Saul was a Pharisee and smugly secure in a comfortable routine. He carefully observed the washing rituals and holy days, and vehemently opposed any threat to the traditions. There was a new sect in Jerusalem, followers of Christ, and Saul threatened to get rid of them all. He helped execute one of them, then went to the high priest to obtain authority to arrest more, and set off for Damascus. But Christ met him on the road and his life was changed. Saul the law-keeping Pharisee became Paul the Spirit-led apostle of Christ.
Perhaps the devil had smirked as he watched Saul’s ambition – a zeal that kept Saul thinking that his acceptance before the LORD God lay in his performance of the traditions handed down from the Jewish fathers. After he was saved, Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21, ESV). The aspiration of his life became to know Christ and the power of His resurrection (Phil 3:10). Unlike Paul, however, the Galatian believers were being swayed by false teachers who insisted on keeping the law to attain greater favor with God.
Satan uses the same schemes to hinder believers today. While we don’t insist on following the Torah or Jewish oral tradition, Satan presents us with a more tolerable impulse: try to please God by keeping the rules of men or even some self-constructed standard. But any law-keeping to gain favor with God will be detrimental to our spiritual progress.
The Purpose of the Law
If the law is irrelevant, why was it given? Paul states in 1 Timothy 1:9 that the law was not made for the righteous, but for the lawless and disobedient; it was made for the ungodly and sinners, not for believers who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. While Old Testament law appears to have been a way to please God, it was also a standard of righteousness intended to expose the sinfulness of human nature. It was given to ancient Israel because of transgressions, “that sin by the commandment might become exceedingly sinful” (Rom 7:13, KJV), until the promised Christ came Who could redeem them from the curse of the law. It was given to us to show our sinfulness until Christ came into our experience and justified us through faith (Gal 3:19, 24). “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4, ESV).
The Inferiority of the Law
Your position as a child of God renders the law obsolete. The law is a constraint, as a code of conduct to an employee or a speed limit sign, but it is an inferior measure. Limitations are always more effective when administered by a person, especially when a relationship exists. When a respected manager steps into the office, employees are on their best behavior. Seeing a police officer in a car with steaming exhaust is far more effective than the speed limit sign beside the highway. The Spirit is that Person within you, for you are no longer a slave to sin but a son of God. Your personal relationship with God excludes the need for external constraints. As sons, we have liberty by the Spirit of God. By walking in the Spirit, we fulfill the law through love, not fulfilling the lusts of our flesh, and we display the attractive fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:14, 16, 22-24).
Law-keeping is of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col 2:23). The law cannot bring our fleshly nature into subjection, but only makes its errant nature more apparent. But those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts (Gal 5:24).
Law-keeping cannot give assurance of salvation, but the gospel brings with it much confidence (1Thes 1:5). The law condemns, but the fruit of the Spirit is joy.
The Appeal of the Law
There were believers in Galatia who wanted to be under the law (Gal 4:21); Satan had charmed them with false representations (Gal 3:1). Perhaps law-keeping was familiar to them and comfortable, as rule-keeping becomes. When everyone around you follows the same ordinances, it brings a sense of significance and security. But faith does not lean on the crutch of familiar tradition but walks with a gracious reliance on God.
In a sense, rules make life simple because basic behavior is specified, but such a life is shallow and only focuses on outward appearance. It attracts individuals who can keep rules without addressing the spiritual need of the heart. Believers can appear spiritual if they do what is expected at the right time and place. It can be a way to find acceptance with people without cultivating a personal relationship with God.
The Effect of the Law
Law-keeping focuses attention on performance, resulting in pride or guilt. If I satisfy a given rule, I feel good about myself. If I fall short, I feel guilty. Legalism gives opportunity for comparison and pride to creep in destructively among believers. Perhaps subconsciously, we judge each other’s performance based on our viewpoint, and sow the seeds of superiority, which ripen into fruits of contempt. Spiritual believers know there is no competition because we are united in Christ. When we measure and compare ourselves with one another, we are without understanding (2Cor 10:12). Apparently, the law-keeping Galatians needed a caution against arrogance (Gal 5:26).
When I fail to measure up to some standard, I am, by that rule, a failure. Repeated perceived failure will bring guilt and doubts. Am I even saved? How could I act like that? God does not want His children to live with guilt. Guilt should always drive us to Christ, and then we must leave it, in prayer, at the foot of the cross.
Neither pride nor guilt is healthy for believers. Both will wreak havoc on my spiritual life, and the devil gains a critical foothold when I direct my concentration away from the cross of the Lord Jesus and fixate on my performance. But why are we so worried about performance? Are we not secure in what Christ has done? Are we trying to add to the work of Christ, as did the Galatian believers? Instead of assessing my actions by a standard, I should be developing my consciousness of Christ in me, Who by His Spirit circumscribes the parameters of my behavior. Since the eternal life we received was by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:25).