what leads people to think that legalism is even tolerable. Imagine the elders of your church making a checklist: Sacrements for October: Communion-check, Baptism-check, Wearing aeropostale or at least clothes in sum total of $300 or greater every sunday… not cool. I have found at my home church (which shall be spared naming in public) is a ses-pool of “Modern-legalism.” To place a systematic code of irrational conduct and action upon the following of Christ and the acceptance of salvation is the equivalent of turning the Body of Christ into a “Paint-by-numbers” kindergarten activity. Christ does not require snack OR nap time…

  7. I have been the source of legalism in my mind thankfully if did not come out in actions. It all started off with some assumptions. I saw a church that had a rainbow colored flag that said “Everybody is Welcome”. I made the assumption that it must be a fluff church that is teaching very broad concepts about love and not really preaching from the Bible. My fear was that they were not telling the homosexuals that they were inviting to the church the Truth of God’s word and that they were double lost. They thought they were saved but are not. It just so happened that a friend asked me to go to this church because they really like the huge pipe organ the church has. I agreed to go and they did preach from the Bible and I was reminded that God accepts every one the way they are and that it would be legalism for me not to do the same. We are here to be messengers of God’s Word “the Bible” and it is God who convicts the heart to change lives. We are saved by Grace through Jesus the Christ not buy our actions.

  8. Tradition versus faith, Lets get ready to rumble! It would seem that many of our traditions today do form a type of legalism that would keep people from coming to Christ. Yet, why do we seem so avid to keep them? That same mentality can be said about most of our minor doctrines with in the Church as well, the more we stress them or fight for them the more people seem to want to flee. However, I also wonder if in avoiding these, we want to swing too far the other way. Faith and faith alone can be misleading in today’s culture. Moses cites plong saying “one is only saved through the person and work of Jesus.” While I know that is what saved me, it can also lead to the idea we are all saved anyway, so whats the point. It overlooks that our salvation requires a response from us to accept Christ and to confess Christ as our Lord. Because of this, yes, I think there are some “laws” or “requirements” that must be understood. After all, faith is a verb.

  9. I think the root of this issue is found prior to this passage, in 5.2-4. Paul says, “Look: I Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” In the complete context, it seems like Paul is talking about people who are trying to be justified by their works. The ‘whole law’ then becomes all the things that God commanded Israel to do in the OT. Paul is saying if someone is trying to say they are ‘more justified’ by their circumcision, they better be keeping the entire law to a ‘T’, otherwise, they are failing. When Paul states that ‘you who would be justified by the law’ ‘are severed from Christ,’ he is explaining that no one can keep the Law completely, so if you try to be justified by your works, you will fail.

  10. so the first time i tried to post this it got lost somehow….but anyways…

    “They are now in Christ, they are adopted into the family of God and now everything is different! Legalistic rules in the modern Church can have the effect of separating us from that new life by creating a list of things by which we can say we are “righteous.””

    I have been in a church that is legalistic like this. I think that when we get legalistic like this our focus is off the reason why the Church as a whole began meeting together in the first place. Being the body of Christ, functioning as a whole, table fellowship, building each others up, encouraging each other, these are all things that are part of being the Church. But it seems like so many churches today are so legalistic that they are letting stupid things like the color of the carpet and music and style get in their way of the true reasons we should be meeting together… building up one another and striving toward one goal. Christ.

  11. Speaking of legalism, it would be legalism to enforce one of these arguments about when Galatians was written. All of these arguments are concluded by an educated guess. There is a fact that I know from the Bible and that is the God abhors distention among the brothen. (Proverbs 6:16-19)

    • >it would be legalism to enforce one of
      >these arguments about when Galatians was written.

      The difference, Jack, is that no one is saying yo are saved, right with God or even that much more spiritual if you select one intellectual position over the other. The dating of Galatians (or any other book) is a matter of background and helpful for exegesis and a right understanding of the issues being discussed in the book, but it is not essential for salvation.

      On the other hand, if the issue was deity of Jesus, I still do not think that this is an issue of Legalism as we are talking about it in Galatians (or the modern church.) The deity of Jesus is an incredibly important doctrine without which it is hard to be “saved” in the biblical, evangelical sense of the word. In this case, we are insisting on a doctrine without which Christianity begins to collapse. (Trinity is another obvious doctrine without which we are not “Christian” anymore. Velvet Elvis anyone?)

      Legalism (in the modern sense) tends to float in-between these two extremes – it is not a matter of indifference on an intellectual matter, since the legalist is saying that a certain practice matters to God for salvation. If someone tells me I cannot really be saved if I am reading an NIV Bible instead of a KJV, then that person is setting up an unbiblical standard of my salvation and an artificial measure of my spirituality. That is, in my mind, the very definition of a legalist.

      But is that what Paul is talking about?

  12. I never noticed before the way that legalism concerning Jewish law has seeped into the Church after what P-long refers to as the “parting of the ways” applied to things like music and clothing within Christianity. “The legalism that Paul is addressing is not the same legalism that traditionalists are accused of today” I think this point is so true and gives a little picture of how we sometimes muddle things up along the way in the Church today.
    I also think that concerning legalism we do have to be careful not to let it potentially deceive people, there is that danger of being led to a faith that doesn’t save, and we have to guard against that without downplaying the role of works in the healthy Christian’s life.

    • Britallia said, “we sometimes muddle things up along the way in the Church today.” You are right, and this would probably be even more true if you took the word “sometimes” out of the sentence!

      I once joked (mostly) that for most people, the church started about a hundred years ago; the traditions we fight most tenaciously for are not really all that old. I am not aware of very many people engaged in the so-called “worship wars” that want to go back to the good ol’ days of Gregorian chants.

  13. I have to agree with the thought that Paul isn’t talking about legalism in the sense of table-fellowship or in the sense of doing things out of habbit or culture but rather doing them to achieve salvation. Keeping the entire law to a ‘T’as Casey puts it. I guess I agree entirely with Dukes point in that Paul is emphasizing if you try to do this on your own by being circumcised you better do everything and be prepared to fail because you will. I imagine Paul looking out and saying “fine do whatever… it’s your funeral” in a mocking tone of voice. I have a hard time relating the context of this passage to mean table-fellowship rather than the full Law of the OT.

  14. I agree with the general consensus that legalism is bad. However, to believe that we can ever fully eradicate legalism from the church is wishful thinking. Legalism is steeped into people…more importantly legalism comes from people not being comfortable with things they do not like or aren’t familiar with. So when the generations change as zach eluded too there are new forms of legalism…This makes sense to me because trends differ between generations and there are new comfort levels to which people belong.

    “The point Paul is trying to make is that we should not read our culture into the gospel” I like this quote from Zach as well. It is true, we should not read our culture into the Gospel. Many people struggle to do this, and it becomes an issue. It is like trying to read the Gospel without Bias. I think to some extent, no matter how hard we try, there will always be an element of our culture being thrust into the text of Scripture when we read it, because we naturally tend to filter things through the lens of “our culture” (which differs slightly from person to person)

  15. Legalism = hell? Piety = Legalism? Works = bad? In the words of Dunn (who probably got it from someone else), who believes that “works of the Law” leads to salvation, anyway? (paraphrase of all chapter 6) I have to agree with James Dunn on this point. Jews in the first century never held a view that is even close to what Paul appears to be fighting, if we take a traditional view, mainly because no Jew (in his or her right mind) would claim that they are “saved” because they keep the Law. Law was a form of maintenance of the covenant, but it is God’s grace that initiates and “saves” Israel; so that even Israel is saved by God’s grace. Now you could argue that Paul is speaking out against a particular minority sect of the early Christian movement and they really had nothing to do with Judaism or Christianity. However, I think that’s as lame as the kind of legalism that is sometimes preached behind the pulpit. I think a sounder interpretation is that he is still battling the Jewish tendencies, and that these false teachers are corrupting his gospel because they are insisting on “works of the Law”

    What, doesn’t that mean the same thing!? Absolutely not. By “insisting on ‘Works of the Law'”, I do not mean this legalism that is held, or even legalism in general! Paul is furious in this letter. He goes so far as to say in Galatians 5:12 that after they’re done perverting his Gospel they should go and castrate themselves! I think he takes liberty (while he is angry) to paint his opposition as the Devil himself (which might actually be the case if you really want to focus on Satanic rebellion of the Gospel); but as I read Galatians, it reads as if the more he writes the angrier he gets (a sign of God’s own indignation). So what could be the problem here? I think Dunn does a good job at getting us started. The “Works of the Law” that Paul is against is not the covenantal maintenance, but the claim that these “works of the Law” isolate Israel from the nations and “protect” them from the unclean Gentiles. “In this way the positive sense of ‘works of the Law,’ as equivalent to Pauls talk of the obedience of faith, became the more negative sense which we find in Paul – works of the Law as not only maintaining Israel’s covenant status, but also protecting Israel’s privileged status and restricted prerogative” (Dunn 355).

    It is important to understand here that “works of the Law” were works of faith to Jews. How do we faithfully respond to God’s grace? By keeping the law, in such a way that doing the “works of the Law” was responding faithfully to God’s love for his people. You could say “Ah ha! This is a new dispensation so obviously it isn’t faithful anymore!” I think that goes from lame to corny. Paul says to the Jew “be a Jew for Jesus” and to the Gentile “be a Gentile for Jesus,” so for the Jew to respond faithfully to Jesus was to continue in the works of the Law as an outworking of the grace of God.

    It is this sense of “privilege” that comes along with being Israel that I think Paul has a problem with and fights constantly. It’s what they do afterward that really gets at Paul. They separate themselves as if they are better. This would explain Paul’s indignation toward Peter when he refuses to sit with Gentiles after the secret service comes for him (Gal. 2:12). He was furious at Peter for his action and that it led Barnabas astray (Gal. 2:13). I don’t think Paul is railing against the “works of the Law” that justifies for “salvation” but rather what happens after the fact: the view that the “works of the Law” justifies for being accepted as “God’s people”. An “in” group and “out” group. That is what Paul is so mad about, not the fact that for whatever reason you can be saved “by the Law” but that somehow by keeping the Law you become better than someone who doesn’t. It leads people from the faith, and it devastates God’s impact on the lives of believers.

    Remember, we are not to be without works! Works must follow faith if you have faith at all! Works are the outworking of faith, not the enemy of faith! Paul reinforces this throughout his whole gospel; after he mentions faith, works is sure to follow afterwards! It is this mentality that because I do the “work of the Law” I am somehow better than you Gentile. If you want to define that as what ‘legalism’ is then, by all means, I agree with you. But too often we fall into the trap of believing that legalism is working for some sort of reward, such as salvation. This is not what is meant by “works of the Law” and I highly doubt that is the view that Paul is upset about. It’s the maintaining of the Law for elevated status or superiority that Paul gets frustrated at, because it is pure hypocrisy and is a death-trap for the Gospel of Christ.

  16. online dictionary:
    le⋅gal⋅ism  /ˈligəˌlɪzəm/ [lee-guh-liz-uhm]

    1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit.
    2. Theology. a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
    b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
    3. (initial capital letter) (in Chinese philosophy) the principles and practices of a school of political theorists advocating strict legal control over all activities, a system of rewards and punishments uniform for all classes, and an absolute monarchy.

    I submit a definition simply because I think that in the church our thinking about “legalism” can get a little muddy. It becomes a pejorative term for any attitude, stance, or rule that we don’t like or consider unnecessary. “Anti-legalism” can in fact become its own form of legalism, with everybody pointing fingers at everyone else. As Paul points out in an earlier chapter, this is not the fruit of the Spirit but of the flesh.

    I can’t agree with John that Paul’s point is about what follows after; I think the emphasis is consistent in the entire book of Galatians, and Paul is talking about what comes before, the “why” of observance. If one follows the law because one is a Jew, great – just still depend on Christ for your salvation. If one follows the law because one is a Gentile trying to “fit in” – nope, wrong – just depend on Christ for your salvation. And, by the way – if you’re a Jew telling Gentiles they have to follow the law in order to be saved – yes, please do castrate yourself because that’s essentially what you’re doing to the gospel, and it’s uncool.

    Please note above that “legalism” is a noun. By contrast, Shaun says, “faith” is a verb. I think that both in an ancient and in a modern context this struggle between legalism and justification by faith is encapsulated in that difference. We’re called to walk in faith, to live actively in the Spirit. This, frankly, requires energy and focus and is a whole lot more difficult than we usually like to admit… Enter legalism, which is any form of nicely codified behaviour that we can convince ourselves fulfills our calling, while it allows us to relax into apathy. We become, in fact, stagnant rather than active when that happens…noun-people instead of verb-people, as it were.

  17. I know that I am late on this but in an earlier discussion we discussed legalism and how it relates to salvation. There have been times in recent history where people want to force someone to do something to be saved; communion, baptism etc. What about prayer. Do you have to pray to recieve salvation? When is faith faith. Or when does faith save. Romans 10:9 says “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” I would say that this confession with your mouth is a commitment. I have been studying jonah and I would say it is the same commitment that the gentiles made on the ship after the storm was calmed and jonah was being digested. What I don’t believe is that you have to get rid of your sin before you are saved. That is just a byproduct and requiring to do so would be works and legalism.


  18. “That (ridding of sin) is just a byproduct (of salvation) and requiring to do so would be works and legalism.”

    So therefore, if one is not being washed of their sins but continues to live in them, are we able to ‘recognize them by their fruit’?

    What then are we to do with 1 Corinthians 5:12-13? Is the one who, by his actions, has been proven to not be of Christ then to be expelled from among us to be treated as a non-believer?

    • I think that your reasoning on this point is well taken Ben, im pretty sure that its in God’s hands whether or not to judge these people and we as Christians who can only see the actions and not the heart, seem not to be in the right position. I would also say that if the said person if they have shown cause for excommunication then, do so, but if not, how will we know? this seems to be where legalism can make the issue clouded with opinion and therefore seems to make sense to let God deal with the heart issue.

  19. This has helped me somewhat. After 30+ years in trusting in Jesus only but a true convert would want to live by the guidance of the Rausch HaKadesh and the two great commandments, suddenly two separate trusted sources are saying we must practice the Jewish Sabbath if we are to enter the Kingdom.

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