posted on Mar, 11 2016 @ 05:02 PM
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace”- Galatians ch5 v4
The central theme of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the contrast between Christ and the law, as ways of entering a right relationship with God
Paul’s case has been that the only effective route is the one that leads through Christ.
He’s been describing this in terms of our faith in what God has promised.
Here he also refers to it as “grace”, meaning God’s willingness to give what he has promised.
The two things go together.
As for the law;
If they are effectively justified through Christ, then this alternative route is redundant.
If they cannot be justified except through Christ, then the alternative route is invalid.
In fact it’s a distraction which takes them away from the only effective route.
That is why Paul says that anyone who seeks to be justified through the law is breaking away from Christ.
They had reached the summit, the place of grace, but now they have fallen away from it.
Let us consider how applicable this warning might be in modern times.
I believe legalism is closely aligned with idolatry.
So much so that their roots are intertwined.
They both stem from the human mind’s reluctance to part with the concrete.
Idolatry, in the original sense, comes from our preference for objects of worship which can be seen and touched.
While the mind has a similar preference for ideas which can be clearly grasped and defined, which leads into legalism.
That is why legalism is just as difficult to eradicate as idolatry, and it keeps popping up in religious life.
I can see three distinct phases of legalism in the history of Biblical religion.
There is a Jewish phase, naturally developing from the fact that the commands of God had been organised into the Law of Moses.
Legalism was encouraged by literalism, which is the same “preference for the clearly defined”, as applied in the interpretation of language.
Thus, for example, God told his people, more than once, that they should keep his laws bound to their hands and “as frontlets between your eyes”
(Deuteronomy ch11 v18).
Anyone willing to understand metaphor would have grasped that this was simply an expansion of the opening words “You shall lay up these words of
mine in your heart and in your soul”.
However, the Pharisees followed a rigid literalism and placed portions of text in phylacteries close to their wrists and foreheads.
Thus demonstrating how “taking the words literally” can be a most effective way of missing the point entirely.
It was in reaction against the Jewish legalism of his own time that Paul weighed in against observance of the Law.
“We are discharged from the Law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the
His view was embedded in the teaching of the church.
Nevertheless, in the Middle Ages, legalism was creeping into church life again (partly under the influence of Roman law and the frame of mind which it
It began to govern the church’s understanding of salvation and the management of moral behaviour, which were defined and treated in legal terms.
Another aspect of legalism was the growth of hierarchical authority, which benefits from that same human preference for the concrete.
People have always found it easier, and more comfortable, to listen to decrees from visible and tangible human authority than to follow the guidance
of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore Luther was obliged to campaign against the legalistic focus upon “works”, and try to pull the church back to Paul’s rejection of the
Even so, a candid observer is obliged to recognise a third phase of legalism.
A Protestant phase.
Although the Protestant movement is avowedly based on Luther’s revival of Paul’s rejection of the Law, it hasn’t always been able to resist the
attraction of the clearly definable.
Then the defining process begins to identify new things which must be done or may not be allowed.
For example, it is almost impossible to make an issue out of “election” without drifting unconsciously into a legalistic frame of mind.
Perhaps that is why Milton thought the fallen angels in Hell would be interested in that kind of discussion;
“Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate and reasoned high,
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixed fate, freewill, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost”.
Paradise Lost, Book II, ll557-561
One important factor in the growth of legalism is the literalistic tendency of modern Protestant faith.
This was partly a reaction against the systems of interpretation developed by the church of the Middle Ages, and the elaborate allegories which were
the frequent result.
Literalism was an attempt to call the mind back to the original intended meaning of the Word.
However, it contains the seeds of new problems, because, as Paul observes, “the letter kills and the Spirit gives life”.
The literal approach is attractive to the human mind, because it offers a kind of tangible certainty.
When literalism is combined with a careful study of the Old Testament, the result can be a revival of the Jewish form of legalism.
Paul says that the Jews are reading the scriptures through a “veil” which lies over their minds, and conceals from them the true glory of God.
This veil is removed when we turn to Christ and are able to see them in the light thrown upon them by the Spirit of the Lord.
But the veil is re-instated when Christians begin picking up the laws of the Old Testament and taking them at face value all over again.
In modern times, this development goes back at least to the nineteenth century, and the movement to celebrate the Sabbath on the “seventh day”.
Yes, there is an Old Testament command to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week. But obedience to that command is a “work of the
Law”, and Christians “are not justified with God by works of the Law”.
Yes, there is an Old Testament command to offer a tithe. But obedience to that command is “a work of the Law”, and Christians “are not justified
with God by works of the Law”.
Yes, there is a command to refrain from eating the blood of animals. But obedience to that command is “a work of the Law”, and Christians “are
not justified with God by works of the Law”.
Yes, there are commands in the Old Testament to celebrate feasts at various times of the year. But obedience to those commands is “a work of the
Law”, and Christians “are not justified with God
by works of the Law”.
What would Paul have said about these “neo-legalists”, emerging in the modern Protestant world?
He would surely want to say to them, as he said to the Galatians;
“Now that you have come to know God…how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elementals [or “elementary principles”]?...You
observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!
I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain.” (Galatians ch4 vv9-11)
He would want to remind them of his teaching that we approach God in Christ, by virtue of our faith in Christ alone.
So that if they turn back to keeping the commands of the Law, they are in the process abandoning that sure foundation of Faith.
And he would probably end by repeating this solemn warning.
“If you seek to be justified by keeping the commands of the Law, then you have severed yourselves from Christ, and you have fallen away from