Freedom from legalism/performance

Other than the book of Romans, the next clearest teaching on justification is the book of Galatians. In a summary statement, Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1 ESV)

Some teachers had come to Galatia and were saying that salvation is by faith AND by obeying the law. Grace + works = salvation. Paul called them out as false teachers and said their gospel was no gospel at all.

Paul wrote the letter deeply concerned that the Galatian Christians would revert back to their pre-gospel attempts to save themselves by obeying the Law. He asked a series of probing questions:

  • “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2)
  • “Having begun by the Spirit, are you not being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)
  • “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7)

Why was Paul so concerned? They believed in Jesus, right? Yes. They weren’t in danger of subtracting from Jesus but adding to him. If you believe in Jesus for your justification but then try to obey the Law or man’s rules in order to self-justify, that is another gospel; not one that saves. Was Jesus’ death enough? Or do we need to add a little something?

This is commonly known as legalism. Legalism is requiring human righteousness either before or after justification; obeying some legal code as a condition to be justified or in order to remain so. Both are adding human merit to salvation by grace. Jesus came to set us free from both the requirement to obey the Law to be saved and the requirement to obey the Law to stay saved. The early church dealt with this in Acts 15 with Gentile Christians entering the church and the Jewish Christians already there freaking out because their lifestyle wasn’t shaped at all by Jewish religious customs. The Apostles and the Holy Spirit said that our forefathers couldn’t obey this Law and salvation comes apart from it. Indeed, legalism is the antithesis of salvation by grace. Grace means freedom in a way the law never could.

“Run, John, and work, the law commands,

Yet finds me neither feet nor hands;

But sweeter news the gospel brings,

It bids me fly and lends me wings.”

(John Berridge)

We like it. Yet how many Christians somehow are not trusting in their justification but in their sanctification? That’s legalism—adding to grace man’s human effort. I know that our church has many people from backgrounds like mine where there was a strange mixture of gospel grace and man-made rules. We didn’t have to obey God’s law to be saved but after we are saved, there was an unwritten list of extra-biblical rules that you’d just better conform to. These weren’t God’s laws, they were man-made rules. Rules without grace. Rules without gospel. Rules enslave us. The gospel sets us free. It bids us fly and lends us wings.

Pastor, you can’t say that! People will hear this as freedom to sin! Paul anticipated this response in Romans 6 and wrote in verses 1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Below is a recent photo from Liberia. The man in the photo thought he had Ebola but was just declared free from Ebola contamination. Imagine the sense of relief! Does he immediately go drink from a contaminated fountain? Does he carelessly handle contaminated materials? How does a guy live in Liberia who has just been declared free from Ebola?









Sin is like Ebola. Sin is deadly. Being declared by God uncontaminated by sin (justification) doesn’t embolden us to go back to sin. Now we want to stay away from it—not to be saved—but out of joy and gratitude at being declared forever uncontaminated by it.

These are sins Jesus died for. Sins Jesus bore our guilt for. You say, “The stuff before I was saved, not so much. But more recently, yeah. I can’t quite shake it.” Justification is shaking it. Jesus didn’t die for the sins we commit before we are saved; he died for all our sins. Justification is God’s declaration of righteousness over our entire lives; our entire resume of sin. All of it.

This is true freedom. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from sin. It’s like the guy walking out of the contamination unit—freedom to live again. For the analogy to actually work, while he was in there, let’s say he did have Ebola. But the King of Liberia, who had been given an antidote to Ebola, says, “Hook us up. Transfuse his Ebola blood into me and my perfect blood into him.” Now how does he walk out? Now how does he feel about the king? How does he use his freedom which came to him at such an incredible price?

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2014 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address ( on the copied resource.

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