Everyone is born a legalist by nature. Our default mode is the ancient heresy of Pelagianism (i.e., self-salvation). Even after our conversion, something of a legalist/Pharisee still remains in all of us.
Ralph Erskine once wrote,
“It is not easy to get the law killed; something of a legal disposition remains even in the believer while he is in this world: many a stroke does self and self-righteousness get, but still it revives again. If he were wholly dead to the law, he would be wholly dead to sin; but so far as the law lives, so far sin lives.
They that think they know the Gospel well enough bewray their ignorance; no man can be too evangelical, it will take all his life-time to get a legal temper destroyed.
Though the believer be delivered wholly from the law, in its commanding and condemning power and authority, or its rightful power that it hath over all that are under it: yet he is not delivered wholly from its usurped power, which takes place many times upon him, while here, through remaining unbelief,” (Ralph Esrkine, “Law-Death, Gospel-Life,” p. 27).
The actions of the Galatians serve as a stark warning to all of us at how hard it can be to leave our legalism behind and how prone we are to self-justification.
Although the Galatians initially received God’s grace freely, they soon turned back to their own merit and system of self-salvation (cf., Gal. 3:1-3). Such a quick reversion from the true Gospel filled Paul with painful, astonishment and dismay, especially in light of the fact of the One who had called them in grace (cf., Gal. 1:6; 4:11; 5:7).
Because something of the old legal disposition remains in us, Galatians serves to remind us of the ever-present temptation to turn away from grace and revert back to our own merit.
Even though we have been saved by grace, we do not always know how to live by grace. Thus, as Ralph Erskine pointed out, those who think they know the Gospel well enough reveal their ignorance. None of us can be too evangelical because it will take a life-time to get a legal temper destroyed!
The message of Galatians needs to be heard afresh because we need to regularly hear and be reminded of the life-giving, renewing, freedom producing message of the Gospel.
After publicly teaching through Galatians, Martin Luther set out to go through it again. Note carefully the reasons he gives:
“I have taken in hand, in the name of the Lord, yet once again to expound this epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians; not because I desire to teach new things, or such as ye have not known before, since that, by the grace of Christ, Paul is now thoroughly known unto you, but for that we have to fear lest satan take from us this doctrine of faith, and bring into the Church again the doctrine of works and men’s traditions. Wherefore it is very necessary that this doctrine be kept in continual practice and public exercise, both of hearing and reading.
And although it be never so well known, yet the devil, who rageth continually, seeking to devour us, is not dead. Likewise our flesh and old man is yet alive. Besides this, all kinds of temptations do vex and oppress us on every side; so that this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough. If this doctrine be lost, then is also the doctrine of truth, life and salvation, also lost and gone. If this doctrine flourish, then all good things flourish; religion, the true service of God, the glory of God, the right knowledge of all things which are necessary for a Christian man to know,” (Commentary on Galatians, p. xi).
Galatians serves as an ongoing reminder that the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough.
The Gospel of Christian Freedom is not something we received in the past and then no longer has any application to our present or future. Rather, in Galatians we learn that the Gospel is what we orient our entire lives around (past, present, future; cf., Gal. 2:20).
The liberating message of Galatians needs to be taught, heard and read because our self-righteousness seeks to revive again and again. All of us, as Philip Ryken writes in his commentary on Galatians, are recovering legalists. We are constantly tempted to forsake the grace of God and revert back to our default mode of self-salvation, the common-sense religion of our fallen hearts.
So, unless, as Luther says, the message of Galatians is kept in continual practice and public exercise, both of hearing and reading, we will revert back to law-keeping as that which makes us acceptable to God. Such action is the height of folly and a dangerous self-delusion (cf., Gal. 3:1, 3; Gal. 1:6-9; 2:21; 3:10; 5:2-4).
For, when this happens a believer ends up with what Paul called a “form of godliness while denying its power,” (2 Tim. 3:5). John Brown, in his commentary on Galatians wrote, “There is a strong disposition among mankind to rest in a mere nominal and external religion. They mistake the appearance for the reality-the name for the thing-the expression for the signification-the means for the end,” (pp. 410-411).
Turning away from the grace of Christ for a different gospel surrenders the believer’s freedom and brings him once again into a yoke of slavery (cf., 5:1). Turning from the Gospel cuts the believer off from any hope of genuine transformation, affections or experience of the living God.
The Gospel is always the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16) not only at the beginning of the Christian life, but in the middle, and the end. It is the power not only for justification, but also for sanctification, for growth and discipleship.
Iain Murray, in his book, The Old Evangelicalism, rightly comments that the doctrine of justification as set forth by Paul in Galatians is so disagreeable to the natural man it is always in danger of being lost and thus needs to be rediscovered afresh in every generation. When the center of the Gospel (i.e., justification by Christ’s righteousness) is rediscovered, it comes to every generation as something amazingly new. To this, I can testify!
Jame Buchanan, in his great work, The Doctrine of Justification, wrote,
It was new to ourselves- surprising, startling, and affecting us strangely, as if it were almost too good to be true- when it first shone, like the beam of heaven’s own light into our dark and troubled spirits, and shed abroad ‘a peace which passes all understanding.’ It will be equally new to our children, and our children’s children, when they come to know that they have sins to be forgiven, and souls to be saved; and to the last sinner who is convinced and converted on earth, it will still be as ‘good tidings from a far country’- as ‘cold water to a thirsty soul’…it comes into contact, in every succeeding age, with new minds who are ignorant of it, but need it…and when they receive it…they will learn from their own experience that the old truth is still the germ of ‘a new creation’- the spring of a new life, a new peace, a new hope, a new spiritual existence, (quoted in Murray, The Old Evangelicalism, pp. 93-94).
Thus, we need to hear again and again the liberating message of Galatians. As Martin Luther eloquently reminds us, “this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough. If this doctrine be lost, then is also the doctrine of truth, life and salvation, also lost and gone. If this doctrine flourish, then all good things flourish; religion, the true service of God, the glory of God, the right knowledge of all things which are necessary for a Christian man to know.”