Galatians 5:1 – Why Legalism?

Galatians 5:1 is a transition from the scriptural argument in Galatians 3-4 to the final section. In Galatians 5-6 Paul deals with the consequences of legalism. This is a real problem for Paul’s view of the Law. If the believer is free from the Law, what God does require? Is there another law or set of instructions the Gentile believer in Christ must now follow? There appear to be some Christians who want to mark out a series of “dos and dont’s” in order to keep believers from doing things they consider to be sin. Or is it the case that the Christian completely free from all laws and rules? Since Paul says in Romans 6 the Christian cannot “sin that grace may abound,” it seems like there were people who thought they could indulge in all kinds of behavior and still be right with God.

This is a difficult passage because Paul is very personal and emotional. Paul drives his point home using language which is jarring and unexpected. If the Galatians return to the old covenant, Paul says :Christ will be of no advantage to them” and they will put themselves in very real spiritual danger. Paul’s use of shocking language in these verses is calculated and intentional – he is demanding that his readers make a decision to stand firm in the gospel now, before they accept the Law. It will take a conscious decision on the part of the Galatian believers to be “in Christ,” to live in the freedom of their adoption as children of God rather than to return to the now out-dated and obsolete covenant of the Law.

What would be the motivation for Gentile members of the Galatian churches to adopt Jewish Law? Ben Witherington suggests that by accepting Jesus as messiah and Savior, they have also turned their backs on the traditional gods of the Greco-Roman world as well as ritual observances associated with the gods. To accept Jesus as Savior is to reject pagan gods.  By rejecting pagan gods, the Gentile converts severed many social ties and joined a religious movement unlike the rest of the ancient world. There are virtually no rituals in the Christian church other than an initiation ritual and a shared meal. There are no sacrifices or liturgy to follow, no festivals, feast days, temple or central gathering places.The Jewish Law, in Witherington’s view, provided an opportunity for Gentile believers to concretely express their Christian identity. Since Judaism was an ancient religion, Gentile converts could avoid the charge that they were accepting a new religion, a “superstition” which was suspect in the Roman world.

Here we see one of the greatest applications of Galatians to a modern church setting. What is it that motivates people to be “legalists” in contemporary Christianity? Very few people would argue that Christians ought to be keeping the whole law (although there are a few). More likely is the claim that one must do a series of rituals in order to be right with God, or that one must subscribe to a particular doctrinal formulation, or that one must avoid certain lifestyles or behaviors. Paul never says that one must act like a Christian in order to be right with God – one is right with God because they have been adopted into God’s family and they are his children.

Paul is not talking about a religion in Galatians, but rather a relationship with God.  We are not slaves, but rather his dearly loved children.

Galatians 4:21-5:1 – Sarah and Hagar

This is the final stage in Paul’s scriptural argument against the agitators in the Galatian churches. He has made the point that Abraham was justified before circumcision, rather than after. In fact, Abraham was right with God before the Law was given at all.

He now moves to a allegorical argument based on the two wives and two children of Abraham. This is one of the most difficult passages in all of the Pauline letters for several reasons. First, Paul uses a method which is not simply unfamiliar to us, it seems to be drawing things out of the text which are simply not there. If a modern pastor made this sort of an argument, most people would question them and probably reject the argument based on the use of allegory alone.

Second, the allegory itself seems strange to the modern reader since it is not a modern allegory at all (Aslan is Jesus, Pilgrim’s Progress, etc.). But that is not at all the sort of allegory Paul wants to find in the Sarah and Hagar story. Paul is creating a contrast between the two sons of Abraham, one who was born free, and the other who was born in slavery. The story in Genesis is not an allegory at all, Paul is drawing an allegorical contrast from it. As Ben Witherington points out, Paul is using allegory to contemporize a text, not find “deeper meanings” (Galatians, 330). In other words, this is more like an application, or an analogy in contemporary rhetoric rather than a full allegorization of the original story.

With those clarifications, what is the point of the allegory? These two covenants are contrasted as between the earthly Jerusalem and heavenly Jerusalem. This is obscure, but Paul’s point is to connect the old covenant (the Law) with Sinai, a location outside of the land, in Hagar’s territory, with the new covenant enacted in the “real” Jerusalem in Heaven.

The fact that Paul considers Jerusalem to be under the yoke of slavery is significant. He could be referring to the fact that it is still under Roman rule (the exile continues), but likely as not he is dismissing the earthly Jerusalem because the agitators make a great deal about their connection to the Jerusalem church.

What is surprising is that Hagar represents those who are enslaved by the Law, or Second Temple Period Judaism! Sarah is the free woman, therefore she represents those who are saved apart from the law. Going back to verse 19, Paul describes his ministry as “bearing free children” like Sarah, while the agitators are “bearing slave children” like Hagar. It is all that they are capable of since they are still under the yoke of the Law (Witherington, Galatians, 331).

The point of the analogy is made clear when we realize that Paul is taking on the role of Sarah and commanding that the agitators be expelled from the church! As strange as it sounds, Paul is speaking the words of Sarah to the congregations. The agitators must be removed because there is danger in letting them remain. Like Ishmael, they threaten the (spiritual) life of the true heirs of Abraham.

This seems strong by contemporary standards, but for Paul this is critical to the health of the church. The agitators are attacking what it means to be “in Christ” and therefore risk destroying the church. As he will say in 5:9-10, the bad yeast must be wholly removed and thrown away. Just a little legalism is enough to ruin the whole church!

Basics of the New Perspective: Judaism as a Religion of Grace

There are a few battleground ideas and texts on which the New Perspective differs from the traditional view.  First and foremost is the nature of Judaism in the first century.  From the traditional perspective, Judaism was a legalistic religion which required works for salvation.  This was often stated but rarely proven, especially in popular presentations.  The Pharisees are often described as hand-wringing legalists who sought to burden others with onerous laws which made little sense.  Perhaps there is an undercurrent of anti-Semiticsim here, but more often than not this mis-characterization is simply the result of ignorance of what Jews actually believed in the Second Temple period.

Sanders turned the assumption that Judaism was a legalistic religion on its head – Judaism was in fact a religion centered on God’s grace, as demonstrated in his election of Israel as his people and his gracious gift of the covenant.  Of critical importance is the election of Israel as God’s people and the covenant He made with them.  Philo states: “Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent” (Spec. Laws 1.303).  Similar statements of Israel’s election are common in nearly all the literature of the second temple.  Equally common are statements about the covenant God sought to initiate with the people he had chosen.  Sanders cites Pseudo-Philo: “I will give my light to the world and illume their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations” (Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f, JBP, 264).

Israel’s election is confirmed by God’s gift of the Law and his requirement of obedience to that law. Everything we know about Judaism in the Second Temple Period is predicated on the fact that God gave the law and he required his people to obey.   Because Israel is chosen and given a Law and the responsibility of obedience, she is liable for both rewards and punishment; to experience both God’s justice and mercy.  God cannot let an evil-doer escape.  He is all-knowing and punishment is certain (Antiq. 1.14; 3.321, 4.286).

Perhaps the most controversial point in Sanders’  view of common Jewish theology is that Judaism was a religion of grace.  As noted above, the Christians often describe Judaism as  a works-salvation in contrast to Paul’s salvation by grace alone.  Everything in Jewish religion seems to point to the grace of God in this life.  Whatever one has, whatever one is, it is only by the grace of God.  One did not do the various “works of righteousness” (circumcision, food traditions, but also shema, prayer, wearing tefillin, etc.) in order to receive grace, rather one did them in response to the grace already received.

If this is a correct understanding of Judaism, then it seems to me that it is rather a” Pauline” way of expressing ethical obligations.  Or maybe Paul is rather still Jewish in his ethical teaching!   Paul never says one can be right with God on the basis of good works, it is only by God’s sovereign choice to adopt the believer as a member of his family that we can be saved: by grace through faith.  But it is well know that Paul also gives many ethical and moral commands which he expects from his churches.  These are not requirements to be saved, but the natural response of those who are “in Christ.”

To summarize this point for Sanders: Election is what placed the Jews “into” the covenant; obedience is what “keeps them in.” There are a number of mechanisms which are used to deal with disobedience, all of which are expressions of God’s grace. There is nothing Israel did to merit this election.  Israel is given every help possible by God’s grace to assist them in the “keeping in” element.

Is this a wrong view of Second Temple Judaism?  Perhaps Sanders has overstated his case in come respects (Matt 23 makes the Pharisees out to be legalists) and Paul seems to be arguing against some form of legalism in Galatians.  There is a certain attraction to legalism since it defines the steps one must take in order to be right with God.

But on the whole, I think Sanders is correct.  A major cornerstone of the theology of the Hebrew Bible is the gracious loving-kindness of God, his hesed.  Nowhere in the Bible do we read of someone who claims to be burdened down by the impossibly heavy load the Law.  Rather, keeping the law is the proper response to a gracious God. The big difference between Paul and Second Temple Judaism is his view of Gentiles keeping the Law.  More on that later.

Galatians 3: Can I Keep the Law If I Want To?

How God fulfills his promise to Abraham, according to Paul, through Jesus Christ.  He is the “offspring” which the original covenant promised.  By faith in Christ one becomes an heir of Abraham, as witnessed by the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Why would someone submit to the Law at this point since it is neither necessary nor beneficial?

My guess is that people want to submit to Law out of an honest desire to serve God correctly.  What are the responsibilities of those who are now in Christ?  This is an important question, and at least one answer to that question is to point to the already-existing body of commands found in the Torah.

Since the whole Law is not what the Galatians were doing, but rather the boundary markers, it is at least possible that the attraction was to define boundaries so that one could know who was “in” and who was “out.”  Again, the boundary markers of Judaism worked well to define a separate people, so perhaps they wanted to adopt these boundary markers in order to demonstrate that they are “in Christ.”

Marking boundaries is very important to humans.  Recall that when Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was to love one’s neighbor, he was asked exactly who was a neighbor.  We want to know the limits – think of a child who is offered a cookie.  The first question is usually “how many”? (a couple equals two, a few means three?) Take a kid to a store and they want to know “how much can I spend?”

But boundaries exclude as much as they include.  Maybe people are attracted to legalism not for making themselves appear like insiders, but so that they can exclude people they do not like.  Since you do not behave quite the way I define Christian behavior, you are “out” and I do not have to treat you like a brother in Christ anymore.  Or worse:  you are excluded for using the wrong Bible translation, or listening to the wrong type of music, or (gasp!) having a tattoo!  Defining spirituality by external appearances is always foolish.

One of the real problems with Paul’s view of “freedom in Christ” is that we do not like to be free.  We want the boundaries and rules, so we create more intense rules and regulations in order to separate ourselves out as spiritual. There is something comforting in a list of rules; I know my place if I am keeping up with the instruction manual.  But that is not what we are called to, we are children of God, not scouts trying to earn another merit badge.

Paul would likely have a few choice words for modern Galatians!