You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Galatians 5:4 | NIV | Other Versions | Context
The most important message in Paul’s epistle to the churches of Galatia is probably that full salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ. In the first two chapters of the book, Paul speaks of his personal experiences and how he had personally experienced the gospel, which is what he teaches others thereafter. In the next two chapters we see how he explores the gospel of grace from a doctrinal point of view. In chapters 5 and 6, Paul explains how Christians should live, being in the grace of Christ. The very first thing we need to know when we think about Christian living while being in grace is summed up in the first verse – It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery [Gal 5:1] – how we have freedom through grace. In verse 4, Paul speaks about the difference between justification by law and justification by grace (through faith) – there is an alienation from Christ. In today’s study, we will examine the differences between these two justification methods and attempt to restore to law what it deserves – just not the justification part.
The background context to the Church of Galatia is perhaps very important at this juncture. The Christians in Galatia have been faced with the threat of the teachers of Judaism, who attempt to pull the Christians in Galatia back to observing the law – the old, pre-Jesus method – Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ [Gal 1:7]. They’re trying to say, hey, merely believing in Christ is not sufficient, you need to obey the law on top of that in order to be saved – Paul claims that this is not gospel at all. We need to understand that despite a lot of strong statements that Paul made against the law, which at first glance seems like law is entirely useless and bad for us, eg Christ is of no value to you at all – but it is really not that the law is bad or that we should abolish the law altogether. In fact, Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfil it – Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them [Matt 5:17]. But why the strong language against the law? If we would read the verses carefully, Paul was refuting the law as a means to salvation – but not refuting the law itself.
Perhaps we can put it this way: there are two doors to salvation. One is the way of the law, the old, usual, Judaic way. You obey the law, fulfill it and you will be saved. The other is the way by grace. It is what Jesus preached, that you are saved if you would just believe in him. Both ways work. And we will be free, because Christ came to save us and to set us free. But Paul is saying, we will not be free if we take the way of the law, not because the law is bad or incomplete, but because we are simply unable to fulfill the whole law. What is the law? Without law, there is no sin. Law points out to us and defines for us what is sin. Essentially, law points out to us what we cannot do – what we are not supposed to do (the sins), and in doing so, perhaps we are more tempted to do. Hence, we become a slave of the law, why? We become yoked and cursed by the law when we try to use law as a means to be saved. Even if you claim that you are able to fulfil the whole law, that’s really just a lot of self-righteousness and great autonomy. We cannot fulfil the whole law on our own strength. And in trying to do so, we’re taking the our lordship away from Christ and back into our own hands. That is also a path that leads us away from Christ. Hence, Paul emphasizes that those who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ.
There are no two ways to this. You cannot be walking on two different roads at the same time. You’re either walking on the justification by law road; or you’re walking on the justified by faith through grace road. And by walking on one road, you reject and renounce the other. So if you believe that you are saved by grace, you are free from the yoke of the law. If you believe that you are justified by the law, then you have fallen away from grace as well.
Jesus came to fulfil the law, and by all means, the law is good. It is great. It is so important. But why do we become slaves to the law? It is when we try to depend on the law to obtain the grace of our Lord – that is when we fall into the shackles of the law. Law is not a means to the end. It is but just an important by-product that we’re to adhere to and to live by. In fact, the entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” [Gal 5:14]. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love [Gal 5:6]. At the end of the day, the law is summed up in love. And the only things that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Does the law, then, still matters? Of course it does. But it’s not the fulcrum to the gospel. The fulcrum is Christ Jesus. Let us not take the grace message and run off with it, using our freedom to indulge in the sinful nature [Gal 5:13]. But with love, and the fruits of the Spirit [Gal 5:22-23], let us place Christ at the centre of our lives, and we will have true freedom.
We are saved, and freed, not by the law, but by the grace of our Lord Christ Jesus.