Law or Spirit? Galatians Between Legalism and Antinomianism

May 10, 2020
Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher
NOTE: The item below expresses the views of the individual named as the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.




WRF Member Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher


Dedicated to the Memory of Wilhem Lütgert


“Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" Paul, Galatians 4:16

"For Christ has freed us from the curse of the Law, not from obedience to it."  Martin Luther, Sermon on Galatians 3: 23 - 24

"The freedom which Christ gives, is not heathen lawlessness."  Wilhelm Lütgert in his Commentary on Galatians, 1919)  


Proposition: The Epistle to the Galatians should not be under- stood merely as a rejection of Judaism and Legalism.

Paul's letter to the Galatians is, with 2,3001 words, much shorter than the book of Romans or the letters to the Corinthians, but treats fewer themes than they do, although the problems of their intended audiences have much in common. Galatians is, however, more unified in its subject matter, not only than the longer Pauline epistles, but also than Ephesians. which is of equal length, or than the shorter letters.2 Indeed, it concerns only the relationship of Christians to Old Testament Law.

Many Christians believe that Galatians was written to refute Old Testament Law and to oppose its use in the New Testament Church. They claim that believers must live only under the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than according to the commands given by God under the Old Covenant.

However, this biased view of Galatians as anti-Jewish or anti-Old Testament does not, do justice to the book. Just as he does in Romans,3 Paul too often speaks positively of the Law and the Old Testament, to then reject it completely in Galatians. He opposes the 'Libertines' and the 'Pneumaticists' (Christians who held the Holy Spirit for a licence for immoralitiy and licentiousness) too definitely to permit this letter to deal only with the dangers of legalism. 

Undisputably, Paul warns against the effort to be justified by works. No one can be saved by works of the Law (Gal. 2:16), for Christ would then have been crucified in vain (2:21). No one receives the Spirit of God through the Law (3:2), nor does the Law come from faith (3:12), so that Christ had to die in order to redeem us from the curse of the Law (3:13). Whoever tries to be justified by the Law (5:4) must keep its commands completely (5:3), not only parts such as circumcision (6:13).

In this study, I will demonstrate three propositions:

1)            The warning against the Law is, in reality, a warning against misusing the Law as the way to salvation, and against forcing Gentile believers to submit to ceremonial regulations (circumcision, for example), but not a warning against the proper use of God's standards for Good and Evil.

2)            The Galatian church had two violently opposed parties, both of which Paul criticizes with equal force. One group misused the Law as a way of salvation and wanted to force Old Testament ceremonial laws (such as circumcision) on Gentile Christians. The other discarded Old Testament Law (such as the Ten Commandments) completely and tried to justify their immorality by claiming to live 'in the Spirit' according to the teaching of 'freedom' in Christ.

3)            Paul attacks both the legalism of the one party and the lawlessness of the other, thus condemning misuse of the Law as the way of salvation as well as criticizing the rejection of the Old Testament moral law. To Paul, freedom from the Law meant freedom from its curse and the liberation of Gentile believers from its rituals. This liberty does not suspend God's commandments, but enables the believer to practice the love which they define and require. Wilhelm

Lütgert describes this succinctly: "The liberty which Christ gives is not heathen lawlessness."



faith works legalism antinomianism Galatians