If you missed the earlier parts of this series, you can go back and read them 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)
- 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)
- Does Faithfulness Destroy Grace? (Legalism, Part 9 of 14)
- Important Questions Raised (Legalism, Part 10 of 14)
- The Centrality of Love (Legalism, Part 11 of 14)
- Back to the Questions (Legalism, Part 12 of 14)
What Is Legalism?
The word “legalism” is frequently used to describe the error of those who seek to earn their salvation through good works (part 4). While it is certainly true that we cannot be saved by right doctrine and good works alone, independent from faithful loyalty to Christ and love for God, we should recognize that the “legalism” addressed by Paul in Galatians and Romans is a different kind of legalism (parts 5 and 6).
The “legalism” opposed by Paul was the practice of the Jewish Christians who were adding requirements to the gospel and consequently compromising the sufficiency of the cross. This “legalism” was the charge laid against Gentile Christians that their faithful loyalty to Christ was insufficient, and that they must also be circumcised and keep the “works of the law” to be welcomed into Abraham’s family.
Everything in Paul’s letter to the Galatians leads up to Galatians 5.1:
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.
Rather than seeking unity in Christ, the Jewish Christians were seeking to define the boundaries of fellowship by their particular sectarian identity markers. But Christ has set us free from the “works of the law”.
The legalism addressed by Paul was the legalism of adding sectarian requirements to scripture, and by implication, claiming that faithful obedience to Christ is insufficient for full Christian fellowship.
Brothers and sisters, Christ has set us free! Do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery!
Is legalism a problem in the church today?
I’m in no position to give an adequate answer to this question. Since the church has no earthly headquarters, I can’t simply call them up and ask them for their official stance on questions of Christian fellowship. So I can’t give an official answer to this question.
We can have an official answer from God about what legalism is and isn’t, or what faith is or isn’t. But there’s no way that I could give an adequate answer to this question in a way that would accurately and fairly represent every Christian and every congregation in the universal body of Christ.
Instead of seeking an official judgment on whether or not the church is too legalistic, I would encourage you to think about the congregation where you attend. Or even more importantly, think about your own views of Christian fellowship. Is your congregation too legalistic? Are you too legalistic?
Do you view faithful obedience to Jesus as Lord as sufficient, or do you add your own additional requirements to make sure that someone fits into your sect? What might those things be? In Paul’s day it was the “works of the law”, such as circumcision, not eating pork, and keeping the Sabbath. In our own day it might be requiring someone to accept your denomination’s unique set of creeds (written or unwritten). It might be “statements of faith” that we require everyone in our congregation to adhere to, so as to make sure that every Christian conforms to our party’s standards. It might be the exaltation of particular believes and practices that set your group of Christians apart from other groups. It might be additional laws, rules, regulations, experiences, or particular political loyalties.
What’s wrong with creeds, statements of faith, or the exaltation of beliefs and practices we think of as extra important? If our “statements of faith” require anything less than “faithfulness to Christ” would require, they don’t require enough. If our “statements of faith” require more than “faithfulness to Christ” requires, they require too much. If our “statements of faith” require all the exact same things that “faithfulness to Christ” requires, they are redundant and unnecessary.
Do we stick to the gospel? Do we encourage faithful obedience to Christ? Do we uphold the requirements of scripture? Or do we require more? If we are faithful to Christ, even the “smallest issues” will matter, but only because Jesus is Lord, and not because we are trying to uphold the strength of our particular party of believers.
In addressing the legalism in the churches in Galatia, Paul wrote:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. – Galatians 3.26-27
Read that scripture slowly. Can you say “amen?” Even when you read that word “all”? Do you really believe what Paul said? Do you really believe we are all sons of God through faith? Do you really believe that all of us who have been baptized have been put into Christ? Or do you feel drawn to defend your particular party of Christians by drawing additional lines of fellowship?
If we really believe the words of Paul, what he says next should come naturally:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ you are Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3.28-29
Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t an argument for ecumenical fellowship with anyone and everyone who claims to have “trust and reliance” in Jesus. We must understand what Paul had in mind when he spoke of “faith” (part 8). We must remember that for Paul, being baptized into Christ was essential (Gal. 3.27). But, if we love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, and mind, if we have given our faithful and obedient allegiance to Jesus as Lord in everything we do, and if we have been baptized into Christ, nothing should separate us from one another. If we belong to Christ, we are part of Abraham’s family. Period. We must never hesitate when we read the word “all.”
Do you emphasize loyalty to Christ? Or do you emphasize party loyalty? Do you emphasize the inspired words of Scripture? Or do you emphasize traditions and outward performance?
Do you identify the church by asking “who does everything exactly like I do?” Or do you identify the church be asking, “who has been baptized into Christ and is living with faithful loyalty to Christ?”
Do you judge others when they have different opinions than you do? Do you feel bitter contempt towards Christians when you see others upholding different opinions that you do? Why? Yes, we must use judgment. Yes, we must be discerning, but it is not our job to be the judge! (Rom. 14.1-13)
Do you feel compelled to go beyond scripture in order to protect scripture? Yes, sometimes it can be wise and helpful to “draw lines” in order to keep us from sinning, especially in those areas where the “line” may not be as clear as we wish. For example, I make it a rule for myself not to go to bars. I don’t watch rated R movies. Drawing lines is good and wise. But are we simply drawing lines? Or are we making additional laws by which we judge others when they draw the line in a different place? Are we content to act as if Scripture is sufficient, and God doesn’t need us to make new laws? (cf. James 4.11-12)
Do we think that simply obeying the “steps of salvation” is a sufficient substitute for giving our lives wholly to God? Do we think that simply going to the right church is a sufficient substitute for loving God with all of our heart? Do we think that simply “trusting and relying” on “core gospel truths” is a sufficient substitute for faithfulness to Christ?
Is the church too legalistic? God is the judge. This is not my call (or your call) to make. But we would be wise to examine ourselves.
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