Galatians 3:1-5

Galatians 3:1-5


Most people are not proud of sin in their lives.  Oh, a star athlete may brag about the number of women he has conquered, and it’s not too difficult to find a fraternity brother who boasts of how often he gets drunk.  But the average person doesn’t hang his or her dirty laundry out for everyone to see.  Christians, I think, are especially reluctant to have their sin exposed–partly because they are embarrassed to have let the Lord down and partly because they fear they will not be accepted by other Christians.  Often when a believer becomes entangled in sin, he ends up withdrawing from the church and breaking fellowship with other believers so as to avoid the stigma.

We used to have a term that described such a person; we called him a backslider.  The term was used a lot by early fundamentalists and tent evangelists to describe one who quit attending prayer meeting or started chewing tobacco.  Backsliding was a return to the nasty habits one had before he got saved, and the only solution was to come to the altar and rededicate one’s life to the Lord.

My purpose is not to make light of backsliding, nor even to hint that it is no longer a problem in our sophisticated Christian circles.  We might do well to hear more sermons about it today than we do.  But I would like to suggest that there is a kind of backsliding that is far more subtle and far more dangerous than chewing tobacco, but which actually looks good on the surface to many Christians.  Those who are guilty of it don’t withdraw from the church to avoid embarrassment; in fact, they are proud of their sin and sometimes believe it earns them the right to lead the church.

To explain what I’m talking about I want to remind you that the heresy we have been studying in Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia is the heresy of legalism.  We all know by now that the major kind of legalism facing the Galatians was the notion that they had to keep the Mosaic law if they wanted to be saved.  But I think it might be good for us to take a few minutes this morning to define legalism more broadly.  Legalism is a wrong attitude toward the code of laws under which one lives or which one imposes on others.  Notice it is not the observance of rules or standards itself or eventhe imposition of the same on others.  All of us are subject to certain rules and all of us impose rules on others.  The presence of rules does not in itself constitute legalism.  Rather legalism is a wrong attitude toward the rules–an attitude that exalts self, an attitude that judges others, an attitude that bases acceptance upon obedience or performance, an attitude that proliferates rules rather than teaching discernment.

In its most blatant form legalism teaches that in order to get right with God one has to observe certain religious rules and rituals.  We might call it the “salvation-by- egalism heresy.”  For about six weeks now we have been hearing how serious an error this is.

But there is a another kind of legalism, which I would call the “sanctification-by- legalism heresy.”  Sanctification is a big theological word, but it simply refers to Christian growth or maturity.  Let me take a brief aside and say that every Christian’s life can be viewed in terms of three tenses, which correspond to the following stages of spiritual growth:

         Past                     Birth                    Justification (salvation)

         Present                 Growth                Sanctification

         Future                  Death                   Glorification 

Now the sanctification-by-legalism heresy says in effect, “You may be saved by grace alone through faith alone, but if you want to have assurance of your salvation and if you want to grow spiritually and if you want to keep God off your case, then you’d better keep the Law and do good works.”  

The young believers in Galatia had been saved under Paul’s teaching that one gets right with God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but now they were being told by the false teachers that good works and law-keeping must play a much larger role in their theology.  I suspect most of them didn’t doubt their own salvation; they knew their lives had been changed by Christ.  But this new teaching tempted them to reorient their thinking about sanctification or spiritual growth.  They perhaps continued to hold on to salvation by faith but now they were tempted to accept sanctification by works.  To such a view Paul says in Gal. 3:3: “Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

I want to share a little secret with you.  This second kind of legalism has been far more successful in the evangelical church than the first kind.  I doubt if many people listening to me this morning would buy into the notion that salvation is by grace plus works, especially after the last six weeks of sermons.  Some of you used to believe that, but you know better now.  Yet there are probably many who have succumbed at some point in their lives to the second heresy–that Christian growth comes by keeping rules, doing good works, and observing religious rituals.  While this heresy may not keep a person out of Heaven (as will the first), it certainly will rob the individual believer, the Christian home, and the evangelical church of much of its joy and freedom and power.

The question I would like to ask (and try to answer) today is this:  “Why do so many Christians make this error?  What are the obstacles which prevent us from living by grace and growing in grace, once we have been saved by grace?”  Let’s read Galatians 3:1-5:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. {2} I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? {3} Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? {4} Have you suffered so much for nothing–if it really was for nothing? {5} Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

The first truth that is obvious here is that . . .

Backsliding from grace into legalism is idiotic.

Now that may appear, at first glance, to be a rather harsh way of expressing the notion that something has not been well thought through, but, as a matter of fact, that is exactly what the original Greek says in verse 1.  The word for “foolish” means literally, “out of your mind.”  “You out-of-your-mind-Galatians” would be a literal translation.  I like the way J. B. Phillips puts it: “O you dear idiots of Galatia.”  By the way, “idiots” is a very appropriate term here, for the Greek word speaks not of those who are constitutionally dull, but of those who refuse to use the intelligence they were born with.  And that’s how we use the word “idiot” generally.  We would never call a real idiot an idiot.  We reserve the term for those who are obviously not idiots but act as if they were.  

So this is not a minor doctrinal error or an insignificant mental lapse.  This heresy they are toying with is absolutely idiotic.  Why?

         It ignores the centrality of the Cross.  (1)  Paul asks, “Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?”  The term “bewitched” in verse 1 is a picturesque word.  Paul is speaking to an audience, many of whom had recently come out of paganism.  Witchcraft, and particularly putting an evil eye on someone, was a common practice among pagans.  Paul sees the Galatians’ acceptance of the Judaizers’ heresy as tantamount to having an evil hex put on them.

The word “portrayed” is another picturesque term, used by the Greeks to refer to the posting of public notices and proclamations.  What Paul is saying is that salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ was the central theme of his teaching.  He had put up billboards, so to speak, proclaiming the Cross as the final solution to human sin.  He wrote to the Corinthians, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”  The Cross is the Gospel and the Gospel is the Cross.  Eugene Petersen writes,

The single, overwhelming fact of history is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  There is no military battle, no geographical exploration, no scientific discovery, no literary creation, no artistic achievement, no moral heroism that compares with it.  It is unique, massive, monumental, unprecedented and unparalleled. . . .

                  The cross of Christ is not a minor incident in the political history of the first century that is a nice illustration of courage.  It is the center.1

But legalism, by its very nature, contradicts the message of the Cross, because it implies that the death of Christ was unnecessary (that was Paul’s point in verse 21 of chapter 2).  “By what mindless shenanigans,” asks Paul, “have the Judaizers managed to sidetrack you on this fundamental truth and succeeded in getting you to elevate non-essentials like circumcision to the level of the Cross?”  

A second truth about backsliding into legalism is that  . . .

         It contradicts the salvation experience of every believer.  (2,3)  Here the Apostle asks them to answer a question; in fact, it’s the only question he needs to ask, because the answer will reveal so much.  “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith?”  This is just another way of saying, “Did you receive salvation by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith?”, for every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit from the moment he believes in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Two, and only two options are given as to the way of salvation:  achieving or believing.  And the choice is so obvious that once again Paul appeals to their basic sanity.  “Surely you can’t be so idiotic as to think a man begins his spiritual life by believing and then completes it by reverting to achieving!”  What’s the point of beginning with grace in the first place if you’re going to backslide into legalism?  Such backsliding into legalism contradicts the salvation experience of every believer.  Third . . .

         It renders any persecutions suffered for Christ’s sake valueless.  (4)  Verse 4 asks, “Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain?”  In the early church the worst persecution Christians suffered, especially converts from Judaism, came not from the Romans or from other pagans–it came from other Jews.  Since these converts transferred their allegiance from Moses to Christ, orthodox Jews persecuted them relentlessly.  So Paul says to them:  “When you became Christians you switched your allegiance from the Law of Moses to Christ, and therefore you endured some terrible persecutions.  If you revert now to the Law, you are in effect saying that all those persecutions were for nothing.”  

Fourth  . . .

         It contradicts the sanctification experience of every believer.  (5)  That verse 5 is referring to sanctification (or Christian growth) rather than salvation is obvious, I think, from Paul’s choice of words.  He speaks of God giving the Holy Spirit and uses the present tense for “give.”  In contrast, when he spoke of their receiving the Holy Spirit in verse 2, he used the past tense.  Verse 2 addressed salvation, while verse 5 talks of sanctification.  We received (past tense) the Holy Spirit when we were born again, i.e. He came to live within us permanently; but we also receive (present tense) Him daily, i.e. we experience His power and presence continually in our lives.  Further, the mention of miracles is a confirmation that Paul is speaking of sanctification, for the tense is once again present, speaking of the ministry of God’s power in the believer’s life.

Here then is the question:  “Does He (i.e. God), who empowers you with His Spirit and even works miracles among you, do so by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?”  The last time you experienced a special enabling of the Spirit, the last time you had an answer to prayer, the last time someone in the church was healed–was it in response to believing or in response to achieving?  The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, that it was in response to believing. 

Now having looked at four reasons from our text as to why backsliding into legalism is idiotic, I want to read a paraphrase of these first five verses, which I feel puts the meaning on a street level where all of us can grasp it:

You stupid Galatians!  It is obvious that you no longer have the crucified Christ in clear focus in your lives.  He was certainly set before you clearly enough.  Let me put this question to you:  How did your new life begin?  Was it by working your fool heads off to please God?  Or was it by responding to God’s grace working in you?  Only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God.  

If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how in heaven’s name do you suppose you could perfect it?  Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing?  It is not yet for nothing, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!  

Answer this question:  Does the God who lavishly provides you with His Spirit’s presence and power, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you let him do them in you?

Well, if all that is true, if backsliding into legalism is so idiotic, why do we see so much of it?  Why have so many of us succumbed?  The fact is that backsliding into legalism is as easy as falling off skis.  

Backsliding into legalism is easy

Why? The first factor that makes backsliding easy and serves as an obstacle to living by grace is that . . .

         Distortions abound concerning God’s character.  The Bible says over and over that God is a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.  It also tells us that God is a loving Father who views His children as redeemed slaves now freed, dressed in the righteousness of Christ, and that He seeks only their best.  It further tells us that God dealt with our sin on Calvary’s cross, has buried them in the deepest sea, and that He will remember them no more.

But many Christians have come to believe that these great attributes apply only to God’s work in salvation and perhaps in glorification.  In other words, God’s grace is great as a conversion mechanism and as a fire insurance policy; His gracious character is great news for the blatant sinner and for the fearful saint on his deathbed.  But the God we live with on a daily basis is more like a traffic cop with the latest radar gun or a perfectionistic boss who is never satisfied with the job we d or a domineering parent who has to make every decision for us.  Am I right?

God the Traffic Cop pays very little attention to you while you’re going the speed limit.  In fact, you rarely even see Him when you’re keeping the Law.  But if you go 40 in a 30 mile zone or try to sneak through on a yellow light or park in a handicap zone, He comes out of nowhere and nails you.

God the Record-Keeper never misses any of your misdeeds, whether felony or a misdemeanor.  As the old song goes, 

         He hears all you say,

         He sees all you do,

         My Lord’s a’ writin’ all the time.

The old children’s song expresses the same notion:

         O be careful little eyes what you see,

         O be careful little ears what you hear,

         O be careful little feet where you go,

         For the Father up above is looking down in tender love,

         O be careful . . .

I’m not sure how the tender love fits into the rest of that song, but I am sure that many children come away from such songs with their concept of God as the Great Record-Keeper.  

God the Domineering Parent wants to control every breath you breathe.  He doesn’t trust you to make decisions on your own because you’re so dumb and depraved.  He dominates, controls, crushes and smothers.

Can you see how such distortions of God’s nature and character make backsliding into legalism easy?  

A second huge obstacle to living by grace and a second reason why it’s so easy to backslide into legalism is that . . .

         Grace is often viewed as a weapon God uses to force obedience.  In other words, grace becomes not so much a fact of God’s very nature; rather it is something he does for me and then throws in my face in order to put me under obligation to Him.  “Look what I did for you.  Now why aren’t you a better Christian?  Have you no gratitude?  You ought to be ashamed of yourself.  Now get with it!”  Have you ever had a friend who would do nice things for you but then throw it in your face when you disappointed him or her for one reason or another?  Maybe your parents did that to you.

That’s how some people view God.  But the dreadful thing about this kind of God is the fact that when He treats us this way, He seems altogether justified.  We really ought to respond to His kindness with greater love and commitment.  Our ingratitude really is despicable.  We don’t have a leg to stand on.  Yet somehow when viewed this way the grace disappears from His dealings with us.  

A third factor contributing to backsliding into legalism is that . . .

         Performance, or even perfection, is viewed by many as a prerequisite to God’s acceptance.  A lot of Christians are performance-oriented to a very dangerous degree.  They strive for perfection, not primarily out of a deep desire to do things well, so much as out of a fear that if they do not perform they will not be accepted.  Their whole self-worth is tied to their performance.  The worst form of this disease finds the person doubting if even God can accept him when his performance is less than perfect.  He comes to believe that it is not sinning, imperfect Christians God loves–it is only perfected saints.  This leads directly into legalistic attitudes.

Still another reason why so many Christians find themselves backsliding into legalism is that . . .

         Legalism is taught (or at least practiced) in many homes and churches.  When someone learns a certain heart attitude in the home and then has that reinforced in the Church, it is verydifficult to change it.  I hinted last Sunday in my very brief report on our trip to Utah that the converts who make up Desert Edge Christian Chapel bring a lot of baggage with them when they come out of Mormonism.  Anyone who comes out of a cult has to go through recovery, and especially is that true when the cult is as controlling and performance-oriented as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  I know of no religion more legalistic than this one.  To be recognized and accepted as a good Mormon one must avoid coffee, soft drinks with caffeine, and alcohol; one must not shop on Sunday; one must witness regularly; one must tithe, etc.–all to achieve acceptance by God and the Church.  

Carl Sitterud was telling me that the Mormon converts at Desert Edge Christian Chapel almost all exhibit the same initial behavior–when they first come to faith in Christ they want to work their heads off in the church, attend every meeting, be involved in every activity.  The legalism is so deeply ingrained in them.  It takes a long time for them to understand that God not only saved them by grace but also wants them to live by grace.  Backsliding into legalism is easy when it is reinforced by the home and the church.  

The final reason I want to share as to why I believe backsliding into legalism is so easy is that 

         Legalism, ironically, can look so spiritual.  The legalist is, by definition, one who pays close attention to a moral code.  He’s disciplined, he’s uncompromising, he’s alert to any deviation from the Law.  He looks so spiritual.  Try to find a chink in his armor and you look in vain.  There are no tobacco stains on his teeth; there are no whiskey bottles in his trash.  You won’t find him staying home from church on Sunday morning to prepare for a Ram’s game. 

But there’s a critical question which so often goes unasked.  Why is he doing or not doing all these things?  What is his heart attitude?  Does he not chew tobacco just because it’s a nasty, stinking habit that may well lead to cancer, or because he’s afraid God will zap him if he does, or because the Church has designated tobacco-chewing as a worse sin than covetousness.  

For the sake of argument, think for a moment whether it would be easier in the average evangelical church for a man to be elected Elder whose only known vice was chewing tobacco or a man whose only known vice was covetousness.  Then read 1 Cor. 5:11:  “I wrote to you not to associate with any professing Christian if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler–not even to eat with such a one.”  Nothing there about chewing tobacco, but there’s sure something there about covetousness.  Now don’t misunderstand me.  I’d hate it if we had to have a spittoon in our Elder meetings, and frankly I would prefer an Elder who was neither covetous nor a chewer.  By the way, did you ever hear what Billy Sunday said when asked if a man could chew tobacco and still go to heaven?  He responded, “Sure, but he’d have to go to hell to spit!”  (I won’t charge any extra for that tidbit).

But perhaps you can see through this example that legalism has succeeded in turning our values upside down–causing us to major on relatively minor external habits and to pay little or no attention to the weightier matters of the Law.  The title of my message today is, “The Sin Religious People Are Proud of.”  (I know that’s not real good English, for a preposition is not the right word to end a sentence with.  Thank you!  At least someone was alert enough to catch that!)  You see, the sin I’m talking about is legalism.  

Be honest with me now.  Prior to coming here this morning, had someone asked you to define a backslider and give an example, wouldn’t you have thought of someone who once set a shining example of Christian behavior but now no longer attends church regularly, hits the night clubs, swears a little, and has a tall cold one now and then?  Such a person may possibly be a backslider–I won’t argue the point.  But what about the person who, having experienced the grace of God in salvation, backslides into legalistic heart attitudes?  His list of 99 things he doesn’t do (and doesn’t want anyone else to do) and the 9 he does do (and insists that everyone else do), makes him look like a saint.  But the fact is he may be worse off spiritually than the first guy because of self-righteousness, a sin highlighted by Christ probably more than any other. 

Well, where does all this leave us?  The scene looks pretty bleak, doesn’t it?  Are we up a creek without a paddle?  I think not.  While it’s not easy I believe that . . .

Backsliding into legalism is preventable and correctable

         We must start with a right view of God.  God is gracious, really gracious.  He’s not just a God of grace when it comes to salvation; nor just a God of grace when it comes to the consummation.  He is always a God of grace.  The only way He deals with His spiritual children is through grace.  His righteous wrath will never touch those who are His by faith in Christ.  He accepts you when you perform and He accepts you when you don’t.  He wouldn’t love you one iota more if you were absolutely perfect, nor one iota less if you were absolutely horrid.  He neverthrows His grace in your face or tries to shame you into obedience.  

I am not at all trying to minimize the seriousness of sin in the believer’s life.  God hates sin no matter where it crops up.  But I do want us to realize that God’s grace is sufficient for our sin and while He hates the sin, He loves and accepts the sinner.  If you have a hard time believing that, it’s probably because you have a hard time practicing it in relationships with other people; but don’t forget that there’s one person whose sin you have often hated without hating the person–your own!

We must start with a right view of God.  Second . . .

         We must gain a clear understanding of the doctrine of grace.  This is, of course, our goal in this entire series on Galatians.  I frankly cannot think of any doctrine the understanding of which can have a greater impact for good in the life of sinner and saint alike than this doctrine.  All of God’s dealings with us, from choosing us in the first place, to helping us grow in our faith, right through to our entrance into His presence in eternity are saturated with unmerited favor.  Third . . .

         We must learn the art of being obedient for the right reasons.  The last thing I would want to communicate today is that obedience is optional. Yet I hope it is evident by now that two individuals may have the exact same life-styles–do the same good things, even abstain from the same wrong things–and one of them be a rank legalist while the other is basking in the sunshine of God’s grace. The issue is not just what they do or don’t do–the issue is also why they do or don’t do.  

The legalist “does or doesn’t do” in order to earn God’s acceptance, or to earn other people’s acceptance, or to exalt himself.  The grace-oriented person does or does not do out of love for Christ, out of concern for his testimony, and for the sake of his health and happiness.  Fourth . . .

         We must avoid judging other believers.  One of the most telltale characteristics of a legalist is his penchant for judging other believers by his own pet scruples.  He doesn’t play canasta on Sundays, and, by George, you’d better not either!  But Paul says in Romans 14, “Who are you to judge the servant of another.  To his own master he stands or falls.”  Certainly there are times when we must judge; already in this book Paul has called upon us to judge the heretics in the church.  But that is not a license to regulate the lifestyle of our brothers and sister in Christ; if we major on watching our own behavior, we are likely to avoid legalism.  And finally . . .

         We must realize that no moral code, however biblical, can meet our need for a living, vital faith.  Only a personal relationship with a living Savior can do that.  This is the key issue!  Paul said in 2 Cor. 3:6, “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.”  Moral codes are important; in fact they are essential.  We human beings are such professional rationalizers that if we didn’t have a moral code given to us in the Scripture we would try to justify most any action on the basis of expediency.  But moral codes in and of themselves are deadly.  What is needed is a personal relationship with the living Savior who laid down the laws and with the Holy Spirit, who provides both the proper motivation and the enablement to keep them.

Grace is the most important word in the Christian’s vocabulary, except possibly for “forgiveness.”  But since our forgiveness is provided by grace, the latter is probably the more fundamental and foundational truth.  God’s grace is what saves us, God’s grace is what we grow by, and God’s grace is what we need to extend to others.

Father, help us to concentrate on developing a love relationship with a gracious Savior.  Instead of being proud of the legalism that so readily infects our lives, may  we boast only in the marvelous grace of our loving Lord.

1. Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light, Intervarsity Press, 1982, p. 86.