Fallen into Legalism

Some major airports have installed a system that helps passengers who must walk long distances in the concourses. The moving walkway (or moving sidewalk) functions like an escalator, but transports people horizontally, instead of at an incline. Passengers can stand or walk as this conveyor belt walkway carries them forward. I’ve enjoyed using them in Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and elsewhere. Caution is needed as you enter and eventually exit this system. A recording is heard near the end of the path that warns the passengers to avoid tripping as they exit the moving walkway.

Speed enhanced movement on such a moving walkway is obviously superior to walking in your own strength (unless your goal is exercise)! Similarly, the walk of Christians is greatly enhanced when they are carried along by God’s grace and Spirit.

Paul was gripped by the dangerous situation in Galatia when the church was being tempted to turn away from a supernatural walk. They were being exposed to false teachers–the Judaizers–who were trying to persuade them that Christians had to add the law of Moses to the gospel in order to be saved and sanctified. Notice the apostle’s intense warning about defending the gospel of grace: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). Galatians goes on to defend the revelation of the gospel, clarify the role of the law, and vindicate the need for Spirit-filled, grace-oriented discipleship.

The way of salvation is by grace through faith, apart from any meritorious works. Paul declared: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

The law of Moses was never intended to bring salvation. Rather, it revealed the nature of sin as the transgression of God’s holy standards. In turn, the law system was to lead condemned sinners to the only One who could bestow pardon and spiritual life: “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:24,25).

Notice how the Galatian believers had been misled by the legalists: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 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? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1-3).

So, not only was the good news of grace essential for salvation; it was also essential for Christian living. The believers were warned accordingly: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). The sacrificial laws were superseded by the finality of Christ’s one-for-all sacrifice at Calvary (cf. Heb. 10:8-14). The civil and dietary laws were also done away with when God created the spiritual organism of the church wherein Jew and Gentile were equal in Christ (Eph. 2:14-22; Col 2:16-17).

In this context, a further caution is mentioned, since some were reverting to a hybrid of Judaism and Jesus: “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised [subjecting himself to that operation to become Jewish in order to become right with God] that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:3,4).

The phrase, “fallen from grace,” has been interpreted by some to mean “fallen from salvation.” Even though grace is essential to salvation, notice that the context is the deceptive influence of legalism. If “grace” is undeserved kindness, how could it require performance to retain it? Notice the clarity of Scripture concerning grace apart from works: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

Then, what is the meaning of this warning to not fall from grace? The issue is what erring believers would fall into if they fell from grace. They would not fall into damnation, but into legalism. The next verses demonstrate the importance of God’s Spirit and grace in salvation and sanctification: “For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith [not a mixture of law]. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:5,6).

By “uncircumcision” here, the apostle is saying that virtue does not come by being non-Jewish either. Eternal and abundant life comes by grace through faith in Christ alone! “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).

We lapse into legalism if we live in fear of condemnation, work for God in an effort to deserve His acceptance, focus on external, man-made standards, or try to walk as a Christian in our own strength.

In case the pendulum should swing to the opposite extreme, Paul goes on to clarify, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Instead of living according to the old, worldly patterns, believers need to walk in the power and control of the Holy Spirit: “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

Just as the moving walkway broadcasts a warning for passengers not to stumble into unassisted walking, so the disciple of Christ is cautioned not to stumble into legalistic self-effort.

Paul testified about the secret of moving ahead in the spiritual, grace walk: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

May the fullness of the gospel enable you to walk supernaturally in the power of the Holy Spirit.


Copyright 2008 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations are from The New King James Version, copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson.

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Copyright, John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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