The Apostle Paul drops a big old gospel bomb in the middle of Galatians 3:
All who rely on works of the law are under a curse (v. 10).
False teachers in the Galatian churches–we call them legalists in today’s vernacular–were teaching that it was good to have faith in Jesus, even necessary, but that the completion of a person’s salvation came through their personal adherence to the law. These legalists taught that “works of the law” would bring God’s blessing of salvation, but Paul says that teaching couldn’t be further from the truth. The problem, Paul says, is not the law. After all, the law is a reflection of God’s impeccable moral character. Neither is a healthy desire to obey God’s law the issue. We ought to obey.
The problem with the false teachers in the Galatian churches is found in Paul’s use of the word rely. “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.” In other words, relying on your ability to perfectly keep the law in order to merit salvation is what places you under a curse. Why? Because you can’t do it. In fact, you’ve already blown it. Moral self-sufficiency does not bring God’s blessing, but God’s curse. The legalists misunderstood not only the nature of faith in Christ alone for salvation, but they misunderstood the larger lesson of the law, namely, that without a new heart and the power of God’s Spirit through faith in Christ, all efforts to obey the law are just dirty old worthless legalism, deserving of God’s divine curse.
The good news for people who have come under the curse of God for the sin of moral self-sufficiency (which is all of us at one time or another) is that Jesus has done for us on the cross what we could not do for ourselves. The only way to escape the curse is not by our work, but by his. There is a way out if we look away from our self-sufficiency and look to Jesus as the only one who can provide hope for the eternal future we have in Jesus, and power in the here and now to grow in obedience as we seek to be led by God’s Spirit for the rest of our lives.
Rooting out legalism
Because legalism was such a destructive force in the Galatians churches, we have to assume it is extremely dangerous to us as well. Therefore, it is helpful for us to examine our own hearts–in the spirit of Psalm 139:23-24 and Corinthians 13:5–for signs of legalism, signs of places where we are trusting in or protecting our moral self-sufficiency for our identity. Below are three questions that might help the examination process. There are certainly other questions, but these are starters. They are accompanied by the reason the question is important and a prayerful, Jesus-focused, response. I hope you find them helpful.
Question 1: When do I get angry and/or defensive with people?
Reason for the Question: Our anger and defensiveness are often signs that our “good” identity must be protected at all costs. This is a sign of self-sufficiency and does not reflect our true need for God’s work to redeem us from our inadequacies.
Prayerful Response: Lord, show me the places where I demand that people see me a particular way. Help me to trust that because of Jesus’ death for me, that I no longer have to protect the image of self-sufficiency.
Question 2: In what areas am I discontent?
Reason for the Question: Discontentment is often a sign that we are not appropriately valuing Christ’s sacrificial work for us and, therefore, are trusting something other than Jesus for our relationship with God.
Prayerful Response: Lord, help me grow in my appreciation for all Christ has done for me. Help me find contentment in your gracious and merciful love for me.
Question 3: Where am I blaming other people for my anger, discontent, and anxiety?
Reason for the Question: The decision to blame others for our emotions is often a sign that we believe that we cannot be seen as guilty because our worth depends on our ability to live up to standards. Therefore, we must shift blame in order to feel acceptable.
Prayerful Response: Lord, show me the places where I am blaming others for my sinful thoughts, words, and emotions. Help me to trust that because my relationship with God is dependent solely on Jesus’ willingness to take the blame for me, I no longer have to avoid confession and repentance of my sin.