In my last post I gave an overview of Kevin Pendergrass’ arguments about legalism as he presents them in his book “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. You can go back and read that post (as well as the earlier posts in this series) by clicking 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)
- An Overview of Kevin’s Argument (Legalism, Part 4 of 14)
In this post I want to discuss what I see as being the most fundamental disagreement I have with Kevin’s book. My biggest critique by far is that “legalism” as it is defined and discussed in Kevin’s book is a different kind of legalism from that which is described in scripture. As a result, Kevin views several scriptures and concepts through a difference lens from that with which the first century church would have viewed those same scriptures. In other words, Kevin’s way of discussing the problem of and solution to legalism is quite different from the way the problem is identified and discussed in scripture.
I have no doubt that this book will make a lot of sense to readers in the church today. If I had a time machine, and I could take Kevin’s book back to the 15th or 16th century, I believe that Kevin’s way of talking about concepts like “the gospel” and “faith” and “works” and “grace” would have made a lot of sense to them too. But if I were to take that time machine all the way back to the first century, I think most early Christians would have been left scratching their heads. I don’t know that they would necessarily disagree with the book as a whole, but I think they would describe it as a really strange way of talking about the gospel.
In chapter 2 Kevin defines what he means when he speaks of legalism:
The meaning of legalism is simply “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.”… Paul used the root word for legalism when teaching against salvation by works. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia who were caught up in attempting to be justified by the law, he said:
“know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law now one will be justified.” (Gal. 2.16)
Like many others for the last few hundred years have done, Kevin reads this passage as confronting “salvation by works” by teaching that we are justified through faith apart from our own moral efforts. While this is true, if we are to rightly understand Galatians 2:16 we need to recognize confronting “salvation by works” is not the main point of the passage. When we read Galatians 2.19 in context, the verse takes on a different flavor.
The passage is in the context about Paul confronting Peter for withdrawing from eating with the gentile Christians.
For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. (Gal. 2.12)
When Paul witnessed this hypocrisy in Peter, he confronted him by saying,
If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the gentiles to live like Jews? (Gal. 2.14b)
This statement about Jew/Gentile relations sets the immediate context of Paul’s statement about faith and works in verse 16. This is not to suggest that Kevin is wrong when he points out that Christianity is not a “points system”. But it should be noted that when Paul says “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” he is not making that statement to confront Christians who were trying to earn their way to heaven by doing good works. Peter was not being corrected for teaching that Christians must earn their way to heaven. That statement was made in direct reference to Jewish Christians who were excluding Gentile Christians from full Christian fellowship.
In other words, these “works of the law” are not referencing any generic action we may do in obedience to God. Paul used the phrase to refer to the specific “works of the law” that the Jewish Christians were using to distinguish themselves from Gentile Christians, namely circumcision, eating pork, and observing the Sabbath. So when Paul says “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus”, he’s saying that we are among the justified people of God (i.e. the church) because of our faithfulness to Christ and not because of any practice or belief that people might add to the gospel. We are acceptable to God because of our loyalty to Christ, not because we adopt the special markers of any particular group.
“Legalism” as it is defined by Kevin is a different kind of legalism from that which was addressed by Paul. This observation has several implications which I plan to address in later posts. But since Kevin’s mistake is a very common one, I think it will be helpful to develop this point further in the next post.