Freed by Grace
Main Idea: We cannot earn God's favor through legalism, for the gospel is free and freeing.
- Legalism Defined
- Working in our own power
- Working according to our own rules
- Working to earn God's favor
- Legalism Destroyed
- The gospel is free.
- God the Father has initiated our salvation.
- God the Son has accomplished our salvation.
- The gospel is freeing.
- By His grace, we are free from sin in this world.
- By His grace, we are free to share with this world.
India is known as a land of a million gods, multiplied millions, in fact. There are gods everywhere: cab drivers have gods on their dashboards, the streets are lined with religious vending stands, and people even worship trees on the sidewalk, bowing down and praying to them. I recently had the privilege of seeing this firsthand with a missions team from my own church. Suffice it to say, the people of India are extremely religious, working tirelessly for a right standing with God; nevertheless, peace remains elusive.
While the concept of grace, of God making peace with us (and not the other way around), is completely foreign to most people in India, it is also a foreign concept in many of the churches in our own culture. The very idea of God's unmerited favor is unique, revolutionary, and life transforming. In reality, every human being struggles to grasp the biblical truth of God's grace.
Everyone is born with a nature that insists that we can make our own way to God. Even after we are saved—saved by grace—there are still traces of a performance mentality that we all struggle with. We think we can earn God's favor by what we do. This ingrained mind-set of works-righteousness means that we have to be careful not to misinterpret passages that talk about obedience and discipleship. It is all too easy to lose sight of the grace that's at the heart of our faith. The hard sayings of Jesus can prompt us to ask, "What about grace?" That's an important question because if we leave grace behind, we become like every other religion in the world. We lose that which is distinct and eternally life transforming in the gospel, and we lose the very message that we are called to proclaim. In short, we lose our faith. Here are the apostle Paul's sobering words for anyone who preaches anything other than the true gospel of grace: "If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him!" (1:9). Eternal condemnation awaits those who preach contrary to the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ.
Galatians is a book that was written specifically to counter legalism and to address the centrality of grace in the church. As we study this book, we should begin to see more clearly what grace is, to be saturated with it, and to know when it is being taught accurately. When we hear a false gospel, we should be discerning enough to recognize it. This is exactly what the Galatian church, a new church that was just beginning to grow, was in danger of missing.
Whenever God is moving in a powerful way in the church, the adversary will always work to interject doubts, discord, and division, so we must be on guard. As God takes us to deeper and deeper places of abandonment to Him and His cause, we must be diligent to keep grace at the center of everything, even of radical obedience. We must be on guard against anything that would compromise the core of grace that makes the gospel worth celebrating and sharing. Galatians gives us a picture of grace that is both good and glorious.
Galatians was most likely written to young churches that Paul had planted during his first missionary journey. (There is considerable debate over the recipients and date of this letter. For a good discussion on these issues, see Schreiner, Galatians, 22-31.) The apostle's introduction in verses 1-5 sets the tone for the first chapter, and beyond that, for the entire book. This book is addressed to churches in Galatia, likely churches that were just beginning to grow. The most important background information deals with a group of people called the Judaizers who had infiltrated the church. These false teachers were saying that in order to be saved, you had to believe in Christ plus you had to basically become a Jew. In other words, you had to follow the laws of the Old Testament and, most notably, you had to be circumcised. This issue of circumcision is precisely what the Jerusalem Council had to address in Acts 15.
In Acts 15:1 Luke tells us the issue being discussed: "Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!'" Gentiles in Jerusalem were coming to faith in Christ, but a group of Jews were saying that in order for them to be accepted in the church (i.e., in order for them to be Christians), these Gentiles needed to be circumcised. This was a huge moment in the early church because this issue was going to decide whether the gospel would stay pure or the church would adopt additives, so to speak, that would nullify grace. Thankfully, the church declared that circumcision was not necessary for salvation, so that at the end of the chapter, the council sent Paul and Barnabas along with several other men to share this news with the Gentile churches (Acts 15:22). It was good news for the churches, welcomed warmly (Acts 15:31). But even more importantly, for the sake of the gospel, the purity of grace was maintained in the body of Christ.
While commentators disagree over whether Galatians was written before or after the Jerusalem Council took place, it is clear that Paul directly confronted Judaizers—legalists, so to speak—who were attempting to invade the church in Galatia. They were "troubling" the church (Gal 1:7), throwing believers into confusion and perverting the gospel. So what does this first-century challenge have to do with us today? After all, we don't have a group of Judaizers spreading their message in our culture, and thankfully we don't have a lot of discussions about circumcision or some of the other Old Testament laws. Nevertheless, there will always be threats to the purity of the gospel, so we must guard against these in the church. Legalism is one threat that continually reemerges in different forms. Based on this picture of Judaizers in Galatians, we need to define this term legalism.
Working in Our Own Power
Spotting legalism and diagnosing it correctly is important because sometimes we label things as legalistic that are not legalistic. So what is legalism? Consider three different aspects of this term. First, it's working in our own power. Don't forget that Christ was prominent in the Judaizers' preaching, but it was Christ plus what man can bring to the table. Believe in Christ, they said, and then give your natural ability to obey the laws and rituals in the Old Testament. A contemporary form of this error is the idea that we're saved by grace, and then we live the Christian life in our own strength, essentially leaving grace behind. That's legalistic because it involves working in your own power.
Working According to Our Own Rules
Second, legalism is working according to our own rules. It involves adding rules beyond what God has already defined as the basis for His relationship with us. The New Testament is filled with commands from Christ for our eternal good. We don't need to add to them. Even today there are countless ways in which we come up with additional rules beyond what we have in the New Testament as the standard for our faith in Christ and our walk with Christ.
Working to Earn God's Favor
In addition to working in our own power and according to our own rules, the third aspect of legalism has to do with working to earn God's favor. Sometimes legalism is practiced in order to please men, but the main idea is that by doing certain things one increases in favor before God. This is where performance-based faith comes alive. The Judaizers taught that obedience to God's law was the way to ensure a right standing before God. Consequently, you enhance your spiritual standing before God based on what you do. This mind-set is prevalent today, and we are all prone to fall into it. We think, If I'm reading the Bible, praying, going to worship, and doing a number of other good things, then I have favor before God. But when we miss days in prayer or time in the Word, or if we don't attend worship, then we can start to think that God is not pleased with us. The startling truth of Christianity is that God's pleasure is not based on our performance. The legalist in us resists this, and we think, Well, certainly I have to do something. That may well be what made the Judaizers' heresy so appealing to the Galatian Christians. And it's why Paul charged them with deserting the gospel (1:6). He says anyone who preaches that God's favor is based on performance should, according to verses 8-9, be "anathema"—cursed, condemned. Whether it's Paul who preaches another gospel, or even an angel from heaven, he is to be damned (1:8). Needless to say, it is very serious to misrepresent the gospel.
Galatians was Martin Luther's favorite book. Luther was the father, so to speak, of the Reformation, and he lived at a time when all kinds of rules and regulations had been added to the gospel. You had to believe in Christ plus do certain things in order to be saved. Working in your own power according to the church's rules would help you earn righteousness before God. But Luther, like Paul, was stubborn and hard-headed when it came to the truth of the gospel. He said,
Wherefore, God assisting me, my forehead shall be more hard than all men's foreheads ... Yea, I am glad even with all my heart, in this point to seem rebellious and obstinate. And here I confess that I am, and ever will be stout and stern, and will not one inch give place to any creature. (Luther, Commentary, 212)
Luther also said,
Let this be then the conclusion of all together, that we will suffer our goods to be taken away, our name, our life, and all that we have: but the Gospel, our faith, Jesus Christ, we will never suffer to be wrested from us ... [L]et every Christian man here be proud and spare not, except he will deny Christ. (ibid.)
Luther's courage and conviction should inspire all of us. The gospel must be zealously defended, which means that legalism must be vehemently attacked and destroyed. So how does Paul do it? And how do we do it? How do we counter the thinking so ingrained in us that God's pleasure is based on our performance? I believe Galatians 1 gives us the answer. Below we'll look at two fundamental, life-changing truths that destroy legalism.
The first truth from Galatians 1 that destroys legalism is this:
The Gospel Is Free
Listen to how Paul starts this letter: "Grace to you and peace" (v. 3). This was a uniquely Christian greeting—"Grace to you"—and Paul starts and ends this letter with it. His final words are, "Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen" (6:18). The term "grace" appears throughout Galatians (cf. seven times: 1:3,6,15; 2:9,21; 5:4; 6:18), and it's one of Paul's favorite words throughout his writings. He uses it 100 times in the New Testament, almost twice as many times as all the other New Testament writers combined (Morris, Galatians, 35). From the very beginning of this letter, Paul teaches us that God's favor is free. His salvation is free. His love, His mercy, His provision is free. It's not based on your performance; rather, it's based on His performance. Consider how this plays out through the work of God the Father and God the Son.
God the Father has initiated our salvation. The opening greeting speaks to this in verses 3-4: "Grace to you and peace from God the Father ... according to the will of our God and Father" (emphasis added). Grace is from God. The gospel is from God. It is God's will that His people would know His grace; He's designed it this way. Later, when Paul talks about how he came to faith in Christ, he describes his preconversion life this way:
For you have heard about my former way of life in Judaism: I persecuted God's church to an extreme degree and tried to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, because I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. (1:13-14)
Notice the subject in these sentences: "I." But then there's a shift in the subject:
But when God, who from my birth set me apart and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me, so that I could preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone. (1:15)
Paul acknowledges that all his raging fanaticism was no match for the good pleasure of God. God set him apart, God called him, and God saved him by revealing Christ. And it was all by grace. You and I may not have the same background as Paul, but every follower of Christ has this same testimony. In the words of Ephesians,
For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, to the praise of His glorious grace. (Eph 1:4-6)
Praise God, it is the Father's will to show us grace, not our will. That's what Paul says: "So then it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy" (Rom 9:16). Paul didn't deserve mercy; he didn't even ask for it. It pursued him. The same holds true for us: we do not deserve mercy, nor do we even know how to seek it. It seeks us. And it finds us. Mercy comes running, and by His grace, God pursues you with His love. His pleasure in you is not dependent on your pursuit of Him, but His pursuit of you. That's one of the reasons the Judaizers were criticizing the gospel of free grace that Paul was preaching and trying to discredit his ministry.
Paul's reaction to the criticisms of the Judaizers was twofold. First, in Galatians 1 and in the beginning of Galatians 2 he tells them that the gospel is not invented by man.
Paul essentially says, "I didn't make this up." He gives specific details about his time in Arabia, a short trip he made to Jerusalem, and the time he spent in Syria and Cilicia (1:17-21), and his whole point is to show that he didn't learn this gospel from any other man. As an apostle, he learned this gospel directly from Christ, and this gospel was identical to the gospel that had been revealed to the other apostles who had lived and walked with Jesus.
There's a second aspect to Paul's reaction to the Judaizers, and it's the flip side of his previous claim that the gospel was not invented by man. The gospel is revealed by God; there is nothing man-made about it. The good news is that God became a man and lived a perfect life that He might die on the cross for our sins and be raised from the dead in victory over sin so that all who believe in Him will be saved, not based on anything they have done, but based solely on what He has done. This gospel goes against every single strain of pride that dominates our hearts, which indicates that it had to come from God. He initiates our salvation, which is why Paul says that abandoning the gospel of free grace is an abandonment of God Himself. That would be a deadly error.
So far we've seen the work of the Father in initiating our salvation. But there's another, complementary aspect to this.
God the Son has accomplished our salvation. Grace and peace come not only from God the Father in verse 3, but also from "our Lord Jesus Christ." The Father and the Son are closely identified in the work of salvation. The Son is the One "who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age" (v. 4). This is the core truth of the gospel. Salvation is not about what man can do; salvation is about what Christ has already done, and He has done everything necessary for our salvation. Paul says that He, Jesus, gave Himself "for" our sins. This word "for" is important, and Paul uses it again in 2:20 and 3:13. The apostle speaks of Jesus giving His life in the place of sinners who deserve God's judgment (ibid., 37). He has paid our sin debt.
God's pleasure is not based on our performance, but on the performance of Christ, who gave Himself for our sins. The only way we can be accepted before God is through Christ. Yet, these churches in Galatia were missing the significance of the death of Christ by adding other qualifications. That's why Paul says, rather forcefully, that we malign the gospel when we add to grace, which is precisely what the Judaizers were doing.
Don't forget, however, that much of the teaching of the Judaizers was right down the line, biblically speaking. They acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and they even acknowledged His death on the cross. They claimed to believe all the truths that other Christians believed, and they certainly weren't telling people that they denied the gospel. Instead, they were improving it, adding requirements and standards from the old covenant to the new covenant. But the reality is that as soon as you add anything to grace, you lose grace altogether. There's no middle ground.
Think about it: If you were about to drink a glass of clean water, and then someone added a drop of poison to it, would you still drink it? It's close to pure, right? No, it's totally contaminated and undrinkable as soon as that drop of poison hits the water. It's the same way with the gospel. If you tamper with and add anything to grace, you lose the whole gospel. This is why Paul opposes adding human work to the work of Christ for salvation. The gospel does not tell us what we have to do to please God; instead, it announces that God is pleased with us based solely on Christ's accomplishment in His death and resurrection and our identification with Him. We don't need Christ plus this or Christ plus that. We need Christ, period.
Peace can only come in Christ, and we need to be confident in this. So many times we believe God loves us, but secretly we think that His love depends on how we're doing in the Christian life. But remember, God is pleased with you, not based on your performance, but based on the work of Christ for you. This same Christ now lives in you, and even your good works are the result of His power and presence within you.
Not only do we malign the gospel when we add to grace, but we misunderstand the gospel when we cheapen grace. One of the accusations that always accompanies the free gospel of grace is, "Doesn't that mean people can just live however they want?" (See Rom 6:15.) This is one of the dangers or risks of grace, namely, that some people will abuse grace and take it to mean that this free gift gives them license and freedom to live however they want. Paul addresses this error more specifically later in Galatians 5:13, but suffice it to say at this point, this is a misunderstanding of grace. First, grace is not cheap. The cost of grace is a cross, where Jesus gave Himself for our sins. Second, grace changes our lives. You can't have this free grace without it changing your life. In 2:14 Paul confronts Peter and the believers with him for "deviating from the truth of the gospel" by their hypocritical actions. Their actions were contradicting the grace they believed and proclaimed. Grace brings about change.
If we're honest, different parts of the Bible can almost sound like different gospels. For instance, Jesus said, "Go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Matt 19:21). That sounds very different from what Paul says in Galatians. In fact, if Jesus hadn't been the One to say it, we'd wonder if that was legalism! Or consider Jesus' words:
But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn't act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great! (Matt 7:26-27)
This is where you can get into a lot of trouble quoting Jesus in the church! The relationship between Paul and James can also be difficult to understand at times. Paul says that we are justified by faith alone (Rom 3:28), and yet James asks, "Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless?" (Jas 2:20). This is one of the reasons Luther, who loved Galatians, used to say that he wanted to throw "Jimmy" into the stove.
So which is it? Do we side with Jesus and James, or is Paul right? Before you answer, consider that even Paul confuses us. We're used to hearing about free grace in Galatians and in verses like "For you are saved by grace through faith" (Eph 2:8), but then we hear Paul talk about Christ's second coming as a time when He [Jesus] will be "taking vengeance with flaming fire on those who don't know God and on those who don't obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thess 1:8). If we didn't know any better, we'd call Paul a legalist.
The solution to this dilemma is to understand that throughout the New Testament, there is one gospel. So the truth doesn't change, but different books address different audiences. In Galatians Paul writes to people who were trying to add to the gospel. James, on the other hand, was writing to people who were trying to take away from the gospel and cheapen it by downplaying obedience in Christ. Nevertheless, it's all one gospel, and we must be careful not to malign it, nor to misunderstand it.
Rather than maligning or misunderstanding the gospel, we need to marvel at it, and we marvel at the gospel when we trust in grace. The key word here is "trust," sometimes translated as "faith." We must believe that the gospel is free. God the Father has initiated our salvation, and God the Son has accomplished our salvation, wholly apart from anything we have done or would ever be able to do. That's why the gospel is called "good news." Such grace extended to unworthy sinners is worth our marveling.
The Gospel Is Freeing
Earlier we noted that there are two truths that destroy legalism. The first truth is that the gospel is free, which Paul is zealous to make clear. Second, the gospel is freeing. In verse 4 Paul says that Jesus gave Himself for our sins, "to rescue us from this present evil age." This word "rescue" is used in Acts to talk about how the Israelites were rescued, or freed, from slavery (Acts 7:34). It's also used to describe how Peter was rescued, or freed, from prison (Acts 12:11) and how Paul was rescued by Claudius from being lynched by a mob (Acts 23:27). The word "rescue" in Galatians 1:4 speaks not simply of being delivered from the guilt of our sin, though that is certainly true, but also of being delivered from a power—the power of this present evil age. "This present evil age" refers to the world we live in and all of its ways. Now obviously we still live in this world, but there is a sense in which we've been taken out of it. We no longer have to live like this world, pursuing what this world pursues, loving what this world loves, indulging in what this world indulges in. We're free!
The Judaizers were accusing Paul of preaching a gospel that led to loose living. Because they stressed the Old Testament law and morality, they thought that taking the law away would lead to lawless living and license to sin. In Galatians 5 Paul explains why this isn't the case. We're not freed into nothingness; rather, we are freed into Christ, who changes us by His Spirit from the inside out. We are freed to live based on Christ's power at work in us. Don't miss the point: our obedience is not legalistic. We're not working in our own power according to our own rules to earn God's favor. No, we're working in His power according to His rules and we know we have His favor, not based on what we do, but based on all that Christ has done for us! The gospel frees us to live as we were created to live—in Christ!
By His grace, we are free from sin in this world. We are saved from the evil age we live in and all of its sinful attitudes, values, and actions. Whether its Jesus' costly calls in the Gospels or the commands in Paul's letters, we don't walk away saying, "Legalistic!" Because Christ lives in us, and because He empowers us by His Spirit, we are free to obey His Word.
By His grace, we are free to share with this world. Paul says, "To whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen" (1:5). God gives us His free grace for His glory. Paul makes a related point:
But when God, who from my birth set me apart and called me by
His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me, so that I could
preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult
with anyone. (1:15-16)
Why did God give Paul such grace? So that Paul would preach the gospel to the Gentiles. It was private revelation for public communication. This is the kind of grace that frees us to speak, to tell. But it's not just Paul who has been saved in order to proclaim the good news. Whether it's going to an unreached people group on the other side of the planet, or bearing witness to Christ in your workplace, you and I have the privilege and the responsibility, as those who have received God's grace, to share this gospel with everyone. Grace frees us to pass along this good news.
Reflect and Discuss
- Explain the following statement: Everyone has legalistic tendencies. Give some examples of how legalism shows up in your own thoughts and actions.
- How does legalism undermine the gospel?
- What's the difference between legalism and zealous obedience?
- Why is it important to be clear about the origin of the gospel, whether from God or from man?
- Why is the fact that the Father initiated salvation important for understanding that the gospel is free?
- In what ways do we add to the gospel? What are some "Jesus + something else" messages taught today?
- What does Paul say about those who preach false gospels? Do you think Paul is out of control in this passage? Why or why not?
- Does free grace lead to carelessness about sin? Explain.
- How do Paul's words about pleasing Christ, not men, affect you? Do you struggle with the desire to please others over Christ? How might we fight this sin?
- What practical steps can you take to avoid legalism as you share the gospel with unbelievers?