Does Faithfulness Destroy Grace? (Legalism, Part 9 of 14)

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 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)

A Different Kind of Response To the Gospel (Legalism, Part 8 of 14)

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:

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.

This is why the word for “faith” can be translated as “faithfulness” (Mt. 23.23; Gal. 5.22). Notice especially the way the word is used in Romans 3.3-4

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.

Does Faithfulness Destroy Grace? (Legalism, Part 9 of 14)

A Different Kind of Emphasis on the Gospel (Legalism, Part 7 of 14)

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:

In the previous two posts I’ve attempted to show how “legalism” as Kevin Pendergrass defines it is different from the “legalism” that Paul addressed in Galatians and Romans.

According to Kevin, legalism is “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works” (p. 7). In other words, “trying to be saved through our own works”.

Although such an approach would certainly be a “faulty way to view Christianity”, the legalism discussed by Paul is something different. Rather than addressing the works-based righteousness of Kevin’s version of legalism, Paul addresses the way Jewish Christians were adding additional practices and beliefs to the gospel, and consequently were undermining the sufficiency of Christ as Savior.

This basic, but critical misunderstanding distorts several other discussions in Kevin’s book. One example of this can be seen in Kevin’s understanding of the gospel.

According to Kevin, our basic problem is summed up on page 141:

I finally realized the great sin dilemma with which I was faced. The Bible teaches that we have all sinned and we all fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23). As discussed in chapter 30, sin is missing the mark (1 Jn. 3.14). It is violating God’s standard of living found in His word, the Bible (Rom. 4.15; 10.17).

Here’s the problem with sin: The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6.23). When we sin, not only do we incur a death penalty, but that sin separates us from God (Isa. 59.1-2). God says that my righteousness is nothing but filthy rags (Isa. 64.6).

That means even on my best day, I don’t even begin to come close to meeting God’s standard. I can attempt to deny my own sinfulness but he Bible says if we say we have no sin, then we are only deceiving ourselves (1 Jn. 1.8). We cannot find righteousness through our own works (Rom. 3.10).

With “sin” as the problem, what, according to Kevin, is the “good news”, the “gospel”?

Paul says that the good news is that Jesus came to this earth, He died for our sins, He was buried, and He was resurrected (1 Cor. 15.1-4). This is truly the gospel. This is the good news!

While our wages of sin is death, Jesus paid that penalty for us and has offered us the gift of eternal life (Rom. 6.23). Jesus became our substitute and there is not substitute for the substitute. The cross is where God’s holiness and God’s love found true harmony. (p. 148).

First of all, it should be noted that Kevin is right in everything he says here. So without denying this very important aspect of the gospel, it should be noted that Kevin leaves out something very important; the enthronement of Jesus as Lord.

First, notice what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.1-4

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

When Paul says that Jesus died for our sins “according to the Scriptures” he isn’t proof texting. He doesn’t have in mind one or two or a dozen random isolated passages about death for unforgiven sinners. He’s identifying the entire Old Testament story of Israel as having reached its climax in the resurrection of Jesus. Our understanding of the gospel must be firmly rooted in and understood in terms of the Scriptures.

According to the Scriptures, the “good news” is not a simply generalized message that God will forgive sinners; it is specifically tied to the problem faced by the nation of Israel in exile as a result of their sins. The “good news” would be the announcement that “God reigns” and as a result, sins would be forgiven and exile would come to an end (Is. 40.9; 52.7; 60.6; 61.1). When God reigns, Babylon’s reign over God’s people comes to an end.

This is why, when you keep reading 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection not only means we can be forgiven of our sins (1 Cor. 1.16-17), but it also means that Jesus now reigns (1 Cor. 15.24-28). In Paul’s mind, “forgiveness of sins” was always tied closely together with Jesus’s Messiahship, His reign, His authority, and His lordship.

Yes, Jesus’ death and resurrection most certainly brings forgiveness for sins, and this is important. But we must not overlook that Jesus’s resurrection is moment when Jesus is declared to be the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the whole world.

Notice how Paul identifies the gospel in Romans 1.1-4:

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord.

First and foremost, Paul says that the gospel is “concerning His son”, who is the promised descendant of David, who because of the resurrection from the dead has been “declared to be the Son of God with power.” In other words, the gospel, at it’s very core, is the message that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is, like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, how the death and resurrection of Jesus is to be understood “according to the scriptures”.

If Romans 1.1-4 gives a summary of the content of the gospel (i.e. what the gospel is “concerning”), Romans 1.16-17 gives a summary of the effect of the gospel.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

Kevin is exactly right to think of the gospel in terms of our forgiveness from sin, but first and foremost the gospel is about the enthronement of Jesus as Lord. The power for salvation from sin flows out of the crucial point that Jesus has been declared to be the Son of God with power. Jesus Christ is Lord and King. Any understanding of the gospel that fails to be built upon the Lordship of Christ is incomplete.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s not, as the next couple of posts should make clear. Our response to the gospel depends in large part to what we understand the message of the gospel to be. Paul emphasizes Jesus’ Lordship as the very heart of the gospel. While I have no doubt that Kevin believes this to be true, his description of the gospel omits, and thus deemphasizes the enthronement of Jesus. I believe this different emphasis on the gospel explains the next problem in the book; Kevin’s different understanding of faith.

Continue reading here:

A Different Kind of Response To the Gospel (Legalism, Part 8 of 14)

A Clarification (Legalism, An Addendum to Parts 5 and 6)

After posting parts 5 and 6 in my series on legalism, I’ve received some feedback that leads me to believe an important word of clarification is needed at this point.

You can go back and read those posts here:

At this point, I’m not necessarily arguing that Kevin is wrong to denounce a work-righteousness approach to Christianity, and I’m not attempting to build an argument that gives us a back door into a work-righteousness approach to Christianity. I believe Paul (and all of Scripture) is clear that we are saved by God’s grace. God is the primary actor in our salvation – not us. We do not “earn our way to heaven”. Kevin and I agree on these points. I’m not attempting to build an either/or case.

My point is this: if we pay close attention to the contexts in Galatians and Romans, it doesn’t sound like the church was arguing over whether or not we can earn our way to heaven by good works. The major questions Paul was dealing with were “who are we allowed to eat with?” and “who can be welcomed into full Christian fellowship?”

My major criticism is not that Kevin is wrong oppose works-based righteousness (in fact, there are lots of really smart Bible scholars out there who believe that even though the Jew/Gentile relationship was the primary question being wrestled with, these texts still contain seeds, which when fully developed, can certainly be used to denounce a works-righteousness approach towards Christianity). My criticism is simply to point out that Kevin approaches these scriptures through the lens of whether or not we earn our way to heaven, while the early church would have read these scriptures through the lens of thinking about Jew/Gentile relations. To really grasp what these verses are saying (and what they are not saying), it is helpful to go back and read them in that light.

If we define “legalism” as whatever it was Paul was arguing against, we should conclude that Kevin’s book addresses a different kind of legalism from that which was addressed by Paul. Again, this doesn’t make Kevin wrong. It just means he is addressing a different kind of legalism.

The change in emphasis can have several important implications when it comes to how we understand several different scriptures and concepts. These implications will be the focus of the next few posts in this series, so it is important to grasp this point.

It is not necessary to disagree with what Kevin says about works-righteousness in Christianity. But we must recognize that when we think of the question of whether or not we earn our way to heaven, we are dealing with a question that scholars have spent a lot of time wrestling with ever since the reformation movement. But that’s not necessarily the same question the church was wrestling with in the first century.

With that cleared up, I invite you to continue reading Part 7 here:

A Different Kind of Emphasis on the Gospel (Legalism, Part 7 of 14)

 

A Different Kind of Legalism (Legalism Part 6 of 14)

In the last post we saw how Galatians 2.19 was not written to confront Christians who were trying to earn their way to heaven by doing enough good works. Rather Galatians 2.19 was written in the context of certain Jewish Christians who were refusing to have full fellowship with Gentile Christians unless they adopted certain “works of the law.” In this context, the “works of the law” refer to particular aspects of the law which Jewish Christians were using to exclude Gentiles from being fully welcomed into the family of Abraham. Paul argues against this sectarian exclusiveness by saying that justification is by faith, not because Gentiles are forced into accepting certain Jewish “works of the law” such as circumcision. This basic, but critical mistake distorts the discussion of legalism throughout the entire book and has several implications.

If you haven’t read the earlier posts in this series, I am writing these posts in conversation with Kevin’ Pendergrass’ book “A Different Kind of Poision: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. You can read those previous posts by clicking below:

Another example of this same basic mistake can be seen on page 154 where Kevin quotes from Romans 3:27-28:

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Kevin adds this commentary:

Any law in which we are judged by our works will always end in our condemnation. It is only through faith that we are justified.

Unfortunately, I had taken the law of faith and had turned it into another works-based system. Yet, that was the very point Paul was refuting. We are not justified based upon the works of the law because there is no way anyone can be justified by their own works.

Not only can we not be justified by the works of any law system, we can’t be justified by any works at all, even works of obedience.

Now, ask yourself, is that really the point Paul was refuting? Or was Paul arguing against excluding Gentiles from fellowship within the covenant of God? If, as Kevin has stated, Paul was refuting a works-based system of salvation, then you would probably expect Paul to follow up with some sort of statement about trying to earn your way into heaven. But if Paul was discussing the way Jewish Christians were excluding Gentile Christians, we would probably expect Paul to follow up with some sort of statement about Jewish and Gentile relations. So which is it?

Here’s what Paul says next,

Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the uncircumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. – Romans 3.29-30

If you’re following my point then you will recognize the major flaw in Kevin’s book on legalism. If you’re not seeing my point, go back and read Romans 3:27-30 again. First, Paul states that we are justified by faith. Then Paul immediately follows this up with a rhetorical question about how God is the God of both the Jews and the Gentiles because of their faith. Jews and Gentiles are both fully among the justified people of God, not because of their allegiance to certain Mosaic laws, but rather because faithfulness to God.

If it’s still not clear, continue reading into the next chapter.

Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. – Romans 4.9-12

That’s a big chunk to digest, but if you read it slowly it will be seen that Paul’s main point is that Abraham was credited righteousness before he became circumcised so that he could be a father to all who believe, both Jews and Gentiles. The idea that Paul was writing to combat the tendency of Christians to view salvation as a points-based system or trying to earn their way to heaven is non-existent in this text.

I don’t intend to discredit the entirety of the book. As I’ve said before, there is much to be appreciated in Kevin’s book, and there are lots of good points raised throughout the book. I plan on addressing more of these positive aspects in later posts. But it must be noted that the “legalism” addressed by Kevin is a different kind of legalism from that which is addressed by Paul.

Note: After recieving several comments in response to this article, I thought it would be helpful to add a quick clarification. Here’s what I’m saying and what I’m not saying:

A Clarification (Legalism, An Addendum to Parts 5 and 6)

You can continue to part 7 here:

A Different Kind of Emphasis on the Gospel (Legalism, Part 7 of 14)

 

The Major Flaw in Kevin’s Book (Legalism, Part 5 of 14)

In my last post I gave an overview of Kevin Pendergrass’ arguments about legalism as he presents them in his book “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. You can go back and read that post (as well as the earlier posts in this series) by clicking here:

In this post I want to discuss what I see as being the most fundamental disagreement I have with Kevin’s book. My biggest critique by far is that “legalism” as it is defined and discussed in Kevin’s book is a different kind of legalism from that which is described in scripture. As a result, Kevin views several scriptures and concepts through a difference lens from that with which the first century church would have viewed those same scriptures. In other words, Kevin’s way of discussing the problem of and solution to legalism is quite different from the way the problem is identified and discussed in scripture.

I have no doubt that this book will make a lot of sense to readers in the church today. If I had a time machine, and I could take Kevin’s book back to the 15th or 16th century, I believe that Kevin’s way of talking about concepts like “the gospel” and “faith” and “works” and “grace” would have made a lot of sense to them too. But if I were to take that time machine all the way back to the first century, I think most early Christians would have been left scratching their heads. I don’t know that they would necessarily disagree with the book as a whole, but I think they would describe it as a really strange way of talking about the gospel.

In chapter 2 Kevin defines what he means when he speaks of legalism:

The meaning of legalism is simply “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.”… Paul used the root word for legalism when teaching against salvation by works. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia who were caught up in attempting to be justified by the law, he said:

“know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law now one will be justified.” (Gal. 2.16)

Like many others for the last few hundred years have done, Kevin reads this passage as confronting “salvation by works” by teaching that we are justified through faith apart from our own moral efforts. While this is true, if we are to rightly understand Galatians 2:16 we need to recognize confronting “salvation by works” is not the main point of the passage. When we read Galatians 2.19 in context, the verse takes on a different flavor.

The passage is in the context about Paul confronting Peter for withdrawing from eating with the gentile Christians.

For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. (Gal. 2.12)

When Paul witnessed this hypocrisy in Peter, he confronted him by saying,

If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the gentiles to live like Jews? (Gal. 2.14b)

This statement about Jew/Gentile relations sets the immediate context of Paul’s statement about faith and works in verse 16. This is not to suggest that Kevin is wrong when he points out that Christianity is not a “points system”. But it should be noted that when Paul says “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” he is not making that statement to confront Christians who were trying to earn their way to heaven by doing good works. Peter was not being corrected for teaching that Christians must earn their way to heaven. That statement was made in direct  reference to Jewish Christians who were excluding Gentile Christians from full Christian fellowship.

In other words, these “works of the law” are not referencing any generic action we may do in obedience to God. Paul used the phrase to refer to the specific “works of the law” that the Jewish Christians were using to distinguish themselves from Gentile Christians, namely circumcision, eating pork, and observing the Sabbath. So when Paul says “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus”, he’s saying that we are among the justified people of God (i.e. the church) because of our faithfulness to Christ and not because of any practice or belief that people might add to the gospel. We are acceptable to God because of our loyalty to Christ, not because we adopt the special markers of any particular group.

“Legalism” as it is defined by Kevin is a different kind of legalism from that which was addressed by Paul. This observation has several implications which I plan to address in later posts. But since Kevin’s mistake is a very common one, I think it will be helpful to develop this point further in the next post.

A Different Kind of Legalism (Legalism Part 6 of 14)

An Overview of Kevin’s Argument (Legalism, Part 4 of 14)

This is the fourth part of a 14 part series in which I converse with Kevin Pendergrass’s book: “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.” Here I will attempt to provide a brief overview of his arguments, but I am confident that my overview fails to do him justice. For that reason, I encourage you to read his arguments in his own words by buying his book here.

You can read the earlier parts of this series 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)

Kevin’s Definition of Legalism

Kevin understands legalism as the mistake Christians make when they “view Christianity through the framework of a legal system and attempt to earn their salvation through works”. Kevin understands legalism to be a “poison” because of how it “impairs, injures, and can even destroy us in different ways.” He believes legalism is a “different kind of poison” because it is often a silent killer, worn by “Christians with good hearts and the best of intentions” without them even recognizing their own legalistic tendencies. (p. 10-12)

The Problem With Legalism

Kevin argues that Christians will often misapply various verses to teach that “unity demands perfect agreement in all things”, while common sense and scripture together teach that no two Christians will ever agree on every biblical matter (p. 101-105). Kevin therefore suggests that we should draw a distinction between having an incorrect view and being a false teacher, and points out that it is okay for Christians to disagree on spiritual matters (p. 113-116; cf. Rom. 14.1-23; 1 Cor. 8.1-13).

Kevin points out that Scripture teaches that Christians should be confident in their salvation, and when we demand perfect understanding of all biblical issues, the fear of being wrong destroys our confidence in God’s grace (p. 123-128; cf. 1 Jn 4.17-19; 1 Jn. 5.13; Rom. 8.1; Heb. 2.14-15).

We can only achieve this biblical confidence by understanding that “Christianity is not about my righteousness before God. Christianity is about Christ’s righteousness before me” (p. 141). The gospel should be understood as the good news that Jesus died for our sins rather than “frivolous issues that have nothing to do with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection” (p. 148).

Kevin is quick to point out that law isn’t inherently bad.

“The problem with legalism is not with the law itself, but in a misplaced trust and application of the law. Therefore, law in Christianity is not bad. Law is a good thing if we use it correctly and understand its proper place. The problem is that it is very easy to misuse the law and begin to trust in the law itself for salvation.” (p. 153-154; cf. 1 Tim. 1.8).

In other words, the problem isn’t the emphasis on obedience and truth. The problem is approaching Christianity as if it is a “points system”, where we have to do enough right in order to get to heaven (and if we don’t do enough right, we go to hell).

The Solution to Legalism

The solution put forth by Kevin is to stop approaching Christianity as a cold, ritualistic system, and instead to focus on developing a genuine loving relationship with God.

The major problem in legalism has always been with people knowing about God, but never knowing Him deeply and intimately. We can’t know Jesus through the law; we can only truly know Him through relationship. (p. 205)

Again, Kevin is quick to emphasize that this idea does not mean that we can do whatever we want to do (cf. Rom. 6.15).

Viewing Christianity through the framework of relationship isn’t a license to sin. On the contrary, it gives us even more reason to love God and be obedient to Him. (p. 209)

Practical Applications

Kevin wraps up the book by discussing how our approach towards Christianity should drastically change when we approach it as a relationship instead of a ritualistic system. When we truly love God, “it isn’t just about finding loopholes. Instead, its about doing everything I can to please Jesus Christ in my daily life.

With this framework, we can stop approaching the New Testament as a legal document full of rules to keep, and instead we can begin to grasp the true purpose of scripture, that is, to love God and our neighbors more deeply (p. 219-223). When it comes to questions of unity and fellowship, instead of “looking for any and every opportunity to wage warfare when we disagree with a brother or sister in Christ”, we will begin to “err on the side of mercy instead of judgment” (p. 225-231; cf. Ja. 2.13; Mt. 7.1-2).

If the whole argument of the book could be summed up in one sentence, it might be this one:

In order to overcome legalism in all areas of your life, your framework must change. It must become relational and not legal. (p. 250).

Kevin makes lots of good points. Later in the series I want to discuss some of the excellent questions raised in this book. But first, I want to dedicate the next several posts in this series to a major flaw in Kevin’s book as well as some of its implications.

Continue reading part 5 here:

The Major Flaw in Kevin’s Book (Legalism, Part 5 of 14)