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

15 – Legalism vs. Gospel

We have now come to the very end of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.  So far, he has been dictating this epistle to a scribe, what we would call today, a secretary.  But now, as he approaches the end of this epistle, he takes the pen from the scribe’s hand in order to add a personal postscript.  Usually, this was just to add his signature or benediction as proof that this was a genuine letter and not a forgery.

Reading in 2 Thessalonians 3:17, Paul says:

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters.  This is how I write.

Paul always signed his epistles with his own hand as proof that they were genuine Pauline epistles.

However, when it comes to the Galatians, he writes several final sentences in his own personal handwriting.  This is how deeply concerned he feels about the Galatians and their problem of legalism.  His heart is running over with such love and anxiety for the Galatians that he writes this whole paragraph, Galatians 6:11-18.  We will read this passage and then look at it in detail:

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised.  The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.  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.  May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.  Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule — to the Israel of God.
From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Notice how Paul begins this final section of his epistle to the Galatians.  He says in verse 11:

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

What is he trying to tell them?  Why large letters?  First, he is saying, “I am using large alphabet letters.”  There are three basic reasons why he did this.

  1. Because of his poor eyesight, as is already implied in Galatians 4:15:

    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.

  2. He could be using large letters because he is distressed about their sidetracking from the gospel and having accepted a subtle form of legalism.  His great burden is to make a strong point and so he uses large letters.

  3. Finally, the reason he used large letters is because he wants to emphasize the importance of what he is saying.

If Paul wrote such an epistle today and used a computer, he would have bold-faced, italicized, and even underlined the line when typing these verses.

What is the thrust of this paragraph?  It’s over the issue of legalism versus the gospel.  This is the thrust of the whole of this epistle.  But here, Paul shows how they are opposite and, therefore, cannot be mixed, cannot be synthesized, cannot be reconciled.  They are mutually exclusive.  Paul makes it clear in Galatians 5:4:

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

The moment you try to add lawkeeping or circumcision or good works towards your acceptance before God, you are falling from grace because it’s either all of Christ as the basis of your salvation or none of Him.

With this in mind, let’s now look at what Paul is saying in verses 12 onwards.  But first let us examine three major differences between legalism and the gospel so, as we read verses 12 to 18, it will become clear why these two systems of salvation are mutually exclusive.

  1. Legalism is primarily concerned with outward acts.  Jesus kept reminding the Pharisees of this.  “Oh, yes, you wash the outside of the cup but inside you are dirty.  You paint your tombs, whitewash them, so that they look beautiful but inside they are full of dead men’s bones.”  Legalism is only concerned with outward performance.  But God demands, not only perfect acts, but perfect motives.  The gospel is concerned with the heart.  The gospel does not begin by changing us outwardly.  It begins by giving us a new heart, new motives, new ideals.  This is the New Covenant; He writes the law in our hearts, whereas, in the Old Covenant, the law was written on tables of stone.  They were rules.  But in the New Covenant, the law becomes the basic drive of the Christian life.

  2. Legalism satisfies our egocentric concern or nature.  We are by nature, because of the Fall, controlled by human pride.  Legalism gives a lot of satisfaction to our egocentric nature.  But the gospel, says Paul, crucifies the flesh with all its pride.  Galatians 5:24:

    Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

  3. Legalism is salvation by “my own good works.”  The gospel is salvation by grace alone.  It is true, this gospel of salvation by grace alone does produce good works in the believer, but these works make no contribution towards our acceptance before God or towards our justification.  Paul clearly tells in Galatians 2:16:

    ...Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

    We are justified by faith alone in the perfect life and the death of Jesus Christ.

Keep in mind these major differences as we look at Galatians 6:12 onwards:

Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised.  The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.

Paul is saying here, “As many as would like to brag in what they have accomplished, they insist that you should be circumcised only so they won’ suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.”  Paul says here that the flesh likes to brag in what it accomplishes.  The flesh likes to glory in “me.”  “Glory for me” is the very heart of the sinful nature’s problem.  The cross, on the other hand, takes the glory of man and puts it in the dust so that the cross gives no credit to human nature.

The cross is God’s verdict on the flesh, on the sinful nature.  Human pride does not like to take the glory of man and put it in the dust.  So the cross becomes an offense.  The cross becomes a hindrance to human pride.  The person who is a legalist hates the cross of Christ because the cross, as mentioned earlier, is God’s verdict on the flesh.  There is nothing in the flesh that is salvageable.  God’s verdict on the flesh is the cross.

Paul says in verse 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.

Those who insist that we must keep the law, those who insist that we must be circumcised in order to be saved, are they themselves failing but they want to put us into bondage just as they are in bondage.  Jesus said to His disciples that the Pharisees were heaping upon their people a burden that they themselves could not carry.  Why do they do it?  So they may brag in what they have accomplished through us.  “See how many souls I have won.”  Soul winning is not the work of man.  It is the work of the Holy Spirit.  All that we Christians can do is witness Jesus Christ.  It is the Holy Spirit that convicts men and women.  We get no credit and the flesh doesn’t like that.

In verse 14, Paul says:

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

This is a powerful statement.  First, Paul is saying is it is unthinkable that a genuine Christian glories in anything else but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  The word “boast” (or “glory,” in some translations) is not as strong here as it is in the original Greek.  Paul says, to him, the cross of Christ is everything.  This is what he boasts about.  This is what he glories in.

What does the cross mean to Paul?  To him, it means that he was crucified to the world and the world was crucified to him.  When a person is crucified and he is executed on the cross, the world is saying good-bye to him.  But in Paul’s case, he is saying, “When I accept the cross of Christ, it is not only the world that says good-bye to me but I say good-bye to the world.”  What does he mean by the word “world”?  Does he mean that having accepted Christ, he goes to live in a monastery away from the world?  No.  That was the mistake of the monastic system.  What does he mean, “I am crucified to the world”?  In 1 John 2:15-17 [below], we will discover the meaning of the word “world” as used by the New Testament writers.

There are many passages such as James 1:27 and James 4 which bring out the same idea.  But 1 John 2 explains the word “world” in a very clear sense.  Jesus made it clear to the disciples that we have a function in the world.  We are the salt of the earth and we are the light of the world but here, when Paul uses the word “world,” it is in the same sense as 1 John 2:15-17:

Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.  For everything in the world [now John describes what he means by the word “world”] — the lust of the flesh [the sinful desires of our human nature], the lust of the eyes [what I see, I want, which is the sin of covetousness], and the pride of life [which simply means, “I want to be the first one in everything”] — comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

So the word “world” here in this context, refers to the three basic drives that every unbeliever is controlled by:  the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

Paul says, in Galatians 5:24:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Genuine Christians, who have submitted to the cross of Christ, no longer allow these three basic human drives to be the dominating factor in their lives.  A Christian is no longer to be controlled by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  Yes, that is true of the unbeliever, but the Christian has crucified these three basic drives and now is controlled by the love of God.  The love of God is demonstrated by going about doing good towards others.

Paul is saying that a Christian is one who glories in the cross because the cross has liberated him from the very principle of sin, the love of self, which is expressed in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  Paul continues [in Galatians 6:14]:

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

What is Paul adding here?  When we accept Christ, obey the gospel and surrender to the cross of Christ, something very drastic takes place.  It is like changing citizenship.  When I became an American citizen, I had to relinquish my British citizenship.  I had to give up all allegiance to foreign potentates and be loyal to the American government.  So also, when we become Christians, we are changing our citizenship from this world, which is under Satan, to the citizenship of heaven, which is under Christ.  A Christian is not simply a person who has been forgiven and has been justified and has peace with God.  A Christian actually has changed citizenship.  Jesus said to the disciples in John 15:18-19:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.

“You are not of the world but I have chosen you out of the world.”

In 1 John 5:19, the apostle John divides the human race into two camps:

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

Referring to Christians he says, “We belong to God, we are children of God.”  Referring to the unbelievers he says, “the whole world is under the control of the wicked one.”  Christians are citizens of heaven but living in Satan’s territory.  When we talk of ourselves on the spiritual plane, we are foreigners because we are citizens of heaven.

That is why we must remind ourselves that, between the world and the church which is the kingdom of God on earth, stands the cross of Christ.  The cross of Christ will allow nothing of the world to creep into the church.  It is a tragedy today how much of the world is creeping into the church.  We borrow its ideas.  We depend on its resources.  When the world moves in a certain direction, the church follows it a few years later.  Look at some of the things that are happening in this country:  abortion, divorce.  Sooner or later, these worldly ideas creep into the church.  This should never be.  The cross of Christ has excluded everything that is of the world from creeping into the church.  This is one of the greatest tragedies that is taking place in the churches today, so much so that Paul predicted it in his letter to Timothy.  In 2 Timothy 3:5, he says that the time will come before the end that the church will have a form of godliness but deny its power.  2 Timothy 3:1-5:

But mark this:  There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power.  Have nothing to do with such people.

Have you allowed the cross of Christ to separate you totally from the world, not physically but spiritually?

In Galatians 6:15, Paul summarizes:

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.

Whatever we do or what we don’t do makes no contribution towards our salvation in Christ Jesus.  Why?  Because the salvation that Jesus obtained for us in His doing and in His dying was perfect and was complete.  When Jesus cried on the cross, “It is finished,” He meant that salvation, full and complete, was finished.  We cannot improve on it, we cannot add to it, all we can do is accept it by faith with a heart that is full of gratitude for the wonderful redemption that God has obtained for us in His Son, Jesus Christ.

We must not add anything towards the gospel.  There are many Christians who have misunderstood the gospel because they have given the word “gospel” a very general meaning.  When Jesus gave His disciples the great commission [Mark 16:15]...

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”

...what did He mean by that word “gospel”?  What did the New Testament writers mean by the word “gospel”?  Yes, we know the word means “good news.”  But what does that good news imply?  The good news of the gospel is the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We must add nothing to this.  What God does in us, which we refer to as sanctification or Christian living or holy living, is the fruits of the gospel.  Christ, when He comes, changes our sinful nature and makes it into the glorious nature that He has prepared for us.  This will take place at the Second Coming of Christ.  We call this glorification or the consummation of the gospel plan of salvation.  This is the hope of the gospel.

We have the gospel — the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We have the fruits of the gospel which is the evidence that we are already perfect in Christ.  We already stand justified in Christ and we look forward to glorification, the hope of the gospel, when “the perishable will be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” [1 Corinthians 15:54].  Paul is saying here that nothing we do or nothing we don’t do avails anything towards our acceptance before God.  We are accepted by God.  We are declared righteous.  We are looked upon, only in Christ, as if we had never sinned.  In Christ, we are new creatures.

Paul told the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 5:17:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:  The old has gone, the new is here!

The old belonged to sin.  The new belongs to righteousness.  The old came under condemnation.  The new comes under justification.  The old tried to save itself but failed miserably.  The new is resting totally in what Jesus did 2,000 years ago for our salvation.

Having made clear this summary of the gospel, Paul now concludes his letter by a blessing and a plea, in verses 16 to 18:

Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule [justification by faith alone, any who walk under the umbrella of grace alone] — to the Israel of God.  From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.  Amen.

It was not easy for one to be a Christian in the time of Paul.  To be a Christian in Paul’s day was to put your head on the block because Christians were persecuted.  They were persecuted by the Romans, the Gentiles, and the Jews.  Therefore, when Paul talks about himself he says, “Please don’t disappoint me.  Don’t give me more trouble.  Please remember that I gave up Judaism and accepted the gospel at a tremendous cost to me in the sense that I have suffered the results of becoming a Christian and being an apostle of Jesus Christ.”

As we bring this study to a close, here is an example of what Paul is saying.  There is a statement that is very interesting concerning this very thing that Paul mentions about him suffering for Christ’s sake or having the marks of the suffering of the cross on his body.  Acts 21:27-30:

When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple.  They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us!  This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place.  And besides, he has brought Greeks [Gentiles] into the temple and defiled this holy place.”  (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)  The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions.  Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut.

When Paul came back from his last journey, he was advised by James to go through the purification process because the Jews from Jerusalem had accused him of being against the law and against his people.  So the seven days were the seven days of purification.

This is one of the things that Paul suffered.  In fact, in another passage, Paul summarizes in detail what he went through for Christ.  We will find this in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27:

Are they servants of Christ?  (I am out of my mind to talk like this.)  I am more.  I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.  I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

He tells how he was shipwrecked, put in prison, and went through many things for Christ.  But he still gloried in Christ because he was willing to suffer for Christ.

Then in Galatians 6:18, Paul adds:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.  Amen.

This is my prayer for you, that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will be upon you, that none of you will ever be sidetracked from this wonderful truth of salvation by grace alone.


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