But what concerns me about the quickness to call many things legalism is that I think it’s missing a larger point, and one that Paul makes repeatedly in Galatians. Legalism is the belief that your good works save you. Legalism is the belief that obedience to the law, whether it’s God’s law or another law, is what secures your salvation. The Jewish people believed their faith rested on this obedience. They were wrong all along.
Paul is not writing to the Galatians encouraging them to abandon obedience to God or even good works. In fact, he spends a good part of Galatians 5 talking about obedience. He even goes so far as to distinguish between walking by the Spirit and walking by the flesh. In Paul’s (and God’s) eyes those are two very different things. Galatians 5:16-24 says:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the
. But the fruit of the Spirit is love,
joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such
things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the
flesh with its passions and desires.” kingdom of God
Essentially Paul is saying that if we are saved by Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, there will be a distinctiveness to our life—i.e. good works. This doesn’t mean those works save us, make us better than others, or even give us grounds for boasting. Rather those good works prove that we were even saved to begin with. Those who “inherit the
My concern with the quickness to define any call to obedience or faithfulness as legalism is that it misses the reason for which we were called—to give God glory. God gets all the glory when we walk humbly with him. Our meager lives of faithfulness tell a wonderful story of what God has done in our lives through Christ. When we diminish faithfulness to the Savior we diminish that testimony.
Paul knew better than anybody what it was like to be tempted to boast in his own righteousness. He was a former Jewish leader who rarely did anything wrong in the world’s eyes. But instead of telling Christians to let grace be grace, namely abandon the law, he tells them to do something even greater. He tells them to walk by the Spirit. He tells them to put on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things defy the law because they are impossible to do on our own, which is why he tells us again in Galatians 6:9 to “not grow weary in doing good.” Christians are called to good works. Christians should expect faithfulness of one another. Christians should want to live according to the fruit of the Spirit. But Christians also know that apart from Christ all our faithfulness is in vain.
Legalism is a serious sin with serious consequences. But so is lack of faithfulness. Both acts lead to disastrous conclusions. As Christians, we should fight them both with the very weapons Paul uses, namely the Holy Spirit. It is only through his abundant work that we will be able to stand against legalism and licentiousness in our own hearts.