How’d you go from grace to legalism?

by K.W. Leslie, 20 March

Galatians 3.1-4.

Because humans are selfish, we’d honestly prefer the world work to our satisfaction: We get maximum output with minimal effort, or get freebies and special favor, and who cares whether everybody else does; and if others wrong us, we take it out of ’em sevenfold. But on humanity’s better days, we’re willing to accept reciprocity and karma. In fact we look at karma as an ideal: It’s fair. It’s just. Everybody gets what they deserve. It’s considered right and moral, and it’s even upheld in many a religion. Even ours. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and all that.Ex 21.24 God forbade satisfaction and revenge, ’cause we always go way too far. But reciprocity’s acceptable.

Of course I remind you God’s personal practice, his ideal for his followers, is grace. Is for us to not be fair, but generous and forgiving in other people’s favor. He’s gracious to us, so we need to be gracious to others. ’Cause if we don’t pay it forward, he’ll actually stop.

Problem is, humanity uplifts karma so much, we dismiss grace in its favor. Radical forgiveness is “unrealistic”—is idealism, is bleeding-heart liberalism, is coddling people who will just take advantage of your generosity. (You know, exactly like Christians who take advantage of God’s grace.) It’s why we have Christians who actually teach against grace. In its place, we get the Christianist idea that God only gives us a nice afterlife. But in this life, you gotta work for whatever you get; God’s freebies are limited to eternal life and New Jerusalem, and that’s it.

This is why legalism slips into Christianity so very easily. Once God initially saves us, that’s as much as he does on his end. Everything else is stuff we earn, on our own steam. You want Jesus to grant you a fancier crown when he returns? You gotta work for the baubles. Do good deeds. Do some ministries. Share the gospel with pagans; you get a jewel for every new soul you bring to Jesus. And if those new converts share Jesus with still others, you get a little bit of credit for them too. It’s God’s multi-level marketing program.

In this way, the gospel begins with God coming near to us to save us… and devolves into us chasing God lest our relationships with him evaporate. They turn into legalism. Happens all the time; even in churches which denounce legalism. Because karma is so embedded in human culture, we fall back on it by default, and wind up teaching it instead of grace.

That’s the answer to Paul’s rhetorical question, “What put a spell on you?” The Galatians had missed the point of good works. They‘re how people live now that we’re saved. Not how we stay in God’s good graces. Not how we guard our salvation, keep our salvation, even earn extra salvation in one of heaven’s higher levels. These ideas are mighty common in Christendom, but run wholly contrary to Jesus’s self-sacrifice, in which he paid for everything. Seriously, everything.

Galatians 3.1-3 KWL
1 Unthinking Galatians. What put a spell on you?
Before your very eyes, Christ Jesus was presented as crucified.
2 I only want to know this from you: Is the Spirit given to you
by working the Law, or by hearing and trusting?
3 This is why you’re unthinking: You started in the Spirit, and now you finish in the flesh.
4 Did you suffer so much for nothing? (Because if you’re right, it’s really for nothing.)

Yeah, a lot of translations like to render verse 1, “You stupid Galatians” or “Oh foolish Galatians.” ’Cause yes, the opposite of wisdom is stupidity, and if the Galatians weren’t being wise, they were of course acting like morons. But these terms come across more harsh than the word Paul used, ἀνόητοι/anóhiti, “not [using one’s] mind” or “not thinking.” The Galatians had skipped a few steps in their reasoning. Their life in God’s kingdom began by hearing the gospel and believing it. So how had they since come to the conclusion their salvation was in any way based on the commands of the Law?

Well, like I said: Humanity thinks reciprocity is important, so humans insert reciprocity into our religion. Exactly where it doesn’t belong.

How’d you become Christian?

I’m not sure what Paul specifically meant by “Before your very eyes, Christ Jesus was presented as crucified” in verse 1. Before their eyes? Were some of these Galatians present for Jesus’s death? Seems really unlikely, though not impossible. But two or three other things might’ve happened to make Paul write this:

  • The Galatians were familiar with crucifixion. The Romans crucified non-Roman criminals all the time; who in their culture hadn’t walked past a line of crosses with gasping, groaning naked victims on them? And at some point, if not many times, if not regularly, a Christian preacher made an object lesson of them: “This is exactly how Christ Jesus died.”
  • The church did some kind of passion play. True, the passion play is a medieval invention, but drama is a ancient Greek one, and there’s no reason a church couldn’t have acted out the events of Jesus’s trial and death, and given everyone a good visual reminder of what happened.
  • God gave ’em visions. Sometimes he does that, y’know. So enough of them did see Jesus’s death—or more likely an apocalyptic version of it, which didn’t show everything, but included all the details God wanted them to see.

Or choose your own theory, but something provided the Galatians a clear visual of what Jesus experienced, so Paul expected the Galatians were fully aware of it. And understood what his crucifixion meant: Jesus won us the kingdom. We don’t earn it. We can’t> But he could, and did.

So the Galatians knew the gospel, which is why Paul found it hard to imagine why they’d ditch it to follow legalists. Isn’t the gospel so much better than legalism?

Well, you gotta consider where the Galatians came from. And where we come from.

Most Christians grew up Christian. Myself included. I was baptized as a baby, went to Sunday school and Christian classes since before I can remember, and Mom shared the gospel with me while I was still in preschool. I really don’t remember my pre-Christian days.

So if I were raised in a legalist church (and thank God I wasn’t!) you do realize Paul’s next question to the Galatians would’ve had no effect on me. “Is the Spirit given to you by working the Law, or by hearing and trusting?” The legalists would’ve convinced me the Spirit was given to me by working the Law—or by obeying the rules and customs, both publicly declared and unspoken but understood, which legalist churches set up in place of the Law, ’cause dispensationalism.

If you ever visit such cultlike churches, you’ll notice they insist Christians are free from the bondage of the Law… but all their Christianist expectations have become a whole new bondage. You gotta meet their standards, and if you dare go astray, they’ll insist you can’t truly be Christian. You must be some wicked sinner who crept in among them; you have yet to repent and come to Jesus. Or some of ’em will actually claim God turns away from sinners, and the Holy Spirit will leave his place inside us with a mighty whoosh, leaving us hellbound. It’s how legalists keep people in line, y’know: Threaten their salvation. Keep ’em constantly afraid of hell. Love isn’t their motivation; fear is. It’s how cults can get people to believe and do all sorts of heinous things.

And yeah, Pharisees regularly slid into legalism. Jesus’s objections to them weren’t just about how they sought loopholes in the Law, or abandoned the Law to follow their elders. Their legalism was why they were outraged when he cured the sick on Sabbath, or did anything on Sabbath other than teach in synagogue or rest. Paul still considered himself Pharisee, Ac 23.6 and grew up with their religion, including its legalism. He came out of that to follow Jesus. He likely couldn’t imagine going back to that. How could he? The gospel is freedom!

Likewise if you grew up pagan, but among legalist pagans. I’ve had people ask me how on earth pagans of all people could be legalist; I ask ’em if they’ve ever eaten a hamburger in front of a vegan. Legalism is hardly just a religious thing! Anybody who demands everybody hew to their lifestyle, and threatens them with any form of damnation if they don’t, falls into that camp. And plenty of people do it. It’s a human thing.

But I point out: If you don’t have any prior experience with legalism, whether pagan or Christian, it can be a really easy but subtle thing to slide into. Yeah, you might begin with the gospel and freedom… and then people introduce structure and discipline and rules, usually to help us work on our self-control, but if you don’t have any self-control of course you’re not gonna know how to put limits on the demands of the structure, discipline, and rules! You’ll let ’em take over. You’ll think they should take over. Grace will get squelched.

Even those who do have prior experience with legalism can fall into it. I’ve known Christians who left one cult and fell right into another. They thought the problem with cults is heresy, so they didn’t bother to watch out for the legalism. But plenty of cults are totally orthodox: They describe God accurately, same as the Pharisees did. But their rules and rule enforcement undermine all their good works, and crank out nothing but dark Christians, fear, and bad fruit.

And yeah, even when they’re introduced to the actual gospel.

It’s why we have to keep returning to the first principles of that gospel. Christ Jesus paid for our salvation. We don’t achieve it with good deeds, strict obedience, orthodox beliefs, or devout practices. We trust he achieved it for us. It’s a faith thing.

That’s why we repeat this idea a lot, and need to keep repeating it. And not let the definition of “faith” drift around into weird interpretations. Like “Faith refers to the stuff I believe and practice.” No; that’s our religion. Faith is trusting and following; and the object of our faith should be Jesus. If our faith is in our religion, we’re doing it wrong! This doesn’t mean we ditch religion, like various idiots teach (and Paul deals with them later in Galatians); it means we recognize religion isn’t our absolute standard—and Jesus is. Religion changes—and should change all the time, ’cause as we mature and grow in Christ, we’re gonna find our less-mature beliefs and practices don’t really help us follow Jesus any further—and we discover wrong ideas in there, and of course the wrong ideas gotta go! If we’re gonna keep growing, we gotta swap out the childish things for harder beliefs and more advanced practices. So religion has to continually evolve. But Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He 13.8 He’s the fixed point we orbit. Not religion.

So when our religions include legalism, of course that’s gotta go. Even if we figure it helped us get more self-disciplined when we were new at this Christianity stuff, we gotta realize it’s holding us back way more than helping. It’s killing off our grace. It’s driving away people who were hurt by legalists. It’s not how God’s kingdom works at all. It’s life in chains. Break it off.