Back to the Questions (Legalism, Part 12 of 14)

If you missed the earlier parts of this series, you can go back and read them here:

In part 10 I summarized a long list of important and relevant questions raised by Kevin Pendergrass in his book “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. Most of his questions revolve around issues of fellowship, how to distinguish “fellowship issues” from issues we can “agree to disagree” about, and how these questions impact our confidence in our salvation. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend reading that post first.

As we consider these questions, we must remember that if our understanding of faith is not shaped and informed by our loyal allegiance to Jesus as Lord, we’re not talking about biblical faith (for more, go back and read parts 5-8). We cannot separate faith from acts of faithfulness. We cannot separate faith and works. We cannot separate faith and love (part 11). We must recognize that while grace is certainly undeserved, it is not unconditional. Grace is conditioned upon our faithful allegiance to Jesus as Lord (part 9, cf. Gal. 3.27-28; Eph. 2.8).

Most of us have worshiped with the following lyrics many times:

Love so amazing so Divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

This song gets it right.

With our minds fixed on Jesus’ Lordship, and the importance of living in faithful allegiance to Him, how then should we approach Kevin’s questions? How can we know if we are being obedient enough? How do we decide when to break fellowship with Christians for not being obedient enough? How do we decide when we should break fellowship, and when it would be okay to just agree to disagree? In summary, how much faithfulness is required to be justified, and thus numbered among the people of God?

In response to these questions, I wish to raise another question. Why do we feel like we must develop a set of hard and fast rules by which we can measure sufficient faithfulness and obedience? Such an approach is certain to lead to such endless questions and inconsistencies as Kevin’s book has wonderfully illustrated! And because of our potential for ignorant, unrecognized mistakes, such an approach is certain to lead to a lack of confidence! In fact, the “rule making” approach is precisely what Paul addressed in the books of Galatians and Romans. Jewish Christians (and even Peter himself!) were guilty of requiring the gentile Christians to live up to their own “checklist” of rules, and Paul was ready to call them out for it! (See posts 5-6).

How Separating Faith From Obedience Leads to the “Checklist” Approach

So where does this “checklist” mentality come from? I would suggest that it comes as a result of teaching that faith can be understood as simply “trust and reliance”.

When we think of “faith” as “trust and reliance” yet separate from “works”, we will ultimately end up in one of three categories of thought.

  1.  We are saved by “faith only” (i.e. trust and reliance only) apart from obedience. If faith is viewed as categorically separate from obedience, and since we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (understood to mean we are justified by faith apart from obedience), all that is necessary for salvation is trust and reliance in Jesus.
  2. We are saved by “faith plus obedience” as two separate, but equally important steps. Since it is easy to see from scripture that obedience is required, and we will be judged on the basis of things we do and don’t do (cf. Rom 2.5-8; 2 Cor. 5.10; Eph. 5.5; Gal. 5.19-21, 6.8, etc.), “faith only” is recognized as insufficient. Yet if obedience is equally important, this opens up the questions of “how much obedience is required for salvation?”, leading to a “checklist” approach to Christianity. (This is the position Kevin describes himself as having in his younger days).
  3. A hybrid of “faith only” and “faith plus obedience” where we attempt to maintain that obedience is necessary, but is not tied to our justification the way faith is. This position requires long and confusing explanations which attempt to hold “faith” and “obedience” together in a cause and effect relationship, so as to argue that obedience is not necessary for salvation or fellowship, but is still necessary (the position argued for in Kevin’s book).

Yet those who hold the third position, still must come face to face with the fellowship question, where they must align themselves with one of the first two positions. Either, we must fellowship everyone with “trust and reliance” without requiring any obedience, or we must require at least some obedience. If we require obedience, we must be able to articulate “how much” obedience. Ultimately, those in the third category must argue for  either “faith only” fellowship or a “checklist approach” to fellowship, depending on how essential they view obedience.

It is the separation of “faith” and “obedience” that leads to both “faith only” and the “checklist” mentality. Both mistakes result from the same basic misunderstanding of the gospel.

A Better Question to Ask

Rather than asking “how much faithfulness is required?” it would be better to ask “what kind of faithfulness is required?” Faithful obedience to Jesus as Lord requires firm allegiance to Him and actions which correspond with that loyalty. To develop a hard list to quantify and describe how much faithfulness is necessary for me or you is not only impossible, it shows that we fundamentally misunderstand the concept of faith all together.

Faithfulness must never be reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts. The desire to approach questions of Christian fellowship in this way is evidence of one of two problems:

  • A failure to know and to love God and others with all of our heart
  • A “what is the most I can get away with” attitude

Once we understand “Jesus’s Lordship” as the heartbeat of the gospel, and once we understand that loving faithful allegiance to Him as Lord is our response to the gospel, suddenly the need for a hard and fast list of fellowship issues disappears.

Faithfulness depends on doing whatever Lord Jesus commands us to do, and we will be judged based on whether or not we were faithfully loyal to Him. Instead of asking “how many things must I get right”, our attitude becomes “I want to do everything I can possibly do to please my Lord.” If we live with loyalty to Him, with a determination that extends beyond shallow lip service, then we can rest assured that His death on our behalf will be sufficient to cover our sins – all our sins – even our ignorant sins.

That’s what Paul meant when he said we are “justified by faith” (Gal. 2.16). That’s why John could write:

If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. – 1 John 1.7

And lest you think that “faithfulness” or “walking in the light” means perfection, John makes it very clear that “walking in the light” does not mean sinlessness. In the very next verse he says:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1.8

That also explains why Paul could write to Christians disagreeing on doctrinal issues and say things like:

One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. – Romans 15.5-6

Paul did not believe that two contradictory opinions were equally valid, and he didn’t endorse the incorrect opinions of those whom he thought were wrong. But he recognized that since both Christians were living in faithful, obedient, loyalty to God, they were to be considered brothers.

Fellowship Issues

Does this mean that there’s no such thing as “fellowship issues”? Certainly not. Scripture gives us several broad and detailed lists of what sort of activities our loyalty to Him forbids. For examples, Galatians 5.19-21 reads:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

While we recognize God’s desire to show mercy to all (Rom. 11.32; 1 Tim. 2.4), we can only conclude from such a scripture that those who persist in these types of activities will ultimately be condemned. Even seemingly “small issues”, if we know better, and yet we persist in them, can call into question whether or not we are faithfully loyal to Jesus as Lord (Rom. 14.23).

Faithfulness is not the same thing as perfection. Faithfulness is not the same thing as simply “getting the important issues right”. But faithfulness certainly requires that we live our lives in faithful allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments – 1 John 2.3

Do not love the world nor the things in the world… but the one who does the will of God lives forever. – 1 John 2.15, 17

“We know that we have passed out of death into live, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.” – 1 John 3.14

Kevin’s book represents a step in the right direction. He has skillfully exposed the foolishness of approaching Christianity as a cold and fast list of things to get right. He is right recognizing that the answer is found in loving God. Yet, if he would go just a little bit further, and recognize how our obedience and love is actually wrapped up within our faithful response to Jesus as Lord, he would be able to cut down the “cold ritualism” of his past at the very root of the misunderstanding.

Continue reading here:

Is The Church Too Legalistic? (Legalism, Part 13 of 14)

One thought on “Back to the Questions (Legalism, Part 12 of 14)

  1. Pingback: The Centrality of Love (Legalism, Part 11 of 14) – The Christian Exile

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