This post concludes a 14 part series in which I have reviewed “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.”
- 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)
- Is The Church Too Legalistic? (Legalism, Part 13 of 14)
- Kevin is a truth seeker. He seeks consistency. He isn’t willing to settle for over-simplified or inconsistent answers. He is a man who has the courage to follow what he believes is right, regardless of the pressures he may feel from those around him. (Part 3)
- It should be noted that Kevin never openly preached “salvation by works”. His problems primarily arose from struggling with various questions about Christian fellowship. He came to realize that he could never come up with a complete and Biblically consistent list of fellowship-issues necessary for unity without ultimately disfellowshiping anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. Once he realized that such an approach could never give him confidence in his salvation, Kevin was driven to deeper study about God’s grace. (Part 10)
- Kevin has taken some big steps in the right direction by rejecting his “cold/ritualistic” approach towards Christianity, and has replaced it with a “relationship/faith based” approach towards Christ. In this regard, Kevin’s book most certainly points in the right direction. (Part 11)
- Despite all the spiritual growth Kevin has experienced, he continues to read the New Testament through a lens that pits faith over against works. This is understandable since this has been one of the most traditional ways to read the New Testament for the last few hundred years. But this approach does not do justice to the first century context in which these Scriptures were written. The legalism addressed by Paul did not deal with the question of whether or not Christians could earn their salvation through their own moral efforts. The legalism addressed by Paul wrestled with the questions of who Christians were allowed to eat with, and how to identify who is in the family of God. Kevin thus associates “works of the law” with any generic acts of obedience, any “law system” or any attempt to save ourselves through our own moral efforts, whereas when Paul spoke of “works of the law”, he was describing the specific works of the law the Jewish Christians were using to separate themselves from Gentiles Christians. (Parts 5 and 6)
- This basic, but common misunderstanding impacts multiple aspects of his book, such as how he understands the message of the gospel, how he understands the concept of faith, and how he understands grace. (Parts 7, 8, and 9)
- Since Kevin misunderstands the scriptures which set faith over against “works of the law”, he puts himself into a tricky position where me must maintain the necessity of obedience, while categorically separating obedience from faith, and consequently separating obedience from that which identifies us as members of the family of God.
- As long as we view “faith” and “obedience” as two separate categories held together in a cause and effect relationship, and yet view both of them as absolutely necessary, Christians will recognize “faith alone” as insufficient. Consequently, they will feel the need to achieve “enough obedience” to be saved. The separation of faith and works actually feeds the cold, ritualistic “checklist” approach to Christianity. (Part 12)
- If we want to help move the church away from a cold, ritualistic “checklist” religion, and move into deeper, genuine, loving relationship with God, we could start by reading the New Testament in it’s original context. If we will let go of the habit of reading Paul’s writings as confronting “salvation by works”, and instead listen to how the New Testament writers actually understand the gospel, we will recognize that the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as Lord is the very heartbeat of the gospel. As a result, we will recognize that “faith” is much more than simply “trust and reliance”, but rather describes a live of loyal allegiance to Jesus as Lord. If we break the habit of setting faith over against works of obedience, and recover the centrality of Jesus’ Lordship, we will understand that faith and obedience are not two separate categories, but are rather contained within each other.
- When we are mindful of Jesus’ Lordship, and when we commit ourselves to be His disciples, genuine love for God and others will become the defining characteristic of our lives. No longer can we deceive ourselves into thinking that we can be “justified by trust and reliance” apart from love. Instead we must realize that faith demands love. (Part 11)
- Kevin’s book thus represents a big step in the right direction, yet it unfortunately reinforces some critical misunderstandings of Scripture.
What do I pray the church will take away from this study of legalism?
- An appreciation for the way that two Christians can disagree, and talk about those disagreements without name calling, attacking each other’s character, or intentionally misrepresenting each other’s motives or arguments. In Kevin’s book, he spoke very kindly, even about those who he has disagreed with over the years. I pray that my response to Kevin has shown this same graciousness, and I hope this will be an encouragement to other Christians to talk about their differences in a Christ-like manner.
- A deeper appreciation of the gospel; specifically speaking, a recognition that Jesus’ Lordship is the heartbeat of the gospel (Rom. 1.1-4)
- A recognition that “faith” is more than “trust and reliance”. Faith demands acts of faithfulness and allegiance to Jesus as Lord. Faith cannot be set over against obedience. We must embrace the concept of the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1.5; 16.26).
- That as we approach difficult and sensitive questions of Christian fellowship, we will remember that Paul wrote extensively addressing these kind of issues. In his mind, Christian fellowship was to be found among all those who are baptized into Christ and are faithfully loyal to Him. (Part 12)
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. 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, then you are Abraham’s descendants and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3.26-29
- A deep resolve to embrace genuine obedient “faithfulness” as the standard of unity and to reject the exaltation of creeds (written or unwritten), “statements of faith”, or other beliefs or practices that might serve as sectarian boundary lines. (Part 13)
- A deep appreciation for the core message of the gospel: Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord. Yet with a realization that this “core message” doesn’t reduce other issues to “frivolous issues”. Quite the opposite. If Jesus is Lord, it’s not up to us to decide which matters are “essential” and which ones are “nonessential”. Yes, we can show grace to one another when we disagree in good faith. But if Jesus is Lord, and we have given are faithful allegiance to Him, there are no “frivolous issues.”
- A recognition that Christians will not agree on every single doctrinal issue. Christianity is in large part a growth process – and none of us will ever reach moral and intellectual perfection in this lifetime. If Peter and Paul had to work through disagreements, we will too. That doesn’t mean that error is “okay” or should be ignored. But we must remember that Romans 14 shows us that when two Christians are faithfully loyal to Christ, they can disagree on matters of doctrine and still maintain fellowship.
- A remembrance that “faithfulness” does not mean perfection. We will all sin, but as long as we are walking in the light, we can have confidence that Jesus’ blood will cleanse us of our mistakes (1 John 1.7-8)
- A resolve to never endorse error. To say that fellowship is found among all those who are baptized into Christ and are faithfully loyal to Him is not a call for “open fellowship” with anyone and everyone who claims to “believe” in Jesus. As noted, there is a big difference between “trust and reliance” and “faithful allegiance to Jesus as Lord.” If we are going to say that Christian fellowship is founded upon faith in Christ, we must first have a Biblical concept of faith – a faith that gives loyal allegiance to Jesus as Lord.
- More than anything, I hope this study will encourage you to love God and others more deeply. This is one thing that I know Kevin and I fully agree on. And this is crucial. If Jesus is Lord, our lives must be characterized by love.
To my readers,
Thank you for taking the time to read and consider these posts. I especially appreciate those of you who have shared words of encouragement or critical feedback as I’ve proceeded through these posts.
If you’ve read this far, I owe you a huge thank you. I’ve never had anybody write a 14 part series to dive into the depths of (and possible misunderstandings in) my own faith. I can’t imagine that’s an easy thing to do. I hope you feel like I’ve treated you fairly. If not, please know that I’ve done my best. I hope that I’ve encouraged you to think deeply and to grow in your own understanding and articulation of your arguments.
You’ve always treated me kindly, even in our disagreements. I’m sure I have misunderstandings too. I just don’t know what they are. Perhaps one day someone will take the time to help me think through them more deeply.
But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcison, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them and upon the Israel of God…
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit, brethren. Amen. – Galatians 6.14-16, 18