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Grace and Peace, Works and Despair: Some Reflections on Galatians 1:1-9

25 April, 2009

brannansmall1These are some notes and observations on a sermon by Dominic Smart, available here.

According to Acts 13-14, the churches Paul established in Galatia received a letter from him due to a massive problem within the community. It was a doctrinal problem, which fact is itself a challenge to so much of our contemporary sensibilities and assumptions about what constitutes a serious issue within the church. The problem was legalism.

Legalism is most commonly found in churches that are full of zeal. In the Galatian churches it arose from Judaizers, who taught that, in a certain sense, we have to ‘prepare’ ourselves or ‘fit’ ourselves for being acceptable to and accepted by God (justified), as a ‘supplement’ to what Christ has done for us and on our behalf.

Such a doctrinal stance is subtle, because it appeals to things that in and of themselves may be good or useful, but in other circumstances. Thus this approach had been accepted by some among the Galatian churches, and understandably many others were getting confused. Paul’s appeal (and warning) to the churches is to turn back to the gospel of grace.

Paul, an a apostle — not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…

He expounds upon his ‘credentials’ (Gal 1:1-2) in order to drive home that what he’s saying is straight from God. Only God could send Paul the Pharisee of Pharisees as an Apostle to the Gentiles. Only from God and through Christ is there even a gospel to be announced and defended (v. 1).

In the following blessing (Gal 1:3-5), all the ‘grace and peace’ Paul desires for the Galatians comes only from God through Christ as well:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Who gets the glory if our path to heaven is laid by a string of false pearls of self-righteousness? Before he even gets to the almost indignant rebuke of vv. 6 and 7, Paul says, in effect, ‘You only ever heard of the gospel of hope, and you only ever embraced it, because of the pure grace of God through Christ.’ Now comes his rebuke:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

‘I am astonished’ doesn’t mean ‘Oh, what a surprise!’ — Paul is horrified and incredulous at what he’s heard. For Paul the Galatians weren’t merely forgetting or neglecting a doctrinal box to be ticked, but the One who is the source and subject of the very gospel itself.

Why isn’t legalism a gospel, ‘no gospel at all’ (v. 7)? Because neither the Galatians nor we can keep the law — any law — in order to please God. If we attempt to do so, it’s not ‘grace and peace’ that’s the result, but works and despair, because of sin. Legalism is also no gospel becuae it limits (at least in the case of the Galatian Judaizers) the ‘cultural boundaries’ of God’s people to those who are Jewish or willing to put themselves under the burden of the Old Covenant. Further, it’s a perversion of the gospel of Christ, because as soon as Christians have thought we’ve deserved something from God, grace is no longer grace. God’s grace is in response not to our merit, but our demerit. Legalism, in short, makes Christ not enough. Thus Paul pronounces condemnation:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Paul’s anathemas or curses (Gal 1:8-9) are, because of the authority of Christ by whom Paul was commissioned as an apostle, a matter of everlasting weight and import. These anathemas speak to the very core of willful unbelief: I will not suffer God in Christ to be totally right in this, and myself totally wrong. To the extent that we advocate and practice legalism, just to that extent we set Christ to one side, and teach others to do the same.

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11 Comments
  1. 25 April, 2009 5:28 pm

    If I may respectfully disagree with the founding premise of your post: “The problem was legalism.”

    I don’t believe the problem was legalism, nor was the Judaizer heresy primarily an issue of pelagianism. The true problem was racism. The Jews saw themselves as a superior-favored race, with the Gentiles as inferior. The Judaizer heresy was SOME Jewish-Christians treating the Gentile-Christians as second class Christians. If you read Paul through this lens and throw out the pelagian lens, a lot of things will fall into place like you never imagined.

    In short, Paul was battling against a form of sola gratia: “God made me a Jew, and as such I’m promised all these blessings.” They weren’t trying to work their way into Heaven, they saw Heaven as directly tied to birth (and adoption) into their race.

    In case your thinking I’m espousing New Perspective stuff, I’m not. The NPP has some good points, but it fails on others.

    You said: “Why isn’t legalism a gospel, ‘no gospel at all’ (v. 7)? Because neither the Galatians nor we can keep the law — any law — in order to please God.”

    Nick: Paul’s attack against the Judaizers had nothing to do with perfectly keeping the Law. In fact a Jew who was living a righteous life keeping the Law before the advent Christ was most certainly pleasing God (eg Lk 1:5f). And your comment of “any law” is a serious misunderstanding and improper exegesis of Paul’s thought, Galatians especially. Paul was ‘battling’ against the Mosaic Law only, (see Gal 3:15-18 for solid proof), not “any and all laws and works” (Gen 26:4f).

    You said: Legalism is also no gospel becuae it limits (at least in the case of the Galatian Judaizers) the ‘cultural boundaries’ of God’s people to those who are Jewish or willing to put themselves under the burden of the Old Covenant.”

    Nick: I would agree with the heart of this. This is more along the lines of the real problem Paul was dealing with. But I would add that it ultimately wasn’t even the burden of the Old Covenant they were putting themself under that was the problem, but rather what that signified. The Old Covenant was literally abolished in Christ, so to ‘go back’ and put yourself under it signifies a rejection of Christ being the End point of the Law (Rom 10:4). This is Paul’s argument in Gal 5:1ff.

    You said: Further, it’s a perversion of the gospel of Christ, because as soon as Christians have thought we’ve deserved something from God, grace is no longer grace. God’s grace is in response not to our merit, but our demerit. Legalism, in short, makes Christ not enough.

    Nick: There is truth to this, self righteousness and pelagianism are certainly contrary to the Gospel, but I’m just saying that was not Paul’s main argument.

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    28 April, 2009 1:21 pm

    Nick~

    I would wholeheartedly agree with much of what you’ve said, *if* I agreed with your definition of legalism as pelagianism. I understand that you’re not offering an NPP account here, but I think you share some assumptions with the NPP that are very important.

    For me, as for all classical Protestants, ‘legalism’ doesn’t mean pelagianism in the sense of bare self-salvation by personal or communal works of whatever sort in order to earn eternal life from God tit for tat. This is often assumed to be the Protestant interpretation of Roman Catholicism and hence the anachronistic portrayal of Judaism (which raises the ire of NPP advocates). If you assume legalism means rank pelagianism, then it’s pretty obvious that’s not what Paul’s opponents (or Luther’s opponents, for that matter!) were advocating. But apart from some fiery rhetoric (which is never a good basis upon which to argue either for or against a position), classical Protestants have *never* argued that mainstream Judaism or Roman Catholicism contains ‘legalistic’ elements in that sense.

    By legalism (in this case Christian legalism), we mean any doctrinal and practical commitment that salvation is by grace *plus our faithful cooperation*, by faith *plus our loving faithfulness*, by Christ *plus our obedience*. We recognize that just about everyone would say that redemption is gracious, and most would say that even all our faithfulness and obedience is itself grace-enabled — but it’s the *alone* part of salvation by grace, through faith, in Christ, that’s at the heart of the question of legalism. And I think that’s exactly what’s at stake for Paul in Galatians.

    ~B

  3. Nick permalink
    28 April, 2009 4:30 pm

    Hi,

    What you seem to be saying is that legalism is more along the lines of semi-Pelagianism rather than full fledged P.
    If so, I don’t believe that changes much of what I said nor did I intend.

  4. creedorchaos permalink*
    29 April, 2009 1:50 am

    Nick~

    I know you started out your post saying that the problem was only racism, but then you quickly moved to Paul’s discussion of law-keeping, saying that,

    “Paul’s attack against the Judaizers had nothing to do with perfectly keeping the Law. In fact a Jew who was living a righteous life keeping the Law before the advent Christ was most certainly pleasing God (eg Lk 1:5f). And your comment of “any law” is a serious misunderstanding and improper exegesis of Paul’s thought, Galatians especially. Paul was ‘battling’ against the Mosaic Law only, (see Gal 3:15-18 for solid proof), not “any and all laws and works” (Gen 26:4f).”

    This is why I started talking about classical Protestant understandings of legalism. What you’re describing, at least in part, is ‘covenant nomism’; the Judaizers believed that one ‘got in’ to covenant with God purely by the grace of being elected to be a part of the people of God as the seed of Abraham, as you say. But one ‘stayed in’ by being faithful — again with God’s help and provision — to the covenant obligations of Abraham and Sinai (as you imply in your discussion of law-keeping and righteousness). ‘Get in purely by grace, stay in by grace and faithfulness/cooperation with grace’ is a rough and ready description of what classical Protestants have meant by legalism. Both questions of election (national, ethnic, and otherwise) and relationship to the law are at play. ‘Semi-Pelagianism’ isn’t the best term to use, because it could just as well be called semi-Augustinianism.

    So I think my response isn’t off in left-field. My point was that an *assumption* that covenant nomism is the right Christian way to think of things, leads to the *conclusion* that questions of ethnic privilege or ceremonial obligations are the whole (or at least the heart) of Paul’s concern with law, faith, righteousness, etc. I don’t think it stands exegetically, but it’s probably the best option *if* one assumes that Paul was, like so many of us, a covenant nomist.

    But if covenant nomism is *precisely* the thing Paul was arguing against, as classical Protestants have argued (although they’re not the only ones), then the boundary markers (so to speak) of the discussion shift dramatically.

    ~B

  5. 29 April, 2009 5:28 am

    Thank you for writing comments on this Scripture. I used this Scripture and Calvin’s commentary on it to emphasize the importance of “TULIP” (which I maintain summarizes the doctrine of salvation) although it more directly applies to the problem of legalism upon which you rightfully focus.

    Calvin’s Commentary on Galatians 1:6-9 can be seen by going to this link – http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.iii.iii.ii.html

    Here are three of my favorite quotes from it:

    “his greatest severity of language is directed, as we shall see, against the false apostles. He charges them with turning aside, not only from his gospel, but from Christ; for it was impossible for them to retain their attachment to Christ, without acknowledging that he has graciously delivered us from the bondage of the law. But such a belief cannot be reconciled with those notions respecting the obligation of ceremonial observance which the false apostles inculcated. They were removed from Christ; not that they entirely rejected Christianity, but that the corruption of their doctrines was such as to leave them nothing more than an imaginary Christ. …

    The gospel of Christ. To know what are the leading points of the gospel, is a matter of unceasing importance. When these are attacked, the gospel is destroyed. …

    But when the credit due to doctrines which God had revealed concerning the salvation of men was the subject of controversy, he did not reckon it enough to disclaim the judgment of men, without declining, at the same time, the authority of angels.” Thank you again.

  6. 29 April, 2009 8:31 am

    Sweet.
    Hey Bill, Alisia gave birth to yet another beautiful (and perfectly healthy) daughter, Evangeline. The Lord is faithful. This family business is FUN!

    Hope you’re well, bro,
    chaos (phil)

  7. Nick permalink
    29 April, 2009 10:12 am

    Phil: So I think my response isn’t off in left-field. My point was that an *assumption* that covenant nomism is the right Christian way to think of things, leads to the *conclusion* that questions of ethnic privilege or ceremonial obligations are the whole (or at least the heart) of Paul’s concern with law, faith, righteousness, etc. I don’t think it stands exegetically, but it’s probably the best option *if* one assumes that Paul was, like so many of us, a covenant nomist.

    Nick: The concept of covenant nomist has to be carefully distinguished here. For Paul, the issue with Mosaic Law (which is what he is battling against) was not an issue of covenant nomism, the issue was that the ML was a temporary thing between Abraham and Christ and is now literally over with. The questions which Sola Fide seeks to answer (eg keeping the law perfectly) are non-issues in Paul’s mind. Ephesians 3:4-6 is literally the heart of Paul’s whole message, the mystery of ages is that the “Gentiles are heirs together with Israel.”

    Phil: But if covenant nomism is *precisely* the thing Paul was arguing against, as classical Protestants have argued (although they’re not the only ones), then the boundary markers (so to speak) of the discussion shift dramatically.

    Nick: I think most of this is arguing over words rather than concepts. Your argument about Paul arguing against covenant nomism via “the Law” he so attacks is literally a non-issue in Paul’s message. The problem with the law is not an issue of covenant nomism but rather purpose of the Mosaic Law, which was temporary and now over with.

    This hearkens back to your claim: “Because neither the Galatians nor we can keep the law — any law — in order to please God.”
    Paul was not concerned about “any law” in a generic sense, nor was he concerned with perfect law keeping.

  8. 29 April, 2009 11:36 am

    Congratulations to you, Phil, and Alisia! The Lord indeed is faithful!

    May God bless Evangeline and your entire family! There is a saying that daughters grow up and take good care of their father. You are blessed. I just have sons who may be eager to put me in a nursing home, so I am practicing reciting the names of all the Presidents, to prove my competency. 🙂

    The family business is fun as you state. I coached my three sons in soccer for 13 years, and soccer was so good for them and for our relationship. I can heartily recommend sports, especially soccer, to you all. Whatever your daughters do, you and Alisia will have fun watching them, playing with them, and coaching them through life.

    Yours truly,
    Bill

  9. creedorchaos permalink*
    1 May, 2009 3:16 am

    Nick~

    This is “B”, not “P”. Check the initials carefully 🙂

    I haven’t actually been arguing with you about what’s right. I did say that, “if covenant nomism is *precisely* the thing Paul was arguing against, as classical Protestants have argued (although they’re not the only ones), then the boundary markers (so to speak) of the discussion shift dramatically.” You don’t agree, of course, but that’s just the thing I’m trying to make as clear as possible, that there needs to be clear recognition of what’s in play in these disagreements — it’s at bottom a choice between very different conceptions of law and righteousness and (thus) grace, faith, and faithfulness.

    Both can’t be right, I think we’ll all agree, and so at this point the overarching ‘conceptual framework’ through which we approach the scriptures needs to be informed precisely by those scriptures, so that it in turn further elucidates the scriptures (the hermeneutical circle of the analogia scripturae/fidei, if you will).

    I hesitate to get into exegesis with you, not only because it’s notoriously difficult in a comment thread, but because our conceptual frameworks are so disparate, and it seems from our previous exchanges that you’re not one to wear your assumptions on your sleeve, so to speak — even though they’re constantly at work, as they are with everyone.

    In a nutshell, you think a wholly imputed mediatorial righteousness is the black hole at the center of classical Protestantism’s gospel, and I think it’s the very heart and soul of the gospel, classically Protestant or otherwise.

    ~B

  10. Nick permalink
    1 May, 2009 3:04 pm

    I’m not sure what you mean by I think imputed righteousness is a “black hole.” I believe the concept is nowhere taught in Scripture, and that of all Paul wrote the supposed proof-text for imputation is only mentioned in one half chapter, Rom 4:1-8. I understand imputation is the heart of the classical Protestant gospel, but if Rom 4:1-8 can be knocked down (ie shown to not teach imputation), then reading the rest of Paul’s Epistles with an imputation backdrop falls down and the “covenant nomism” objection likewise collapses.

  11. 1 May, 2009 9:01 pm

    Bill: My wife and I thank you for the great encouragement. I hope I get to be a soccer coach…or surfing coach…anything like that with these two girls.

    Nick: I’d like to take credit for anything that Brannan (~B),writes, especially back in school, especially exams, papers, etc. however, I’d get severely spanked…and it wouldn’t be godly.
    Sorry I can’t participate in the very good discussion that you are having. I’m very busy with a new family, work and preparing sermons for my own series on Galatians.
    p

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