Help for Those of Us Burdened by Legalism

Nobody Uses Rand McNally Anymore

I’m old enough to remember the days of the oversized Rand McNally road map. Rather than secure a cell phone on the dash of the car for navigation, you’d have a large book with pages and pages of colored maps stashed under the seat. You didn’t use it for driving around town as much as for longer road trips, like a vacation to a new destination, which made someone riding shotgun all the more a necessity. You can’t drive and flip through a map book at the same time. That would be like trying to scroll Facebook or text while behind the wheel. 😉

You probably have never seen a Rand McNally road map because we no longer use printed maps in order to navigate from one place to another. GPS technology has revolutionized travel. As much as I have dreamed of going back to a simple flip-phone, the thought of not having my personal global positioning system at all times feels like I’d be giving up too much. That and instant weather access. 

One of the best features of cell phone GPS apps is its ability to reroute you in case you take a wrong turn. Nobody likes being lost, and we are glad to have someone who can direct us back to the right road. Sometimes, we don’t even know we’re lost until we hear the friendly “recalculating” voice alerting us of our error.

In Galatians 4:8-20, Paul is functioning as a gospel GPS for a community of Christians who have lost their way. Having started their journey on the highway of grace, they have been lured onto a detour down the alley of legalism. If grace looks to the merits of Jesus as the foundation of my identity, legalism looks to my own merits as the foundation of my identity. If grace sets us free from guilt and religious burdens, legalism enslaves us under guilt and religious burdens.   

Paul knows the consequences of legalism are devastating to individuals, relationships, and churches. In view of such a dangerous detour, this passage serves to reroute us back to the cross. I assume a number of us need this. The pastor sure does. So, let’s read the text.

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? 10 You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! 11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

12 I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. 13 As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, 14 and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. 15 What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

17 Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. 18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. 19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20 how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

The Default Setting of the Human Heart

The first thing that stands out in this text from verses 8-11 is the idea that legalism is the default setting of the human heart. In the flesh, apart from the influence of the Holy Spirit, each of us is predisposed to what Paul calls in verse 8 the “weak and miserable forces,” or principles of religion that demand its adherents to earn favor with God by obeying moral rules and fulfilling ceremonial duties. The reason why we call this legalism is that it majors in law. Just like a lawyer is in the legal profession and measures everything in relation to law, a legalist measures his or her standing with other people and with God, and measures their standing with God, in relation to how well they meet established moral and religious standards. 

According to legalistic religion, the good (law-keepers) are in and the bad (law-breakers) are out. Christianity is altogether different. It teaches that, rather than the good in and the bad out, the humble (those who freely confess their failure before the law and need for mercy)are in and the proud (those who think highly of themselves and make excuses, get defensive, and shift blame, and minimize their faults)are out. 

This is a total reversal of how we normally think of religion. Why? Because the default setting of the human heart is legalistic. It is assumed we must merit God’s favor.

In verse 9, Paul describes this kind of religion as a form of slavery. And they, though unwittingly, chose to be enchained. Rather than stay on the road of freedom lit by the cross, they detoured down a path clouded with the darkness of law. They have taken a wrong turn on their spiritual journey, and are lost. And they don’t even know it. 

We very well may need to hear the same word the Galatians needed: rerouting. This is what Paul is saying in verses 10-11, “10 You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! 11I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” If you remember, Paul had planted these churches during his first missionary journey through southern Galatia. Many of those who received the gospel were Gentiles (non-Jews). After Paul moved on, legalistic Christians who had converted from Judaism began teaching that in order for the Gentile believers to really be fully accepted by God (justified), they had to become Jews and adopt Jewish religious practices like observing the Sabbath like a Jew and participating in the Jewish feast days, like Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

As the first churches Paul had planted, he had a special affection for the Galatian believers. He loves these folks and knows they have chosen a path that will wither love and steal joy.

Withering Love and Stolen Joy

During Paul’s missionary trip through Galatia, he became badly ill. The Galatian believers sacrificed a great deal in caring for him. He writes in verses 13-14, “13 As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, 14 and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.”

Their practical care for Paul’s physical condition was evidence of their love for him. They were glad for the opportunity to serve and bless Paul, the missionary who had sacrificed so much for them just by being there in Galatia to present the message of God’s grace in Jesus. But now, they have turned on him, prompting the question in verse 15, as the original NIV translates the text, “What has happened to all your joy?”

Can you see what a detour into legalism did? They were no longer capable of expressing love because they were no longer receiving it. Paul had preached that the love of God is a gift, but false teachers had turned it into a reward. This is one of the primary reasons marriage goes off the rails and why kids rebel as teens. Even if unintentionally, legalism makes people around us feel as if they have to earn our favor. Folks don’t feel safe in the presence of legalists. No wonder so many folks want to escape those kinds of graceless relationships that are heavy on expectation and light on encouragement. 

Legalism’s Red Flag

I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that these legalist teachers used the word “should” a lot. If any word is a legalistic red flag, it is should.  I know I should pray more. I know I should give more. I know I should share my faith more. I know I should participate in a discipleship group. I know I should show more grace to my spouse. 

Should is a guilt word. It is a shame word—the kind of word we use when looking down at the ground.

Is prayer a good thing? Oh, man! It is a means of grace that allows me to speak freely with a Sovereign Father whose love for me is higher, deeper, broader, and wider than I can comprehend. Is prayer profitable for me spiritually? Absolutely! It is nourishment for my soul. 

Is it meritorious? Of course not. Nothing we do is meritorious. For the disciple of Jesus, all of my merit before heaven is exclusively the merit he earned and has given to me as a gift. 

Speaking of giving, is generosity a good thing? Yes. Nothing helps me trust God more than financial generosity. What about sharing my faith, participating in a discipleship group, and extending greater grace to your spouse? All of these are good things that are consistent with living in view of the cross. 

The issue is not in the doing, it is the motive for what we do—the why. Why do I pray? Why do I give? Why do I share my faith? Is it because I should, or because I am compelled by the grace and love of God. 

In view of the cross, I don’t feel like I have to pray or anything in order to be accepted by God. It is not that I have to pray, I get to! Spiritual disciplines (what I prefer to call “means of grace”) are not obligations. They are opportunities to experience more grace. And the more grace for me, the more glory to God. The moment I start to believe this, I am empowered to love and am filled with restored joy. 

Francis Schaeffer wrote about this in his book, True Spirituality. For years as a Presbyterian pastor, he had experienced conflict after conflict in his denomination. Eventually, he became utterly disillusioned with the lack of love among Christians, especially those in leadership. After a long season of reflection on why this state of affairs continued to plague the church, he realized that the problem in his day was the very same as it had been among the Galatians. He writes, 

Gradually, I saw that the problem was that with all the teaching I had received after I was a Christian. I had heard little about what the bible says about the meaning of the finished work of Christ for our present lives. Gradually the sun came out and the song came. Interesting lie enough, although I had written no poetry for many years, in that time of joy and song I found poetry beginning to flow again—poetry of certainty, and affirmation of life, thanksgiving, and praise. Admittedly, as poetry it is very poor, but it expressed a song in my heart which was wonderful to me. (Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality, The Complete Works, Vol. 3, p. 195-96)

Schaeffer discovered the secret of the Christian life, which is to live moment by moment with a conscious awareness of the present value of the blood of Jesus. Not just the past value or future value, but the now value. You may be stuck in the pit of sin covered with muck. You may have had a knockdown, drag-out argument last night. Or this morning. You may have lost it with your kids when they whined for the umpteenth time before noon.

What is going to bring you back to feeling forgiven, accepted, and loved by God? Wallowing in the guilt? Making promises? Shifting blame or minimizing my sin?

Climbing yourself out of the pit? Wallowing in the guilt? Promising to change? Nope. King David of Israel wrote about this in Psalm 40:1-4a

1 I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. 2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and [worship] the Lord and put their trust in him. 4a Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.

Spiritual restoration takes place by looking with faith to the scars of Jesus, and letting him lift you out of the pit and onto the solid ground of his justifying merit. when you come alive to the present value of his blood. In that moment, you will not only know you’re forgiven. Like David and Francis Schaeffer, you’ll start to sing. 

Do you see the missional power of being restored by grace? As joy is restored, others will notice and believe from the testimony of our song that they, too, can be rescued and reconciled by Jesus. For, blessed is the man, woman, or child who trusts in the blood of Jesus to cover their sins from this morning, right now, and this afternoon.

By the way, that is why we sing on Sundays. It is not because we have to. Singing is not a law or a duty. We sing because we can’t help it. As our hearts are renewed by re-believing the gospel week after week, we stand on the solid ground with gratitude and overflow with praise. We can’t help it! Conversely, if our hearts are tuned to legalism, we’ll sing dutifully. But not joyfully. 

Legalism as Slavery

In the final verses of this section of Galatians 4, Paul expresses heartfelt exasperation. The message of the gospel, if anything, is a spiritual emancipation proclamation of freedom through Christ from guilt, duty, and performance-oriented works righteousness. Why would someone who is free want to go back to the drudgery of legalism again? 

Because legalism is so subtle (so natural), we do not realize we have detoured onto such a dangerous road until the GPS signals an alert. Since works righteousness is the default setting of the human heart (whether the religious or secular variety), it should not surprise us how easily we drift out of the gospel lane. To live in line with the gospel, we need to keep our eyes on the wounds of Jesus.

The truth is, we are going to need rerouting every day, and moment by moment throughout the day. The enemy is savvy and knows how hard it is for us to believe we can be truly forgiven, accepted, and loved. He will tempt you into finding your value (your righteousness) in your work, or your bank account, or your clothes, or awards, or your role in Christian leadership or involvement in the community. He wants you to find your identity in being right, through defending yourself, and by winning the argument—or the game or the election. 

Rerouted Back the Cross

If the Lord has revealed your legalism through this post, you probably already know the opportunity he is giving you. Simply confess it. Take it to Jesus and let him show you the scars. Then, with faith, hope, and joy, sing with the saints the 18th-century hymn written by Charles Wesley that so helpfully reroutes us back to the cross as the defining truth of our lives. You know how it goes.

Arise, my soul, arise,

shake off your guilty fears;

the bleeding Sacrifice

in my behalf appears:

before the throne my Savior stands,

my name is written on his hands.

Five bleeding wounds he bears,

received on Calvary;

they pour effectual prayers,

they strongly plead for me.

“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,

“nor let that ransomed sinner die!”

My God is reconciled;

his pard’ning voice I hear;

he owns me for his child,

I can no longer fear;

with confidence I now draw nigh,

and “Father, Abba, Father!” cry.


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