In our Sunday Night Bible study we are working through Galatians. It’s a small group so we’re very discussion oriented in our approach. This week we concluded Galatians 4. Galatians is a polemic against “another gospel” that added Jewish particulars to faith in Christ (circumcision, observation of certain holy days) as criteria for salvation. This undermined the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection since it based salvation on observing the law instead of on faith and the power of the Spirit.
At the end of the discussion our leader asked “How do we sometimes, as individuals or as a church, fall back into slavery, viewing the law in this distorted way?” One answer was this: “I grew up in a very good church, but we made lists.”
We Baptists are familiar with these [unwritten but well understood] lists. What might be on these lists? There was a list of “don’ts”: Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t dance. They also had plenty of cultural components – what hair length was appropriate, what clothing was appropriate, etc. I remember hearing a story from my Dad. He once went to a church where it was “ungodly” to have a beard. He left the church and visited a church where it was “ungodly” not to have a beard. By the time I was old enough to understand my church spoke against these lists (that’s not to say we didn’t still have an unwritten code of our own) and they were frequently labeled as “legalism.”
Here’s the interesting thing in Galatians. Paul takes pains to emphasize the freedom we have in Christ which is freedom from these lists (in his case circumcision, special observance of certain holy days) but in Galatians 5 we still see two lists. The first list is a “vice list” and the second list is a “virtue list.” The “virtue list” is, of course, the well-known fruit of the Spirit. The “vice list” is perhaps slightly less well known:
“19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21).
Virtue and vice lists are common for Paul. So, we might ask, why can Paul make lists and we can’t? Or, rather, what makes a list a form of legalism (in opposition to the gospel) and what makes it legitimate (springing from the gospel)?
Here are a few reflections:
Legalistic lists are criteria for salvation. When we add anything to the gospel we slip into legalism. So, if we say, you must believe in Jesus and do X, Y, Z we diminish the sufficiency of the cross for our salvation.
Gospel-oriented lists are the natural result of salvation. There’s a reason Paul uses the metaphor of the “fruit” to describe the virtue list. The Spirit produces virtues in us so that obedience to God, while not a criteria for salvation is a natural result of salvation. Faith without works is dead, but the works are still a result of that faith.
Legalistic lists are more likely to create cultural barriers. In the case of the Galatians the whole company of believers, including even Peter, were under the sway of Paul’s opponents. Peter and the others with him were therefore divided from their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ and refused to eat with them. This is part of the reason why Paul had to emphasize the unity of the Church in Christ in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The old “Baptist lists” referred to earlier necessarily had a cultural component (i.e., beard length) and sometimes, to our shame, often even an underlying racial component.
Gospel-oriented lists are more likely to be trans-cultural, or at least lacking in many cultural particularities. Everything in both of Paul’s lists apply across all cultures and show no favoritism to gender or class.
Legalistic lists often result in division. Paul finds it necessary to warn the Galatians, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
Gospel-oriented lists speak against division and promote unity. Specifically Paul warns against “hatred, discord, jealousy,” etc. On the other side of the coin, each “fruit” of the Spirit has a definite community-oriented component. If we really were a church marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” think of the unity and peace that would mark our community life!
Legalist lists lead to pride. The Pharisees (and probably Paul’s opponents) took great pride in their ability to follow all the rules and that pride no doubt caused them to look down on others who weren’t as good at keeping the list.
Gospel-oriented lists promote humility. Paul specifically calls the Galatians to use their freedom to “serve one another humbly in love.” If we see virtue and freedom from the slavery of sin as a gift from God and we realize that we can boast in nothing but Christ and him crucified, all our pride is eliminated.
Legalist lists can be done (and often are done) without love. It’s possible, and often easy, to follow a bunch of rules, check the right boxes, and avoid all the wrong “sins” all with the complete absence of love for neighbor.
Gospel-oriented lists are based in love. Paul states it this way: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,” and again, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
So let’s avoid making legalistic lists, but let’s make sure we don’t do away with passionately pursuing holiness in the process.
These are, I’m sure, just a few of the many differences between our “legalistic lists” and Paul’s gospel-oriented lists. What other distinctions have you observed?