Legalism: Can we do anything to make God love us more?
Galatians 3:3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
On his first missionary journey, Paul learns to his surprise that non-Jews seem more receptive than Jews to the news about Jesus. He begins a policy that he comes to follow throughout his ministry career. He goes first to the synagogue and preaches among the Jews; if they reject him, he turns to the Gentiles.
Before his conversion Paul was a loyal and strict Jew, proud to be a “legalist.” If a person could reach God by obeying the law, then he, a strict Pharisee, would have done it. In a twist of history, he gains a new reputation as “the Apostle to the Gentiles.” As he sees God working among non-Jews, Paul becomes their champion.
This letter to the churches in Galatia (located in modern-day Turkey) dates from the time of the early Jew-Gentile controversy. Paul is emotionally worked up. In fact, he is downright furious at misguided attempts to shackle the church with Jewish legalism. Paul has felt the gust of freedom that comes after liberation from a set of confining laws, and he is not about to let that freedom slip away.
No Strings Attached
In the first paragraph of Galatians 3, Paul explodes with the full force of his passionate beliefs. He then proceeds to give a “Christian,” rather than Jewish, interpretation of the Old Testament covenants with Abraham and Moses.
Galatians 3—4 draw sharp contrasts: a prisoner and a free man, a sheltered child and an adult. Don’t act like a slave or a child, Paul says. Act like a privileged son, an heir to a great fortune! Galatians shatters the idea that God’s love is conditioned upon how many rules we obey. Legalism is like a cage: It can only condemn people and lock them behind bars. As Paul points out, no one has perfectly kept all of God’s laws, and all who try to do so ultimately fail (see Galatians 3:10–11).
Martin Luther said, “[Galatians is] my own little epistle. I have betrothed myself to it; it is my Katie von Bora [Luther’s wife].” This little book proclaims that God has freely given his love to us with no strings attached. We should never get over the awesome shock of that truth, Galatians says.
Some early Christians, like the people in Galatia, became obsessed with legalism. Others took their Christian freedom too far by refusing to follow anyone’s rules. Which is the greater danger in your circle?