“Legalism, License, or Liberty” Galatians 1:1-9

GALATIANS: “Legalism, License, or Liberty”

Galatians 1:1-9

Are you a free person?  I’m not asking if you’re an American.  I’m not even asking the fundamental evangelism question “have you trusted in Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”  I’m asking, “are you living out your freedom in Christ?”

In his book Traveling Light, the late Eugene Peterson wrote,

Living in the land of the free has not made us free; we are a nation of addicts and complainers.  Being provided with freedom of religion has not made us free; coercive cults and enslaving superstitions still proliferate.  Assembling with people in church and listening to ringing proclamations of freedom—“He whom the Son sets free is free indeed!”—has not made us free.  Our churches are attended regularly by the inhibited, the obsessive-compulsive, the fearfully defensive—enough of them to provide outside observers with a stereotype.

We will begin a journey today that will take us several months to conclude.  My prayer is it will lead us to a place of practically living out the freedom that is ours in Christ!

“The Letter to Galatians” is probably the earliest, meaning the first writing we have in the New Testament.  It may also be one of the most important.  Galatians historically has changed individuals and started movements unlike any other letter!

Like our nation’s Declaration of Independence or Constitution, it is a document that guarantees your freedom and defines what that looks like.  However, even though you have privileges from this document that affect your life every day, very few Americans have ever really, seriously thought much about it…or even read it.

In the same way, Galatians is a charter of our freedom in Christ.  And in the same way, very few Christians have ever taken the time to read the six chapters that make up this letter, let alone to seriously think through its implications.  So, we’ll take some time over the next few months (off and on) to walk through this important book of the Bible with the goal of more completely embracing the freedom we have in Christ.


Galatians starts out as an affirmation of faith, but it is also a defense of Paul’s authority as an apostle.  Though there is a doxology, there are no individuals named or well-wishes offered.  Most New Testament letters start with a personal greeting.   There is just this white-hot urgency to Paul’s words.  He has no time and no words to waste.

Galatians was written to address a very urgent situation in a specific time.  But while that is true, it has application to us today.  One said that all the great love songs ever written were written to one person, yet the whole world loves them.

Paul’s heart was broken for those who had just come to Christ, found freedom in Him, but were now returning to their former ways which led back to spiritual captivity.  A key statement of the letter is “for freedom Christ has made us free…why submit again to a yoke of bondage?”

In our work with prisons, we have encountered the word “recidivism.”  It speaks to the rate at which freed inmates of our prison system eventually return to be reincarcerated.  The rate in the US in 2020 was 50%.  It tells us that many who have spent years inside the prison system never learned how to survive and flourish outside.  Though the prison system says they’re free, they never really learn to flourish in that freedom.

We can find ourselves in the same spot as those returning prisoners; who prefer chains to freedom; bondage to liberty.   The threats to our liberty fall under two broad headings:


The practice of legalism, which leads to frustration

Legalism, in a simple definition, is trying in our own energy and through our own rules to make ourselves righteous before God.  It is adding to the Gospel.   Grace says, “There’s nothing you can do to make God love you less; and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more.”  He loves you perfectly, just as you are.

But while we might agree, and we may even buy a coffee mug with that on it, far too few live like it in actual fact.  We don’t believe “there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less,” so we live in condemnation for everything we do wrong.  Then we set out trying to be as religiously and morally pure as possible to satisfy that insatiable voice.  That’s one version of legalism.  Just trying not to get it wrong, lest we lose the love and approval of God.

Others might hear, “…nothing….make God love you more,” but we don’t believe that either, and set out trying to add to the simple Gospel that says, “all that we need to do to receive the love and approval of God is trust Christ’s finished work at the cross.”  So, we add lists and rules and regulations…a list of rules and dos and don’ts we try to keep…as if they were handed down by God.  (The Jewish Torah added 613 rules to the law of God.)  We aren’t much different.  Avoiding certain activities, subscribing to the right political views, reading the right authors, doing really good things but making sure they end up on Instagram, all fall in the definition of legalism.  This is the false gospel of good works.

Legalism isn’t a private thing.  Legalists need others to embrace their lists of “don’t do this” or you’ll be condemned or “do that” and God will really love you in a special way.  They need to be seen adhering to that list, as the Pharisees Jesus condemned who “love to be seen giving alms to the poor and being heard saying the loudest prayers and giving large sums in the offering. Legalists need you to join them in alternately feeling condemned for falling short or feelings superior for getting it right.  We lock ourselves in bondage by our practice of good deeds to get God’s approval.  And we never know if it’s enough.

The promise of license, which leads to futility

 If legalism adds to the simple Gospel of grace which says Jesus + nothing=freedom, the promise of license takes away from the Gospel.  “Jesus?  I don’t believe in a God.”

Human nature does NOT like to be constrained.  We do NOT want to be controlled.  We want to set our own boundaries, our own priorities, and live for our own self-fulfillment.  The issue of transgender (the “t” in LGBTQ)  and sexual identity is one way of throwing off the constraints we feel are placed on us as human beings.  “Who are you to tell me I have to be a man…or a woman…”   That is called “license.”  In other words, “I alone have the right to determine my life and my identity on my own terms, without the constraints of cultural restrictions or religious or moral limitations.”

You know, we are limited, finite beings.  We have no control over which body we are born in, or no control of the parents or family we’re born to.  You can’t control the race you are born from, or the parents you are born to, or the country you are born in…the place of your birth.  “God establishes these things.”

Nor do we have control over our gender.  It’s a limitation that we have now come to feel we have the right to throw off, or in reality that we MUST throw off, chemically or surgically,  if we’re unhappy about it because that is how freedom is now defined.    We must “live our truth” and “be our authentic self,” which almost always means going public with a hidden life of LGBTQ.   But now our culture is making heroes out of those who do this.  See the appeal to impressionable young people who don’t know who they are?

But this “other gospel” is secular society’s version of the good news which states “You can be whatever you say you are.”  “Live your truth.”   That’s the culture’s new gospel,  that’s the “other gospel”  that is now mainstream.  But like other false gospels, it promises freedom but leads to bondage…a life of insecurity and loneliness and as one trans- gendered man admitted, “a fear of never being forgiven.”   This is how it goes when we try to root our identity in ANYTHING or ANYONE but Jesus, Who created us as we are.  He is the only One Who can give us identity, meaning and purpose.  Anything less is a fake gospel, which leads those who follow it to futility.

A position of liberty, which leads to freedom.

There is one path between; a path that leads to liberty, a truth that truly makes us free.  And that path, that truth, is embracing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is a path of self-denial to gain true fulfillment and true freedom.  There is a right way to believe this: “Who has bewitched you?”  Believing correctly matters.

Another gospel won’t work.  Adding to the Gospel, as we seek to do when we become legalistic, won’t work.  Taking from the Gospel in license is following “another Gospel,” and not the Gospel that leads to freedom.

Paul said, “If anyone preaches another gospel…” than the one he preached….” let them be accursed.”    (Another of a different kind.)

2+2=4.  I think that’s still correct.  So, does 2+5=4?  No, that is adding to the total.  Does 2+1=4?  No that’s taking away from the total.  While part of the formula is intact, if we add to or take away from the truth of the simple equation 2+2=4, the answer is wrong.  It may be wrong by one digit, or it may be wrong by 5,000 but it’s still wrong!

The right answer is “I take Jesus; Jesus alone…add nothing to that simple equation: Not good deeds, not religious rituals, not being from a Christian family or even a church membership.  Simply Jesus Christ, alone.  By faith I receive Him.  Jesus is our justification.

The right answer is “I take Jesus; Jesus alone…taking nothing away by living for my own fulfillment and self-actualization.  Taking nothing from the simple equation:  Jesus plus nothing = freedom.  Jesus plus nothing=life.  Trusting Jesus, and that’s all.

Well, what do I need?  Nothing…but your need.  We need rescuing.  God did not throw a rule book into the sea as we were drowning.  He sent His Son, Who was born like us, and Who died to save us.

“Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” Your hands are empty and free that you might simply cling to Jesus.  That’s freedom.  That’s liberty.   That’s life!

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