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)
- A Different Kind of Emphasis on the Gospel (Legalism, Part 7 of 14)
We can’t understand the response to the gospel unless we understand what the gospel is. If the gospel is simply the message that Jesus died for our sins so that we could go to heaven, and you are someone who is wrapped up in achieving moral and doctrinal perfection, the response to the gospel is to have faith that Jesus will save us despite our failures. That is, we respond to the gospel with faith as opposed to our own moral sufficiency or self-reliance.
According to this understanding “faith means to have trust and reliance” (p. 166), but “biblical faith is not physical works” (p. 165). According to this understanding of the gospel, faith must be understood as something which is held “apart from our works”.
Without denying that salvation is by grace, without denying that salvation from sin is very important and closely tied to the message of the gospel (Rom. 1.16-17), and without denying that “trust and reliance” is a big part of faith, the problem comes when we think of our response to the gospel as faith as opposed to works.
In order to understand what “faith” means, we must go back to the Bible. When our understanding of the gospel is tied to the recognition of Jesus’ Lordship, faith is then understood to mean faithfulness, loyalty, and allegiance. This doesn’t erase the importance of “trust and reliance”, but it swallows it up into a much larger sense.
What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, ‘That You may be justified in Your words, And prevail when You are judged.
Here, in speaking of the “faithfulness” of God, Paul is clearly not referring to God’s own trust and reliance toward us. Rather He is saying that God Himself has been faithful and loyal to what He has promised.
What’s more, Paul frequently uses the phrase “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1.3, 5; 16.25-26). If we understand Jesus’ enthronement of Lord as the climax of the gospel, our response to the gospel is to give our loyalty and allegiance to Him.
If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes to righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses to salvation. – Romans 10.9-10
Faith then should be understood as loyalty to Jesus as Lord; a confession which brings about righteousness and salvation. Faith is believing in the resurrection, and trusting and relying in King Jesus enough to bring about the obedience of faith.
When we understand that faithful obedience is wrapped up into faith, this helps explain why Paul himself can say that our deeds will be the basis of our judgment.
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, ‘Who will render to each person according to his deeds’; to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. – Romans 2.5-8
Concrete actions are the basis of judgment; doing or not doing certain things. Other scriptures could be cited to this same end (2 Cor. 5.10; Eph. 5.5; Gal. 5.19-21; 6.8; cf. Rev. 20.12-15). When Paul says in one breath that we are judged according to our deeds, and in another breath he says that we are justified through faith (Rom. 3.28; 4.5; 5.1; Gal. 2.16; Phil. 3.9), he isn’t speaking out of both sides of his mouth, because Paul understood that faith in Jesus as Lord is the commitment to give Him faithful allegiance as Lord.
Kevin certainly recognizes the necessity of obedience. But what happens when we deemphasize Jesus’s lordship and say things like “we are saved by faith apart from apart from works” (p. 165) and “our works are not the same thing as our faith and our faith is not the same thing as our works” (p. 166)? Why does Kevin have to say things like “Faith and works do have a close relationship… however, faith and works are separate”? Why does he have to say explain “we are justified by grace through Jesus Christ… apart from any works”?
Kevin goes to great lengths to emphasize that faith and works must be held in a cause and effect relationship. “A true faith will always produce works”. “Behavior is the result of belief.” “A true faith must precede any biblical actions such as repentance, confession, baptism, giving, worshiping, helping others, etc.” (p. 168).
Yet Paul can say things like “for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5.10) without pausing to add any words to explain that these deeds must be viewed as the result of faith.
Why does Kevin feel it is so important to hold faith and works at arm’s length from each other? Why the fumbling around? Why must we go to such great lengths to show that we can hold onto the necessity of obedience, while still separating obedience from salvation? Why avoid the obvious? Why not just accept that the idea of faith envelops and embraces the necessity of loyal obedience to the Lord?
The answer to these questions is found back to what I wrote about in parts 5, 6, and 7. Kevin has fundamentally misunderstood what Paul was talking about when he says “a man is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2.19).
This is my biggest concern with Kevin’s book on legalism.
At this point, some may start to feel uneasy. For some, to suggest that “works” is nested within the concept of “faith” sounds like a tricky, back door to legalism. This is especially true if we’ve spent a good portion of our life thinking that “faith” and “works” must be held at arm’s length. This uneasy feeling is likely to be amplified for those who have been hurt by the arrogance and rudeness of Christians who have used “rightness” and “doctrinal truth” as an excuse to be rude and unloving towards those who might disagree with them.
I want to be clear: there is no excuse for Christians to be rude, arrogant, or hateful in the name of “obedience”. I plan on developing this important point later in this series.
But first, I want to go back to the concept of grace. If faith involves works, what does that mean for grace? Is emphasizing the necessity of works simply a backdoor to legalism? Does faithfulness destroy grace? This will be the focus of the next post in the series.