Legalistic Religion Is Driven By Fear
At the end of his letter, Paul summarised his condemnation of the false teachers: they were scared of being persecuted. In the 1st Century Roman Empire, the Jewish faith was considered a ‘legal religion’, socially and politically acceptable. Although their security was fragile, Jewish people were supposed to be protected. However, Christians had no protection; faith in Jesus was not tolerated by the authorities, especially if it was expressed publically. So it was easier for Christians to worship in Jewish synagogues, and live in Jewish communities. Gentiles who became Christians were told to be circumcised to prove that they were Jews, and therefore avoid persecution.
But Paul told them that circumcision did not make them part of God’s people; only faith in Jesus Christ could bring them into His kingdom. Legalistic religion could never make anyone right with God: but it was being used to make people seem right with the pagan authorities. They were living a lie by using a religious rite, not to honour God but to avoid persecution. That is the nature of all legalistic religion – it is driven by the fear that if you do not conform, you will suffer.
Legalism exists in every religion which is without Christ at its centre: people are afraid to step out of line, because they may be persecuted. That is why conversion to Christ is often a very costly choice (John 15:18-21 ; 2 Timothy 3:12). But Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:16-20). That was the faith Paul was practising, and so should we.
© Dr Paul Adams