Some people in matters of faith initially seem to receive the Gospel message of salvation, but are subsequently seduced into placing themselves back under the law. That is to say, they fall under the spell of legalism as they revert to the old pattern of trying to be made right with God by their works rather than by grace.
The book of Galatians was written by the apostle Paul to address this very issue. It is a New Testament epistle that is greatly needed today by Catholics, Protestants and every Christian. Paul wrote this letter of reprimand "to the churches in Galatia." (1:2) And the apostle wasted no time in getting straight to the point: "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the Gospel of Christ." (1: 6,7)
You see, Paul had already been dealing with the problem of legalism in the early church for some time. He described how during his ministry in Jerusalem "some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves." (2:4) The term "false brothers," like "false prophets," refers to people who are not connected to Christ. These pretenders were teaching "a different gospel." (1:6) They were trying to "force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs," (2:14) and especially the custom of circumcision. These "Judaizers" were promoting legalism by adding a requirement to the Gospel. They were teaching salvation by works rather than salvation by grace, "which is really no Gospel at all." (1:7)
Paul reminded those in Galatia "that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified." (2:16) Paul always stressed this crucial point that the law is unable to make anyone righteous in God's eyes. And a deep love for Christ and the Gospel led Paul to make this profound statement: "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (2:21)
Do you see why Paul was so concerned? He knew that anyone stung by the viper of the Judaizers was in danger of forsaking Christ. How so? Well, when you rely upon circumcision or any other religious custom in order to be saved, you are relying upon the law rather than Christ alone. As Paul put it, "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." (5:9) And the yeast of "the circumcision group" (2:12) was completely disrupting the faith of folks in Galatia, just like this false teaching had been doing elsewhere to those poisoned by its legalistic toxins.
This sobering realization led Paul to be very blunt in this letter, just like parents sometimes have to be with their children. Paul wrote, "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (3:1) "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you." (5:7,8) Make no mistake about it. Legalism casts a spell over a person because it is rooted in doctrinal error. And it is a direct attack on the Gospel.
Paul even had to rebuke Peter "because he was in the wrong....and was afraid of those in the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy." (2:11-13) As he had done on the night our Lord was betrayed, Peter once again gave into peer pressure and the fear of man. It was not one of Peter's finer moments.
Paul then wrote, "Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (3:1-3)
Since the Holy Spirit enters a person at the moment of conversion, Paul wanted them to reflect upon what it was that brought about their new life in Christ. Was it relying upon the law, or relying upon Christ? Was it trusting in their works for salvation, or trusting in Christ's death on the cross as the payment for their sins? It is utterly foolish to fall back under legalism after coming into a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse." (3:10) And "clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith.'" (3:11) So what are you relying upon for salvation my friend: the law, or the Gospel? Your works of obedience, or Christ's perfect sacrifice on the cross?
The law certainly has its place in the grand scheme of things. For one thing, it acts as a mirror that reflects the sin in our soul. Paul explained it this way: "So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith." (3:14) The law shows us our sin, and Christ provides us with the solution. Christians are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. This means that on the front end of our relationship with God, we are justified, forgiven, born again, saved and redeemed. God credits salvation to our account through faith in Jesus as we rely upon what Christ did for us on the cross. Likewise, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." (3:6) "So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." (3:9)
As in Paul's day, many today attempt to earn salvation. It is a futile and deadly exercise. Paul wrote, "Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." (5:3,4) In other words, the law can only save your soul if you obey it perfectly. It was James who not only wrote "faith without works is dead," (James 2:26) but also, "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." (James 2:10)
And so you can either trust Christ completely for salvation, or you can rely upon your works in hopes of earning a spot in heaven. But remember: "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse." (3:10) Why? Because "not even those who are circumcised obey the law." (6:13)
So was Paul interested in seeing people not only believe right, but also live right? Absolutely. After admonishing those in Galatia for coming under the spell of legalism, and then steering them back to the Gospel, Paul went on to instruct them to "love your neighbor as yourself." (5:14) "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (5:6) Faith in Christ always produces love and good works. And since there is no joy in legalism, Paul asked them: "What has happened to all your joy?" (4:15) True joy is found in trusting Christ alone for salvation, and then being guided by the Holy Spirit in your life of discipleship.
Paul also warned them against giving into the deceitfulness of sinful desires. He wrote, "Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature." (5:13) He presented an entire list of sins (5:19-21) and then made it clear that "those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." (5:21) That is, those who live for sin rather than for Christ are not saved, forgiven, justified, born again and redeemed. Jesus' first sermon plainly laid out the road to redemption: "Repent and believe the good news." (Mark 1:15)
Paul knew that without repentance and faith, a person is lost. He wrote, "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please the sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life." (6:7,8) Paul knew that the fruit of faith is a life that seeks to please the Lord, and he referred to this fruit as "the obedience that comes from faith." (Romans 1:5) "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation." (6:15) And "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation." (2 Cor. 5:17)
You see for Paul, it was always about more than just having the correct foundation. It was always about the whole package: salvation and works; faith and fruit; justification and sanctification; belief and action; trusting and doing; conversion and discipleship. By God's grace, Paul understood that if you get the spiritual foundation wrong, you don't even have a relationship with God. Instead, you end up with "a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all." (1:6,7) And this counterfeit gospel had become a huge threat to "the churches in Galatia." (1:2)
It is easy to see why Paul got so worked up over the seeds of legalism that were being sown in the churches by "false brothers." (2:4) Just as good parents love their children and want to protect them from harm, true messengers of the Lord love God's people and want to protect them from false doctrine. As you ponder what is true and what is false, you may want to check out this article I wrote entitled: "The Truth Isn't Only Something You Believe."
So what do you believe about Christ and about your sin? Now is the time to do something about it. Today is the day to get right with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You will never regret having trusted the One who suffered and died for your sins on the cross, and then rose again on the third day. You can turn to the Lord now in repentance and faith. Christ has done for you what the law could never do because "the law is not based on faith." (Galatians 3:12)
The book of Galatians provides essential instructions for believers of every generation. After all, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus." (3:26) This means that every Christian is in God's eternal family regardless of secondary labels such as Catholic, Protestant, etc. The "body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:27) is made up of everyone who knows Christ as Savior. (See my recent article: "Ephesians for Catholics, Protestants and Every Christian." You might also be interested in reading: "The 'What-If's' of the Protestant Reformation.")
Thankfully, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16,17) When we are taught the truth and meditate upon God's Word everyday, "the fruit of the Spirit" (5:22) is produced in our soul; namely, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (5:22,23) Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit." (John 15:5)
And the foundation for this fruit is the Gospel, which is the very message Paul faithfully proclaimed "to the churches in Galatia." (1:1) "Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe." (3:22)
No wonder the book of Galatians is just what the doctor ordered for Catholics, Protestants and every Christian.