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Getting Rid of Legalism & Standing Firm in Christ

Galatians 4:28-5:1

4:28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Galatians: A Letter for Recovering Legalists

Galatians is a letter for recovering legalists. John Stott well said, “There are many such [legalists] today. They are not, of course, the Jews or Judaizers to whom Paul was writing [about], but people whose religion is legalistic, who imagine that the way to God is by the observance of certain rules.” (Stott. 121-122) Galatians is written for folks like us. If you’ve trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, God has declared you to be “not guilty” before Him—He justified you by faith—but, we still wrestle with our old sinful habits and tendencies, one of which is legalism.

Legalism is any attempt to gain acceptance or forgiveness from God through one’s own efforts or merits. To say it another way, a legalist believes that what God does for them is dependent on what they do for God. It’s a meritorious system and a graceless religion. It’s a useless and cruel system. It’s like a treadmill: you can run as hard and fast as you want to, but in the end, it gets you nowhere.

The standards that’re set up to earn acceptance or forgiveness with God are human standards, to be met in human strength. These standards are always subjective, different from person to person, and no legalist can truly be assured that they’re living up to the standards. And, these standards always miss the mark of God’s standard, His holiness. And we know this, and yet we all can be tempted to sneakily smuggle in our practices, our preferences, and our performance, into the “faith alone” equation in order to earn—or even maintain—God’s favor, blessing, acceptance, or forgiveness.

The passage that we’ll look at (Gal. 4:28-5:1), fits into the larger passage of Gal. 4:21-5:1 where the main point is – children of God, born by faith in the promise and power of God, are called to get rid of legalism and stand firm in their freedom obtained by Jesus.

There’s strategic logic to this passage that we should see. Paul lays out an argument in verses 21-27 and then he provides a bunch of application in verses 28-5:1. Paul’s argument is that in order to be a child of Abraham—a free child of God—we must trust only in the promise and power of God to save us in Christ Jesus. In this post we'll zero in on Paul's application.

Grace Before Obedience

Paul believes the Galatians, like Isaac, are “children of promise” (Gal 4:28). And, flowing out from that reality of who God has made them to be (His children), Paul gives application for them to live in the good of it. There’s a principle here that we need to see. First God saves us and then He calls us to live in the good of it. It’s never the other way around. We never obey in order to get God to save us. No, first God saves us and then, as a result, we obey. Let’s say it like this, grace always precedes and empowers obedience. This is the way it always works.

Paul’s been desperately arguing for the gospel of grace, so that they would come to their senses, and then live in the good of the gospel. Paul’s got 3 applications for living like a child of God.

Application #1—Children of God Should Expect Persecution

Verse 29 says, “But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.”

The persecution that the Galatians are experiencing from the false teachers is likened to what Isaac (the child according to promise) experienced from Ishmael (the child according to flesh).

And listen, as children of God we too should expect persecution, even from those who might seem to be Christian, but are actually just religious legalists. And why? As one author puts it, “the gospel is…threatening to religious [legalists]. Religious people are very touchy and nervous about their standing with God. Their insecurity makes them hostile to the gospel, which insists that their best deeds are useless before God.” (Keller. 128.)

Listen, the gospel is especially offensive to those who are trusting in their own perceived righteousness because the gospel tells them that even at their best, they’re not good enough to be accepted by God. Legalists want to feel like they deserve God’s blessing. And if you’re not living by their rules, or if you’re trying to tell them both the bad news of the gospel (we’re actually *not* good enough) and the good news of the gospel (Jesus came to do what we could not and came to set us free from legalism) -  brothers and sisters do not be surprised by persecution, condemnation, or legalistic judgmentalism, expect it.

Application #2—Children of God Are Called to Toss Out Legalism

Verse 30 says, “But what does the Scripture say? “‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’” Paul is looking back to the Abrahamic account where after Isaac was persecuted by Ishmael, Sarah told Abraham exactly what we just read. What’s more, God also told Abraham to do the same because Isaac was the son of promise. Well, Paul captures a principle and commands the Galatians as children of God to do the same: toss out legalism. And, as children of God, we too are called to toss out legalism in our lives. What’s more, like Paul is with the Galatians, we’re also to graciously help others toss out their legalism.

Now hear me: if we see this as only a problem that’s “out there” and not also still “in here”, we’re blind and we won’t receive God’s grace in repentance and forgiveness for our own lapses in legalism.

Legalism is a terrible task master. There’s no righteousness found within it, only pride when we believe we’re doing well, or shame and despair when we’re not.

None of us normally set out to pursue legalism. None of wake up in the morning declaring, "I'm going to be a legalists today!" Nope. What makes it tricky is that our legalism is usually not overt. No, you see, most of our legalism subtly occurs when we put our personal practices and preferences over and against the biblical principles and then judge others for not doing what we do. Does that make sense?

There are many biblical principles where there is freedom for personal practice to be expressed and for the principle to still be obeyed. Here are 4: bible reading, financial stewardship, parenting, and taking care of our bodies. There are basic Biblical principles to be obeyed, but no direct command on specifically how it’s to be done. Therefore, there’s freedom for personal practice.

In other words, “Be regularly hearing from God in His Word.” (Psalm 1 an Acts 17:11 are just two examples of the wisdom of our need to be in God's Word) , but there’s freedom for personal conviction for how we live that in our personal practice. Maybe for you that’s 20 minutes every morning, or 10 minutes during your lunch or maybe it’s listening to your bible while you drive to work for however long that may be. Here’s where legalism comes in: if I take my personal practice and say that you’re not obeying God’s word—you’re sinning—because you’re not doing it the "Stuart way", I’m being legalistic. I’m taking my personal practice and putting it over the biblical principle and making my practice law. I’m saying, “If you want to obey God and live in a way pleasing to Him, you gotta do it my way.” Or maybe it’s a little more subtle. Maybe I look down on you a little bit for “making a lesser choice”, while I pat myself on the back and imagine how pleased God is with me for following my own practice. Now, no one outright says that, but it’s those little comments of disapproval or condescension or shaming that reveal our legalism and the extra biblical burden we can put on others.

Here's one more: parenting. God provides much wisdom for parents, but doesn't provide many explicit commands or instructions about the parent-child dynamic. We're told things like, instruct your children in the ways of the Lord (Eph 6:4; Deut 6; Prov 1-9), discipline them when they disobey (Prov 23:13-14; Heb 12:7-8), and refrain from provoking them (Col 3:21; Eph 6:4) just to name few. But we do not read much on the nuances of disciple or of instruction. Therefore, parents have some freedom here for personal conviction to set in. Legalism sets in when we set ourselves up as superior parents compared to others, not because of mutual biblical faithfulness, but because we believe we have superior practices and preferences when it comes to parenting. We look down our noses at parents who do not use the same sleep schedules that we deem as best, or who do not use the same children's books that we use, or who do not discipline their children with the exact specifications that we do. Or we can assume that since our practices "worked for us", they must be what should automatically work for every parent everywhere. We can place more emphasis on our achievements or insight than on the truth that anything good (including wisdom in parenting or obedience in children) comes from God and not ourselves. Yes, share what seemed to be helpful for you. But do so in humility, recognizing that God was the One who brought about that result. And recognize that God may be working in a different way, in a different family, as they also seek to obey God's commands through the freedom they have in the gospel. Again, no one outright says that (although, I think it can happen here more than it can in other areas), but, again, it’s those little comments of disapproval and condescension that reveal our legalism and the extra biblical burden we can put on others.

So, we’re called to toss out legalism. We’re not to keep this thing around and play with it like a pet. It’d be like having lion as a pet, at some point it will devour you. How do we do it? 2 things, briefly:

First) With the Spirit’s help within us and in the community of believers, we need to identify legalism and then graciously and winsomely confront it. Guys we need to call it what it is – sin – and then we must remind ourselves and our fellow brothers and sisters of the gospel of grace and forgiveness. We need faithful brothers and sisters to come alongside us and help us and we need to come alongside them as well. This is both a precarious and yet glorious task that God has given us grace to do together. And to have those conversations with people, that means we need to be involved in each other’s lives, being open and humble with each other. These aren’t the conversations you have in the 5 minutes after church lets out. We need to be cultivating meaningful relationships with each other where we share our struggles with one another and where we give each other an “open door” to gently, humbly warn us if they see us straying into legalism.

Second) The fundamental way that we toss out legalism is through repentance. We turn away from our self-righteousness and turn to Jesus, trusting in His blood and righteousness, and once again receive forgiveness for our sin. We must preach the gospel to ourselves and repent of our legalism when it’s revealed in our hearts. And that often requires us to do some serious self-reflection. Do you compare yourself to others (and then either condemn or praise yourself)? Do you look down on others who do things differently than you? Do you fear that you are missing out on God’s favor (or bringing down his curse) because of how well (or poorly) you are living? Are you much more aware of other’s sin than your own?

As children of God, we’re called to get rid of legalism and to stand firm in our freedom obtained by Jesus.

Application #3—Children of God Are Called to Stand Firm in Their Freedom Obtained by Jesus

Chapter 5 verse 1 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The gospel of grace is the good news of freedom! It’s the liberating news that captives, who were once held in bondage to sin, are set free in Christ to now live as they ought. Friends, we’ve been liberated from sin’s power and now through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that lives within us, we can live in ways pleasing to God. Oh, there may be times where it may feel like a long standing pattern of sin still has you in chains, but the objective truth is that, because of Jesus, you have been set free and can say “no” to sin and “yes” to God and righteousness. Brothers and sisters, we don’t have to live like a slave to sin, because we have been set free in Christ!

Now, as a result of our freedom to live as we ought by the Spirit’s help, Paul commands freed people in Christ to stand firm in their freedom and to not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Well, what does that look like?

First and foremost, to stand firm in our freedom, we must never lose sight of the gospel. We’re prone to wander away from it and so we must, as it were, continually dig our roots down deep into the soil of the gospel, so that we will not be moved away from it. To do so we must celebrate what Christ has done for us and preach the gospel to ourselves and to each other.

Second, to stand in our freedom means we’re able and willing to be suspicious of ourselves and so be willing to humbly receive input and correction. You see, as free people in Jesus, we shouldn’t be touchy, or afraid, or crushed to learn that we’ve fallen short of the glory of God and are in need of once again repenting and receiving forgiveness. As freed people in Jesus, we are both confident in our right standing before God through Jesus and confident that we’re not perfect yet and that we’ll need to receive God’s grace of ongoing repentance and forgiveness.

Finally, to stand in our freedom means to activity toss out the legalism that remains in our hearts. Paul says, “stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” We must, with the Spirit’s help, intentionally refuse to give into legalism.

Guys, there is grace for these things. God wants to help us to toss out legalism and to live in the freedom that He has obtained for us in Jesus.