Galatians – Dealing with Jewish Legalism

The early church started with Jewish people who had accepted Jesus as Messiah (Christ), but after some years Saul, a Pharisee, was converted and his name was changed to Paul. He had a direct revelation of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and he was sent by Jesus as a special ambassador/messenger/apostle to the Gentiles (non Jews) to teach them the way of salvation in Jesus Christ. One of the regions where Paul preached was Galatia. In this place, many people received Paul’s message, and became followers of the Way.

However, after Paul left, some other people, claiming also to be true followers of Jesus, came along and started teaching the Gentiles  there that they really needed to obey certain parts of the Law of Moses if they wanted to be saved from God’s wrath and enter His Kingdom. They disparaged Paul and claimed that they were from the real apostles (which was a lie). Actually, they were part of the group of Jewish people who wanted to mix parts of Judaism with the message of Christ, and they insisted that people conform to some of the standards of the Law of Moses if they hoped to be saved.

I recommend first of all that you read this whole letter in a version you can understand – actually reading it in more than one Bible version would be a good idea. I would suggest the New King James Version if you want a more accurate and literal rendering, and the New Living Translation, Easy to Read Version or Good News Bible if you want to see how certain Greek scholars have interpreted the sense of these version into modern English thought patterns. Once you have done that you will be in a better position to consider what this article is saying.

Paul Establishes His Credentials

“Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead),  and all the brethren who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:” (Galatians 1:1-2 NKJV)

Paul starts his letter like this because he needs to point out that he has authority for what he is teaching directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father. He didn’t get his message from men. He goes into detail on this claim in Galatians 1:11-12 and much of the first 2 chapters of the letter.

But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.  For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)

Now for most of the history of the Christian church since that time, almost no one has disputed Paul’s claim to apostleship; but in recent times, especially in the last 20 or 30 years at the time of writing (2018) dissenting voices have arisen. Some claim that Paul was a false apostle, or else they indicate that don’t like what he had to say. Many of these people are also fans of certain streams of Judaistic thinking where Jews and those who want to be Jews have started to claim that Jesus came to get people everywhere to obey the Torah – or the Law of Moses. There are varying degrees of this kind of thinking, and a lot of confusion has arisen. The Book of Galatians addresses this fundamental error and also various other legalistic errors which deemphasize the cross and the Spirit of God, while emphasizing the role of human effort to become observant of certain parts of the Law of Moses.

Paul is not Anti-Morality but he is Anti-Self-Righteousness

Paul says  “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:21) and also says

 knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Galatian 2:16).

Paul is making it clear that our right standing with God is not based on a sufficient conformity to the Law of Moses or any part of it. The reasons for this are many. One reason is that many of the obligations of the Torah (Law of Moses) were for the people of Israel only, during that period of time up until the coming of Jesus, who became the perfect sacrifice for sin. No one can keep all the animal sacrifice laws today – there is not even a Jewish temple at the present time.

Another reason is that no one is good enough in themselves. No one is made right by keeping the Law because no one except Jesus has done it or will do it so well as to merit a right standing with God. Even Zechariah the priest of whom the Scripture says was “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6) failed to please God when he doubted the message given to him by the angel Gabriel. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God ” (Romans 3:23) and this includes even Mary, the mother of Jesus who was a very holy woman chosen by God. No one was ever justified by Law keeping. Being right with God always came by grace through faith. It comes through trusting God and receiving the merit of Jesus Christ which was made possible by Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection.

But to be clear, this right standing with God doesn’t come through a dead faith which has no corresponding actions. It doesn’t come by a “grace” which doesn’t transform the sinner into a saint (a holy one).  Paul writes a very balanced letter to the Galatians actually. We can see by looking at Galatians 5:19-21.

“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness,  idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies,  envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

Paul is not cool with a kind of anything-goes attitude to sins of the flesh and the mind which some today might wish to say are quite compatible with salvation by grace.

But what Paul is mostly dealing with  in this letter is the human tendency to create a so-called modified version of the basic gospel in which human effort in Law-keeping becomes an essential element. He is especially referring to those who emphasize the physical sign of circumcision as a sign of being of Torah observant person. But I also believe that any religious system in which any external commandment is emphasized as a vital key to salvation also falls under the umbrage of what Paul is addressing in this letter. These things get people’s eyes of Jesus and the cross and onto themselves and their performance. That wrong focus will certainly cause people to fail and feel condemned.

Fighting for the Truth – Does it Matter?

There is a lot of wonderful revelation in this letter that I won’t be discussing much in this article. The main point of the letter though is to fight for the truth of the real gospel. Fighting for the truth is not something which is not popular today. You won’t find a chapter on this in the popular book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” because it isn’t the way to maximise your popularity while you live on this earth. Listen to the way Paul uncompromisingly addresses the issue of modifying the gospel:

“I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

“Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed.

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” (Galatians 1:6-10 NLT)

This is why I have to say that many of the groups today which claim to be Christian are really false cults. People who are part of these groups are emotionally involved with the social group they have become part of and will not easily give up their false doctrines unless they are convicted by the Holy Spirit towards salvation or unless the group badly disappoints them causing them to give up their false faith. The essence of all these false cults is that there is or has been some Teacher, with a false teaching that is being promoted as indispensable for truly following and being accepted by God.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, some Seventh Day Adventists and the system of Roman Catholicism falls into this category. The age of the cult has little to do with its truth. The teachers Paul was addressing in Galatians had their religious doctrines out there before the Roman Catholic church in its present form came along. All of these groups I mention have some special point or points which they insist on as vitally important for salvation that actually aren’t important. They all have serious false teachings about salvation and how one must be saved.

But now, in recent times, we are witnessing people who are moving in the direction of Jewish legalism also. These people are ensnaring the minds even of Spirit-filled Christians who sincerely desire to serve God truly. If that seems unlikely to you consider this: the Galatians themselves had received the Spirit and miracles were worked among them (Galatians 2) yet THEY were deceived by Jewish legalism to the point where they “fell from grace” and were separated from Christ. The danger is serious and no one is immune unless they keep their eyes on the Lord and hold fast to a solid understanding of the gospel.

The people who were teaching a false gospel to the Galatians were emphasizing obeying certain works of the Law of Moses, especially male circumcision, which was a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. It was also in the Law of Moses. You could make a biblical argument for it even today, because in the Book of Genesis it says that it is an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:13). But it is an everlasting covenant for Abraham’s physical descendants – Jewish people – at most. There is no way that it should be imposed on Gentiles as some kind of requirement for righteousness.

Certain people tried to impose this on Paul and his team. But Paul writes:

“Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.  And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage),   to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.” (Galatians 2:3-5)

Circumcision might be a requirement even today for Jewish males, I won’t go into that – but it certainly is not a requirement for Gentiles. For Paul, adding something like this as a requirement was to get away from the truth of the Gospel (Good News).

Circumcision in this case was more about promising to keep the Law of Moses. Paul writes:

“Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.” (Galatians 5:2-3 NLT

The problem is this: the Law of Moses is a complete system – applicable to the Jews at that time – and it stands or falls together as a system of obtaining righteousness (right standing) with God. You either do it all perfectly to be considered righteous, or you have to find another way, or you are unrighteous. Actually, the only way that works is the way of faith – trusting and having confidence in Jesus Christ. This trust results in the New Birth – a spiritual birth that Is what is meant by being “Born Again”. A person who is “Born Again” through faith in Christ is transformed by the Spirit of God from the inside out. Not only that but God considers all their sins washed away because of the Blood Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Such a person is not striving to obtain spiritual life by conforming to rules from the outside in. None of the things a person can do outwardly can give birth to that spiritual life. It is a gift from God.


There is always this tendency in the religious instinct of humanity to want to depend on self and self-effort somehow. A lot of Christians are failing to break free of the power of sin because they haven’t learned to trust Christ and open the door to the work of the Spirit of God who changes us from glory to glory. One of Satan’s cunning works against well-meaning religious people is to get them focussed on their own performance. This always leads either to religious pride or to self-condemnation – depending on whether one feels successful in their course of religious works at the time. A lot of the things people do might even be good and biblical things, but the moment we depend on those things for our righteousness rather than the work of Jesus we are getting off track and in danger of falling from grace. We need to keep remembering that Jesus’ works are the only works solid enough to be the basis for righteousness. It is not that our obedience to God is unimportant – it IS important – but it is not a solid enough foundation for our acceptance with God – and it will always leave us feeling deficient and unworthy to pray and expect answers from our Father in Heaven. Our true foundation is the blood of Jesus – which means cleansing for us, access to God in prayer, and even the power of a new life.

Every now and then a religious leader or movement will arise that will find something in the Bible that we haven’t been doing, and make that issue into the be all and end all of righteousness. Historically, Seventh Day Adventists have done this with the Saturday=Sabbath issue. Some early Christians were led away to do this with circumcision. Others with The Observance of Special Feasts of Israel – something which seems to be growing in popularity today in certain circles. Others do it by making a big deal out of correctly saying one of the names of God in the original Hebrew. Such people like to talk about “Yeshua” and not “Jesus”. I remember the Romanian Orthodox priests making a big deal of how the name of Jesus in Romanian had to be with two letters Is – i.e. Iisus and not Isus. Some insist on talking about “Jehovah” as if knowing this form of the Lord’s holy name is their passport to righteousness, or at least part of it. All this is legalism. There are so many forms of legalism and Satan keeps coming up with new ones. Paul wrote his letter of Galatians to one group who had fallen from grace because they were persuaded to get their focus OFF Jesus Christ crucified and onto the observance of a particular commandment or sign.

Do Not Tolerate Legalism

“And you, dear brothers and sisters, are children of the promise, just like Isaac. 29 But you are now being persecuted by those who want you to keep the law, just as Ishmael, the child born by human effort, persecuted Isaac, the child born by the power of the Spirit.

“But what do the Scriptures say about that? “Get rid of the slave and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  So, dear brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman; we are children of the free woman.” (Galatians 4:28-31)

In Paul’s explanation, Ishmael and Hagar are symbols of the Law system of righteousness. It is based on human effort and human initiative. People who follow this system will actually PERSECUTE those who are truly born of the Spirit and following the way of grace by the Spirit. We see this fact in the history of the church. Satan is behind the spirit of legalism and when it gets a hold of power, this spirit will KILL. We see this in the Middle Ages when Roman Catholics and even some Protestants like Calvin got hold of the power of the State to enforce their dogmas.

When we live or preach legalism, we make people (and ourselves) either PROUD or more likely, guilty and sad. When we teach people to trust the Blood of Christ and live by the Spirit of God, it produces righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). The fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22,23 will also grow and develop.

This is why we must resist legalism when we see it at work in any of its forms. It does not produce anything acceptable to God. It produces religious pride at times amongst people with strong wills, and despair and guilt amongst those who are less capable of self-imposed discipline.

Maybe you have been trusting in something you are doing rather than in Christ’s blood. Maybe you have been trying to perfect yourself through self-effort rather than the Word and the Spirit of God. If so why don’t you instead cast yourself on the mercy of God. You could pray something like this:


“Dear Father in heaven, I give up trusting in my own righteousness and rule keeping ability. I cast myself on your mercy. I believe in the Blood Sacrifice of your Son Jesus. Wash me in your blood, cleanse me. I consecrate myself to you and your will and I depend on your Spirit for strength and willingness to live a life of faith and love. Thank you for accepting me because of your mercy. Amen.”

The above prayer, if it expresses your heart, would be one way to start on a new path of walking with God through the Spirit, and not by any system of Law. Ask God to reveal Jesus to you as Savior and Sanctifier in a new way. Seek out more information on how to be filled with the Holy Spirit and walk with Jesus. Feel free to write me to let me know how it is going. God bless you.

I invite you to build a faith community together with me. Join my social media channels and let’s connect, especially if you want freedom or fullness in Christ.

My Telegram has a ministry channel. On Tiktok I have many videos and new ones regularly.

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