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Fighting Against Legalism
Scripture: Galatians 5:1; Galatians 3:1-5, 7, 10; G...
Track 4 of 11 in the The Freedom that Comes from Grace series
Running time: 1 hour, 06 minutes, 19 seconds.
Grace is the provider of liberty. Liberty is the motivator to open up to love and to love unconditionally. When we wake up to grace fully in our lives, we find we are no longer doing something due to fear or out of shame or guilt; we do things because we love to do it.

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Mike Nobis Speaker: Mike Nobis
Sunday School Teacher, Former Elder at Madison Park Christian Church. Mike is President of JK Creative Printers & Mailing in Quincy, IL. He is married to Pam and has three children, Tom, Tyler and Jennifer. Mike has three grandchildren: Ryne, Ivy and Alicia.

View all sermons by this speaker.

Fighting Against Legalism

It’s been a number of weeks since we paused in our lesson on Grace and started a new series concerning the closeness of God. I enjoyed the study and it helped me to gain a greater appreciation for the Grace God expresses toward me. God desires to have a very close relationship with us and he longs for us to love him and to draw near to him. He also wants us to be free, free from sin, free from worry and anxiety, free from shame and free to be the person Jesus wants us to be. He wants us to know that freedom has come to us by the things God did on our behalf.

Freedom is always worth fighting for. That is the main reason Americans have laid their lives down for this country. It is fascinating to listen to our veterans who fought in foreign wars and the reasons they enlisted in the military. There are several guys I got to know while Jack was in the Illinois Veterans Home. It was very interesting to hear and listen to their stories and to discover the part they played in the war. Every person I talked with enlisted because they wanted to defend the freedoms and the principles our country stands for.

Even when our country was fighting against itself during the great Civil War, it was all about freedom. The issue was slavery versus freedom. The black people in our nation were not free. It was the conviction of this country that they should be free, and if necessary, we would take up arms against those who opposed their liberation from slavery. Charles Sumner gave a great speech concerning the war and he summed the whole issue in one statement:

“Where slavery is, there Liberty cannot be. And where Liberty is, there Slavery cannot be.”

There is another battle going on that is all about freedom; it is a battle raging within the church. It is a battle for freedom and there are people in the church who don’t want freedom to abound. It is an age old problem that existed in the first century and still exists today, Legalism is a dangerous problem in the church. Paul fought hard against it and confronted it every time he encountered it in a church. The 5th chapter of Galatians is considered the Magna Charta of Christian liberty. In fact, the first verse in this chapter contains the single command that, if believed and obeyed, would go a long way in putting a stop to legalism.

Galatians 5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Paul tells us not to give in and don’t give up our freedom. We are not to allow ourselves to be slaves anymore. Describe for me the slavery Paul wants us to fight against?

I think it is important that we understand a couple terms before we continue on in this discussion. Just so we are all on the same page and understanding the terms correctly. What does Paul mean when he declares that the Christian has liberty? And second, what does it mean to say that legalism puts people under bondage.

What is liberty: Essentially, liberty is freedom…freedom from something and freedom to do something. Liberty is freedom from slavery or bondage. Initially, freedom was the freedom from sin’s power and guilt. Freedom from God’s wrath. Freedom from Satanic and demonic authority. And most important, it is the freedom from shame that could easily bind me. But this freedom also includes another kind of freedom, the freedom from the tyranny of others’ opinions, obligations and expectations.

The letter to the Galatians was a letter Paul sent to a church that was doing so well for the name of Christ. Then something happened. A church that once was on fire for Jesus began to die. Paul was concerned and discovered that they wanted to go back to living a life under the law. The church was infected by people who worked to get them to go back to Judaism. Paul was stunned and wrote the letter we now have called Galatians.

Galatians 3:1-5 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

Twice Paul calls the Galatians foolish. He even called them bewitched. It is apparent that Paul is very upset with the church and wants them to realize what they are doing. Is Paul being to dramatic to use these words to describe their actions or is there more to giving up liberty that we don’t see? What is so foolish about wanting to perform in order to please God? I thought God wants us to obey him?

What does it mean to be free from the curse of the Law? Freedom from the fear of condemnation before God and freedom from the demands of other people. We are free from the “shoulds” and “oughts” we get from the general public.

Grace is the provider of liberty. Liberty is the motivator to open up to love and to love unconditionally. When we wake up to grace fully in our lives, we find we are no longer doing something due to fear or out of shame or guilt; we do things because we love to do it.

When I became a Christian, I was given a freedom I never experienced before. I became free to become all that God meant for me to be regardless of how He leads others. I discovered that I could be me, fully and freely. God didn’t stamp out cookie cutter Christians. He doesn’t want us all to be the same. Every one of us were created totally different from one another and God wants that to be evident in the church and protected. God is pleased with variety. You and I are free to make choices, free to know his will, free to walk in it and free to obey his leading in my life especially if it is different than yours.

Freedom is an awesome thing, or is it? If freedom is so awesome, then why are there so many who fight against it? To those who hate freedom, what are the dangers of freedom? Why would some not want freedom to abound within the church?


Legalism is an attitude, a mentality based on pride. It is obsessive conformity to an artificial standard for the purpose of exalting oneself. A legalist assumes the place of authority and pushes it to unwarranted extremes. Legalism requires unanimity, not unity.

Ask the elders in class, do the elders practice unanimity? Is there unity within the eldership? How can unanimity and unity exist at the same time? When can the two cause friction?

Legalism is the opposite of Grace. In fact, legalism hates grace and works hard to stomp it out. In reality, legalism seeks security. If we seek an exhaustive list of do’s and don’ts we not only can control human behavior but have God’s approval as well. Legalism confuses unanimity and unity. These terms might sound trivial to you but when they are all messed up in a church, the reality is painful hurt that runs throughout the body of Christ. Most church splits happen because unanimity and unity collide rather than work together.

Unity is a profound quality in a church. It takes great effort to achieve and yet effort by itself will not produce it. Unity is a great source of security yet it demands great risk. Unanimity on the other hand is very tidy. It can be measured, monitored and enforced. It is largely external whereas unity is internal. When they both work together, unanimity is a byproduct of unity. But when legalism enters the scene, unanimity takes on a whole new look and outcome. Unanimity will demand that everyone march to the same tune or get out. It says, we do this or we don’t do that and therefore we are pleasing God. If someone steps out of that unanimity, then there is trouble.

Here is an interesting statement by Eugene Peterson:

“The word Christian means different things to different people. To one person it means stiff, uptight, inflexible way of life, colorless and unbending. To another it means risky, surprise-filled venture, lived tiptoe at the edge of expectation. “

Both definitions are at the opposite extremes. But the reality is true, we know of Christians who are like the first example and we know of Christians who fit the second. How can both of them exist at the same time and work in unity together?

Peterson closes with this statement

“But in fact the community of faith, the very place where we are most likely to experience the free life, is also the very place where we are in most danger of losing it?”

If this statement is true, how can this be? What causes us to lose freedom when we were called to it by Christ?

When we study Galatians, we find there are three basic tools the legalist will use to kill off freedom. These tools need to be recognized and the legalist needs to be confronted when they go to use them.

Tool #1: Distort the truth

Galatians 1:7 Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.

What is the big lie? What is the foundation for legalism? Salvation is not by faith alone, it requires work.

Why do Christians get so upset when we define Christianity as salvation through faith and not of works? In the reality of things, it all has to do with the flesh. It all has to do with “I”. It is all about man’s glory, I have to add something to my salvation.

Grace says to us that I have nothing to offer God, nothing to earn, nothing to pay. There isn’t anything worth doing on my part that even comes close to impressing God. When man thinks and preaches that we can do something, we are just fooling ourselves. So why do I feel it is so important that I try to do something for God? Paul tells us the real answer for some:

Galatians 1:10 Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Tool #2: They Spy and Enslave

Galatians 2:1-5 Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders; for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.

The legalist, if they suspect you aren’t following their way of life, they will check you out and they will attempt to get you to follow their ways. They use doubt, they use guilt, and they will try to shame you into believing that they know best on what you should and shouldn’t do. They will use the first tool in their tool box to hammer you into submission. If you fight them, they work to get you out. Heaven help the preacher who believes that a person is free in Christ if he serves in a legalistic church. The suggestion of changing to a free church can cost him his job.

Tool #3: Hypocrisy

What is fascinating about this tool, it can be used by people you least expect. When this tool is used, it needs to be confronted right away. There is no waiting.

12A: Galatians 2:11-14 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Even the leaders in a church can fall prey to legalism and they will use their hypocrisy to maintain the status quo. But in Peter’s case, he enjoyed his freedom until the Jews showed up and he lied to make the Jews smile with approval. As long as the Jews were around, he let on as though he never ate ham. Paul saw this hypocrisy and called Peter on it. Peter was faking it in front of the Jews and also faking it in front of the Gentiles. Peter talked freedom but didn’t live it.

Today the church is much the same way, we sing songs about how amazing grace is and we thank God for the grace he has given us but we turn right around and refuse to show grace to others and attempt to keep them in bondage rather than show them the freedom they are suppose to live in. We must refuse to let the freedom killer get away with their dastardly work. They need to be called out and corrected with the truth of the Gospel but most of all; we need to show others what the grace of Christ is all about.