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Galatians 3:1-9: Legalism, License or Liberty-part 1

In today’s church there are two extreme positions that have existed since apostolic times. Each is critical of the other. Neither is biblically correct. And both are devastating to the cause of Christ. On the extreme right is Law, touch not, taste not, handle not, a general ignorance of the grace of God. On the opposite extreme is license, the belief that since I am saved, I can do anything I want to do. Grace and Law are not compatible systems. Either it is belief by faith, all grace, or it's salvation by works, but it can't be both.

Chuck Swindoll shared this story illustrating the foolishness of legalism in his book, Grace Awakening. He said, “I heard about a fellow who attended a legalistic college where students were to live according to very strict rules. They weren’t supposed to do any work on Sundays. None! Guess what? He spied on his wife and caught her hanging out a few articles of clothing she washed on Sunday afternoon. Are you ready? The guy turned in his wife to the authorities! I’ll bet she was fun to live with the next day or two.” Legalism has no pity on people. Legalism makes my opinion your burden, makes my opinion your boundary, makes my opinion your obligation.” –

The Galatian Error Was Legalism. In the church at Galatia there were those who were guilty of mingling grace and works. They were teaching that in order to be a Christian, they had to believe in Christ by faith, but also had to observe rituals, of circumcision and Levitical law.

Legalism is a term used to describe a system of beliefs that one must adhere to in order to be a “good” Christian. What is of vital importance, however, is that this legalism is not found in the Bible. Many legalists would go as far as to say that if a person does not adhere to their own beliefs of legalism then they are not Christians at all even if they have placed their trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of their lives. They simply say that any action going against what they believe to be right or wrong is evidence that they are not believers at all.

The legalists want to bring us into the bondage of religious rules. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word ligare, meaning to tie or to bind. Paul uses this word in Acts 26:25, “I lived as a Pharisee, the strictest sect of our religion." And here in Galatians he writes, “…some so-called believers there—false ones, really—who were secretly brought in. They sneaked in to spy on us and take away the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations” (Galatians 2:4NLT).

Verse 1a: “O foolish Galatians!…”

“Foolish,” anoetos in Greek literally means, “not having a mind, describing a person without understanding, dull-witted.” It describes one with an unwillingness to use one's mental faculties to understand. It is not a lack of intelligence as much as it is a mental laziness and carelessness.

Paul is not saying that the Galatians were stupid or senseless, but that they had not used their mind. If they had they would never have allowed themselves to be led away from the truth of the Gospel. The tone is certainly not that of contempt, nor is it so much that of indignation, but he is reprimanding them.

The believers in Galatia were not stupid but had simply failed to use their spiritual intelligence when faced by the unscriptural, gospel-destroying teaching of the Judaizers. They were not using their heads! Jesus uses this same word, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25).

Verse 1b: “Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth…”

“Bewitched” is used only this one time in the New Testament and does not necessarily refer to witchcraft as such. The connotation is fascinated or deceived by a pretender. Paul uses this word to describe the satanic influence of the Judaizers upon the minds of the Christians whom Paul himself introduced to the Lord Jesus and to salvation.

Other translations of this verse:

•“Who has cast an evil spell on you?” (NLT)

•“O you poor and silly and thoughtless and unreflecting and senseless Galatians!” (Amp)).

•“You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses?” (MSG)

•“O you dear idiots of Galatia, who saw Jesus Christ the crucified so plainly, who has been casting a spell over you?” (Phillips)

•“Oh, foolish Galatians! What magician has hypnotized you and cast an evil spell upon you?” (TLB)

Allow me to try to interpret Paul: “What on earth could make you accept any other doctrine than salvation by grace through faith? Were you duped by some clever deceiver? Did someone hypnotize you or cast a spell on you, convincing you that you needed more than God requires for your salvation? Seeing that you had experienced God’s simple plan of salvation through faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, what more could the law offer you? ‘You are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. (Colossians 2:10).”

Verse 1c: “…before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?”

Like a message that is written on a billboard, so that it is easily seen, clearly displayed and fully understood!

“When the apostle says that he set Christ forth, he means that he had done it with great plainness. The Greek word has to do with a program or a proclamation. It is as good as to say, ‘I have set Christ before you as plainly as if I had printed a great notice and stuck it up before your eyes. I have put the letters down in capitals… I have set forth Christ before you. I have not talked of Him in a mystical way, so that you did not know what I meant, but I have set Him forth. I have said of Him that He suffered in our stead and was made a curse for us, as it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree…’ They had heard the plainest possible preaching from Paul and his companions. Jesus Christ had been so clearly set forth before them that they might, as it were, see Him as He hung upon the cross of Calvary. Yet, under some unhallowed spell, they turned aside from the faith of Christ.” –Spurgeon

“This is a day of sorcery, demonic deception in the end of time. The world is tricked, fascinated, under the spell of a thousand evil eyes. The weird, the uncanny, the occult, psychedelic drugs, hallucinations with these humanity is being swept into an orgy of induced insanity. The church is attacked, and Satan would deceive the very elect. Good men are led astray by the liberal gospel, the secular gospel, the social gospel. Jannes and Jambres imitate Moses. The Great Deceiver as an angel of light imitates every work of God, and thousands of poor souls cannot distinguish wheat from tares. Fortune-tellers, necromancers, magicians, are small fry compared to the new witchery let loose upon the world. Men we never dreamed would weaken are giving way, and Satan has so cleverly maneuvered his strategy that it appears un-Christian to lift a voice against his wiles and devices. This procedure is so skillfully executed, that many are afraid to express even doubt of it-much less opposition. We had better take some special courses in Ephesians Six, and learn the true nature of spiritual conflict. We have been provided full equipment for this warfare, and we had better learn how to evaluate both our adversaries and our allies.” –Vance Havner

Verse 2: “This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”

Paul is asking, “do you believe that the Law is what set you free? Do you believe that the Law is superior to the gospel? Do you have God’s Sprit living in you? Did you receive God's Spirit through The Law, or through faith?” “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19 NLT).” “…those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all” (Romans 8:9 NLT).

God’s Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom, “But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God”(1 Corinthians 2:10). “…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him…” (Ephesians 1:17). “…that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” ( 1 Corinthians 2:5).

Verse 3: “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”

There are many Christians who begin their spiritual lives by faith in Christ but after a while they fall into a legalistic spirit, living in the power of the flesh rather than the power of the Holy Spirit. When a person receives salvation through faith in the crucified, risen Christ, at that very moment he also he receives the Holy spirit in all of His fullness. Why would he now seek other efforts to please God or to merit His favor?

True Christianity is not what we do for God, but simply responding to what He has done for us! That’s what makes Christianity different from all other religions. They say, “Clean up your act. Straighten up your life. Get it all together. Live a good, clean life,” then you can come to God. Then you will be pleasing to God and He will love you. Only the Gospel of Christ is “good news.

Does this sound familiar? I just can’t seem to get it together. I read the Bible as often as I can. I pray every day. I witness when God gives me opportunity. I don’t have any real bad habits. But something just isn’t right. No matter how hard I try, I’m never satisfied. I feel that I haven’t done enough and I just don’t feel the joy and peace that should feel.

The Psychiatrist would recognize these symptoms as “perfectionism,” constant activity to feel worthwhile or accepted, and would label it “neurosis.”

But this person has a theological problem as well. He has transferred his poor self-worth attitude on God, so that he will always feel inadequate in his Christian life.

What do we say to him? How do we counsel him? You are feeling the same frustrations that many are feeling today. You feel that you must do something to please God. But let me tell you something, no matter what you do or how hard you try, you will never feel that you have done enough. Why? Because you are trying to relate to God by living under the law, you do not understand the grace of God.

Four principles of law and grace:

1. Are you trying to gain celestial brownie points? Under law we perform so we will be accepted!” under grace we know that God has accepted us, so now we can perform! You are accepted, now perform!

2. What have You done for me lately? Israel had to perform in order to gain God’s blessings. Deuteronomy 28:1-6; 15-20 lists all of the blessings and curses. Verses 1,2, “Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” Verse 15, “But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.” Under law they earned blessings, under grace God blesses us unconditionally, then we accept His love and serve Him. Please note that I am not saying we should not obey and serve God! If you have no interest in God, the Word of God, prayer, or fellowship with other believers, do I think that’s okay with God? No! But do I think that you have lost your salvation? No! But do I believe that you have never experienced the grace of God? Yes! Do I believe that you need salvation? Yes!

3. God’s gonna get me! The law operated out of fear. Impending judgment hung over Israel if they did not perform of if they disobeyed, and in some individual laws, death was certain if they erred. For national disobedience, foreign armies were dispatched to bring them to their knees. Here’s how they responded to the law, “For they could not endure what was commanded: And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow. And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling” (Hebrews 12:20,21). They believed that for the slightest infraction of God’s rules they would die!

4. Going it alone, or: “Where are you, God?” Under law Israel was on their own, “If you fully obey” (Deuteronomy 28:1). Under grace God has provided more than our own feeble resources. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you”(Acts 1:8). “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).

Robert Roberts, in an article in Christianity Today, wrote: “There’s something comfortable about reducing Christianity to a list of do’s and don’ts, whether your list comes from mindless fundamentalism or mindless liberalism, you always know where you stand, and this helps reduce anxiety. Do’s and don’ts-ism has the advantage. You don’t need wisdom, you don’t have to think or make hard choices.”

Legalism leaves the Holy Spirit out of our decision making. A good friend was speaking at a youth camp. As the pastors and youth leaders were sitting around talking between services, a young girl came up to her youth pastor asking, “Is my skirt long enough?” He looked at it and assured her that it was fine. After the girl walked away, my friend turned to the youth pastor asking, “Who made you the Holy Spirit for that girl?” If I recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit within He will lead me into all truth. “ However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth…”(John 16:13).

Eugene Peterson wrote, “We all know pastors and Christian people who do not want us to be free, to be accepted just as we are by His grace. They don’t want us to be free to express our faith creatively in the world. They insist that we all look alike, talk alike and act alike, thus validating one another’s worth. Without being aware of it we become anxious about what others will say about us, obsessively concerned about what others think we should do. We no longer live the good news, but anxiously try to memorize and recite the script that someone else has assigned to us. We may be secure, but we will not be free.”

Liberty comes from a knowledge of the truth. Galatians 5:1 NLT, “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” Many believers are bound and never experience true liberty in Christ. I have been accused of being a “Liberal” by associates in the group of churches I was associated with as a new Christian and a beginning pastor. My response is always, “I’m not liberal, I’m liberated!” My freedom is in Christ! Are you bound? Are you like Lazarus, you’ve been raised from the dead, but you are still bound in the grave clothes?

Jesus in the raising of Lazarus, “Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go” (John 11:43,44).

Many believers are bound by grave clothes, even though Christ has raised them from the dead. “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Isaiah 58:6 AMP, “To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every [enslaving] yoke?”

Do you want to be liberated? Do you want to be free? Let’s nail down some facts about sin and God’s grace that will make you a better Christian, with less anxiety and grief, uptightness and stress, make you sleep better at night and give you the liberty you need.

You never have to be afraid of God! Hold on a minute, doesn’t the Bible admonish us to “Fear God?” The word “fear” means “reverential awe.” Also, honor, revere, respect. We hold God in reverential awe,” we do not fear as being afraid of something or someone. Ephesians 5:21NLT, “And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” God is the Sovereign of the Universe, He is awesome. We respect, honor and worship Him, but we do not fear Him in the same sense that we fear men. Always remember, God never does anything to us, everything He does He does for us!

What sin does not do:

•Sin does not bring immediate and brutal punishment from God.

•Sin never, under any circumstance causes God to reject us, even temporarily.

•Sin does not make us worthless to God, we are still a part of Christ’s riches.

•Sin does not cause God to make us feel guilty. The guilt is of our own conscience.

What sin does do:

•Sin brings immediate conviction from God.

•Sin grieves the heart of God and the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).

•Sin brings loving correction and discipline from a loving Father (Hebrews 12:6).

•Sin makes us unhappy. No one is more miserable than a backslidden Christian.

•Sin decreases our effectiveness with the world.

•Sin damages the lives of those closest to us.

•Sin brings loss of rewards in heaven.

Would you like to be completely free? No guilt, no fear of the future, you can make this day your independence day, if you proclaim your personal liberty in Christ.

Listen to God and believe:

Romans 6:17,18, “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

Romans 8:2 NLT, “And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.”

2 Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

James 1:25, NLT, “But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is peace.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is love.

There is comfort in life’s darkest hour.

There is light and life, there is help and power,

In the Spirit, in the Spirit of the Lord.

Stephen R. Adams

Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).

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