The Return of the Legal Spirit
Galatians 4:8-11
However, then, when you knew not God, you did service to them which by nature are no gods.

Having spoken of the majority which it is intended we should realize through the gospel, Paul proceeds next to speak about the return to legalism which had characterized the Gauls. Before Paul's advent to Galatia and his gospel message, they had been idolaters, but his preaching had brought them face to face, so to speak, with God. Into this Divine knowledge they had dipped, but, alas] it had only been a swallow-flight, for, after tasting the liberty of the gospel, they had flown back to bondage. They had skimmed the surface of salvation, and had winged their way back to the old legalism which had characterized their idolatrous days. Here, then, we have suggested -

I. THE LEGALISM WHICH NECESSARILY CHARACTERIZES IDOLATRY. (Ver. 8.) The philosophy of idolatry is a most interesting inquiry. Nowhere is it more succinctly set before us than in Psalm 115. The idols are there shown to be after the image of their makers (ver. 8), and, conversely, their worshippers become assimilated to them. The stolid idols which the poor artists make are simply copies of the stolid life around them; and the worship of the idol makes the stolidity perpetual. It is the apotheosis of inaction and of death. Hence it will be found that idolatry can secure nothing higher than ritualism, that is, the performance of rites and ceremonies for the sake of achieving a religious reputation, and not for the rake of communion with the object of worship. For in the case of the idol there can be no communion of mind with mind or of heart with heart. The form consequently is everything and the fellowship is nothing. If there be no self-righteousness promoted by the ceremony, it promotes absolutely no interest at all. Hence the whole genius of idolatry is legalism. If men are not achieving some religious reputation, they are achieving nothing at all. Paul consequently was looking back to the idolatrous life of the Galatians, and carefully analyzed it when he recognized in it the expression of a purely legal spirit.

II. THE GOSPEL PROMOTES ACQUAINTANCESHIP WITH GOD. (Ver. 9.) It seeks to bring about an interview with God. Paul's experience on the way to Damascus is typical. lie there became acquainted for the first time with Jesus Christ as his Divine Saviour. He there felt that it was nearer the truth to say that Jesus had found him than that he had found Jesus. It was true that he had come to know God in Christ, but this was the consequence of God in Christ in the first instance knowing him. Now, Paul's missionary life was to promote the same acquaintanceship among men. He wanted these Galatians to know God through realizing that God previously knew them. And he had hopes that they had entered the charmed circle of the Divine acquaintanceship. He hoped that they had experienced the truth, "Acquaint now thyself with God, and be at peace." This is the essence of the gospel. "This is life eternal, to know [i.e. to be acquainted with] thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent."

III. THE RETURN TO LEGALISM. (Vers. 9, 10.) The false teachers had come from Jerusalem to preach up the virtue of Jewish rites and ceremonies. Hence the fickle mountaineers of Galatia fell into their superstitious observances, and fancied that, if they kept carefully the Jewish calendar, with its weekly, monthly, annual, and septennial feasts and fasts, they must hereby propitiate the Supreme. Accustomed as idolaters to the making of religious reputations, they could enter the more easily into the legal spirit for which the false teachers called. And indeed there is nothing so insidious, because there is nothing so palatable to the natural heart. To be in a position to achieve a religions reputation, to win by our own hands certain characters and certain rights, is wonderfully flattering and grateful to human pride. We need to be constantly on our guard against the temptation.

1. One way is by remembering how "weak," as Paul here puts it, the elements out of which we would manufacture our reputation are. They do not bear analysis. Once we touch them with honest thought they stand in felt helplessness before us. Ceremonies which do not lead to communion with God, ceremonies which are simply to add to human pride and foster self-righteousness, are weak as water, and can only harm us.

2. We should remember also how "beggarly" they are. They can minister no wealth of thought or feeling to the superstitious soul. They are merely the instruments of bondage.

IV. THE DANGER OF THE LEGAL SPIRIT. (Ver. 11.) If Paul's preaching only resulted in such an outbreak of legalism, then he would regard his mission among them as "love's labour lost." There is no difference between the legalism of Judaism and the legalism of idolatry. Both are mere phases of self-righteousness. The gospel has missed its aim altogether if it leave people in legal bondage. The gospel is the great scheme for overthrowing self-righteousness. It emancipates the soul from the delusive hope of establishing any claim before God. It shuts us up to the acceptance of salvation as God's free gift. It deposes self and makes free grace supreme. Hence Paul's anxiety to see the Galatians brought back from legal bondage to gospel liberty. Unless they gave up their helm from ceremony, and betook themselves to hope in the Saviour alone, then they must be lost. It is most important that the exceeding danger of the legal spirit should be constantly kept in view, that we may maintain our standing on the footing of free grace. - R.M.E.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.

WEB: However at that time, not knowing God, you were in bondage to those who by nature are not gods.

Idolatry: Misrepresentation of God
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