This post is part of a 14 part series in which I discuss legalism in discussion with Kevin Pendergrass’s book: “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”
Here’s the earlier parts of the series:
- 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)
- The Major Flaw in Kevin’s Book (Legalism, Part 5 of 14)
- A Different Kind of Legalism (Legalism Part 6 of 14)
In the previous two posts I’ve attempted to show how “legalism” as Kevin Pendergrass defines it is different from the “legalism” that Paul addressed in Galatians and Romans.
According to Kevin, legalism is “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works” (p. 7). In other words, “trying to be saved through our own works”.
Although such an approach would certainly be a “faulty way to view Christianity”, the legalism discussed by Paul is something different. Rather than addressing the works-based righteousness of Kevin’s version of legalism, Paul addresses the way Jewish Christians were adding additional practices and beliefs to the gospel, and consequently were undermining the sufficiency of Christ as Savior.
This basic, but critical misunderstanding distorts several other discussions in Kevin’s book. One example of this can be seen in Kevin’s understanding of the gospel.
According to Kevin, our basic problem is summed up on page 141:
I finally realized the great sin dilemma with which I was faced. The Bible teaches that we have all sinned and we all fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23). As discussed in chapter 30, sin is missing the mark (1 Jn. 3.14). It is violating God’s standard of living found in His word, the Bible (Rom. 4.15; 10.17).
Here’s the problem with sin: The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6.23). When we sin, not only do we incur a death penalty, but that sin separates us from God (Isa. 59.1-2). God says that my righteousness is nothing but filthy rags (Isa. 64.6).
That means even on my best day, I don’t even begin to come close to meeting God’s standard. I can attempt to deny my own sinfulness but he Bible says if we say we have no sin, then we are only deceiving ourselves (1 Jn. 1.8). We cannot find righteousness through our own works (Rom. 3.10).
With “sin” as the problem, what, according to Kevin, is the “good news”, the “gospel”?
Paul says that the good news is that Jesus came to this earth, He died for our sins, He was buried, and He was resurrected (1 Cor. 15.1-4). This is truly the gospel. This is the good news!
While our wages of sin is death, Jesus paid that penalty for us and has offered us the gift of eternal life (Rom. 6.23). Jesus became our substitute and there is not substitute for the substitute. The cross is where God’s holiness and God’s love found true harmony. (p. 148).
First of all, it should be noted that Kevin is right in everything he says here. So without denying this very important aspect of the gospel, it should be noted that Kevin leaves out something very important; the enthronement of Jesus as Lord.
First, notice what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.1-4
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
When Paul says that Jesus died for our sins “according to the Scriptures” he isn’t proof texting. He doesn’t have in mind one or two or a dozen random isolated passages about death for unforgiven sinners. He’s identifying the entire Old Testament story of Israel as having reached its climax in the resurrection of Jesus. Our understanding of the gospel must be firmly rooted in and understood in terms of the Scriptures.
According to the Scriptures, the “good news” is not a simply generalized message that God will forgive sinners; it is specifically tied to the problem faced by the nation of Israel in exile as a result of their sins. The “good news” would be the announcement that “God reigns” and as a result, sins would be forgiven and exile would come to an end (Is. 40.9; 52.7; 60.6; 61.1). When God reigns, Babylon’s reign over God’s people comes to an end.
This is why, when you keep reading 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection not only means we can be forgiven of our sins (1 Cor. 1.16-17), but it also means that Jesus now reigns (1 Cor. 15.24-28). In Paul’s mind, “forgiveness of sins” was always tied closely together with Jesus’s Messiahship, His reign, His authority, and His lordship.
Yes, Jesus’ death and resurrection most certainly brings forgiveness for sins, and this is important. But we must not overlook that Jesus’s resurrection is moment when Jesus is declared to be the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the whole world.
Notice how Paul identifies the gospel in Romans 1.1-4:
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord.
First and foremost, Paul says that the gospel is “concerning His son”, who is the promised descendant of David, who because of the resurrection from the dead has been “declared to be the Son of God with power.” In other words, the gospel, at it’s very core, is the message that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is, like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, how the death and resurrection of Jesus is to be understood “according to the scriptures”.
If Romans 1.1-4 gives a summary of the content of the gospel (i.e. what the gospel is “concerning”), Romans 1.16-17 gives a summary of the effect of the gospel.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
Kevin is exactly right to think of the gospel in terms of our forgiveness from sin, but first and foremost the gospel is about the enthronement of Jesus as Lord. The power for salvation from sin flows out of the crucial point that Jesus has been declared to be the Son of God with power. Jesus Christ is Lord and King. Any understanding of the gospel that fails to be built upon the Lordship of Christ is incomplete.
This may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s not, as the next couple of posts should make clear. Our response to the gospel depends in large part to what we understand the message of the gospel to be. Paul emphasizes Jesus’ Lordship as the very heart of the gospel. While I have no doubt that Kevin believes this to be true, his description of the gospel omits, and thus deemphasizes the enthronement of Jesus. I believe this different emphasis on the gospel explains the next problem in the book; Kevin’s different understanding of faith.
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