What Galatians Teaches About Legalism and Liberty

What Galatians Teaches About Legalism and Liberty

The Book of Galatians can best be called "The Gospel of Liberty." It serves as a reminder to us that salvation cannot be obtained through one's works or merit, but only through faith in Jesus Christ.* Regardless of how righteous a person may be, his righteousness will never get him into heaven (Galatians 2:16). Salvation becomes available to man only through the redemptive work of Christ at Calvary (Romans 6:23). When a person believes in Jesus Christ he becomes justified in God's sight because God accredits the righteousness of Christ to the person's account. God no longer looks on the individual's own righteousness, but instead sees the Christian clothed in Christ's righteousness. As a result, the believer is free from the responsibility of earning his own salvation. Instead of the necessity for his life to serve as a prerequisite for salvation, his life can now serve as a testimony of salvation.

Legalism and liberty are the major issues in the Book of Galatians. Legalism can be defined as "strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code."* A group of Jewish Christians in the province of Galatia taught that the basis for salvation for Gentiles included their observance of the Law and Jewish customs in addition to their manifestation of faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, the Galatian Gentiles falsely believed that for them to become Christians they would have to first become Jews. In Galatians the Apostle Paul identifies this problem and refutes the fallacy that law-keeping is a necessary ingredient of salvation.

Using the patriarch Abraham as an example, Paul shows that it was Abraham's faith in God that enabled him to obtain God's favor (Galatians 3:6), and that the outward seal of Abraham's righteousness (circumcision) came fourteen years after his faith was ascertained (Genesis 15:6; 17:10). Furthermore, God's promise to Abraham that he would be heir to the world was not through the Law (which wasn't given until 430 years later), but through his righteousness because of his faith. This was a universal application of the climax of Genesis 12:3, "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you."*

The major purpose of the Law was not to justify an individual, but rather, to present man with a knowledge of sin and to act as a custodian in bringing man to Christ.* Under no circumstances could the Law itself justify an individual. The Law knew no exceptions; complete obedience was required of everyone, and any offense was consequently irreparable. Furthermore, imperfect man is a habitual sinner and, as such, he is unable to retrace his steps to complete righteousness. Therefore, the Law could only point out to man his own inability to live a righteous life.*

In his rebuke of the Judaizers (the Jewish Christians of Galatia who advocated law-keeping as a means of salvation), Paul not only points out their hypocrisy and false teachings, but also emphasizes that it is through one's faith in Jesus Christ, and not through a legalistic approach to living, that one is saved.*

The second major issue that the Apostle Paul emphasizes in the Book of Galatians pertains to the concept of liberty and its application to Christian living. Using the illustration of the family unit, Paul points out that in the Roman world the status of the family heir who was under legal age was equivalent to that of a servant; the heir was under the jurisdiction of family tutors and governors. However, when the heir reached the age of majority his status changed to one of eligibility for inheritance (Galatians 4:1,2).

This illustration is quite applicable to the Christian. Before a person is saved he is a servant of the Law and, consequently, subject to the judgment of the Law whenever he violates it. When one becomes a Christian, Jesus Christ redeems him from the bondage of sin. As a result, the believer is no longer a servant of the Law, nor is he subject to the condemnation of the Law (which is the result of one's sin). Instead, he has become a child of God and now possesses the rights and privileges that go with it. The Law no longer serves as a way of life to the believer; he is free from the yoke of the Law through his new status as a member of God's family, made possible by Jesus Christ.*

The believer's freedom from law-keeping and his membership in God's household carry with them the responsibility to live his life in a proper spiritual manner (Galatians 5:1 to 6:18). Everyone is subjected to temptations as long as he lives. Although a Christian knows what is good, he is dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit to live a Christian life, which is a life of constant warfare between the lusts of the flesh and the internal work of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:17). Therefore, the Christian is exhorted to seek and manifest the fruit of the Spirit in his life,* as well as the love of Jesus Christ to all men.*

In summary, we can say that one's spiritual state involves certain ties and obligations. Each individual is a "spiritual servant." If one chooses to serve God, he becomes a servant of God. If one chooses not to serve God, he becomes a servant of sin. All individuals, regardless of their spiritual masters, are imperfect and cannot escape the reality of sin (Romans 3:23). As a result, every individual comes under the judgment and condemnation of the Law each time he sins (Romans 5:12-14). In spite of its value for spiritual teaching and living, the Law fails to offer a provision for atonement. Consequently, regardless of an individual's degree of righteousness, his good deeds can never cancel out his bad deeds and, therefore, his law-keeping can never justify him in God's sight (Galatians 5:3,4).

Salvation cannot be obtained by pious living, but by faith in Jesus Christ. After a person is saved he is no longer bound to serve the Law because the freedom that he has in Jesus Christ frees him from the condemnation that the Law brings upon everyone who cannot keep it fully. In Galatians the Apostle Paul clearly shows the futility of law-keeping, both before and after one is saved, as well as pointing out the privileges and responsibilities that come with Christian liberty.*

By: Howard W. Stevens


Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., n.d.

The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. X: Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953.

Tenney, Merrill C., Ph.D. Galatians, The Charter of Christian Liberty. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1984.

© by Howard W. Stevens

*Merrill C.Tenney, Galatians, The Charter of Christian Liberty (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973). 57.

*Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1984), s.v. "legalism."

*Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. VI: Acts to Revelation (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., n.d.), 659-61.

*Tenney, Galatians, The Charter of Christian Liberty, 118-19.

*Ibid., 125-26.

*Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, 663-64.

*Tenney, Galatians, The Charter of Christian Liberty, 127-29.

*The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. X: Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), 570-72.

*Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, 675-78.

*The Interpreter's Bible, 510-12.