The Gospel in Galatians
 by E.H. “Jack” Sequeira 

9 – The Effects of Legalism

Galatians 4:12-20:

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you.  You did me no wrong.  As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.  Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.  Where, then, is your blessing of me now?  I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.  Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?  Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good.  What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.  It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.  My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

So far, in our studies of Galatians, we read the writings of Paul as the apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul, the theologian and Paul, the defender of the faith.  But now, as we turn to Galatians 4:12-20, we will read the writings of Paul, as the pastor, the passionate lover of his flock.  In this passage, Paul appeals to the Galatians with deep feelings and great tenderness.  In verse 12, for example, he calls the Galatians his brothers and sisters.  Remember that Paul was a Jew.  The Galatians were Gentiles.  For a Jew to call Gentiles brothers and sisters was quite a statement of tenderness and acceptance.

In verse 19, he calls the Galatians, “My dear children,” an expression the apostle John, a disciple of love, was very fond of.  But Paul goes even further than John, in verse 19, for he likens himself to their mother who is in labor over them until Christ is formed in them.  Not only did the legalism, introduced by the Judaizers to the Galatians, endanger their salvation, but it had affected their lives so there was no longer a loving church but a church that was split up into factions.  Paul tells them, in Galatians 5:15:

If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 

According to the doctrine of justification by faith, we all are 100% sinners saved by grace.  But the moment we decide to be saved by legalism, the moment we come under the umbrella of legalism, salvation by works or salvation by keeping the law, then, we begin to compare ourselves with each other.  We begin to judge each other on the basis of our performance just as the Pharisees did in the days of Christ.  These are the effects of legalism.

With this as a foundation, let us read Galatians 4:12-20.  Paul wrote:

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you.  You did me no wrong.  As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.  Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.  Where, then, is your blessing of me now?  I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.  Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?  Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good.  What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.  It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.  My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

Here, the beloved Paul, with deep concern, responds as a pastor to the flock he had established in Galatia.  Here is what legalism does to a church.  Let’s take this step by step.  In verse 12, Paul says:

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you.  You did me no wrong.

Paul is saying there was a time that he was like these Judaizers — a legalist — but he gave it all up for the gospel.  In verse 12 Paul is saying, “Please follow my example.”

To know what Paul really meant here, he expresses the same idea in Philippians 3:3-9.  Let us read this so we will understand what Paul is saying to the Galatians and to us who may be trapped in legalism.  In Philippians 3:3, Paul describes the true Christian.  He says:

For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh....

To Paul, a genuine Christian is one who is totally resting in Christ for salvation because this believer recognizes that he is a 100% sinner, saved by grace alone.

In Philippians 3:4, Paul adds:

... though I myself have reasons for such confidence.  If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more.... 

The word “flesh” here refers to anything that is true of us.  It could be our birth, our performance, our standing in the church, our status, that we are depending on fully or partially for our salvation.  Paul tells the Philippians, if there is anyone who can brag about what they accomplished through their own efforts, he can more than any Philippian.

In verses 5 and 6, he explains what he was as a Pharisee, a man zealous for God and a man zealous for the law.  Read what Paul says about himself before his conversion.  Philippians 3:5-6:

... circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal [zeal for God], persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Paul thought of himself, before his conversion, as a very successful believer in God.

Verses 7-8 adds:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ....

Verse 9:

...and be found in him [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Paul knew by experience what it meant to be a legalist.  But when he found Jesus Christ and His righteousness, legalism no longer had any meaning for him.  It was filthy rags.  It was rubbish, or garbage, as he says in Philippians.

Paul is telling the Galatian Christians, “Please don’t return back to legalism.  Please become like me as I became like you.”  Or, “I accepted Jesus Christ as so did you at the beginning.”  In Galatians 4:13-14, Paul says:

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.  Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.

Paul is appealing to their emotions.  He is appealing to their past experience.  He is reminding them, when he first came to Galatia and preached the gospel, he was suffering from terrible pain.  Obviously, as we read in verse 15, the problem he had was concerning his eyes:

Where, then, is your blessing of me now?  I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.

Some scholars feel that this could have been because of the Damascus experience but that is not necessarily so.  All we know is that his eyes must have looked awful.  They must have been full of pus and he must have been an unsightly person.  Yet the Galatians didn’t mind this.  They were willing to ignore this terrible condition.  They were willing to do all this because they were so appreciative of the gospel that Paul had brought them.  In verse 15, Paul is saying that they were so appreciative that they were willing to pluck out their own eyes and give them to him in gratitude for the good news he had brought to them.

Paul is now pleading with the Galatians in verse 15, “Where, then, is your blessing of me now?” He says, may he remind them, of the way they responded to this wonderful message, and now that they have listened to the Judaizers, have they turned against him?  Has he become their enemy?  Here he was, in Galatia, bringing good news at tremendous cost to himself.  He says, he could have used this eye problem as an excuse not to preach to them, but he wanted them to know Jesus Christ.  He wanted them to hear the good news in which they rejoiced, and he was willing to suffer so that he may bring to them Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.  What, he asked, “has happened, dear Galatians?” This is his plea as a pastor to his flock.  Verse 16:

Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

In verses 17-18 of Galatians 4, Paul now discusses the Judaizers.  This is what he tells the Galatians:

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good.  What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.  It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.

Legalists win converts, not to Jesus Christ, but to themselves.  The Judaizers were guilty of this.  They were zealous.  They were very determined.  They worked hard, not to lift up Christ, but to draw disciples towards them so that they may glory in the flesh.  Galatians 6:13:

Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.

They glory in what they have accomplished by bringing people towards them.

Paul says to the Galatians, the true motivation behind the Judaizers was not their salvation but their own pride and glory.  Paul says in Galatians 4:19:

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you....

Paul likens his flock to children who have been produced by a mother.  A mother goes through a lot of pain when she delivers her children but after that she rejoices in the fact that they are born into this world.  They bring joy and hope to her.  Paul is saying, “I am like your mother.  I was willing to go through all this terrible pain so that you may be found in Christ.  And now, I am still in pain until you are fully and totally established in Christ.”

When we become Christians, we change our citizenship from citizens of this world — which is under Satan — to citizens of heaven — which is under Christ.  But, physically, we are still living in this world, so Christians are really citizens of heaven living in enemy territory.  As the apostle John, in his epistle 1 John 5:19, tells us, the whole world, apart from believers, is under the evil one:

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.

When you become a Christian, Satan has lost a subject.  Do you think he will give up without a fight?  The answer is, “No.”  He will do his very best to gain you back into his kingdom.  And one of the means by which he destroys a believer’s faith is by perverting the gospel.  This is what he did to the Galatians through the Judaizers.  He deceived them.  He cast a spell over them, as Galatians 3 brought out.  And now, he is trying to deprive them of the joy of salvation that they had received in Christ.

Paul is pleading with the Galatians that they return to Christ.  Paul will not let go of this situation.  He will continue working for them, pleading with them until they are fully established in Christ.

Then, he ends in verse 20:

...How I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

Paul would have loved to come to Galatia again physically. but he had much to do.  Transportation in those days was very difficult.  He is saying to the Galatians that he questions whether they will turn back.  He wants to be there so that he can see them turning back to Christ and he has doubts because he knows the power of legalism is very strong.  He is pleading with them to turn back to Christ as their only hope.

With great pain, Paul first preached the gospel to the Galatians.  He was willing to ignore his suffering to bring good news of salvation to the Galatians.  And now, he is willing to go through the same pain all over again to restore them to Christ.  These verses truly express the heart of Paul who reflected God’s agape love.

In Romans 9:2-3, he expresses the same thing towards his own fellow-Jews who hated him and who had turned against him.  He says:

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race....

“I am willing to be accursed that my own fellowmen should be saved.”  Paul was not just a theologian but “the” theologian of the New Testament.  Paul was a pastor at heart.  He had a great concern, a great burden for the people he had converted.  He was not just an evangelist.  He did not come to a church, establish it, and then leave for home and let them fend for themselves.  No, Paul was a pastor at heart.  When he heard anything negative about the people he had converted, he would write to them.  Here he writes this very stern letter telling them, “I wish I could use kinder words but I am afraid that if I do so, you may not realize the seriousness of your problem.  So I am using these strong words that you, dear Galatians, will turn back to Jesus Christ as your Savior.”

What Paul is saying to the Galatians is also true of us today.  We are still living in enemy territory.  It is still very easy for the devil to sidetrack us from the gospel and turn us back to legalism.  As mentioned in our last two studies, legalism is not something we have to learn.  It is part of our very being.  It is part of our culture.  It is part of our very nature.  All I have to do is stop preaching the gospel and my people will sooner or later end up on the road to legalism.  It is important that we constantly need to preach the gospel in clarity so that there is no mistake, that there is no idea that man can, by his own performance, save himself.

We must take this message to heart.  We need to take Paul’s burden for the Galatians and apply it personally to ourselves.  Paul, the great pastor, wants no one to be lost because, if we turn back to legalism, the devil has pulled us out of Christ.  He tried this all through the history of the early Christian church.  He tried to do this to the Jewish Christians.  The Judaizers, who had accepted Christ, were in danger of losing their salvation.  The book of Hebrews is constantly reminding the Jewish Christian, “Please, don’t go back to Judaism.  Please don’t go back to the legalism you were raised up with.”

As we conclude this study, let us read Hebrews 10.  This is very meaningful to those who have been trapped into legalism.  This is very much in harmony with what we have just studied in Galatians 4:12-20.

In Hebrews 10:36-39, the writer of Hebrews says to the Jewish Christians who were facing he same danger as the Galatians:

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.  For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.” And, “But my righteous one will live by faith.  And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”  But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.

It is not enough to just believe in Jesus Christ.  Yes, justification is by faith alone but Jesus Himself made it clear in Matthew 10:22 that faith must endure unto the end:

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.

The writer of Hebrews is saying in Hebrews 10:35:

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

“Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward, for Christians need to be patient.  They need to endure unto the end.  They need to cling to their faith until the reality of salvation takes place at the Second Coming of Christ.”

The righteousness that qualifies us for heaven, now and in the judgment, is always in Christ, never in us.  Not even what God does in us.  But the faith that makes the righteousness of Christ effective in our lives or in us, is not in heaven but in us.  This faith can be touched.  This faith can be destroyed.  This is the real purpose of Satan when he enters the Christian church and perverts the gospel.  But the writer of Hebrews says in verse 36 of chapter 10:

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God [that your faith endures unto the end], you will receive what he has promised.

We have this promise brought out in verses 37 and 38:

For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”  And, “But my righteous one will live by faith.  And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”

Living by faith is the only way you and I can be saved.  “But [there is a “but” here], if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”  God is a God of love and, where there is love, there can be no compulsion.  As long as we are believers, we are giving God the permission, the right, to take us to heaven, not because of our faith but because of the righteousness of Christ.  Faith doesn’t contribute towards our salvation.  Faith is only an instrument, a channel by which we receive the righteousness of Christ.  The New Testament is absolutely clear.  We are not saved because of our faith but we are saved by faith or through faith.

Paul is saying to the Galatians, “Hold on to your faith.  Turn back to Jesus Christ.”

We read in Hebrews 10:39:

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.

So it is not enough, to believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  This is the beginning, but our faith must endure unto the end.  Paul, writing to young Timothy, says in 2 Timothy 4:7:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Faith is a battle in the sense that we must not give it up.  The devil will do everything to pull us out of Christ but, thank God, as long as we keep our eyes on Jesus Christ, as long as we recognize that we are 100% sinners, saved by grace, the devil cannot touch us.  But legalism tells us that we have something good in us, that we can save ourselves by our performance.  We cannot come to Christ and, because we admit that we are 100% sinners, receive His righteousness and then, after accepting Him, admit that we can do something good towards our salvation.  No, it is either all of Christ or none of Him.

It is my prayer, as you wrestle with your faith, that you will not give it up.  May your faith endure to the very end.  May you, like Paul, say to God or to your fellow believers, “I have fought the fight.  I have kept the faith.  Now, there is waiting for me, a crown of righteousness and not only for me, but for all who love His appearing.”

Legalism is one of the greatest enemies of the gospel.  Legalism is one of the greatest dangers of the Christian believer.  You must constantly remind yourself that you are by nature and by performance a 100% sinner.  Oh yes, your performance may not be 100% but your nature is 100% sinner so that even if you have not committed a single sin for the last two hours, you are still a sinner during those two hours because your sins are simply the fruits of what you are.  God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, not to condemn you but that, through His performance — through His doing and dying — you and all mankind could be saved.

Now that you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, I plead with you, do not allow anything, anybody, any philosophy, to pull you out of Christ.  Be on your guard against legalism that may come to you in a very subtle form, in a very religious garb so that you may be deceived.

It is my prayer that you shall know the truth and you shall constantly hold onto this truth and you, having obeyed the truth, may be set free so that, one day, when Christ comes, you may with great jubilation cry out, “This is my God, I have been waiting for Him.”  Man’s only hope is Jesus Christ and His righteousness.  Justification is by faith alone and nothing else.


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