I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7)

Galatians is a remarkable letter described as the ‘Magna Carta of Christian Liberty’.  It is possibly one of Paul’s earliest letters and in it, he defends the truth of the Gospel from perversions made to it.  In particular, the apostle fights for the true liberty of the Gospel seeking to guard it against the twin dangers which threaten that freedom- ‘legalism’ and ‘license’.  Legalism causes Christians to believe that keeping the Law gives them merit before God and license occurs when Christians assume that their freedom in Christ allows them to ignore divine laws.  These are the two ways in which believers can lose their liberty and both carry very serious consequences.

The place known as Galatia (modern Turkey) was a region comprising of several cities like Lystra, Derbe, Antioch and Iconium. It was a place where Paul himself had planted churches and then entrusted leadership to local elders.  Unfortunately, other men from outside had come in and begun to meddle in the work. They were Jewish believers, who followed the apostle around everywhere and always were his biggest problem. These believers taught that Gentiles who put their trust in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, must also keep the Jewish law of Moses, beginning with circumcision.

Paul fought this teaching all the way to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), got into a sharp dispute with Peter over his stance on the issue (Galatians 2:11-14), and even reserved some of his strongest language for those who were imposing them on these new believers- “I wish those who are so keen to cut off your foreskins would castrate themselves” (Galatians 5:12).

To the Galatian believers themselves, he issued strong warnings to those who were inclined to submit to the Mosaic requirement of circumcision. He said that “Christ would be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:2), that they would be “alienated from Christ and fall away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

Legalism is present even today. Many are trying to keep the Law to ‘find’ favour with God or ‘retain’ the favour of God. They make the Christian faith a matter of ‘rules’ rather than ‘relationship’. People think they are Christians because they are keeping the rules but in reality the relationship with God is absent!

We do not believe at the beginning and then work for it.  That is to “begin in the Spirit and then try to attain the goal by our natural strength” (Galatians 3:3).  Christian life is by faith from beginning to end.  There is a big difference between the need to go on abiding in Christ for full, final salvation and the attempt to stay in God’s good books by keeping the Law.  To submit to the Law is to come under a curse because God accepts only those who obey the ‘whole’ Law (Galatians 3:10-11).

Now, in this letter, Paul also sought to protect the Gospel from the opposite error of legalism, which is ‘licence’. He makes it very clear that not being under the Law does not mean ‘freedom to sin’ (Galatians 5:13).  This misunderstanding, that grace allows us to sin, also dogged Paul’s mission, but came from Gentile rather than Jewish sources. Though he deals with the arguments for it more fully elsewhere (in Romans 6), he does strongly put to rest any misconceptions in this epistle as well.

Paul talks of how believers are constantly faced with a choice: to follow the desires of the ‘flesh’ (the flesh is not the ‘physical body’ but the ‘fallen sinful nature’ we inherited with the body) or the ‘Spirit’ (Galatians 5:16-17). When a believer allows his sinful nature to be his master, his life will exhibit a variety of ‘works of the flesh’- among which idolatry and immorality figure prominently, alongside envy, drunkenness, rage and other evil activities.  The apostle categorically asserts that such (believers) who live (go on living) like this will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

The final section of the letter drives this point home with even greater force- “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7-8). The following observations need to be made: first, this is addressed to those who are ‘born again believers’; second, the word ‘sows’ is in the present tense, indicating continuous action; third, ‘destruction’ means exactly that- eternal ruin.

Many who believe in the literal existence of hell and preach about it often fail to recognise its biblical context. They fail to deal with the crucial fact that most of Jesus’ warnings about hell were given to His ‘committed disciples’.  Twice, He gave a severe warning to the scribes and Pharisees but the rest were addressed to His disciples and the twelve apostles in particular.  While today all warnings about hell are directed exclusively at sinners, it seems Jesus felt that His own people are the ones who most need to be reminded about it and be on guard against it!

There are those who think that sin in an unbeliever is unacceptable but sin in a believer is alright.  For instance, they feel that while an unbeliever will certainly go to hell for adultery, adultery in the life of a believer will be excused. Such people have not understood the Gospel. Galatians teaches us very clearly that we will not inherit the Kingdom of God if ‘we deliberately go back and live in sin’.  Just as the book of Leviticus draws a distinction between ‘unintentional sins’ (for which there were a variety of sacrifices) and ‘high-handed/willful transgressions’ (for which there were no sacrifices), so the New Testament also distinguishes between ‘accidentally’ falling into sin (Galatians 6:1; 1 John 2:1) and ‘deliberately’ walking in sin (Galatians 6:7-8; Hebrews 10:26).  Disciples are not allowed the luxury of complacency.

The good news of the Gospel is “the offer of righteousness” (Romans 1:16-17).  God is offering us His righteousness, done in two stages or two phases during this present age.  Stage one is ‘imputed righteousness’ and stage two is ‘imparted righteousness’.  In the first stage He imputes (credits) His righteousness to the repentant believer and calls him a saint.  This is known as ‘justification’.  Having done that and restored a relationship with Himself, He then imparts His righteousness to that individual. In this phase, the believer becomes a saint in practice progressively reflecting the character of Christ in daily life. This is described as ‘sanctification’. The first phase amounts to ‘forgiveness’, God completely wiping out the sinful past. The second phase amounts to ‘holiness’, God steadily purifying the person in the present and preparing him for the sinless future.

Justification is what God does ‘for’ us; sanctification is what God does ‘in’ us.  Justification ‘declares’ us righteous, legally; sanctification ‘makes’ us righteous, experientially.  Justification is freedom from the ‘penalty’ of sin; sanctification is freedom from the ‘power’ of sin.

We must understand that both justification and sanctification are results of the work of grace and the activity of God. It is impossible for us either to forgive ourselves or to make ourselves holy. The Gospel is not an offer of justification and a demand for sanctification; both are on offer in the true Gospel. Jesus is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sins of the world” and also the One who “baptises in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:29, 33).  God is able and willing to grant both forgiveness and holiness, as free gifts of His grace, to any who repent of their sins and believe in His power to save.

What we also need to remember is that justification is only the beginning in the process of salvation.  While justification is first, it is not an end in itself- it is the means to sanctification, the way to that ‘holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14).  In other words, both justification and sanctification are essential to final glorification.  It is astonishing how many people have the impression that justification is absolutely indispensable while sanctification is only relatively desirable!

The Cross was a ‘double substitution’. It is only preached, in many ways, as a single substitution- that Jesus became sin for us, and that He was our substitute and was punished for what we had done.  But it was a double substitution.  “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).  It is a double exchange: we “give Him our sins” and “receive His righteousness”.

Too many want one without the other. They want Jesus to take their sins away but they do not want to take His righteousness. They want to hang on to their bad habits and old practices, they want to keep a little bit of unrighteousness. They hope to pass from justification to glorification without passing through the second stage of sanctification.  But this is a false hope. The Lord says to us as He said to the woman caught in the act of adultery: “Neither do I condemn you; go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).

Paul tells us, in Galatians, that freedom from bondage to sin is experienced “through a crucified life with Christ by walking in step with the Spirit”. The word ‘walk’ is used in two different ways, using two different Greek words. The first ‘walk’ is ‘walking by oneself’ (Galatians 5:16). The second ‘walk’ means ‘march in the Spirit, in step with others’ (Galatians 5:25).  Both kinds of walking are vital in our journey with God and form in us the character of Christ (Galatians 5:22-23).

The believer is called to live in liberty avoiding the pitfalls of legalism and license.  Legalism is doing what others ‘demand’ and license is doing what we, in our flesh, ‘desire’- but liberty is letting the Holy Spirit ‘direct’ us.  Legalism says, “I must not sin” and license says, “I can sin”- but liberty says, “I do not want to sin”. What a glorious freedom this is! As Paul describes and summarises very clearly in his letter to Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope- the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14 NIV).  This is the true grace of God, this is the belief and behavior which is in keeping with the truth of the Gospel.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you!