Free to Serve and Walk in the Spirit: How Paul’s Address of Legalism and License Applies to us Today

From Galatia in the 1st century AD to Vancouver BC in the 21st century, the tendrils of Legalism have lingered in the Church and have never been fully eradicated. In response to cultural pressures, the influence of other religions, or bad teaching, segments of the Church have brought themselves back under the law and bound their members with the slavery of an unattainable standard of moral perfection and cultural isolation. This extreme has led to exclamations such as, “Christianity is just a set of Rules!” and “Christians exist to take all the fun out of life!”

On the other end of the spectrum is the plague of license. Legalism tries to force adherence to a moral standard for righteousness and relationship with God, whereas license says that freedom in Christ means freedom to do whatever we want. Those taking freedom from the law for granted with license decry all rules as legalistic restraint and even reject the need for repentance before God, confusing the true nature of the Christian life and neglecting the need for sanctification. The apostolic church in the first millennium dealt with these extremes as we do today, Paul in particular wrote strongly against both legalism and license and fought for a biblical balance that put the law in its right place while calling for conformity to Christ in thinking and action. In Corinth Paul was forced to address incestuous and unrestrained sexual immorality and arrogance that took advantage of grace at the cost of the conscience of weaker brothers. In the province of Galatia false teachers demanded obedience to the entirety of the Jewish law for all Gentile believers, in doing so returning to the slavery of the law and demanding works in addition to faith for righteousness. In Thessalonica a minority of believers took advantage of the nearness of Christ’s return to languish in sloth and become busybodies preying on the generosity of their brethren.

Paul cried out against these misunderstandings and, like an expert surgeon, cut into their misconceptions with the scalpel of the true Gospel, cutting away the cancerous disease and attempting to restore health to the churches. We, with our propensity to act like the Galatians or the Corinthians, can desperately use the Holy Spirit inspired wisdom of Paul to shatter the slavery of legalism and rein the chaos of license. Towards this end let us delve into the depths of Paul’s apostolic wisdom, seeing how he addresses the legalism of Galatia and licentious behavior in all three early Churches. Then, equipped with this understanding, we can ascertain the application of this wisdom for our contemporary setting.



For Paul, the legalism in Galatia was a significant issue; it threatened the heart of the Gospel. Paul rebuked Peter for encouraging this behavior at Antioch (2:11-14) and in his letter he called for those who preached this other Gospel to be accursed, to be damned to hell (Gal. 1:6-9). Speaking of Judaizers in Jerusalem, Paul calls them spies who infiltrated the Church for the purpose of bring slavery to Christians (Gal. 2:4). Paul goes as far as associating the legalism at Galatia with a return to the Galatians’ pagan past, for them to turn away from faith alone and accept slavery to the law was for them to turn back “again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:9). [1] It was enough of a danger that it scared Paul into thinking that his labor for the Gospel to the Galatians was in vain (Gal 4:11). For the Galatians to embrace obedience to the law as a requirement for right standing before God was a serious issue for Paul and it should be for us too.

Applying the Cross

Paul, in addressing this issue, seems to have taken two major approaches to confront the Galatians; the first was an application of the truth of the Cross. In Galatians 2:15-21 Paul brings the reality of the Cross to bear on the heart of the issue; how we may be justified before God. In vv. 15-16 Paul explains that even he, born as a Jew, knew that only by faith in Christ may a man be justified. He moves forward with his argument in a way he often does (cf. Rom. 6:1-2); he asks a question and then answers it himself with the emphatic “may it never be!” [2] Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross the Galatians had died to the Law and were now living for God. To try and rebuild what had been torn down, to pursue righteousness in the law, [3] would not gain them a right standing before God, instead it would make them transgressors (2:18). In their union with Christ they had died to the law when Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law on their behalf (2:19-20). Christ died ending the need for the law; if they went back to it, His death would be purposeless (2:21). Paul’s application of the Cross for the Galatians legalism was to say that Christ died, and they with Him; His death meant an end to the law and to go back was to reject His death and become a transgressor.

In 3:10-14 Paul argues from the Cross in much the same way. Paul first shows from Scripture that it is impossible to attain righteousness through the law, for it requires absolute obedience; anyone who failed to live up to the Law’s impossibly high demands would find themselves cursed (3:10). He argues further that the OT argues that in fact faith is the way that the righteous shall live (3:11); this means that the law does not bring righteousness, for following the law is not living by faith but living by the law (3:12). This is where the Cross comes in; Paul argues that Christ bore their curse—the curse they had for transgressing the Law—on the Cross enabling the Galatians to receive Abraham’s blessings through faith (3:13-14). Paul here shows the foolishness of Legalism, for the law never brought righteousness; only by faith in Christ, the one who bore the curse of the law in our stead, could we attain righteousness. Paul shows that to abandon Christ is to abandon any hope for right relationship with God; to turn to the law is to abandon the Cross, and to abandon the Cross is to subject ourselves to the unbearable demand of the law.


Applying the True Nature of the Law

The second major way that Paul addresses the Galatians’ legalism is by showing what the true nature of the law is. For the Galatians to trust the law as a means of gaining right standing before God was to fundamentally misunderstand the whole purpose of the law; Paul argues that the law was not in fact meant to bring life, it was meant to imprison everything under sin until the Jesus came (3:21-22). With the coming of Jesus the law was no longer needed, for it fulfilled its purpose. Paul describes the law as a guardian, a παιδαγῶγος (paidagōgos), which kept us until Christ came, “in order that we might be justified by faith” (3:24). Legalism fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the law, it was never meant to bring life but to point towards the one who would once and for all bring life to all who put their faith in Him. With the coming of Christ the tutor was no longer needed.

Paul further argues that the under a guardian a heir is like a slave, but once the date set by his father comes he becomes a son and no longer needs his guardian. The law kept the Galatians under its guard till Christ came and they were adopted as sons; no longer were they needing the law as a guardian, for they were not slaves but sons (4:1-7). Paul argues this point further, illustrating from Hagar and Sarah how the law was of the Old Covenant and the Galatians are of the New Covenant; the Old Covenant led to slavery under the law, but the New Covenant was of a totally different nature, it was free from the law of the Old Covenant (4:21-31). Paul concludes this argument by powerfully writing; “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

Paul sees legalism as a massive affront to the Gospel and breaks apart the fallacious reasoning of the false teachers in Galatia; the law was a guardian that has passed with the coming of Christ and on His cross he bore the curse of the law freeing the Galatians from its obligations and bringing justification on the basis of faith in Him alone.



When addressing the problem of license, Paul saw it as no less of a threat to the Gospel than legalism. In 1 Corinthians he uses the example of the Israelites struck down in the desert as an example of the seriousness of Idolatry (10:6-11) and he calls for a man to be excommunicated from the church on the ground of living in serious unrepentant sin (5:2-5). [4] Paul addresses the issue of license in a myriad of ways, but it seems as if these different ways can be gathered and examined under four heads; he applies the work of Christ on the cross to get at the heart of the problem, he shows the seriousness of sin from character of God, he charges the church with the task of bringing discipline so as to encourage those in the faith to walk in a way that accords with the Spirit, and then there is a smattering of other ways the issue is addressed in 2 Thessalonians and Corinthians that can be examined together.


Applying the Cross

The old city of Corinth was notorious for being a hotbed of immorality and idolatry, from the state of the church that Paul planted it seems like Corinth in the 1st century was not much better. [5] When Paul came and saw many converted, remnants of this old life lingered in the Church. It faced the challenges of a false sense of spirituality, one that placed knowledge above love (1 Cor. 8:1), and continued indulgence in sin, this time on the grounds of Christian freedom. Some of the many ways Paul addressed these issues was to bring the truth of the Cross to bear on the Corinthians thinking. The first way he did this was to call for a new way of living on the basis of the Cross. In 1 Cor. 5:1-8 Paul argues from an analogy of leaven. After calling for the Corinthians to cleanse out the old leaven, the unrepentant immoral man who was corrupting the entire church (5:1-5), he then speaks of Christ crucified; he calls them new unleavened bread because Christ—continuing the analogy by calling him “our Passover lamb” (5:7)—was sacrificed. Because they were new they were no longer the old leavened bread but now unleavened bread, they were to put away the deeds of the old, malice and evil, and take up the deeds of the new, sincerity and truth (5:8).

In chapter 6 he goes on to use the cross to tear down their misconception of Christian freedom. The Corinthians rightly understood that they were no longer under the law, so all things were lawful (6:12), but what they took this to mean was that they could indulge in the desires of the flesh. Paul argues that in fact they were not to take advantage of their freedom in this way; they were instead to glorify God in the body. The truth was that Christ on the Cross had purchased them by His blood, they had been bought with a price (6:20). Being bought by Christ, they were no longer their own; they were God’s and because they were His they were to glorify Him in their bodies (6:20). The specific application for them in this passage was to flee sexual immorality; living in immorality did not honor God.

Later, in 8:1-13, Paul addresses those who were arrogant in knowledge and used their freedom at the expense of their brothers. Paul argues that Christ died for those in His Church (8:11) and if someone caused his brother to stumble, he was actually sinning against Christ who shed His blood for the weaker brother. In the situation at hand, some Corinthians had the knowledge that idols were not real, that they had no existence (8:4-5), but others were not there yet in their faith (8:7). This knowledge caused the ones who had it to be puffed up and to not act in love. The way they expressed this knowledge was to participate in pagan religious practices by eating in the temple of Idol’s, weaker brothers were having their conscience destroyed by the encouragement to participate that they received from the “stronger” brothers (8:9-10). Paul’s concluding application is that love comes before rights, the stronger brother is to lay aside his rights (perceived or real) for the sake of not causing his brother to stumble (8:11-12).

The last application Paul makes of the Cross against license, in this case the potential of it, is found in his letter to Galatia. Near the conclusion of his letter Paul writes that the freedom the Galatians have in Christ is not an excuse for living according to the flesh, instead it was a chance to serve one another through love (Gal. 5:13). Here Paul shows that Christian living is neither legalism nor license; instead our freedom is freedom to serve. He then goes on to establish the new life the Galatians have in the Spirit, how living in the Spirit will mean that they will not use their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. To walk in the Spirit is antithetical to walking in the flesh, walking in the flesh comes with it all sorts of sinful behaviors but walking in the Spirit brings characteristics of conformity to Christ (5:16-23). In verse 24 Paul brings the Cross to bear on the situation at hand; all who belong to Christ have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24). [6] Believers in their freedom cannot live according the flesh, for in Christ they have died to the flesh and are now living by the Spirit; they are to walk by the Spirit, in accord with the new life they have with Christ.


Applying the Character of God and the Seriousness of Idolatry

In applying the cross to licentious behavior, Paul calls for right living on the basis of the work and reality ushered in by the Cross. Elsewhere Paul takes a more negative approach in giving a strong warning against license on the basis of both God’s nature and the seriousness of sin.

In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, in the midst of Paul’s long argument against idolatry in the Corinthian church, Paul calls to mind the terrifying example of the Israelites in the wilderness, where they were overthrown by God for their sin (10:5). Paul calls to mind 4 circumstances where God punished Israel for their sins. There was the time when, in idolatry, they “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (1 Cor. 10:7, cf. Ex. 32:1-6). At another time 23,000 were struck down in one day for sexual immorality (1 Cor. 10:8, cf. Num. 25:1-9). They put God to the test and were destroyed by serpents (1 Cor. 10:9, cf. Num. 21). Finally, they grumbled and “were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10, cf. Num. 14). All of these incidents with ancient Israel show how seriously God takes sin, and Paul writes that they serve as instruction for the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:11) who are now in the new eschatological reality ushered in by the Cross (1 Cor. 10:11). God does not take sin in His covenant people lightly, it needs to be dealt with; the nature of God and the relationship that the Corinthians had with Him provided a powerful motivation for pursuing holy living. Idolatry and immorality are not fitting for God’s New Covenant people just as much as it was not fitting for His Old Covenant people.

In the rest of 1Corinthians 10, vv. 14-22, Paul continues arguing against idolatry from the nature of God and nature of the Church. Arguing from communion and the nature of the body Paul establishes that that everyone in the Church makes up the body of Christ, the grounds of our unity in Christ is that we all participate in His body through partaking of one bread (10:16-17). Drawing from the nature of the Lord’s Supper and from Israelite sacrifice (10:16-18), Paul argues that to partake of food offered to idols in the temples is to participate with demons (10:19-21), who are behind the idols (10:20). Paul writes that one cannot participate both with demons and the Lord; it is an either or. The reason is that God is jealous, He will not tolerate others in His place; to participate in the table of demons is to provoke His jealousy (10:22). To do this is to challenge God, and He is stronger (10:22). Paul’s address here concludes his argument against Idolatry that started earlier in the letter. They are not to participate in idolatrous meals in pagan temples for this will arouse the jealousy of God and He takes sin in His covenant people seriously; therefore they must take heed and watch themselves lest they fall (10:12). [7]


The Church’s Participation in Combating License

The character of God reveals the profound contradiction between living in the Spirit, as God’s covenant people, and living in the flesh, indulging in its desires. Paul understood the power of temptation and the appeals of the flesh as well as the danger of unrepentant sin for both the local church and for the individual who was committing it. Knowing the power and danger of license, Paul commissioned the Church to practice discipline, so as to cleanse itself (1 Cor. 5:6-7) and to save the souls of the ones involved in it (1 Cor. 5:5).

In 1 Corinthians Paul calls for Church discipline to curb license in a specific circumstance and in a broader application. In 5:1-8 Paul addresses the situation of a man involved in gross immorality, this man in the church was committing adultery with his step-mother (5:1). The Corinthians church was not just tolerating this unrepentant sin; they were actually being arrogant in their acceptance of the man (5:2, 6). [8] The church was to be a light in the darkness, yet they were boasting in sin that even the pagan Roman culture around them rejected (5:1)! Paul corrects there serious misconception of spirituality, he writes that instead of boasting they are to mourn (5:2) and calls for the removal of the incestuous man (5:2, 7). He calls for the Corinthian church, when assembled, to deliver with the power of their Lord Jesus the man to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh” (5:5). The intent behind this act of excommunication is not to damn the man, but to restore him; it is done so that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5). When Paul speaks of the “destruction of the flesh” he has something positive in view, the intent of excommunication is to see the fleshly nature destroyed in order that the man may be welcomed back into the church. [9] In this circumstance, Paul’s answer to extreme license was to call for the Church’s intervention in Excommunication.

In the rest of chapter 5, vv. 9-13, Paul moves from a specific call for the excommunication of this man to a call for the purging of all “who [bear] the name of brother” yet are guilty of unrepentant immorality (or any number of other serious unrepentant sin) (5:11). Paul clarifies here that he is not calling for the Corinthians to cut themselves off from all sinners, for they would “need to go out of the world” (5:10). He is referring specifically to those who call themselves brothers, who participate in church, but walk in rebellion against the new life they are supposed to be pursuing (5:9-12). He calls them to renounce all association with these men, they are not even to eat with them (5:11); [10] as a new community in Christ they are to purge this evil from inside them (5:13) so that the entire church is not corrupted (5:6). Though there is no mention of restoration here, it would be consistent with the rest of Paul’s teaching on discipline—especially the excommunication of the incestuous man earlier in the context (5:1-8)—for this to be the end in sight with the disassociation.

As in these circumstances, Paul also calls for the church’s participation in addressing the issue of license in his second letter to the Thessalonians. In this letter one of the two issues he addresses is that of idle busybodies in the church; those who have taken advantage of the generosity of the rest of the Church and become slothful, not just refraining from work but also actively meddling (2 Thess. 3:11). As well as exhorting them directly in the Lord to follow Paul’s example of working not to be a burden, Paul also calls for the all of the Thessalonians to take note of and separate from all who did not obey the instructions Paul gives in the letter. They are to have nothing to do with them so that they “may be ashamed” (5:14). Paul clarifies in v. 15 that in having nothing to do with them they are not to regard them as enemies, but they are to warn them as brothers.

Various other Ways Paul Combats License in the Church

Paul spent time in both the cities of Thessalonica and Corinth, and when he was there the way he lived set an example for the churches. In both cities he did not take advantage of all the rights available to him, instead he lived by the labor of his own hand, rejecting his right to make a living, and surrendered his right to take along a believing wife (1 Cor. 9:3-12, 2 Thess. 3:7-9).

In Corinth Paul surrendered his rights so that no obstacle would be laid in the path of the Gospel (9:10). The Corinthians were abusing what they thought was their right to eat at temples (8:1-13); this was how they thought to use the freedom they now had in Christ. Paul, from his own actions, shows that in God’s kingdom one’s own desires are not the highest end. The motivation he gives for surrendering his rights in this passage, which would set an example for the Corinthians, was his pursuit of eschatological rewards (9:18). He could have taken what he had a right to, but this would have left him with no reward. He was bound by necessity to preach the Gospel, it was his stewardship and therefore this task brought him no reward (9:15-18). But by preaching the Gospel free of charge and by denying his other rights so that the Gospel would spread unobstructed, Paul brings himself a reward in the final day. By following his example in surrendering rights for the sake of the Gospel the Corinthians too could earn eschatological reward.

In Thessalonica, a group of believers were taking advantage of their brothers by not working and preying on the generosity of the church (2 Thess. 3:10-12). To address this issue, Paul recalls his behavior in Thessalonica and the example he set. He gave up his rights to earn a living from his labor so that he might give an example (3:8-10); he toiled and labored that he might support himself and not be a burden to the Thessalonians (3:8). Here, as in 1 Corinthians, Paul sets the example of laying aside his right for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of his brothers (3:9). The application for the Thessalonian idle was to get their act together and imitate Paul in not being a burden, but working to earn their own living (3:12).

The last way that Paul addresses license in these churches is by establishing the proper end for all Christian actions. In Corinth the members of the church were looking out for themselves first, they were taking advantage of their freedom to fulfill their desires. Paul addresses this issue from various angles, establishing a proper model for approaching Christian living as free from the law, in 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1. Here Paul takes another look at the Corinthian slogan “All things are lawful” (10:23) and addresses the issue of food offered to idols for the last time. Whereas before he has forbidden the Corinthians from partaking of meals offered to idols in the temples, he here explains that a Christian has the right to eat food that may have been offered to idols that he has purchased from the meat markets (10:25). It is not an issue for one’s conscience, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (10:26). The Corinthians had thought that eating in the temples was their right, but it was not (10:22); therefore they were not to do it, both because of their God (10:22) and their brothers (8:13). Here, when it is food from the market, they are legitimately in the right to eat meat (10:25), but here a greater principle tempers their eating. They are free to eat, unless it will infringe upon the conscience of someone else (10:29). Paul flips the attitude of the Corinthians on its head; instead of using their freedom to pursue their own desires everyone was not to “seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (10:24). Instead of using their freedom to do what they desired, they were to use their freedom to serve one another; though they were allowed to partake of meat from the market, they were to refrain when it would cause another’s consciences to be wounded (10:28-29). They were right not to feel wounded in conscience when they ate of the meat (10:30), but they were to give up their right for the sake of the good of their neighbor (10:24, 28-29). Concluding this exhortation, Paul points to his own behavior and the overarching principle for Christian living. In all they do, refraining or consuming, the Corinthians were to “do all to the glory of God” (10:31). This meant giving no offense other than that which the Cross carried intrinsically; the Gospel is offensive, but the Corinthians were not to add unnecessary offence to their message and witness. As Paul, imitating Christ (11:1), surrendered his own rights for the sake of the many, that they may be saved (10:33), so should the Corinthians imitate him in giving up their own rights that in all things God may be glorified (10:31) and unbelievers may be saved (10:33).


Synthesis and Application

Working through all that Paul has to say about legalism and license in these early churches, it becomes apparent that neither license nor legalism is a simple or light issue. Each extreme is incredibly unhealthy for the Church universal and local, and for the individual souls that make up Christ’s body. They are deadly serious, and sneak in to Christian thinking through a myriad of doors. Because of the multi-faceted nature of these dangerous traps, Paul wisely attacked the problems from various angles. He did not just apply a universal bandage that fixed the problem in the same way every time; knowing the complexity of human sinfulness and the many ways that legalism and license could enter in, Paul attacks the issues from different angles depending on the situations of his various congregations. We would do well to heed his approach and address these issues when they appear in our hearts and in our churches according to the particular form in which they arise. That being said, Paul gives us a grid of theological principles that can be applied in these situations and examples of how they are to be applied.


Diagnosing These Diseases and Establishing the Positive Approach

Before looking at specific ways that we can apply Paul’s principles to our contemporary circumstances, it may be helpful to rehash the specific forms of legalism and license that Paul was addressing and to establish the positive attitudes that Paul was presenting for the churches to have.

In the Gospels Jesus addresses a form of legalism that raises human tradition and human rules to the same plane as God’s revelation in Scripture, [11] but this is not the same legalism that Paul is dealing with. In his letter to the Galatians Paul is dealing with a legalism that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the law and neglects the unique place Christians have in redemptive-history. This legalism calls for complete devotion to the stipulations of the Sinaitic law in addition to faith for right standing before God; it brings Christians once again under the painful slavery of the law and neglects the freedom we have in Christ—the freedom we have because of Christ’s life and blood fulfilling the law in our place and erasing the curse we had for our transgressions against the law.

The license that Paul addressed was not that which Judaizers would have identified, it is not Christians living free from the food regulations and not practicing the days of the Law. The license Paul rejected was a selfish disregard for ones neighbors, a flippant dismissal of God’s absolute holiness, and a misunderstanding of the new reality we live in as those united with Christ and those living in relationship with God through His new covenant with us.

The answer to legalism was never a complete disregard for holiness, but a true understanding of the Cross and the renewal of the mind (Rom.12:1-2). Paul in these early letters establishes, by addressing the circumstances of the churches, the positive attitude Christians should take toward the law and towards their freedom. In his letter to the Galatians Paul makes it clear that Christians are no longer in slavery to the law, the tutor is no longer needed. Because of Christ on the Cross we have died to the law, its demands have been satisfied and we are to live on the basis of faith and faith alone. We do not work for right standing before God in any way; our standing comes solely on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness we receive because He bore our curse in our place. Even the faith we express is not a work on our part that earns us anything, for—from the testimony of the rest of Scripture—we understand that faith itself is a gift given to us by God and the will to express it is something that the Spirit wrought in our heart.

The answer to license was never the Law; for where the law was, sin abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20, 7:1-13). The answer to license is the new attitude wrought by the Spirit in our hearts; as believers in covenant relationship with God and united together in one body in Christ we are called not to pursue the sinful desires of our old self, but to imitate Christ in pursuing the fullness of life in the Spirit and surrendering our rights for the sake of those for whom Christ died. We are to understand that sin is in utter contrast with who we are in Christ, we have been set apart as a people for God; a God who is profoundly holy and accepts no idols in His place. We are to walk in the Spirit as we have in Christ crucified the old self; its deeds no longer have a place in our lives. And we are to do all things for the glory of God, putting the good of others before our own good so that in all things God may receive the glory and so that our brothers, for whom Christ shed His precious blood, may not be caused to stumble.


Applying Paul’s Cures to our Contemporary Illness

For every theological principle that Paul applies to the churches in Galatia, Corinth, and Thessalonica, there are innumerable contemporary applications; to catalogue every one would be an unimaginably large task, but by applying what Paul taught to a couple of contemporary circumstances we can get a feel for how Paul’s practical theological address of legalism and license functions in our church today.


The address of legalism in the local church, as Paul did with the Church in Galatia, requires a return to the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone and an examination of our place in redemptive-history; this task in many churches can be a long and bloody battle of reformation. A more subtle form of legalism, of the kind Paul was addressing, is the one that seeps into our souls and leads us to judge our relationship to God on the basis not of Christ’s work but on the basis of our own faithfulness.

It is this kind of thinking that leads us to view ourselves as being in a superior place over our peers on the basis of our external conformity to holiness and finds us boasting in our own righteousness; here we neglect the truth that God’s love for us, and our relationship to Him, has never been on the basis of our actions. It has only ever been because He came to us and has worked to bring us into relationship with Him solely on the grounds of His sovereign mercy.

This is the kind of thinking that also has us fleeing from the presence of God because of our unrighteous actions; this is not the expression of healthy guilt, but the legalistic deception that God will withdraw from us and become unreachable because we have sinned against Him. Here again our works become the basis of our relationship to the Father.

The way to address this personal form of legalistic thinking is the same way that Paul addressed it on the corporate scale in the Galatian Church; a judicial application of the truth of Christ’s work on the Cross. For the Galatians the false teachers had sown the seeds of legalism; they had taught them that even in the New Covenant they were required to obey the minutia of the law, to fail to do so meant separation from God. No longer was it grace through faith alone, but faith and works together earning righteousness and relationship with God. The answer for them and for us today is the Cross of Christ.

On the Cross, Christ bore our curse and freed us from the unattainable standard of the Law (Gal. 3:10-14). By our union with Christ we have died to law and depend on Christ, and Him alone, for righteousness (Gal. 3:15-21). As Paul asked the Galatians, we must ask ourselves; “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Gal. 3:4)? Therefore, we cannot boast in our external righteousness for this is no indicator of our closeness with God; we were brought into relationship with Him solely by His work, His love was shown in its fullness towards us on the Cross when He gave His son in order that we may live and be a people unto His name in relationship with Him. Our boast is found in Christ and Him alone, the minute we boast in our achievement we must preach to ourselves the Gospel once again; we were worthless sinners, but at that time Christ came and died, bearing my curse, and He brought me into a right relationship with God. When we beat ourselves up and run from God because of our sinful actions we must again preach ourselves the Gospel; if God loved me enough while I was drowning in the mire of my own sins to send His sin to die and give me His righteousness with no work performed on my part, how can I think that my sins today will change that situation?


License in our hearts and in our churches manifests itself in many ways; we may be able to get a feel for Paul’s practical theology in this area by applying his teaching to the circumstances of a hypothetical believer. Believer A has been attending a local church for almost 4 years now; he has been baptized and confessed Jesus Christ as the Lord and Saviour in His life. He desires to enter into leadership in the church, but under the guise of freedom from the law this man has been engaged in frequent sexual immorality both in the community outside the church and at times with members of the Congregation. This has continued for 4 years and shows no sign of abating. The application of Paul’s teaching will have to be done carefully, but he provides many principles that can be brought to bear here.

The first is the action of the church, in a situation like this it is appropriate—both for the health of Believer A and the congregation—to bring church discipline to bear on the individual. Discipline in this situation may be akin to what Paul called for against the incestuous believer in Corinth. The eldership team, or a specific representative, would approach and inform the man that on the basis of his activity he is no longer free to participate in fellowship with the church until he takes actions toward repentance and seeks change in his life. In doing this the eldership of the church would make it clear that they will aid the man in finding victory over sin in his life if he is willing to take action against it, but until he is willing to change his behavior he is no longer welcome. This excommunication from the church gathered may also involve instruction to the church as individual people to disassociate with the man until he takes steps to change his behavior. These are the actions the church may, and in this situation should, take to work towards this man’s restoration, but what is also needed is teaching on the proper attitude a Christian should take toward their freedom.

From this angle, the approach Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 would be appropriate. First, Believer A must be confronted with the truth of who God is and the nature of his unity with Him; God is a holy and jealous God who has purchased this man by His blood, and this man is united with Christ by his faith. To partake of sexual immorality is to dishonor the God who purchased Him and to bring Christ into illicit sexual union; it is sin against the Holy God Himself. God takes sin seriously, and if the man thinks he is standing before God he must take heed lest he falls (1 Cor. 10:12). The nature of the God with whom that man is in relationship with is enough to encourage abstinence from sexual immorality.

Paul’s teaching on the nature of the Christian life in Galatians 5 also needs to be brought bear on the situation; Paul shows that freedom from the law is not freedom for the flesh, but freedom to live by the Spirit. Living in the Spirit is antithetical to live in the flesh, and in Christ we have crucified the flesh. Believer A cannot claim to be in Christ and yet not manifest the fruit that this life brings. He is to be encouraged to walk in the Spirit, something only the Spirit can bring about, in conformity with the new eschatological reality he is in; New Covenant believers are filled with the Holy Spirit and by His work are being conformed to the image of Christ, they have crucified the flesh and are to work out in the present their future eschatological salvation which they will receive in glory.

From what Paul teaches through his epistle to the Galatians, his first epistle to the Corinthians, and his second epistle to the Thessalonians, we see the deadly seriousness of the License and Legalism in the Christian life. In accord with how he addressed these issues we must bring to bear on our hearts the truth of Christ’s crucifixion, the nature of our Holy God, and the truth of the present eschatological reality within which we find ourselves as believers in union with Christ and having the foretaste of eschatological salvation in our present sanctification. Let us therefore humbly walk in freedom from the law by pursuing conformity to Christ by walking in the Spirit and putting the good of our brothers and sisters before ourselves.

[1] All Scripture references, unless otherwise stated, are from; Crossway Bibles, ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version, ESV text ed (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008).

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Galatians,” ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 169–170.

[4] His excommunication had the end purpose of restoration in mind; it was done so that his spirit might be saved (1 Cor. 5:5).

[5] D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 420.

[6] The act of crucifying the flesh here, seen as an action done by the Galatians, refers to the conversion when believers died with Christ, it may be active “to indicate that believers have chosen to be aligned with Christ at conversion.” Schreiner, “Galatians,” 351.

[7] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 474.

[8] Ibid., 202; Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 104–105.

[9] Cf. Blomberg, he argues that in the Pauline corpus a flesh/spirit contrast usually refers to the old vs. new nature of believers. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 105–106.

[10] Some commentators suggest that this probation refers to barring participation in the Lord’s Supper only and others think that it refers to private meals as well. In the context there is nothing that would bind it merely to the Lord’s Supper, also the emphasis on “not even” and the fact that they are already to be disassociated from fellowship in the church would seem to contribute to the understanding that this refers to private fellowship over meals as well. Agreeing here with Blomberg, cf. Fee for a brief discussion. Ibid., 107; Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 226.

[11] Eg. Mark 7:8



Blomberg, Craig L. 1 Corinthians. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.

Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. ESV text ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.

New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Galatians. edited by Clinton E. Arnold. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 9. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.


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