Let’s look at what Paul wrote to the Galatian church in regard to their faulty religious habits…
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;” (Gal. 2:15)
Paul was referring to Gentiles who did not even attempt to follow the OT laws and therefore clearly did not live up to them.
We need to understand that Paul was identifying with his Jewish audience here by using the phrase “Gentile sinner”, because later on in the book of Galatians he said things like:
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal. 3:27-29)
Paul is identifying with his Jewish audience in Galatians 2:15. It doesn’t give us the license as followers of Jesus Christ to label everyone else as a “sinner”. Besides- I hope you who follow Jesus interact with enough people in our culture today to know that they find that tremendously offensive… and for no good reason! Correct biblical understanding says that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). So even those of us who follow Jesus are still sinners- As Mark Driscoll would say, it’s not “the good guys vs. the bad guys”, it’s that we’re all bad and Jesus is the good guy that rescues us!
Paul goes on to say…
“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal. 2:16)
“Justified” means “counted righteous” or “declared righteous” by God. If people were sinless and perfectly obeyed all of God’s perfect moral standards, they could be justified or “declared righteous” because of their own efforts. But Paul says that this is impossible for any Irreligious or religious person to do. Paul saw that Christ had taught justification by faith, and so he called God the one “who justifies the ungodly”. Paul would soon show that this view was taught even in the OT, though it was not the view of most of 1st Century Judaism. (For example, a 1st Century B.C. Jewish writing states, “The one who does righteousness stores up life for Himself with the Lord, and the one who does wickedness is the cause of the destruction of his own soul [Psalms of Solomon 9.5]. But hmmm… that sounds right to most of us, doesn’t it? Obey God and be blessed, disobey God and be cursed… But the real question is- how are we really able to obey God? Just out of obligation or compulsion, or out of love and gratitude?
In Galatians 2:16, “works of the law” meant not only circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath, but any human effort to be justified by God in obeying a moral law. So keeping the whole law was impossible to be perfect at.
The true believer in Jesus is not justified by anything they do, or by their “performance for God”- like the Pharisees were. There is nothing at all that they can do to “impress God” or “win His favor”. It’s rather that we don’t deserve His favor, and we can never be “good enough” to earn it! We stay in that place of humility our whole lives as believers, and God forgives us through Jesus Christ- making us more and more like Him despite our failures… As A.W. Tozer would put it, we can surely please God, but can’t ever satisfy Him
No human effort or merit can be added to faith as a basis for being justified by God. It’s what Jesus has done that makes us justified in God’s sight. Nothing more!!! There’s nothing else that we can do to equal what He did on the cross for us! Naturally, when we TRULY realize that God loves us like that, we will agree with Charles Spurgeon, the late, great English preacher who said:
(SLIDE) “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.” Indeed, it is “the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4).
When we require things of people that the scriptures don’t specifically talk about, we could actually be pushing them away from Jesus. This could be the reason why so many kids who grow up in church reject Christianity in their twenties and never go back. We may not come out and say it to people who aren’t believers, but we dump a heavy load on people after they have become believers and teach them “extra laws” that we have added to scripture that are not clearly required by God. And because of our extreme, and usually inconsistent viewpoints, people think that they need to obey these extra laws to become Christians.
Now some of you are saying, “Cool, now I can just do whatever I want, and God will love me!” Hold on a second! We’re going to deal with that later!
The truth is, we will constantly find ourselves at a myriad of crossroads. We need to make decisions based on what we understand about God, what we can do to honor and love Him, and who and what kind of people we want to reach out to… All of our decisions should center around two things- loving God and loving people. But that’s a tension sometimes, isn’t it? To be factual, it is a tension that is scriptural. (Prov. 3:1-4) In fact… if we seek to please God, we will find favor in the sight of man. Sure, those who despise goodness will slander and persecute, but many people in states of both desperation and righteousness will respect us and be drawn to Jesus because of us if we honor God by our goodness and love.
All followers of Jesus have personal convictions about things that are important- they deal with daily choices we make. How do we deal with issues like alcohol use, the celebration of certain holidays, listening to Christian or secular music, dancing, kissing or not kissing, dating or not dating before marriage, politics, putting our kids through home-school or public school, R-rated vs. PG-13 vs. PG vs. G movies, the kind of friends we hang out with, the kind of material lifestyle we live, or the kinds of situations we put ourselves in?
On one extreme you could take this and say, “Look, I’ve got freedom in Christ! I can watch R movies, I can listen to any music I want, I can drink a lot of beer and smoke and swear and whatever! Jesus loves me no matter what!” But that is taking advantage of God’s love for you. If you teach a dog discipline and give it a lot of love, it will be sweet and kind to you as well as obedient, not run around peeing on the carpet! We shouldn’t take advantage of God or we’re as annoying as urinating, disobedient dogs with perfect owners. And at the same time, the people outside of Christianity will look at us and say we’re hypocrites, because they know that following Jesus should lead to having a moral lifestyle! Every friend I’ve had that doesn’t follow Jesus is annoyed at the moral hypocrisy of so many Christians.
Just like this next verse says…
17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!
-In verse 15, Paul discussed how Gentiles are known among Jews as “sinners”. When Jewish Christians associate with them, they are liable to be accused of becoming “sinners” themselves. Paul is passionate in saying this totally isn’t true.
Paul is saying that we should do everything, as far as we’re possibly aware of it, not to participate in sin. “He who knows what is right and doesn’t do it, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17)
Paul was also defending himself! The religious people of his day accused Paul of sinning because of the kind of people he hung around with and the situations he put himself in. Paul wanted to reach any and everybody for Christ, and he was willing to be labeled falsely, because he knew in his heart that Christ had taken over his life, and he wanted to reach people far from God with the gospel. He knew that he wasn’t hanging out with sinful people so that he could sin with them, but he was working with a team of people who loved Jesus and were on mission to reach people who didn’t know Him, reaching out in dark places to be a light.
Paul wanted to imitate Jesus. He had Jesus living in Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus befriended and walked right into the middle of where people far from God were and offered them love, friendship, God’s forgiveness and repentance from their sin.
So I would say- when we make choices about things like alcohol, movies we watch, music we listen to or anything else- we have to remember that Christ didn’t come to be a servant of our sin, but He did come to save sinners like us and all the people that do the worst things, and He wants to use us to be a part of that rescue plan. We need to be different and live holy lives, but that doesn’t mean we should cut ourselves off from everybody who doesn’t believe what we believe or do what we do! If we do that, we’re like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, and we’re not at all imitating Jesus.
On the other hand, some of us need to be careful not to put ourselves in places where we know we’re going to mess up! If you’re a hopeless alcoholic with no self-control, it’s probably a bad idea to hang out at a bar! But we shouldn’t become so isolated and paranoid that we avoid people who do crazy things. And if you ask me, I think as our maturity in Christ grows, our boldness in taking Jesus to people far out there should grow as well. Like everything, it takes time.
This puts us at a crossroads again where we have to make some hard decisions, because on one extreme we can live a loose life, making God’s grace look cheap. The other extreme is to reject all culture and throw stones at it- calling everything “evil” and “of the devil”. When we do this we’re letting the devil win, and we’re guilty of a sin equally as bad as any, though maybe harder to cure- legalism.
Just to give the most extreme example, this is when we seem to say to people, “God loves you and wants to save you, but when you become a follower of Jesus you have to watch only G-movies, never touch a drip of alcohol even if its’ a glass of champagne when you’re 21 at a wedding, you have to listen to only Christian music, and you can’t ever kiss someone before you’re married to them, (etc. etc. etc.)” This is how the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were, as well as some of these Jewish Christians in the book of Galatians. They were so concerned about forcing people to keep the law, that God’s grace and actual presence were far from them, and Jesus was clear in telling them that they had gone so far with this, that their Father was the devil himself, because they were ready to murder Jesus in order to keep their twisted version of the law. They also tied up heavy loads for people and didn’t lift one finger to help them! They went extreme on obedience to the law for all the wrong reasons. They wanted other people to look up to them and fear them. They took it way further than what is necessary. Ultimately, they were trying so hard to obey God that they missed God’s heart and pushed people away from Him.
The real fact is, behind closed doors, Paul was sinning far less than most of these people who were accusing him, because he knew that God loved him and the last thing he wanted to do was dishonor his loving Father. He understood God like Charles Spurgeon did- that God loved Him, so it made him not want to sin against such a loving God. People that act legalistic are usually putting on a show, because deep down they are always failing and always feeling guilty… they’re worried that God hates them and will reject them… and here is why…
“Legalism takes the perfect and attainable ideal or impossible goal and makes it a rule”
So you can’t preach your personal convictions about stuff that isn’t clearly defined in scripture like it is God’s law. People come to Christ and then go through the long process of sanctification- which is a gradual, sometimes slow, sometimes fast process of getting rid of sin in their life. That’s something we’re all going through together! And if we are bringing people to Christ and then forcing them to turn on all their friends who don’t believe in Jesus by becoming self-righteous- we’ll become a holy huddle while the rest of the world heads towards hell without Christ, not a place of grace and forgiveness for people who need Jesus. That is the last thing that God’s people should become- because God will remove the Holy Spirit from our midst if we do that! If you don’t believe me, read about the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2.
As my friend Brian Bales would say, “The church should be a hospital for sick people, not a club for healthy people”. And Jesus is the great Physician
But the funny thing is- people who are legalistic are just as spiritually sick as the liar, thief, drug addict, violent person and adulterer! This is why my heart breaks for people caught up in legalism- even though I am not totally rid of it myself, and probably never will be. I know that people caught up in legalism are not truly free from being trapped in sin, because they are bent on guilt and are desperately trying to obey God, but failing miserably. They are usually depressed… they don’t have real joy… Deep down, the reason why they judge others is because they themselves feel so condemned and… LOST. I have been in this place many times. It is a painful place to be…
And legalism does just that- it either leads to total arrogance or total despair- Likely it will lead to both, and not the joy that Christ gives.
Are you caught in that today? Christ wants to set you free. Guess what, that’s just as powerful of a story as being saved from being a violent person, drug addict or criminal! Being a religious legalist is just as bad of a sin as all those things! Christ wants to set you free. He wants you to be free not to sin and love God, and free to love people. That’s why Jesus gave up His life for us!
Can I give some practical tips here?
- Admit that you’re a legalistic person, and ask God’s forgiveness. Really, all of us are legalistic, and we all need to admit it. I’ll be the first to say that I am guilty of this.
- Ask forgiveness from the people you have hurt with your self-righteous behavior- your family, your kids, your friends or ex-friends. Apologize and ask them to forgive you. Tell them you want to do a better job of loving and representing Jesus to them but you blow it all the time. Watch what happens when you humble yourself like that. Get ready for some honesty to come out. Get ready for some discomfort. Also get ready for some healing, and maybe some tears to be shed by you or others.
- Lean on Jesus! We need to remind ourselves constantly of Christ’s gift to us. He is the reason why we have a relationship with God, and there’s nothing about us that makes us right in His sight! However, God loved us enough to send His Son!
- Stop being so serious! The biggest weapon we have against legalism overflows from Christ’s gift. When we realize God loves us, we can be full of joy. We don’t have to take ourselves so seriously anymore! We don’t have to get so shocked and offended by people’s sin! We can live in the freedom where we don’t need sin and personally refuse it, and love people who are in the middle of any sin like crazy.
Do we know that God’s heart breaks over our petty religion? He desires us to have a pure heart and be a blessing to others, and we’re WASTING OUR LIFE in religious squabbles. I live in the mountains of New Hampshire where religious legalism is a huge problem. I think the church in New England is on the brink of flourishing and seeing people far from God come to know Him. But the reason why New Hampshire is the second most “un-churched” state in America is not because of the “evil culture far from God”, because this culture is not a whole lot different than others. The real problem is that so many Christians live in constant fear and judgment. We treat non-Christians like they are doomed and evil beyond repair. Could it be that it’s up to the church to make things right? I think the scriptures tell us- “YES”! Where is our heart? Where is our mercy?
I desperately long for us all, especially in the church of New Hampshire, and all of New England for that matter, to stop being the moral police that are constantly looking to bust people for their sin, and starting living in the freedom and love and grace and GENUINE holiness that can come when we live every day in light of the fact that JESUS DIED FOR US!
If you have questions or disagreements about anything I’ve said, I’d love to talk with you- please leave a comment below. I want us all to be open to correction- me first! But to get to that place we have to be honest about our flaws and humble enough to learn from each other. Most of all, I want the Word of God to be at the center of everything that you and I believe.
(Factual information is adapted from the ESV Study Bible, 2008, Crossway Bibles/Good News Publishers; Wheaton, IL.)
- Jack White and Ultimately, Jesus’ Advice For Religious Legalists (Legalism Is Poison Part I) (benjaminbradfordwhite.wordpress.com)