This is the fourth part of a 14 part series in which I converse with Kevin Pendergrass’s book: “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.” Here I will attempt to provide a brief overview of his arguments, but I am confident that my overview fails to do him justice. For that reason, I encourage you to read his arguments in his own words by buying his book here.
You can read the earlier parts of this series here:
The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)
Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)
What I Appreciated the Most About Kevin Pendergrass’s Book on Legalism (Legalism, Part 3 of 14)
Kevin’s Definition of Legalism
Kevin understands legalism as the mistake Christians make when they “view Christianity through the framework of a legal system and attempt to earn their salvation through works”. Kevin understands legalism to be a “poison” because of how it “impairs, injures, and can even destroy us in different ways.” He believes legalism is a “different kind of poison” because it is often a silent killer, worn by “Christians with good hearts and the best of intentions” without them even recognizing their own legalistic tendencies. (p. 10-12)
The Problem With Legalism
Kevin argues that Christians will often misapply various verses to teach that “unity demands perfect agreement in all things”, while common sense and scripture together teach that no two Christians will ever agree on every biblical matter (p. 101-105). Kevin therefore suggests that we should draw a distinction between having an incorrect view and being a false teacher, and points out that it is okay for Christians to disagree on spiritual matters (p. 113-116; cf. Rom. 14.1-23; 1 Cor. 8.1-13).
Kevin points out that Scripture teaches that Christians should be confident in their salvation, and when we demand perfect understanding of all biblical issues, the fear of being wrong destroys our confidence in God’s grace (p. 123-128; cf. 1 Jn 4.17-19; 1 Jn. 5.13; Rom. 8.1; Heb. 2.14-15).
We can only achieve this biblical confidence by understanding that “Christianity is not about my righteousness before God. Christianity is about Christ’s righteousness before me” (p. 141). The gospel should be understood as the good news that Jesus died for our sins rather than “frivolous issues that have nothing to do with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection” (p. 148).
Kevin is quick to point out that law isn’t inherently bad.
“The problem with legalism is not with the law itself, but in a misplaced trust and application of the law. Therefore, law in Christianity is not bad. Law is a good thing if we use it correctly and understand its proper place. The problem is that it is very easy to misuse the law and begin to trust in the law itself for salvation.” (p. 153-154; cf. 1 Tim. 1.8).
In other words, the problem isn’t the emphasis on obedience and truth. The problem is approaching Christianity as if it is a “points system”, where we have to do enough right in order to get to heaven (and if we don’t do enough right, we go to hell).
The Solution to Legalism
The solution put forth by Kevin is to stop approaching Christianity as a cold, ritualistic system, and instead to focus on developing a genuine loving relationship with God.
The major problem in legalism has always been with people knowing about God, but never knowing Him deeply and intimately. We can’t know Jesus through the law; we can only truly know Him through relationship. (p. 205)
Again, Kevin is quick to emphasize that this idea does not mean that we can do whatever we want to do (cf. Rom. 6.15).
Viewing Christianity through the framework of relationship isn’t a license to sin. On the contrary, it gives us even more reason to love God and be obedient to Him. (p. 209)
Kevin wraps up the book by discussing how our approach towards Christianity should drastically change when we approach it as a relationship instead of a ritualistic system. When we truly love God, “it isn’t just about finding loopholes. Instead, its about doing everything I can to please Jesus Christ in my daily life.”
With this framework, we can stop approaching the New Testament as a legal document full of rules to keep, and instead we can begin to grasp the true purpose of scripture, that is, to love God and our neighbors more deeply (p. 219-223). When it comes to questions of unity and fellowship, instead of “looking for any and every opportunity to wage warfare when we disagree with a brother or sister in Christ”, we will begin to “err on the side of mercy instead of judgment” (p. 225-231; cf. Ja. 2.13; Mt. 7.1-2).
If the whole argument of the book could be summed up in one sentence, it might be this one:
In order to overcome legalism in all areas of your life, your framework must change. It must become relational and not legal. (p. 250).
Kevin makes lots of good points. Later in the series I want to discuss some of the excellent questions raised in this book. But first, I want to dedicate the next several posts in this series to a major flaw in Kevin’s book as well as some of its implications.
Continue reading part 5 here: