Portions of the epistle to the Galatians have been used in a manner that breeds confusion and misunderstanding regarding legalism, grace, sanctification, and Christian living. It’s a pity, because the epistle speaks powerfully and clearly on all of these topics. The book’s teaching on adoption is an especially potent message for our times, carving a clear, joyful—yet responsible—path between the opposite errors of justification by works (legalism) and sanctification without works (antinomianism).
But that’s not all. The reality of believers’ adoption as God’s children not only answers the extremes of legalism and antinomianism, but also counters other common errors. Here, we’ll consider two additional errors as well as the two opposite extremes.
In a previous post, I asserted that popular confusion about law, grace, and the Christian life is often partly due to misunderstanding what was happening in the Galatian churches and what Paul taught to correct it. I argued that the Galatian trouble centered on their understanding of justification and its relationship to Mosaic Law, and that they were led astray by unbelievers who, in reality, cared as little for the Law of Moses as they did for the gospel.
Seen in this light, the epistle does not encourage sweeping rejections of effort and struggle in the Christian life, nor does it provide a basis for excluding firm boundaries against sin (often termed “man-made rules”) in Christian living.
But loose ends remain. Further study of the letter not only resolves the remaining issues but also clarifies common points of confusion such as the distinction between conscious self-discipline vs. “the flesh” (or the non-biblical term, “self-effort”) and the difference between slavery to the Law vs. obedience to Christ.
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?
There are several false starts that we can make in the matter of separation. There is no doubt that God has called us to a position of separation. The question is how and in what way? There are several false responses that have been devised by man.
The first response is asceticism.
There are those who have said that Christians are not of this world and so they must get away from the world completely. Those who advocated this are called ascetics and they became hermits, went to monasteries, caves, deserts, and the wilderness. They said they had to get away from man and pleasures in order to be separate unto God. That however was a complete distortion of Scripture because we are commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Scripture has told us to witness to, live before, and seek to reach men for Christ. After ascetics arrived out in the deserts and caves they discovered they brought the world with them because the sinful impulses exhibited in the world were also in them. Satan appealed to their pride, self, and false motives even when they were alone, and the world manifested itself in them. Wherever we go we take the sinful impulses exhibited in the world with us. Asceticism is not the answer.
I recently wrote a brief defense of the importance of personal effort (or “trying harder”) in God’s gracious design to transform His saints. My central claim was that we put ourselves at odds with the NT if we understand or teach the dynamic of sanctification in a way that devalues or strongly cautions against hard work.
But that doesn’t mean emphasizing hard work has no attendant hazards.
Bob Hayton wrote of one of these pitfalls in a post last summer: Particular Pitfalls of Independent Baptists: Performance-Based Sanctification.
Work hard, feel good; blow it and feel terrible. Where is the confidence in God’s grace in this model? The secret to living victoriously for Christ is gritting your teeth, doing more, and not doing the things you shouldn’t do. Try, try, try. Harder, harder, harder! Don’t quit. Keep going. We say that salvation is by grace, but growing in Christ is about the will power, the commitment and the determination.
This can lead to despair or a terrible form of pride.
The solution Bob advocates (citing Terry Rayburn and Tim Kellar, in part) is to reject trying harder, and focus exclusively on faith. Several Reformed leaders have emphasized a similar perspective in recent years (with a burst of back and forth on the Web beginning in the summer of 2011, see the table posting tomorrow), Tullian Tchividjian and Sean Lucas among them.
My purpose here is to explore the problem Bob and others have described. Perhaps we can come to more fully understand it.