False Gospel: Legalism or License

Today I began Galatians (Chapters 1 & 2), which Paul wrote to the believers at a church he helped establish on his first missionary journey. The purpose of his letter was to correct the erroneous teaching of the Judaizers, specifically that the Gentiles who came to faith in Jesus were required to also be circumcised and follow the Jewish laws. This was an unnecessary burden and was distorting the gospel to be a faith plus works salvation.

It’s important to remember that Paul is writing to first-century believers and that the growing body of Christ was first made up of Jews. Our Christian faith has its roots in the Jewish faith; Jesus was a Jewish man. Gentiles (non-Jews) are grafted in, like a wild olive tree (Romans 11:24) because the Jews rejected their Messiah and have been set aside for a time. In the Old Testament, if a Gentile came to faith in God, he signified this by converting to the Jewish faith, following the Jewish laws of sacrifice and purity, and leaving his people to live among the Jews. Perhaps it was an understandable error in the Jewish mind to think that after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, people still needed to follow the Jewish faith.

Paul dispels this idea, reminding the believers that salvation is a gift of grace for ALL people, even the Jews. The sacrifices they made, and the intricate Mosaic laws were simply a picture of the perfect, sinless character of Jesus, who fulfilled all the Law and died in our place.

Galatians 2:15-16 – We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.

I think it’s kind of ironic that people often justify their sinful choices by quoting Paul, saying “We are not under law, but grace.” I don’t think they realize what law Paul was talking about. Gentiles in this day and age have never been under that law. None of us raise lambs for sacrifices or wash our hands a certain way or wear tassels on our prayer shawls. None of us practice the Sabbath as God originally ordained it for His people. None of us have ever shortened our Saturday walk because the Law said we couldn’t go too far. Very few of us have given up bacon!

We are, actually, under a law of sorts as New Testament believers … the commands of Christ. It’s not a law we obey for salvation, but because of salvation. Jesus took the Old Testament Ten Commandments and elevated them, making them even more difficult to obey. We don’t have any trouble staying away from murder, but we can easily become angry. We may not choose to actually break our marriage vows and have an affair with someone, but secretly lust in our hearts. We may not steal or covet what we don’t have, but we can be ungrateful with what we do possess.

The good news, thankfully, is that if we have placed our faith in Christ and repented of our sins, we are not judged by the law; otherwise, we would all be found guilty and sentenced to eternal death. The law we now follow is the law of liberty in Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Galatians 1:4). We now have freedom, and the ability and power through the indwelling Holy Spirit, to live according to the commands of Jesus.

Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

There are two kinds of false gospels that Paul preached against. One is a gospel of legalism, that we must earn and keep our salvation by following the law. The other we could call the gospel of license, that since “we’re not under law, but grace” we have the freedom to do whatever we want and presume on God’s grace and forgiveness. Both are false gospels, and neither is the way of salvation that comes through Jesus.

The Holy Spirit can give us wisdom as we walk in Him and allow Him to work out our salvation. He creates in us a desire to please God, gives us the power to accomplish what God asks, and brings comfort and forgiveness, restoring us to fellowship when we sin. How grateful I am to live on this side of the cross! How thankful to be grafted into God’s family, and part of His chosen people.

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