Law and Legalism, Pt.1

“… know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in (Yeshua the Messiah). So we, too, have put our faith in (Messiah Yeshua) that we may be justified by faith in (Messiah) and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:16 NIV).

“Most Christians … suppose that ‘erga nomou,’ literally, ‘works of the law,’ a term which appears three times in (Galatians 2:16), must mean, “actions done in obedience to the Torah.” But this is wrong. One of the best-kept secrets about the New Testament is that when Sha’ul (Paul) writes ‘nomos’ he frequently does not mean ‘law’ but ‘legalism.’1

“When Martin Luther read Paul’s struggle with the Galatian Judaizers in the light of his own struggle with the sixteenth-century Roman Church, he inevitably imported the notion of ‘works righteousness’ into the theology that Galatians opposes. Consequently, since the time of Luther, most readers encountering the term ‘works of the Law’ in Galatians think that Paul is warning the Galatians against the temptation to try to ‘earn’ their salvation by doing works (= obeying the Law). But the Judaism of Paul's day did not believe in ‘works righteousness,’ at least not in that sense, and Luther’s reading of the phrase ‘works of the Law’ is clearly anachronistic.2

Many Christians think that practicing anything Jewish is a form of legalism—but that is not what legalism is. Legalism is the superficial (or external) application of Biblical principles to one’s life, i.e., an application that separates the “letter of the Law” from the “spirit of the Law” with the objective of meriting God’s favor—it does not involve doing what the Law requires of us with the right heart for the right reason!

1 David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), p. 536.
2 Excerpted from “The Western Captivity of the Apostle Paul” by Jack Poirier
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