The apostle Paul gives us a definition of legalism in Galatians 3:3, stated in the form of a question. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Legalism is trying to please God “by the flesh,” by attempting to keep a list of laws and rules that we think will earn us God’s favor and keep us in good standing with Him. It is identity based on performance rather than relationship. It makes rule-keeping the basis of spiritual victory.
The problem with this should be obvious. We can’t earn our salvation. We didn’t begin with Christ by doing works of the flesh but by the grace of God administered by the Holy Spirit.
This is such a serious matter that Paul used the strongest language possible in addressing the Galatians, who had fallen victim to legalism. He began his letter by saying, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). Even though Paul called legalism a “gospel,” he was using the word to shock his readers. He quickly added that it was not really another gospel but a distortion of the true message (v. 7).
You see, wherever Paul went he was followed by Jewish teachers called Judaizers, who sought to subject Gentile Christians to the bondage of the Law of Moses (Galatians 2:4; see also 5:10). This is why Paul used such strong language. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” (3:1). The answer was the Judaizers.
A FEW GOOD QUESTIONS
Then Paul asked another series of questions in Galatians 3:2–5, all of which contrast grace with works. The correct answer in each case is that the Christian life, symbolized by the giving of the Holy Spirit, is of grace and not of works.
Allow me to ask you a few questions. Were you saved by keeping the Ten Commandments? Are you going to heaven because you’re better than your neighbor? Are you hoping to please God by trying your very hardest to be good?
I hope your answer to each of these is no, because no one will ever be saved or please God by these means. When you try to mix human effort with God’s grace, you’re trying to mix oil and water.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Legalism is not merely the presence of the Law. God’s Law is “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). The problem is that the Law provides no power to obey it.
Legalism is not the presence of rules but the wrong attitude toward the rules. Legalism assigns to the rules a power to produce obedience that God never gave them. Victory and true liberty cannot be found in human effort.