Paul and Barnabas travelled to the cities of Galatia, preaching the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ (Acts 13). God blessed their work. Many new believers were won to Jesus. New churches were started. Then something tragic happened. Whenever God is moving in a powerful way in the church, Satan will always work to disrupt and destroy. So it was among the churches of Galatia. Legalists quickly infiltrated the churches, teaching a salvation of faith plus works (see Acts 15:1).
Legalism continues to rear its ugly head in churches today, and it is dangerous for the following reasons:
1. Legalism distorts the truth of the gospel.
The Galatians were “turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel.” The promoters of legalism wanted to “distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6-7).
Only one gospel is effective for salvation—the gospel of grace. Adding any other requirement to salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8) devalues Jesus and diminishes His work on the cross. “If keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die” (Gal. 2:21, NLT).
2. Legalism steals joy.
Paul asked the Galatians, “Where is your blessing?” (4:15). The word blessing in this context represents the joy the Galatians had known from a right relationship with God. The implied answer is that legalists had stolen their joy. Legalism had killed it.
Legalism steals our joy because it reduces the Christian life to keeping a set of religious rules. Certainly, living in a right relationship with God involves living according to His ways (Eph. 2:10). But keeping religious rules as a way of earning God’s favor is a sad and joyless substitute for a dynamic walk with God.
3. Legalism breeds conflict.
Divisiveness and jealousy are the rotten fruit of legalism. Paul asked, “have I become your enemy because I told you the truth? They [the legalists] court you eagerly, but not for good. They want to exclude you from me, so that you would pursue them” (Gal. 4:16-18). Legalism breeds division. Not only had the legalists turned the Galatians against Paul, the infiltration of legalism created dissension among the believers: “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another” (5:13-15).
The gospel unites believers; legalism divides. Legalism breeds a self-righteousness that promotes prideful comparison and smug judgmentalism: “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Legalism puts man-made rules above people’s needs, and blinds us to our neighbor: “the leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed [a disabled woman] on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14, NLT).
Legalism threatened the churches of first-century Galatia and continues to pose a serious danger for the church of the twenty-first century. We must be on guard.
Mike Livingstone works at Lifeway Christian Resources as content editor for Explore the Bible materials.
James Hulsey says
Thanks for your comments on the Bible study.
Please send me a copy in print form
Mike Livingstone says
Hi James. I sent you an email in response to your request.