Freedom from Legalism

Dr. Jon Morrissette - 1/31/2021

Last week we talked about turning gospel realities into social realities. If in Christ we have freedom from sin, ignorance, even our past… what are the implications for our relationships in the church? God is perfectly willing to give us a fresh start, but are we willing to treat one another as God’s mercy requires? We can see clearly that God has to do just as great a miracle of transformation between us as within us.

Freedom from Elitism. The problem of “elitism” is treating one human as superior, more important than another. God doesn’t show favoritism. We’re all saved by the same grace. Jesus was just as comfortable reclined and eating with an influential Nicodemus as eating with sinners & tax collectors, as touching the sick. Oh, that we’d no longer regard one another from a worldly perspective but instead a gospel viewpoint!

• The Apostles and Church, had to learn to accept that Paul was Paul, and no longer the notorious Saul (Galatians 2:1).

• The Circumcised Jewish believers had to learn to embrace the uncircumcised Gentiles (Galatians 2:3).

• Paul, for all his success, was urged to remember the poor (Galatians 2:10).

• Peter, in his short-sightedness, stood condemned for eating with one class of Jewish people and making non-Jewish people (Gentiles) feel like inferior, second-class believers (Galatians 2:12).

Elitism is as subtle as who gets a handshake, who gets eye contact, who you sit by, and with, and how long. Who you avoid, ignore, blow off. We’re continually broadcasting the gospel through our hospitality, or by the lack of it. I pray that Lakeside is a place where everyone gets greeted, treated as Christ’s love deserves.

Freedom from Legalism. Closely related to Elitism is the problem of Legalism. When Paul went up to Jerusalem, and the Apostles saw God’s grace in his life they extended the “right hand of fellowship” to him. Let’s flash that verse on the screen. Galatians 2:9-10, “When James, Cephas, and John—those recognized as pillars—acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to me and Barnabas, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They asked only that we would remember the poor, which I had made every effort to do.”

And just before this, in Galatians 2:6 Paul uses some peculiar language. “Now from those recognized as important (what they once were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism)—they added nothing to me.”

There was however another group of people who had infiltrated the church, who were known as Judaizers. You may know that another name of the ancient Jewish faith is Judaism. Now, what do you suppose it means to be a “Judaizer” and to “Judaize” another person? It means something more than conversion. Isn’t it true that were not always content that a person come to God. No, we want to heap upon some poor soul all our thoughts and ideas, our expectations, our rules and religion, our politics and agendas, our pet peeves.

I was thinking about something Jesus said when he denounced Jerusalem’s religious leaders in Matthew 23. Matthew 23:13, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in.” Also, Matthew 23:15, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as you are!”

Just as we saw how Elitism is practicing hyphenated-Christianity—separating people into “classes” of Christians. So now, we see the problem of Legalism. Legalism is practicing mathematical-Christianity. It’s adding and multiplying requirements (conditions) for a person to be saved, accepted. In the church we don’t Judaize anymore, we “Christianize,” “we Americanize, “We conservatize,” “we liberalize,” we baptize and then go about making some pour soul into our image, harshly molding and making them into our own image.

I read a fascinating book recently. The book was called Christian Barriers to Jesus. It’s a book about sharing Jesus in a pluralistic world. It’s written by a Christian whose done extensive work in India where Christianity is the minority religion, and the worldview of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism dominates. The problem isn’t so much giving people Jesus. It’s all the other “stuff” we add and multiply unto a person who wants to follow Jesus. “Do this, do that, stand here, sing this, speak English, act European or American, act White, do church my particular way.” In India, people weren’t so much rejecting Jesus as the churches efforts to “Christianize” them!

I studied under Dr. Michael Wilkins at Trinity University in Chicago. He wrote a profound little book called In His Image. He explores how were often guilty of making “disciples of our organizations” and “in our own image” than actual disciples in the image of Jesus. We act as if It’s more important that a person be a Lakesider, Southsider, Westsider, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic than love Jesus!

The Judaizers were trying to enculturate and make the world Jewish much like the Greeks and Alexander Great Hellenized the known world a century earlier. . . and much like Christian zealots today in our churches. In Galatians 2:15-21 Paul confronts this problem of Legalism. How do we know when were truly holding out Christ, or when were holding out our own distorted, Christianized or Judaized Christs?

First, there is the matter of US versus THEM. Look at Galatians 2:15a, “We are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners. . .” Elitism is the first sign of danger that were holding out a distorted Jesus is just the simple fact that we are hyphenating and labeling one another. Jew. Gentile. (White. Black, Brown). Labeling! Sinners. Tax Collectors. Rich. Poor. Influential. Important. “In” crowd, “Out” crowd. In Christ’s church there is only “us.” God’s grace levels us into a singular whole. Those in Christ, those outside Christ. Those in grace, those outside grace.

Second, there is the matter of DO verses DONE. Look again at Galatians 2:15b-16, “ . . . and yet because we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.”

Paul raises a critical issue. Legalism is making Christianity more about what “we” do than what “Jesus” has done. Legalism is all about the basis we choose for justifying ourselves before God. One day in judgement, we can try and stand before God, and justify ourselves, but it isn’t going to be pretty. The Bible says cursed is everyone who doesn’t do everything written in the book of the law! You’ll never justify yourself before a Holy God. We stand condemned.

What Jesus offers us however, is to stand before God not on the basis of our righteousness, but on the basis of Jesus Christ’s righteousness. Essentially, we acknowledge our shame and guilt, we confess our sin, and we entrust our souls to Jesus. And Jesus, seeing our shame, covers us with his righteousness and blood. He says, “I take ye curse upon myself. I died on that tree for thee. I fulfilled what you couldn’t fulfill…all the requirements of the Law and Moses and God!”

But legalism shifts our confidence away from Christ’s finished work (WHAT’S DONE or SETTLED) on the cross, back to us (WHAT WE DO or ARE DOING). If our confidence before God is more a matter of what are doing than what’s been done we’re in grave danger indeed. We’re still lost in our sins and self-justification. So there is only all of us who need grace; and we can only stand on what Christ has done!

Third, there is the matter of DEAL versus NO DEAL. Galatians 2:17, “But if we ourselves are also found to be “sinners” while seeking to be justified by Christ, is Christ then a promoter of sin? Absolutely not!” What Paul is responding to is the concern that if were truly saved by grace alone, does grace then become a cover for sin? It’s the Romans 6:1 question reposed. “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?” to which Paul says the same, “Absolutely not!”

Why would we return to something, the sin, God just saved us from? Are we no wiser than dogs that return to their vomit, or pigs their mudhole? In Galatians 2:18-19 Paul says, “If I rebuild those things that I tore down, I show myself to be a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live for God.”

If having received Jesus, if having accepting what Jesus has DONE, if having offered my life to Jesus. . . If I then double down and double back into disobedience. . . I show myself to still be a lawbreaker, a rebel, a sinner, hostile, far from God! The deal is you give your whole life to Jesus or your not.

Fourth, there is the matter of TO DIE or NOT TO DIE. Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

There is no more eloquent definition of the Christian life than this! When I give my life to Jesus, I give my very life up. I die to self. But then Jesus assumes control by his Holy Spirit, and Jesus lives HIS life out through me. That is true Christianity. Not people becoming or living like me, me becoming and living like Jesus. Jesus take the wheel! Take my whole heart, whole mind, whole body, whole soul, the totality of all my relationships… Jesus live out your life through me!

With legalism, we resume control. We cherry pick and choose our flavor or variety of faith. My ideas, beliefs, preferences, likes, dislikes, conditions pet peeves, etc. But with true Christian faith I accept my death sentence and cede my life to Jesus.

Last, there is the matter of DISCIPLINE versus CONDEMNATION. Galatians 2:21, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” So important. How does grace become a superior path to righteousness over the law? Grace frees us to please God without fear. As we strive to let Christ fully be our life, we’re always covered by Jesus’ blood! There is true freedom to grow, mature, live into love without fear of wrath. I love the casual Peter tells Paul, “remember the poor (i.e. as Jesus)” and the direct and harsh way Paul tells Peter, “you stand condemned and guilty of elitist behavior (favoritism).” There was true confrontation, discipline, accountability… yet both moved forward, growing in grace! Wanted same thing, Christ be my life!


Scripture Verses

Galatians 2:1-21; Matthew 23:13-15

Worship Playlist

Found in You by Vertical Worship

O Praise the Name (Anastasis) by Hillsong

Reckless Love by Cory Asbury

Who You Say I Am by Hillsong

Study Questions

1. What do you understand to be “the works of the law” (vs.16)?

2. Why is Paul so insistent that instead of works, we must live by faith?

3. What does it mean to live by faith? How does grace change everything for the Christian?

4. Read Philippians 3:1-11. What do you consider “rubbish” (vs. 8) in your own life, and how is the alternative of God’s grace so empowering?

5. What effect does rule following and legalism have on people trying to live for Christ? How do we guard against rule keeping and legalism?

Apply It!