v7 – “You were running well” – On one hand this was encouraging for the Galatians – they had been running well in the past, but then it also serves as a warning for us. We may have been growing healthily in our faith in the past, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune from being drawn off track by false teaching. The Galatians were running well previously, but they’ve gone seriously wrong. I think we have a natural tendency to assume that won’t happen to us.
“Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” – In the past I think I probably would’ve said the problem with legalists was that they overemphasised the need for obedience. There were certain things that Christians obviously shouldn’t do, like swearing, getting drunk, having sex outside marriage, and obviously we are supposed to read our Bibles, go to church every Sunday, tithe, but legalists took things further, like calling us to sell all our possessions and give the money to charity, get rid of our TVs, only read Christian books, and never listen to secular music. I would’ve wanted those people to relax a bit; we’re saved by grace, we don’t have to do all that stuff. Yes those are good things to do, but you’re overemphasising obedience. But actually Paul says here that the legalists in Galatia were hindering people from obeying the truth. It wasn’t that they were overemphasising obedience; they were actually leading people into disobedience.
I think we make a false separation between justification by faith and then obedience. “We’re saved by faith alone, but then there are things that you have to do as a Christian.” And we think of Paul’s letter to the Galatians as being about the justification by faith part, while books like James focus on the obedience part. But Paul’s in the middle of reprimanding the Galatians for getting justification wrong and suddenly brings up obedience. Outwardly, their behaviour appeared more holy than before, but actually they were not being obedient anymore. They had previously been running well, but this circumcision business was not only of no advantage to them, it was actually hindering their obedience because it was contrary to the gospel. I think some preachers preach sermons intended to challenge people to do good works with a sincere desire to see their listeners grow to be stronger Christians, but if those works are not rooted in gospel motivation, the people doing them might look like more devoted Christians on the outside, while actually they’re becoming more and more disobedient.
And it hurts when that hits you. You think you’re doing quite well (not because you got circumcised, but) because you’re doing all the things Christians are supposed to do. To suddenly realise that all that effort you put in to behaving well in order to earn favour with God actually achieved the opposite, because God is not impressed when you act contrary to the gospel – that hurts the ego. But our ego needs to be hurt, so we can get back to obeying the truth – the pain is worth it for the liberation that follows.