Judaizing Legalism

“All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’ ” (v. 10).

- Galatians 3:10–14c

Considering the use of the moral law as our guide to what pleases God, we err if we believe Christians have no obligation whatsoever to the Lord’s commandments. The antinomian heresy tells us that grace means we may sin freely, that God’s moral statutes in no way bind us. This view misses the purpose of divine grace. Grace frees us from bondage to sin so that we will enjoy the fruit of sanctification and finally glorification. In glory, we will be perfectly holy for all eternity, and on this side of heaven, we begin to experience this life to come as we more and more die to sin and live to righteousness (Rom. 6). If we do not care to obey God’s law and do good works in service to Him, we do not have saving faith (James 2:14–26).

In fact, believers are bound to the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2), and the New Testament tells us that the law of Christ includes the moral commandments of the Mosaic law (Matt. 5:21–30; Rom. 13:8–10; 1 John 3:12, 15). So, Christians should desire to keep God’s commandments. However, we must never forget the proper place of the law in the Christian life. As was true of the ancient Israelites who received the Mosaic law after God saved them from slavery (Ex. 20:1–17), the law comes to us after the Lord frees us from slavery to sin and makes us servants of righteousness. By grace alone, God rescues us from transgression and makes us “obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching” (Rom. 6:17). Our Creator saves us and gives us new hearts first; then, we seek to do what pleases Him, not to earn redemption but to manifest our gratitude for His great salvation (Rom. 6).

If we reverse this order and believe that keeping God’s law is what changes us and makes us acceptable to God, we commit the error of Judaizing legalism. Such legalism says that we add our own obedience to the law to our faith in Christ in order to be saved. But as Paul tells us in today’s passage, that actually puts us under God’s curse. Why? Because to follow God’s law as the means to salvation instead of as the way to thank God for salvation obligates us to keep the law of God flawlessly. As Martin Luther writes in his commentary on Galatians, when it comes to justification, “to do the works of the Law does not mean only to live up to the superficial requirements of the Law, but to obey the spirit of the Law to perfection.” But no one except Christ can do that (Gal. 3:10–14). If we make our obedience the foundation of our acceptance by God and not its fruit, we come under His curse.

Coram Deo

Judaizing legalism usually enters our lives in subtle ways. When we believe God will not love us if we do not walk perfectly, we may be committing this error. If we think that we must clean up our lives before God will save us, we fall into this legalism. Let us be eager to keep God’s commandments, but let us understand that He does not save us because we are obedient. Rather, He saves us in order to make us obedient.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 27:26
Nehemiah 9
Acts 15:1–21
Galatians 2:1–10

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