The apostle Paul visited Galatia on two occasions. While there he preached the atonement, publicly portraying Jesus Christ as crucified (Gal. 3:1b). Within a short time after his second visit, a false and dangerous doctrine, legalism, began to gain a foothold, which asserted that our acceptance by God was dependent on observing certain Jewish rites and that participation in these ceremonies was necessary for the Christian to acquire righteousness.
Legalism occurs wherever a sinner attempts to earn God’s favor by his or her personal righteousness instead of by Christ’s transferred righteousness. Legalism demeans the value of Christ’s work of atonement by requiring sinners to perform activities that are man-centered and, in essence, man-exalting. Even subtle, unspoken legalism sets forth a course that inevitably leads to spiritual pride and eventual defeat under the weight of unsuccessfully attempted law keeping. Paul reacted against all forms of legalism with force and focus, calling for those who teach such lies to “be accursed” (Gal. 1:8–9) and even wishing that those who were unsettling the Galatian Christians would “emasculate themselves” (Gal. 5:12). This is strong language. But such attacks by Paul do not seem shocking when we pause to consider what is at stake. By substituting man-centered performance as the basis for acquiring righteousness, the very essence and foundation of redemptive truth is compromised.
In this epistle, Paul shows that the atonement is the sole basis of man’s forgiveness, righteousness, and acceptance by God—nothing can or should be added.
Jerry Bridges, Bob Bevington, and Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Great Exchange: My Sin for His Righteousness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 156–157.
I have just completed a series of lessons on legalism, based on the book of Galatians. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.