This post is part of a 14 part book-review series in which I discuss “legalism” as it is presented in 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)
- A Different Kind of Response To the Gospel (Legalism, Part 8 of 14)
The subtitle of Kevin’s book is “How Legalism Destroys Grace”. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, I’ve grown weary of “legalism” being thrown out there as an accusation against churches which emphasize obedience, strive to worship biblically, or seek to preach the whole counsel of God. But as I mentioned in part 3, I was happy to see that Kevin does not make this accusation.
My most significant criticism of Kevin’s book is that “legalism” as it is defined by Kevin is not the same kind of legalism that is addressed by Paul. Kevin defines legalism as “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works” (p. 7). The legalism we read about in Galatians and Romans had to do with the things Jewish Christians were using to distinguish themselves from Gentile Christians, such as keeping the Sabbath, circumcision, and not eating pork. The “legalism” addressed by Paul was the doctrine that Gentiles must become Jews and adopt the Law of Moses in order to be justified.
“Legalism” should thus be understood as the mistake Christians make when they exalt sectarian practices, beliefs, or creeds, which compromise the sufficiency of God’s grace given through Christ.
With this in mind, we can recognize that legalism does in fact destroy grace. Legalism is the charge made against other Christians that, even though they have obeyed the gospel, and even though they give faithful, obedient, allegiance to Jesus as Lord, that God’s grace is insufficient to cover their sins. Legalism destroys grace.
In part 8 I argued that “faith” should not understood as “trust and reliance” separate from works. Faith is better understood as our response to Jesus as Lord by giving our full allegiance to Him. Faith cannot be separated from faithfulness. Faith and works are not two separate categories, but rather they overlap and nest within each other. This explains why scripture frequently speaks about how we will be judged based upon actions we take or don’t take (2 Cor. 5.10; Gal. 5.19-21; 6.8; Eph. 5.5; Rev. 20.12-15).
But what about grace? If we understand faith to involve concrete actions of loyalty to Jesus as Lord, does this destroy grace? Does requiring that we “do something” for salvation destroy grace?
The Bible is clear: God is the actor in our salvation. We cannot and we do not save ourselves.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. – Ephesians 2.8
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. – Romans 5.6
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior – Titus 3.4-7
The question is not whether or not we are saved by grace. The question is whether God’s grace is conditional or unconditional. Or to ask the question another way, is there anything that we must do in order to receive God’s grace?
If I understand Kevin correctly, it seems to me that He and I are in agreement on this point.
While God’s grace is freely available to anyone, not everyone is going to be saved because we must accept God’s free gift of grace. We must access God’s grace. Just like any gift, it must be accepted.
The crucial question at this point then becomes, “How do we access God’s grace?” (p. 164).
I have no disagreement with Kevin that we must do something to access God’s grace. He and I both understand that doing something to receive God’s free gift does not in and of itself destroy the concept of grace. We both seem to be in agreement that while God’s grace is certainly undeserved, it is not unconditional.
Kevin then goes on to cite several verses that teach that God’s grace is accessed through faith (Rom. 3.28; 4.5; 5.1; 9.31-32; 11.6; Gal. 2.16; Phil. 3.9). Again, he and I are alike in our understanding of this point. We both understand that choosing to have faith does not destroy grace.
The difference between us is found in our understanding of what the choice to have faith involves. Kevin argues that we access God’s grace through trust and reliance apart from works. My understanding is that Biblical faith contains acts of loyalty (see part 8).
When we reduce faith to “trust and reliance”, not only does it complicate our understanding of James 2.14-16, but it runs in the face of Jesus’ demand for discipleship.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. – Matthew 16.24-26
When Jesus commands us to take up our cross and follow Him, this does not imply that we “earn” our own salvation or save ourselves by our own moral efforts. Jesus’ demand for discipleship destroys the misunderstanding that says that grace isn’t really grace if it requires that we have to do something in order to obtain it.
Legalism destroys grace, but faithful obedience is not legalism. Faithfulness does not destroy grace; faithfulness destroys misunderstood grace.
Continue reading here:
Important Questions Raised (Legalism, Part 10 of 14)