03 August 2022

How’d you get from grace to legalism?

Galatians 3.1-4 KWL
1 Oh you unthinking Galatians.
Who mixed up your heads [to not believe truth]?
It was written Christ Jesus had been crucified.
Didn’t you read this with your own eyes?
2 I want to learn only this from you:
Do you receive the Spirit by working the Law,
or by hearing and trusting?
3 So you’re not thinking:
Beginning with the Spirit,
do you now perfect yourselves by the flesh?
4 Have you suffered so much for nothing?
—if it really is nothing.
  • “By Law we’re good as dead—so live for Jesus!” Ga 2.17-21
  • This passage is notorious for beginning, “O foolish Galatians,” Ga 3.1 KJV as if Paul has had it with them; these stupid whites are totally botching the gospel! But let’s not project our own impatient attitudes upon Paul. The word Paul used is ἀνόητοι/anóhiti, “not [using one’s] mind” or “not thinking.” Yeah, it regularly gets translated as “foolish” or “stupid,” since those things are obvious opposites of wisdom. But Paul didn’t use the usual words for stupidity because he’s emphasizing how they’ve not thought things through. There’s a step missing in their thought process, and it’s the usual step missing in all legalistic thinking.

    When the LORD first made contact with Abraham or saved the Hebrews from Egypt, or when Jesus first chose students by the Galilee or stopped Paul enroute to Damascus, did he do any of these things because these were such good people? Had they achieved a certain level of righteousness through carefully observing the Law?—one which our Lord was obligated to respond to, because they had so many heavenly Brownie points? Is good karma how God determines worthiness?

    Nope; the entry point into God’s kingdom begins by God doing something incredibly gracious, and us seeing or hearing the good news of it, and trusting him to save us the rest of the way. Salvation comes by God, not our own righteousness. And this righteousness comes by faith, not works—it’s only faith.

    So how on earth could such people become Christian by grace through faith… and then backslide into the pagan belief we retain our standing with God through good works?

    Same way everybody else backslides into legalism: Karma-based thinking is everywhere. Simply everywhere. Humanity’s collectively got it into our heads that we’re saved by doing more good deeds than bad, and made this a central teaching of just about all our religions and philosophies. It’s a belief we’re very comfortable with—and regularly judge other people by. And even though Christianity teaches otherwise, it’s so easy to fall back on that core belief: I’m a good person because I do good deeds, and good people go to heaven.

    And we insert that idea right back into the gospel. Where it absolutely doesn’t belong.

    “Before your very eyes”?

    Verse 1 is also notorious for the question, “Who hath bewitched you?” Ga 3.1 KJV as if there’s some actual witchcraft involved in confounding the Galatians. The term ἐβάσκανεν/eváskanen, “speak ill of,” was used by the ancient Greeks to describe how people used “the evil eye” to curse those they envied. Basically you find fault with them, blow it out of proportion, try to make ’em feel guilty, then manipulate ’em with the newfound guilt. Legalists love to do this sort of thing. I may have oversimplified the idea by reducing it to “mixed up” in my translation, but now you know the bigger idea behind it.

    Verse 1 also has “before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” Ga 3.1 KJV This translation’s a lot harder to defend. Because Jesus wasn’t crucified before their eyes; the Galatians weren’t present at Jesus’s death. (Unless some of them actually were in Jerusalem for Passover in the year 33, and actually did see Jesus get crucified outside the city. It’s not impossible—but it seems really unlikely.)

    The grammar of the Greek text doesn’t really work for the KJV’s translation. It says Jesus’s crucifixion was προεγράφη/proeghráthi, “written down before,” their eyes. In other words their eyes read of Jesus’s crucifixion. He wasn’t killed right in front of them; it only means they read about it. They weren’t eyewitnesses. But they were intelligent people; not every Roman subject back then could read. And as intelligent people, shouldn’t they know better than to deduce legalism from Jesus’s self-sacrifice? He died so we don’t have to; shouldn’t this imply there’s a lot of things we now don’t have to do?

    They knew Jesus died for ’em; that he achieved their salvation. They knew, or should’ve known, the Law doesn’t do that, and never did: Its purpose, same as Jesus’s commands and the apostles’ instructions, is to tell saved people how we should live now that we’re saved. It’s the car, and salvation’s the engine, steering wheel, and brakes. Take out those things and now you gotta push the car down the interstate, and good luck going through the hills.

    Jesus doesn’t give us the Holy Spirit because we merit him, or earned him, or continually work to be worthy of him. He’s a free gift. He’s the gas in our metaphorical car. He’s the one who even makes it possible to be good, or be fruity. We don’t achieve any Christian growth on our own strength, and we absolutely don’t achieve salvation that way.

    Paul couldn’t fathom how someone who began with the Spirit could work their way away from trusting the Spirit, and trusting themselves in his place. But self-deception is a slow and gradual process, and doesn’t happen overnight. Takes a lot of little compromises. Takes a lot of pressure from people who wanna lead us astray, or wanna control us and are trying to wear us down. The legalists among the Galatians had a lot more time to work on the church than Paul did. So that’s where they were by the time Paul wrote his letter.

    Growing up legalist.

    For the most part, the Galatians were adult by the time they heard the gospel. Had they not been—had they grown up legalist—Paul’s argument would’ve gone right over their heads. As it does with legalists nowadays.

    I grew up Christian. As have most Christians: We hear the gospel from our parents or church, and accept Jesus right away. We might change our minds when we’re older, but childlike faith embraces Jesus pretty quickly. I was still in preschool, and I really don’t remember my pre-Christian days.

    Which means I don’t remember what a mess my life was before Jesus. I definitely remember making a hash of things—multiple times—after Jesus. Before, not so much. So Paul’s question, “Beginning with the Spirit, do you now perfect yourselves by the flesh?” Ga 3.3 —I couldn’t tell you about my experiences of beginning with the Spirit. Oh he was there; he’s there with every Christian; he indwells us when we’re saved, and sometimes baptizes us later. But my life before the Spirit? Like I said, I don’t remember it.

    If I grew up among legalists, and Paul tried to tell me, “Do you receive the Spirit by working the Law, or by hearing and trusting?” I’d struggle with this question: How did I receive the Spirit? (Did the legalists even teach me who the Spirit is? Do they know?) Legalists would’ve convinced me the Spirit was granted to me… by obeying their rules and customs. That’s what legalist churches usually set up in place of the Law. ’Cause dispensationalism.

    If you ever visit such cultlike churches, you’ll notice they insist Christians are now free from the bondage of the Law. But now these Christians are in a whole new kind of bondage. You now gotta follow their rules. Meet their expectations. And if you dare go astray, they’ll insist you can’t truly be Christian; you have yet to repent and turn to Jesus.

    Or some of ’em will actually claim God turns away from sinners, and the Holy Spirit will leave with a mighty whoosh, leaving us hellbound. It’s how legalists keep people in line, y’know. Threaten our salvation. Keep us constantly terrified 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.

    First-century Pharisees regularly slid into this kind of legalism. The reason Pharisees created synagogues was to teach the Law, lest Israel forgot it and triggered the cycle again. So the Law was important—and it was really easy to venerate the Law so much it turned idolatrous. And while some Pharisees were hypocrites who sought loopholes in the Law and followed their elders instead of it, others followed Law so tightly they forgot all about grace. It’s why they were outraged whenever Jesus cured the sick on Sabbath—or really, did anything on Sabbath.

    Paul grew up Pharisee, and still considered himself one. Ac 23.6 It’s a safe bet to figure he grew up in the legalist camp. Partly because of how much time he rails against it, now that he knows better; and partly because his legalism drove him to persecute Christian “heretics”—who turned out to follow the legitimate Messiah, and Paul’s short-sightedness meant he missed him entirely. He quit his legalism to follow Jesus. He likely couldn’t imagine going back to that; how could he? The gospel is freedom!

    Likewise if you grew up among legalist pagans. Now I’ve had people object: “Legalist pagans? How could they be legalist?” Oh, but they can be. Don’t believe me? Try eating a hamburger in front of a vegan.

    Yep, legalism is hardly just a religious thing! Anybody who demands everybody hew to their lifestyle, and threatens them with any form of rejection and damnation if they don’t, falls into that camp. And plenty of people do it. It’s a human thing.

    But lemme 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. But then people introduce structure and discipline and rules—usually to help us work on our self-control. Those are good things; we need structure. But since you’ve not learned self-control yet, of course you won’t know how to put reasonable limits on the demands of the structure, discipline, and rules! You might let the rules take over—and think they should take over; that they’re the religion, and the point. Grace gets 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 think the only problem with cults is heresy, so they never 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.

    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.

    So when our religions include legalism, of course that’s gotta go. Even if we figure it helps us get more self-disciplined when we were new to this Christianity stuff, we gotta realize it holds us back way more than it’s 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.