Legalism & Galatians: What Was Going on in Galatia?

Loathing toward legalism (and perceived legalism) is commonplace in today’s evangelical ministries, including those of fundamentalist heritage, and Galatians often plays a prominent role in how we think about legalism and Christian liberty.

But liberty is often misunderstood, and overreactions—as well as under-developed reactions—to legalism seem to be a growing problem. It’s no coincidence that the Galatian error, and Paul’s remedial teaching, is also often misunderstood. The result is that a letter that has great potential to help us with our present-day understanding of law, grace and liberty ends up contributing to confusion instead.

So the question in focus here is, to paraphrase the title, what was the Galatian problem?

The Galatians Themselves

The first clue to understanding the Galatian problem lies in the nature of the Galatians themselves. Until recently, I’ve often wondered—were these people even true believers?

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (ESV, Gal 1:6)

How can people who “desert” Christ and turn to “a different”—therefore false—gospel be Christians at all? Isn’t that what we usually call apostasy? Paul seems to hint at the same sort of doubts.

  • You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Gal. 4:10-11)
  • … my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! (Gal. 4:19)
  • You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:4)

But evidence in the rest of the epistle shows that, though seriously confused, the Galatians were genuine believers.

  • Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:2-3)
  • And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. 8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? (Gal. 4:6-9)
  • Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. (Gal. 4:28)
  • For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1)
  • This persuasion is not from him who calls you. (Gal. 5:8)
  • But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Gal. 5:16)

In the first five chapters, Paul uses language over and over that applies only to the truly regenerate. The remainder of the epistle, from 5:16 onward, follows Paul’s usual general pattern of Christian-living instruction for believers. We can only conclude that the problem in Galatia was one that took root among people who had truly come to Christ by responding in faith to the message of the true gospel.

The Hinderers in Galatia

Though Paul does not dismiss the Galatians from responsibility, it’s clear that they were victims of teachers who led them astray. This is our second major clue in understanding the Galatian trouble.

  •  … there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:7)
  • You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? (Gal. 5:7)

Evidence abounds that these troublers and hinderers were not fellow-believers who were merely in error. They wanted to distort the gospel, and Paul rejects them using the strongest possible language.

  • As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:9)
  • the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is… . 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Gal. 5:10-12)

In 6:12-13, note what motivated these hinderers: cowardice, pride, and “the flesh.”

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. (Gal. 6:12-13)

The Substance of the Error

It’s clear from passages we’ve already considered (e.g., Gal. 1:6-7) that the gospel itself was under attack by unbelieving teachers from outside the church (Paul consistently refers to the source of the trouble as “they,” “them,” etc., in contrast to “you”).

Galatians 6:12-13, along with other portions of the epistle (such as Gal. 2:16, 21), also show that the false teaching focused on tying justification to the Law of Moses, that is, the Old Covenant. The tie apparently took the form of teaching that disciples of Jesus Christ had to bring themselves under the Law of Moses by becoming circumcised. Note Galatians 5:11 on this point.

But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.

Apparently, the hinderers’ arsenal of confusing claims included suggesting that Paul himself actually still preached circumcision. But we’re in danger of overlooking a more important point here: the error did not consist of teaching that this or that bit of the Mosaic Code was necessary for proper Christian living. That would have been an error of a different kind. Rather, the error directly attacked the gospel by asserting that followers of Jesus Christ must relate to God through the Old Covenant.

This is why Paul says “in that case [if we put ourselves back under the Mosaic relationship to God, expressed by circumcision] the offense of the cross [in the eyes of the Jews] has been removed.” In other words, Paul reasons that there would be no persecution at the hands of Jews if he and the other Christians were simply adding Jesus on to Moses (this understanding also explains Gal. 5:3).

Finally, it’s worth noting that the error being spread in Galatia was utterly insincere. The proponents were not Christians who overemphasized discipline and effort in the Christian life. They weren’t even sincere Judaizers, in the sense of faithful Old Testament believers. Rather, 6:13 shows that, like the Pharisees, these were men bent on power, self-promotion, and secret self-indulgence, using adherence to Mosaic Law only as the leverage to draw followers.

Some Conclusions and Objections

This understanding of the Galatian problem means the epistle serves poorly as support for de-emphasizing rigor in the Christian life or for views of sanctification that call believers to do little more than ponder the gospel. Where legalism exists in the truest sense—a tying of justification  (and/or position in Christ) to rule-keeping—the epistle is a powerful antidote. But its calls to “liberty” are not calls to throw off restraint and discipline, much less good works in general; they are calls to reject any kind of return to relationship with God through a now-fulfilled (and therefore terminated) Mosaic Covenant.

The letter also serves as a sharp warning to all of us that, though we are in Christ, it is still possible to become confused about the gospel and unwittingly replace it with something distorted and damaging.

I anticipate some objections. Doesn’t this view overly restrict the application of the epistle? Don’t passages such as Galatians 3:3 and 4:9-10 argue for a view of Christian living and sanctification that rejects self-effort and rule-keeping in general?

Answering these objections, as well as more fully developing the message of the book, requires a study of several key terms in Galatians, including “the flesh,” “the law,” “faith” and “justification.” These will be the focus of a future post.

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Ron Bean's picture

As a person with a history in truly legalistic atmospheres, I appreciated this article. Sometimes I enjoy reading The Message paraphrase of passages and seeing it as one group's commentary on a passage I may be studying. Here are two: 

Galatians 3:11-12 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 

The Message commentary is this:

The obvious impossibility of carrying out such a moral program should make it plain that no one can sustain a relationship with God that way. The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you. Habakkuk had it right: “The person who believes God, is set right by God—and that’s the real life.” Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping, a fact observed in Scripture: “The one who does these things [rule-keeping] continues to live by them.”

As to the motivation of the legalists, this was enlightening as well as bringing back memories of a church whose "rules" served this specific purpose.

Galatians 4:17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.

And The Message commentary:

Those heretical teachers go to great lengths to flatter you, but their motives are rotten. They want to shut you out of the free world of God’s grace so that you will always depend on them for approval and direction, making them feel important.

 

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm frequently surprised by the distinctions that even otherwise-solid theologians overlook when discussing these topics.

The obvious impossibility of carrying out such a moral program should make it plain that no one can sustain a relationship with God that way. The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you. Habakkuk had it right: “The person who believes God, is set right by God—and that’s the real life.” Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping, a fact observed in Scripture: “The one who does these things [rule-keeping] continues to live by them.”

This take on the themes has some problems. First, what are we to do with the many faithful OT saints who lived under the Law and yet were nothing like the enemies Paul describes in Galatians? Though Abraham had his own covenant with God (which is why Paul uses him so much in Galatians and Romans), what about Joshua, David, Josiah, Nehemiah, Daniel?

The fact of the matter is that the old covenant provided a basis for relationship with God in which love of God (Deut. 6:5... and so many other places) and faith in Him were meant to co-exist with diligent Law-keeping.

So any take on New Covenant living that posits "rule-keeping" as the antithesis of living by faith is immediately defective.

The distinction doesn't lie in "do we obey God" (rule-keeping) or not, but rather what do we see as the basis for our position, our standing before Him.

It's impossible to make sense of the NT with an "either we do for God or God does for us" reading!

Anyway, here's the missing distinction:

  • Our position before God/standing before God: entered into by grace through faith alone. This is justification/union with Christ/adoption, etc. (Rom. 5:1-2).
  • Our service to God as those who have already entered into relationship with Him through Grace. This is not position, but practice/experience. As we grow in it, it's progressive sanctification. Obedience is required; failure to obey has consequences; and works are integral to the process. (Php. 2:11-12).

So it comes back to justification vs. sanctification. The distinction is vital to making sense of Galatians... and so much more.

DanStar's picture

Hi Aaron,

Thanks for taking on this important and interesting topic on. I take it then that your contention here is that the error was specifically that those whom Paul was combating were asserting that justification was through the keeping of the law and not that sanctification was through the keeping of the law? Is that correct or am I misunderstanding you when you write "the error did not consist of teaching that this or that bit of the Mosaic Code was necessary for proper Christian living. That would have been an error of a different kind. Rather, the error directly attacked the gospel by asserting that followers of Jesus Christ must relate to God through the Old Covenant."

Alternatively, are you taking the "new perspective" approach here in that you see this not so much in terms of justification/sanctification as much as who is rightly related to God and therefore in our community vs. those who are not rightly related?

 

Thanks!

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Very good article. 

There is much misinformation on legalism today. 

And many false accusations of legalism. 

David R. Brumbelow

Craig's picture

Justification and sanctification are true through our position in Christ.

 But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: (1 Corinthians 1:30)

Galatians appears to be addressing both our justification and sanctification.

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3)

Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. (Galatians 4:7-10)

For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. (Galatians 5:13-16)

TylerR's picture

Editor

The main stumbling-block to the Book of Galatians is that people are confused about what Paul is teaching:

  • He was not arguing against what the Old Covenant actually taught
  • He was arguing against the perverted form of Judaism that had arisen by this time, which had come to equate law-keeping with salvation, and the attempts of the Judaizers to merely add faith in Jesus Christ to that mix
  • Mark 7 is probably the best passage to demonstrate this point. Inter-testamental Judaism (or 2nd Temple Judaism - choose your term) as taught by the Pharisees was a corrupt and apostate interpretation of the Old Covenant. 

Many Christians do not understand the Old Covenant system to begin with, so they seem to believe, almost by default, that Paul is actually arguing against what the Old Covenant actually taught. This is completely incorrect.

There is also a major issue among Christians over salvation and sanctification under the Old Covenant, as Aaron and others pointed out. 

  • Salvation has always been by grace alone, by faith alone
  • What has changed between the Old Covenant and the New is the the outward form which true love and faithfulness to God look like.
  • Under the Old Covenant, a true "circumcision of the heart" (Deut 10:16) took the form of faithfulness to the law, out of real love and devotion to God. Faithfulness to the law was the practical result of salvation, not the cause of it.
  • Under the New Covenant, a true circumcision of the heart takes the form of faithfulness to Christ and all that entails. (Please, I beg you - don't start an excursus on law vs. grace with me now!)

So, to sum up, the main thing I believe Christians must understand when they look at Galatians is that Paul was not arguing against the Old Covenant; he was arguing against a perverted form of Judaism that wanted to add faith in Jesus to the mix of law-keeping that they thought would result in their salvation. Instead, Paul advocated the abolishment and fulfillment of the Old Covenant because Jesus Christ had already inaugurated the New. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

DanStar wrote:

I take it then that your contention here is that the error was specifically that those whom Paul was combating were asserting that justification was through the keeping of the law and not that sanctification was through the keeping of the law?...

Alternatively, are you taking the "new perspective" approach here in that you see this not so much in terms of justification/sanctification as much as who is rightly related to God and therefore in our community vs. those who are not rightly related?

To the first question, yes. There is good reason for some of the confusion on this though. The nature of the Old Covenant was such that there isn't anything like the clarity we have in the New Covenant between legal standing (imputed/credited righteousness) and actual righteous life and conduct. So when the hinderers brought their "back to the OT" message to Galatia, they also brought a conflation of sanctification and justification as part of the deal. Though not God's intent, the practice of life under the Law seems to usually have decayed to "do the right thing, get blessed" with little regard for real faith and devotion. The frequent calls to love God, trust Him (rather than, say, "horses and chariots" or "Egypt" etc.) and fear Him are clear indication that it wasn't supposed to be that way.

But it's also pretty clear that this is quite often how it played out in people's lives.

So the hinderers/troublers of Galatia--especially since they really didn't even care about the obedience to the Law--would not have bothered to distinguish between faithless outward conformity vs. devoted faith with obedience to the Law.

So to sum up, I think it's fair to say the hinderers taught a corrupted version of both justification and sanctification because, in their error, there really is no difference.

But Paul himself does not get into sanctification as a topic until ch.5-6, after he has mostly left the topic of the false gospel/false teachers behind (returning to it briefly at the end of ch.6)

About New Perspective...

No, that would be something else. NP, to the degree I understand it--which is not a whole lot--involves a different understanding of justification in the New Covenant/Testament, especially Romans. Most of what I'm saying has to do with a caricature of the Old Covenant relationship with God, a caricature of OT justification. We know that OT faithful did not have the kind of knowledge of the gospel that we now do, but justification was always by faith. But the Galatian hinderers didn't even bother with the less-complete OT version of faith. Faith was simply not important to them.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Well said...

The main stumbling-block to the Book of Galatians is that people are confused about what Paul is teaching:

He was not arguing against what the Old Covenant actually taught
He was arguing against the perverted form of Judaism that had arisen by this time, which had come to equate law-keeping with salvation, and the attempts of the Judaizers to merely add faith in Jesus Christ to that mix
Mark 7 is probably the best passage to demonstrate this point. Inter-testamental Judaism (or 2nd Temple Judaism - choose your term) as taught by the Pharisees was a corrupt and apostate interpretation of the Old Covenant. 

Many Christians do not understand the Old Covenant system to begin with, so they seem to believe, almost by default, that Paul is actually arguing against what the Old Covenant actually taught. This is completely incorrect.

It struck me during this study that 3 different things (at least) are at issue..

  1. The genuine OT faith
  2. The genuine NT faith
  3. A corrupt hybrid

Now I want to clarify that "genuine OT faith" was no longer truly possible, because the covenant was dead. So any effort to go back to #1 would end up quickly at #3 (or maybe #4... corrupt OT faith).  But as it turns out, the hinderers of Galatia weren't really seriously going for #1. It was just a ploy... and it looks to me like they were trying to pass it off as #2. So it was "Let us straighten you out about how the gospel really works" and then they rolled out their #3.

DanStar's picture

Thanks for taking the time for a reply!

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Craig wrote:

Justification and sanctification are true through our position in Christ.

But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: (1 Corinthians 1:30)

Galatians appears to be addressing both our justification and sanctification. ...

Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3)

... Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. (Galatians 4:7-10)

For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. (Galatians 5:13-16)

In part 2, I'll be giving attention to some key texts and key terms that seem to relate to sanctification. It won't deal comprehensivelhy with the whole question of the mechanism(s) of progressive sanctification--i.e., how believers grow. But I do want to look at what Galatians contributes to that question. What's generally agreed, as far as I can tell, is that our position in Christ as those in union with Him (Rom. 6), adopted (Gal. 4:6-7), reconciled (Eph. 1:6) etc., is the basis for all the rest. Christian growth/sanctification is growth in Christ. There is no other way. 

But Galatians has a key role in the question of how we ought to view what is so often termed 'self-effort," which many seem to use synonymously with "any sustained, intentional work toward change."

Bert Perry's picture

Just checking in so I can read other comments.....many thanks, Aaron.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Good job, Aaron.  But there is an important aspect missing, the actual Jewish background.

The Pharisees were divided into two main camps, Hillel and Shammai.  Shammai's views dominated at this time, although a significant minority of Jews -- including Gamalile, Hillel's grandson under whom Paul was trained -- embraced Hillel's views.

Hillel taught that a gentile could be saved by repenting and turning to the God of Israel.  He did not need to become a full convert to Judaism.  Shammai taught that a gentile could not be saved unless he became a full convert to Judaism (unless you are circumcised and follow the Law of Moses, you cannot be saved).

Thus the Galatian issue existed, in some sense, EVEN BEFORE THE CROSS.  The ruling of Acts 15 was the view of Hillel from a Christian perspective (not just turning to the God of Israel, but Jesus Christ).  In my first book (The Midrash Key), I discuss this in some detail, but the above is the bottom line.

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Seems that in this construction of the background, Hillel would be pretty close the Option 1 I listed in this comment.

As far as I can see, that background adds some flavor to the study but the internal evidence in Galatians itself is more than enough to establish that the Galatian Problem was a problem in how justification relates to the Old Covenant, not an overvaluing of personal effort or self-denial in sanctification.

(One of the reasons I shy away from using external background evidence is that I don't want to give "laymen," for lack of a better term, the impression that they have to have schooling in special background info in order to interpret Scripture. Sometimes it really is necessary, but mostly context does the job.)

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Seems that in this construction of the background, Hillel would be pretty close the Option 1 I listed in this comment.

As far as I can see, that background adds some flavor to the study but the internal evidence in Galatians itself is more than enough to establish that the Galatian Problem was a problem in how justification relates to the Old Covenant, not an overvaluing of personal effort or self-denial in sanctification.

(One of the reasons I shy away from using external background evidence is that I don't want to give "laymen," for lack of a better term, the impression that they have to have schooling in special background info in order to interpret Scripture. Sometimes it really is necessary, but mostly context does the job.)

 

I understand the idea of the clarity of Scripture, but that is not the same as saying we should do nothing to increase the context. If you think about it, we deal with things going on in the Greek culture and the paganism of Corinth or even use the later (after OT) term "Shekinah" for God's manifest glory. We talk about the date certain books were written (which is also extra-scriptural information).  We quote commentaries and other sources.  I would have you reconsider the Schools of Hillel and Shammai as both understandable and enlightening. This has so much bearing on the NT -- from teachings on divorce to the Jerusalem council, to figuring out who the Pharisees were that Jesus was targeting, to understanding the debate within Judaism itself about the conversion of gentiles in Acts 15 and Galatians.

Increasing context is the major benefit of studying Jewish roots, IMO.

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I really pretty much agree. Whenever possible, though, I try to get the job done with internal evidence of the epistle/book itself, then the larger context of the writer's work, the section of Scripture and the Bible as a whole, then external info. Doesn't always work out that way though... and I grant it's often a good idea to bring some background in early.

In this particular study the plan is to use Galatians to interpret Galatians. I think I might end up pulling a bit from a few other passages in part 2, though.

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