Faith, Legalism, and the Cross of Jesus

Galatians 3
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

What makes someone foolish? The dictionary defines someone who is foolish, who acts foolishly, as having a lack of sense, or a lack of good judgment. The Galatians were misjudging themselves, and Paul calls them foolish. He says that they’d been bewitched. When Paul says the Galatians had been bewitched, he means that they had been deceived. They’d been led astray by the Judaizers, this group of men who taught a message, and taught a way of living, that was not in line with the gospel message, was not in line with the gospel way of living. In the second half of verse 1, we find out just why this is so baffling to Paul.

Galatians 3
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.

Paul is so shocked, and he uses such strong language, because the Galatians were essentially forgetting Jesus – forgetting the crucifixion of Jesus. He says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”

Now, Paul isn’t saying that the Galatians literally saw, with their own eyes, the actual death of Jesus on the cross. Galatia wasn’t particularly close to where Jesus died. So it’s extremely unlikely that all these people – or any of these people, even – would have seen Jesus die. And besides that, the word ‘portrayed’ here implies that someone is depicting, describing the crucifixion of Jesus. Someone is painting a picture of what happened. In this case it seems that Paul is referring to his own preaching of Christ, where he portrayed, described Christ’s crucifixion for the Galatians. They had been told of the crucifixion. They had had Jesus set before them by Paul.

We know from elsewhere in Scripture that Paul’s resolve in all his missionary work was to preach Christ and Him crucified. 1 Corinthians 1:23 says, “we preach Christ crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2 says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” So when Paul says that it was before the Galatians’ eyes that Jesus was portrayed as crucified, he is saying that because of his preaching, because of the things he had taught, Jesus’ death had, at one time, been very real to the Galatian people. It wasn’t just a historical fact to them. It was personal. It was true. It was real. They had once fully embraced, and received the truth of the cross – in their minds, and their hearts. And yet, at some point, they had forgotten. Their legalism had blinded them to the reality of the cross.

Like the Galatians, we weren’t physically present to see Jesus die. But we have all been confronted with the reality of His death. For all of us here who have surrendered to Christ, we have been deeply pierced by, moved by, both the horror and the beauty of the cross. Yet still, we can forget it. I’m not really talking about a forgetting of the conscious mind, as though our minds forget the facts of His death. I’m talking about a forgetting of the heart, of the soul. We forget the weight of what Jesus did for us. We forget that because of our sin, God had to come in the flesh, and be crucified by us, in order to save us. We forget the part we had to play in that. It was my sin, your sin, that led Him to Calvary. It was sinful men and woman like us who did not receive Him as God, did not worship Him as God, but instead plotted to kill Him, and did kill Him.

We must remember these things, remember the cross, because the cross shows us who we truly are. It shows us how bankrupt we are, spiritually, on our own, and it shows us how rich we are, spiritually, when our faith is in Christ.

Earlier I said the Galatians acted foolishly because they misjudged themselves. Well they’re not the only ones. So often we think of ourselves wrongly. We consider ourselves self-sufficient. But the cross shows us we’re not. It disqualifies us from putting any confidence in our flesh, putting any confidence in our efforts, in our works. But we do that, don’t we? We try to play that game, try to run that race, try to prove ourselves self-sufficient.

In Galatians 3, Paul pits works-based living against faith-based living. And in doing that, it’s not that he’s saying works aren’t important. They are. What he’s getting at is, what is the source of comfort that your everyday living flows from? Does your everyday living flow from faith in Christ? Or does it flow from faith in you? Think about this. In a very practical, ground-level, daily living type way, is your faith in Jesus? Or is your faith in yourself?

There are two main points for us today from this passage. First, why works don’t work – by which I mean, why works aren’t effective, they aren’t sufficient for the Christian life. Why works don’t work, and then number two, why faith does. Why faith is effective, why it is sufficient.

First off, why works don’t work. Paul asks the Galatians several questions here, many of which are rhetorical. And he does this in an effort to show them how empty and hopeless their works-based living was. He wants to pull back the veil from their eyes, so they can see clearly.

In verse 2, he says, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” The answer, which he knows that they know, is that they had received the Spirit by faith. Which leads to his next questions, in verse 3 – “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” It’s like, “Do you really believe that your flesh, which couldn’t save you before, can all of the sudden keep you saved now?”

In verse 4 he asks, “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” He’s saying, “You’ve suffered so much for your faith in Christ. Are you really going to throw that away now? Is that suffering going to go to waste?”

Verses 5 and 6 say, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?”

All of these questions tie back to what Paul says in verse 1, where he speaks of Jesus’ crucifixion. They all tie back to the cross of Jesus. The cross is key to this passage. It is key to answering these questions that Paul asks. The Galatians had fallen into lives of legalism, and the cross was the antidote. Because the cross strips legalism of its power. The cross disarms legalism, leaving faith as our only hope.

So, how does the cross do these things?

First, the cross shows us the horrific nature of sin. That sin is absolutely horrific, detestable. The nature of Jesus’ death shows us the nature of sin. Jesus did not die in some kind of dignified way. He died on a cross. He had a crown of thorns crush down on His very human flesh. He had nails pierce His hands and feet. Nails pinning Him to a cross, where He could hardly breathe. He was stripped of any and all dignity. He was mocked, spat upon, tortured. And all of that was nothing compared to the moment He took on Himself the wrath of God for our sins.

Why did things have to happen this way? Why did He have to die such a gruesome death? Because sin, sin is that gruesome. Sin is not dignified. Sin is not respectable. Jesus died in this way, He experienced all of this, because of our sin.

Is that enough to make us hate sin? Detest sin? If not, let me ask a question. What was the earthly reason for Jesus’ death? I say ‘earthly reason’ because, God had His own purposes in Christ’s crucifixion, of course. God chose for this to happen as part of His plan to redeem us, to rescue us. But what was the earthly reason He was crucified?

He was crucified because the people He had created, the people He had sustained, they hated Him. Jesus died because of self-righteous people, who did not want to believe that they were wrong, who did not want to believe that they were wretched sinners. Self-righteous people who did not want to bow down to the true Messiah, the true King, because they wanted to be rulers of their own lives. They wanted to rule. So they hated Him. And they cried out, “Crucify Him!”

Would we have done any different? Would we have been among them? If we had been there at the time, would we have called for His death as well?

Right now, all of us who are gathered here, we know a lot more about Jesus than the people did back then. Many of us here are Christians, who have trusted in Christ, who have surrendered to Him as King of kings and Lord of lords. We have His very Spirit living in us. Yet, with all of that going for us, how many of us still sin against Him every day? How many of us still defy His leadership, defy His authority? Both outwardly, in our actions – things we do or don’t do – and inwardly, in our hearts? How many of us still, effectively say, “We don’t want your rule, Jesus. You are not our King. We reject you.” We may not ever say those words, but our hearts do. Our hearts defy Him, they wander from Him.

That is why works don’t work. That is why our confidence, our hope, our identity, cannot be in our works. It cannot be in us. But it can be in Jesus.

The cross disarms legalism. It does that by showing us our own depraved nature. Works don’t work. Faith in works doesn’t work, but faith in Jesus does.

All of the things I’ve said these last few minutes, all the things the Bible says about us as sinners, as rebels, all the ways we are defiant and self-centered, none of this is new information to Jesus. He knew it before today. He knew it before we were even born. He knew what we would be like before He went to Calvary. And He went anyways.

What I’m saying is that our sinfulness did not stop Jesus from enduring the cross. It did not turn Him away from the cross. No, it was actually because of our sinfulness that He went to Calvary. He endured the cross because of our depravity! He chose to be crucified because He knew how hopeless we were on our own, and He wanted to give us hope. He wanted to save us. Jesus wanted to commit Himself to us. He wanted to prove His unending love for us. So that we could be free from the penalty our sin deserves. And so that we could one day be presented to Him as His bride, holy and without blemish before Him.

Think about that day, our wedding day. He is going to shower us with love. He is going to shower us with grace. He is going to be our perfect Husband every day, for an endless number of days.

It’s hard to believe. When we look honestly at who we are, at the evil in our hearts, when we judge ourselves rightly, it’s hard to believe this gospel. But believing it is where we find hope. Faith in Jesus Christ is where we find hope.

At the end of this passage, Paul presents Abraham’s faith as a model for us.

Galatians 3
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

The Galatians, in their legalistic efforts to puff themselves up, they wanted to be known as sons of Abraham. They thought they were following in the way of Abraham by observing the law of circumcision. Yet Paul turns their assumption on its head. He says “it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham.” He says that Abraham was a man of faith. Even good old father Abraham couldn’t get by on his works. “So who do you think you are?”

God didn’t bless all the nations through Abraham’s works. He blessed them through Abraham’s faith. Abraham believed God would provide a child. And He did. When he was called to later sacrifice that child, Hebrews 11:19 tells us that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead if He had to, in order to fulfill His promise. He trusted God’s faithfulness, he trusted God’s provision. Abraham lived a life of faith. Just as we are called to do.

Now, lest we mistakenly think that living in faith makes our works unimportant, we know from James chapter 2 that true faith produces works. True faith demands obedience. It demands obedience because, if we know that it was our sin Jesus had to die for, then the cross will serve as a reminder for us to wage war against sin. The cross will serve as a reminder of the wickedness of sin. So putting our faith in Jesus, putting our faith in His work on the cross, it will lead us to pursue obedience. It will lead us to grow and change, because we hate the sin that caused Jesus to die, and because we love the Savior who did die, willingly, for us.

Some may grow confused when it comes to the matter of legalism, thinking that simple obedience to God’s Word equals legalism. But that is a mistake. It is false teaching. God’s Word tells us to seek the Lord, to follow Him, to know His Word, to commune with Him in prayer. So if we’re doing those things, that in itself is not legalism. It’s obedience! Now certainly, obedience can spring from legalistic motives. But obedience to Scripture in itself is not legalism.

The error of the Galatians was not that they sought to obey God. Their error was legalism. And the two things are not the same. We’re called to obedience, and we’re called to flee legalism. Called to flee from the type of legalism that was enslaving the Galatians.

Before we close I want to spend a few minutes considering the question: What does legalism look like? How can we identify it? It can take a lot of different forms, but I want to focus on just two of them.

One is that legalism can take the form of adding conditions to salvation. This form of legalism would say, “You cannot be a Christian unless you do X.” Or, “Unless you refrain from doing X.” It would say, “Faith in Christ isn’t enough; there’s something else that must be done to be saved.” The problem with that message is that it’s completely opposed to the message of the cross. It’s completely opposed to the words Jesus spoke when He hung on the cross. He said, “It is finished!” You can’t add to that, I can’t add to that. We can’t add to what Jesus did. Either His work on the cross was sufficient to save, either it was sufficient to pay the full penalty for our sins, or it wasn’t. Legalism adds conditions to salvation. It says that what Christ did wasn’t enough.

A second major form that legalism takes is that it creates new rules, new commandments, and expects other people to follow them. This form of legalism says that you “have to” do something that Scripture doesn’t say you ‘have to’ do. And thus it adds to Scripture. So if I were to add to you, or you were to add to me, some extra-biblical rules, extra-biblical commandments – that God hasn’t given – then that would be legalism.

Remember what the Galatians were doing. It was really a combination of these two forms of legalism. They were making circumcision a condition of salvation. And in doing so, they were dictating rules to other people that God had not told those people to follow. And because of that, the Galatians were acting in legalism.

Where this topic can get a little more tricky is in the area of personal wisdom issues, personal convictions. Sometimes believers have different convictions about things, right? And that’s good, that’s biblical. For ways of living that are not clearly outlined in Scripture, God does not give us all the same convictions. We have biblical principles to follow, but the application of those principles is not all the same.

A few years ago Jess and I went to a conference called the Linger Conference, where one of the speakers was a guy named Ben Stuart. One of the things Ben said that’s stuck with me, is, he made a distinction regarding legalism. He gave the example of a friend of his who told him that there were streets that he chose not to drive down anymore because they reminded him of his old life. They were places he used to frequent and do sinful things, and every time he would drive down one of those streets, it really had a negative impact on him. Sinful thoughts were stirred, sinful desires were stirred as he would go down those streets. What he said was, the streets weren’t evil, but they stirred up evil in him as he drove down them. And so, he avoided them.

As Ben was sharing this story, he came to the end and he asked, “Is that legalism?” Is it legalism to not drive down certain streets? And his answer was no. He said, “Legalism would be saying, ‘No one can drive down that street.’ While wisdom says, ‘I can’t drive down that street.’”

Like we’ve just covered, legalism would say that obeying this commandment or that commandment is a condition of our salvation. Or, it would come up with some extra rule, some extra commandment, and with that say, “No one can do this thing.” Or, if it’s a good thing, “Everyone has to do this thing.”

We have great liberty in Christ. We have great freedom in Him. But – we are weak. And because we’re weak, we may need to say, “I can’t do this thing.” Or, for something good, “I need to do this thing.”

It is good and right to follow the conviction of the Holy Spirit, as He works through the Word. It is good and right to hold ourselves to standards that don’t necessarily apply to other people. But we do that because we know that we’re weak and lowly sinners. The cross shows us our weakness. The cross shows us our need. So rather than being foolish, forgetting the cross and misjudging ourselves, we judge ourselves rightly and renounce faith in ourselves. We stop trusting ourselves. And instead, we cast ourselves on Jesus, clinging to Jesus. That is the kind of life we live, in light of the cross.