The Legalist’s Final Rest
Six Reasons to Read Galatians Again
Article by Jeff Robinson, PhD
I’ve found that many Christians, post-conversion, tend toward legalism or antinomianism in their pursuit of sanctification.
I’ve seen this trend both in churches I’ve pastored and in Christian friends. One woman grew up in a strict Reformed Baptist home. She always tended toward legalism, and fought it biblically for years. Another friend was converted in his mid-thirties after spending many years searching for joy in bars and honky-tonks. He has battled an antinomian impulse for many years. Others pendulum-swung after conversion: from legalism to license, or vice versa.
Not all Christians struggle deeply in one of these areas, but the tendency is widespread. That’s why we so desperately need Galatians.
Give My Life Back to Jesus?
My discovery of the spiritual riches in Galatians came at the end of a long road. For more than a decade, I tried to follow Jesus by “rededicating” my life to him over and over and over again, maybe two hundred times. I was converted at age 10 and was fortunate to grow up in church. That church preached the gospel pretty well. My sin. His grace. Repentance. Faith. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. God’s anger at sin and sinners was always present.
But discipleship and sanctification? Not so much.
Although my childhood church helped me understand how to become a Christian, it took me a lot longer to learn about the pilgrimage that follows salvation — the need for daily repentance and killing sin, praying for the fruit of the Spirit, and other crucial elements of sanctification. I lived as if justification came by grace through faith but sanctification came by law.
My life was a frustrating merry-go-round of sin — rededication, law-keeping in my own strength, sin, rededication, law-keeping — you get the picture. I had to keep proving to God that I was serious about him. Practically, it was a strange brew of Baptist nominalism and Roman Catholic formalism.
Sanctified by Grace
Then, at a national conference for Christian men in 1995, I heard a plainly worded sermon on Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Through the preaching of that passage, God worked in my heart. The gates of paradise swung open (to use a phrase from Luther), and I walked through. At age 28, I understood (perhaps for the first time) that both justification and sanctification are by grace — I was saved by grace and am now being sanctified by grace. Though I hadn’t yet begun to study the Reformation in any depth, I comprehended more clearly two vital solas: sola fide and sola gratia.
I understood how they applied to my daily walk with Jesus: I was saved(justified) by grace through faith alone, and I am being saved (sanctified) by grace through faith — the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God. For all the effort involved in the Christian life, we grow, at bottom, by faith in Jesus Christ, as we rest on the grace he gives us. The cycle of rededication, sin, and rededication stopped; my growth in the Lord accelerated, and I eventually entered the ministry with a heart to help others.
And I fell in love with Galatians. Nearly 25 years later, I have preached or taught through Galatians five times and have read meditatively through it dozens of times. Still, I haven’t grown past my need to walk on a path paved with the grace-saturated words of this letter. I suspect I’m not alone, so here are six reasons I’ll never be able to leave Galatians behind.
1. Good works, however good they may appear, do not justify us.
I know, this is Christianity 101, an obvious truth, particularly for those of us of a certain theological persuasion. But I’m a fourth-class legalist at heart, and my inner Pharisee is often the preacher I am most eager to hear. The system of rededication I operated under for so many years gave me security because I was constantly doing something, then checking the box. Done. But Paul corrects this impulse: “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2–3).
While genuine saving faith will show itself in spiritual fruit (as James 2 makes clear), I am regularly tempted to make my works — rededicating myself to God, doing evangelism, feeding the hungry — the ground of my acceptance with God. But in Galatians, Paul reminds me that justification is through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. I never grow past my need to be reminded of the gospel.
2. Confusing law and gospel is a pathway to misery.
Sadly, many Christians walk this difficult road every single day. A pithy saying often (falsely, I think) attributed to John Bunyan captures this potential misery well:
Run, John, run, the law commands, but gives us neither feet nor hands.
Far better news the gospel brings: it bids us fly and gives us wings.
The law as power for Christian living is a terrible taskmaster. For years, I tried to earn for myself what Christ had already bought. For years, I was a joyless, tired Christian. I’ve met far too many Christians over the years who are in the same condition due to an unbiblical understanding of law and gospel. Instead of seeing the law as a guide to their sanctification, they saw the law — and not the gospel — as the means of achieving their sanctification. Grace is the tracks on which both justification and sanctification run.
3. Christ has set us free from sin, but not free to sin.
For all the years I spent struggling with legalism, I also spent a lot of time as a practical antinomian. I loved the part where Paul says we are set free from the law. I sinned. God forgave. That was his job. While I would have never agreed that this was true, I lived as if it were. I’m probably not the only Christian in church history who has lived this way for a season until God’s truth corrected this deadly untruth. Grace not only pays the penalty for sin; it also disables the power of sin. God’s grace not only pardons but empowers. A Christian is a slave to Christ, free to no longer submit to the chains of sin (Galatians 5:1).
4. The Holy Spirit is not the junior-varsity player within the Godhead.
Here’s one often overlooked fact about Galatians: references to the Spirit outnumber the terms related to justification. Galatians taught me to walk in step with the Spirit and liberated me from any need to be constantly re-upping my commitment to Jesus. It helped me to see the vital role the Spirit plays in my sanctification and corrected my naïve theology that practically assumed the Spirit was only for Pentecostals. All Christians should write Galatians 5:16–25 over the door of their hearts.
5. The Christian life is the crucified life.
Paul reminds us that if we are in Christ, then we are crucified with him (Galatians 2:20). Our sin — not in part, but the whole — is nailed to the cross, and we bear it no more. Our old man is nailed to the cross, and we are free to take up our crosses daily and go hard after Jesus. We are set free from love of self, liberated to love and serve others. Central to orthodox Christianity is give, not get. For years, I lived as if the reverse were true.
6. God calls us to reassert the gospel in every generation.
Paul’s strong admonition in Galatians 1 helped spur Luther and other Reformers to recover the true gospel in the Reformation. The same gospel must be asserted and reasserted in every generation. Peter sought to stir up our minds by way of reminder because we are a forgetful people (2 Peter 1:13). And the first thing to go, usually, is the gospel. But the gospel we reassert must be the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. As Paul points out in Galatians 1, all other so-called “gospels” are the broad road that leads to destruction (Galatians 1:6–9).
Do the tendencies to legalism and license sound familiar? Then flee to Galatians and find glorious freedom from the bondage of continually proving your goodness to God, or find joyful liberation from your desires for liberty to chase after the world.
For every Christian can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Jeff Robinson , PhD, is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. He is lead pastor of Christ Fellowship Church of Louisville, and he serves as senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and as adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary and Grand Canyon University. He is co-editor for the book, Christ Has Set Us Free: Preaching and Teaching Galatians.