Sunday School Lessons

The Condemnation of Legalism

While teaching through passages in the book of Galatians, I encountered a verse that I admit I had to look up how to interpret.  Often, what is written in the Bible is pretty clear, whether in context of surrounding passages, or other places in the Bible, but this one threw me off that day:

“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!
Galatians 2:17 NIV

I’m happy that there’s no restriction against asking for help in understanding the Bible, though.  Multiple teachers in the Bible helped others see the truth within Scripture, and (even though the hearers were obliged to confirm that the interpretation was consistent with other things they knew to be true), this was – and continues to be – a valuable means of helping people grow to become more like Jesus Christ.

So, I looked it up, and here are is an excerpt from how the College Press NIV Commentary (one of the sources I had on hand) explains it:

“Apparently, then, Paul is first answering the objection that in leaving behind the law, a man will become lawless and wicked.  Such freedom in Christ would be inciting sinful behavior in the lives of new believers.  Isn’t it necessary, they might argue, to keep people under the law to keep them under control”  Paul’s answer is emphatic: absolutely not!” [Boles, p.68]

I think that there were one or two other interpretations that I found (like Christians being condemned for spending time with those who sin, or giving a bad example by hanging out with those who are perceived to have sinned), but the result was similar.  So, I felt better once I better understood the verse above.

And, it makes sense that those who had found comfort and stability in the Law of Moses would want to continue having some sort of structure in place, even after accepting salvation through faith in Jesus.

Isn’t this the very nature of legalism, though?  By saying that faith in Christ isn’t enough, legalistic claims suggest that Jesus wasn’t telling us the whole truth (and we know that’s not right, since Jesus said that He is the Truth, and had plenty of evidence that backed up that statement).  Legalism – by which I mean rules-based or works-based messages of salvation – imply that Jesus’ salvation, the Word of God in the Bible, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit isn’t enough to lead a Christ-follower on the right path.  The idea behind the legalism suggested above is that we all need some help (beyond what Jesus has already given to us) in order to stay on what we consider to be the “narrow path” (which, depending on how we define that, may or may not be what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 7:13-14).  These false teachings suggest that more rules (of human origin) are required, over and above God’s direction.

Discovering that Christians sin (which puzzlingly still comes to a surprise to some people, both inside and outside of the church) doesn’t mean that Jesus is promoting sin.  Jesus saves us from sin, calls us out of sin, and delivers us from the bondage of sin.  If we still sin after turning our lives over to Jesus, that’s not on Him.  But, praise God that even those sins are paid for (by Jesus’ sacrifice), as well.  And, since all have sinned (see Romans 3:22-24), it should be no surprise that Christians spend time with other people who also sin (whether other Christians, or those who don’t follow Jesus).  After all, if Christians are trying to be like Jesus Christ, who Himself spent time with people who were known to be sinful, what better pattern could we follow?

If we think about legalistic views on Christianity, I think that condemnation is usually the outcome of them.  When Christianity is mangled into just a set of rules (or even when some human rules get added to grace), people are condemned when they don’t follow all of those rules.

  • Those who perceive that they can’t live up to the “standards” of legalistic or law-based dogmas feel depressed and lost if they don’t follow all of the rules correctly.  Here, those trapped by legalistic beliefs need to hear about the grace of God.  (Believe me, I’ve been there.)
  • Those who perceive that others can’t live up to their own (self-imposed) rules of legalistic convictions tend to judge others and look down on them.  This creates separation between these “other” people who are sinners, and those who are judging them (who are also sinners!).

Having said this, I think that most legalism starts by those who mean well.  They promote certain activities that are meant to help believers in Jesus stay on the right path.  We might say that these “future legalists” tell other people to avoid habits and practices that might lead to sin.

And, I’m not arguing that personal boundaries or “guard rails” can’t be helpful for individuals to avoid certain kinds of temptation.  There are definitely valuable practices outlined in the Bible for followers of Jesus, and acts of obedience that are clearly specified, but extra rules beyond what the Bible teaches are dangerous, and can lead down a slippery slope.  When human suggestions and advice turn into rules and doctrine, and especially if they become a test of faith (or if we believe that they earn us our salvation), then they have become harmful.

Regardless, righteousness cannot, does not, and has never been the result of our keeping all of the rules.  It is a product of faith in God, and this is not a new principle.  In fact, it goes all the way back to Abraham in Genesis.

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Galatians 3:6 NIV

Abraham’s belief occurred centuries before the law of Moses, and (as suggested by a commentator) is recorded even before the rite of circumcision, which may be the key requirement of false doctrine that Paul is trying to address here.

Remember, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  Let’s accept His fulfillment of the law, and His justification of us through His sacrifice.  Just like the believers in Galatia, we can demonstrate the righteousness of Abraham more by having faith in God, versus trying to make sure that everyone is circumcised (or that they follow other extra rules).

Are you imposing extra rules on others?  Do you provide “advice” to others, but are really making a veiled attempt to make them follow extra-Biblical rules (whether your own, or those that you learned from others)?  If so, read 1 Corinthians 9 and 10, as well as Galatians 5, or just look up the word “freedom” in the New Testament.  Then, add a mental filter to whatever advice that you offer, to be sure that you’re not adding rules to other’s salvation through faith.

From Sunday School lesson prepared for August 8, 2021


  • The Lookout, August 8, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
  • Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
  • The College Press Commentary, Galatians & Ephesians, by Kenneth L. Boles.  College Press Publishing Company, © 1993, p.32-60.

3 thoughts on “The Condemnation of Legalism”

  1. Yes, and one way “extra” rules get added is by making a tradition a rule. Some traditions can be very meaningful to certain people, but we must remember that they are traditions and not make them rules.

    Liked by 1 person

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