All posts

Enchanting Legalism

Every time I hear about adopting families, I am moved. I often wonder what that transition is like for these children. For many, the orphanage is the only home they know and most cannot imagine the home that is prepared for them.

Like adopted children, we can tend to reach back to what is familiar rather than reaching toward what we are promised in Scripture. We are vulnerable to the subtle temptation of legalism. And this temptation has everything to do with our spiritual adoption.

One group that needed clarity on the dangers of legalism was the Galatians. They were returning to a pre-conversion lifestyle. They were seduced by legalism and failing to appreciate the good of the gospel. They were reaching back to the squalor.

We need to hear their story.


The book of Galatians was written to Christians in Galatia, a Roman province in what is now Turkey. The Galatian churches were composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians in the process of deserting the gospel. One of the results was the Galatians’ failure to understand and appreciate the doctrine of God’s adopting grace (Galatians 4:1-7). It was if a spell had been cast over them (3:1). And that spell was the subtle and serious error of legalism.

To better understand legalism, and the path taken by the Galatians into legalism, it’s helpful to watch how this unfolded.

The Path into Legalism

Although they had received the grace of God through the proclamation of the gospel (3:1), the Galatians were now in the process of abandoning the gospel of grace and adopting the Mosaic Law as their means of salvation. Through their obedience to the law, the Galatians were seeking to earn God’s forgiveness, God’s justification, and God’s acceptance.

This couldn’t be more serious. For the Galatians, the person and work of Christ was no longer sufficient. As a result of the false teaching, the Galatians erroneously assumed that atonement for their sins required adding their own obedience to the work of Christ. And this was a complete misunderstanding and misapplication of the law. It was a distortion of the law! It was a desertion of the gospel!

And it demanded a passionate response from Paul. Here’s why.

The law was never meant to save from sin. The law was meant to reveal God’s character, our sin, and our need for a Savior. And so Paul surveys the history of the law in order to inform the Galatians about its divine purpose and to protect them from misunderstanding and misusing it.

In Galatians 3:19-26 Paul explains their situation by building up to a metaphor (4:1-2). He writes that Israel under the law was like a child waiting for his inheritance. As a “minor” this child had no access to the inheritance, so his status was not unlike that of a household slave. The law was given by God for a specific purpose: it was preparatory for the coming of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. For the Jews, God gave the law as preparation. “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (vv. 23-24).

Of course the recipients of this letter, the Galatians, were Gentiles, not Jews. Before their conversion, they were largely ignorant of the law—but they were nevertheless enslaved. They were enslaved to the idols of their own imagination and creation, enslaved to false gods, enslaved to demons (4:8-9). And they were accountable for their sin.

The pagan Gentiles were not enslaved to the Jewish law. The Jews were not enslaved to pagan idolatry. But both Gentile and Jew were enslaved because of their sin.

By abandoning the gospel and subjecting themselves to the Mosaic Law as a means of salvation, the Gentiles were returning to their pre-conversion state as slaves. This was a different form of slavery, but slavery nonetheless.

They were like orphans reaching back.

Legalism is slavery. Why, Paul asks, do you want to return to this slavery? “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (v. 9).

“The Galatians,” Trevor Burke writes, “have singularly failed to grasp the fact that there is no higher honor than belonging to the household of their Father God.”¹

And when we miss this supreme honor, we fail to comprehend and enjoy the gift of adoption. When we miss this supreme honor, we are susceptible to legalism’s enchantment. We are tempted to reach back.

Adopting grace will protect us from the spell of legalism.

This post is part of a series of posts exploring and celebrating the adopting love of God, entitled Adopted!

¹Trevor J. Burke, Adopted Into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (IVP Academic, 2006).