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

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

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.

Continue reading here:

Final Thoughts (Legalism, Part 14 of 14)

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)

The Centrality of Love (Legalism, Part 11 of 14)

If you don’t read any other post in this series, read this one. This one is the most important. In this series, I’ve been reviewing the book “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace” by Kevin Pendergrass. If you’ve been reading along, you know that I have several disagreements with Kevin.

You can go back and read those earlier posts here:

I disagree with Kevin’s definition of legalism (parts 5 and 6). I disagree with Kevin’s emphasis on the gospel (part 7). I disagree with how Kevin separates faith and works into two separate categories (part 8). And beyond this one book I know I disagree with Kevin on several other points of doctrine as well; points of doctrine that I believe are important.

And yet, despite all our disagreements, I believe that Kevin’s book on legalism is ultimately a step in the right direction. This post explains why.

As Kevin describes his younger days, he describes himself as dogmatic, closed-minded, and inconsistent in his approach towards scripture. He was divisive, harsh, and argumentative in his approach towards people (p. 208).

Even though I didn’t want it to be, my Christianity up until this point had been very ritualistic. I thought what I was doing was true Christianity. I got used to going through the motions… I found myself having a checklist mentality. I noticed how ritualistic everything in my Christianity had become. (p. 203-204)

Keep in mind that Kevin does not make this statement as a blanket accusation against the church. In fact, throughout his book he comments on multiple occasions how his cold, ritualistic Christianity, and the divisive, harsh, argumentative attitude it produced, was frequently met with concern from others in the church (yet, without being able to provide him with satisfactory answers to the questions I mentioned in part 10).

But at the same time, I don’t believe Kevin is the only person who has ever struggled with this problem. For those out there who, like Kevin, approach their Christianity as simply a list of things to “get right”, this book represents a big step in the right direction.

As Kevin grew in his faith, he soon came to realize that he was missing something very important.

The major problem in legalism has always been with people knowing about God, but never knowing Him deeply and intimately… I never knew Jesus, but I just knew He was “the guy” for whom I worked in order to “gain” heaven. I now realize that Christianity is all about relationship with Christ…. Until you view Christianity through the framework of a relationship with Jesus, you will never experience Christian living the way Jesus intended. (p. 205-206)

Our approach to Christianity will drastically change when we realize it is about a relationship and not a ritualistic system. It will become transformative instead of merely informative… Relationship is about caring for one another. It is about trying to please the other. It is about sacrificing for the other. No, it is not because of fear or obligation, but because of love and desire. In relationship, we find God and delight in His will (Ps. 119;47; 1 Jn. 5.3; 1 Cor. 10.31). It is in ritual where we lose God and forget what Christianity is all about. (p. 214-215).

Kevin is exactly right. It all comes down to loving God and loving others. Kevin is again, quick to emphasize that this doesn’t reduce the need for obedience. If anything, it should increase our desire to please Him whom we love (p. 209). Loving God and loving others isn’t just kind of important. It is central to what Christianity is all about. This theme runs throughout the whole Bible.

It would be easy to denounce Kevin because we think he is wrong on several important things, and then proceed to attack him and dismiss anything and everything he may teach. But writing a book to encourage a deeper relationship with God is not wrong. This isn’t a soft or wimpy approach, diminishing the importance of the gospel; this is the gospel. If God loves us, if Jesus is Lord, and we are His disciples, our life must be characterized by genuine love both for God and for others.

You have heard that it was said, “‘You shall love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father  who is in heaven. – Matthew 5.43-45 (see also Lk. 6.27-28; 31)

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22.37-40 (See also Mk. 12.29-31; Lk. 10.25-28)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. – John 13.34-35

Do you want me to keep the list going? Just click a few of these hyperlinks and keep reading!

And for a slightly different, but related list, describing how that love should impact our behavior towards one another, read:

I’m going to step out on a limb and claim that our relationship with God and our relationship with others is supposed to be governed, not by a cold checklist mentality, but rather by genuine love.

This isn’t liberalism. This isn’t conservatism. This isn’t simply a “warm, fuzzy, soft” version of Christianity. This isn’t just a marketing plan to make the church sound more appealing to the world around us.

This is what it means to recognize that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord, and that we have given our faithful allegiance to Him.

This isn’t at the expense of truth. This isn’t at the expense of obedience. If anything, it drives us to a deeper desire for truth and obedience. Yet we must recognize that without genuine love for God and love for one another, all our doctrinal precision, our obedience, our speaking, our giving, and our serving, is for nothing (1 Corinthians 13).

Cold ritualism will not be destroyed by simply giving microphones to the most talented singers in our worship service, serving better coffee, having more talented preachers, or investing in better graphics for our marketing material. Dogmatic attitudes will not be destroyed by avoiding doctrinal disagreements, avoiding the hard questions, or by keeping things shallow. Divisive attitudes will not be destroyed by simply focusing of doctrinal perfection. Sectarianism will not be destroyed by turning “love” into a sectarian weapon used to bash other congregations for not being loving enough.

“Legalism” (by any definition) will only be destroyed by being people who genuinely love God with all of our hearts, love others, even those whom we disagree with, and who make that love evident in our lives. The “checklist mentality” will only be destroyed when we give our lives in faithful allegiance to Jesus.

Just as faith and works cannot be separated, neither can love and faith be separated. Faithfulness demands love.

Continue reading here:

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

Important Questions Raised (Legalism, Part 10 of 14)

Over the last several posts in this series (Parts 5-9) I’ve discussed the biggest disagreements I have with the book “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.” Starting with this post, we’re going to shift gears to some of the more positive aspects of Kevin’s book.

If you would like to go back and read the earlier parts in this series, you can find those links here:

Despite my disagreements with Kevin, I believe this book ultimately points in the right direction. When it comes to reading books we disagree with, I’ve often thought of the saying “chew up the meat and spit out the bones”. I’ve had some bones to pick with Kevin’s book. But now we’ve spit out the bones. And thankfully, we’re still left with lots of really good meat to chew on.

Throughout the first part of the book (Chapters 5-33) Kevin tells his personal story. Throughout this story, Kevin describes several experiences that raised questions in his mind. Chances are, you will find yourself relating to Kevin’s story. I believe the questions raised by Kevin are important questions; questions which many others have wrestled with. Unfortunately, when we ignore these questions, or assign them superficial or inconsistent answers, this can sometimes lead to Christians growing discouraged. Ignoring these questions can even lead to Christians losing their faith altogether.

I don’t plan on adding much comment in this post. I simply want to draw attention to the questions raised by Kevin. (I’ve taken the liberty to rephrase these questions into my own words so that this post will read more smoothly).

Important Questions Raised by Kevin Pendergrass in “A Different Kind of Poison”:

  • When I die, how can I know I will go to heaven? (p. 23)
  • When two Christians disagree on a matter, and since two contradictory positions cannot both be true, does this mean one of them is a “false teacher” teaching a “false doctrine”? Or can Christians disagree and still live in unity? (p. 43)
  • Should we simply fellowship anyone regardless of their disagreements? Do some issues matter more than others? (p. 44)
  • How do we decide what issues Christians must agree upon to have unity? What issues can Christians agree to disagree on while still having unity? (p. 101)
  • Are we being consistent in how we answer these questions? Or do we arbitrarily exalt some issues as more important than others simply because some issues have become more important for our particular sect? (p. 102-103)
  • Is our method of unity taught in Scripture? (p. 103)
  • What is the biblical gauge between a matter of opinion and a matter of doctrine/fellowship? (p. 103)
  • Can we make a develop a list of “fellowship issues” which is based upon scripture and logically consistent? (p. 103)
  • If every single Christians were to develop a list of what they understand to be fellowship issues, should every single Christian be expected to end up with the exact same list? (p. 104)
  • Can we fellowship a Christian who’s list of fellowship issues is different from ours? What if it only differs on one little point? (p. 104)
  • If someone’s list of doctrinal/fellowship issues is drastically different from ours, and we break fellowship with them, would we be consistent to maintain fellowship with someone who’s list only differs from ours on one little point? (p. 104)
  • If we maintain fellowship with someone who’s list is only different from ours on one little point, are we being consistent when we break fellowship with someone because their list is greatly different from ours? (p. 104)
  • Do we think of ourselves as infallible in our study? (p. 126-127)
  • If we are fallible, might we be ignorantly wrong on an issue? (If we were ignorantly wrong, we wouldn’t know it! That’s the definition of being “ignorantly wrong”) (p. 127)
  • If it is possible that we could be ignorantly wrong about what issues are doctrinal/fellowship issues, and if we could be ignorantly wrong on one of those issues, how can we know we are saved? Where is our hope? (p. 127)
  • How can we maintain a humility which admits that we could be wrong while at the same time remaining confident in our salvation? How can we be confident in our salvation while maintaining a humility that says we might be wrong? (p. 125)
  • What if you or I are a false teacher and we don’t even know it? What if we have come to a wrong conclusion on a matter about which we remain unaware? (p. 125)
  • What if a matter I thought was a small matter is actually a big matter? What if I am breaking fellowship over what I think is a big matter, when God views it as a small matter? (p. 125)
  • Why did God kill Nadab and Abihu, yet spare their brothers? Why did God destroy Uzzah for touching the ark, but allowed David the opportunity to repent? Why did God kill Ananias and Sapphira for their sin, but allowed Peter to live through his? (p. 187)
  • How does God judge our obedience and disobedience? (p. 188)

What if this? What if that? What about this? What about that?

And what’s more, we cannot simply dismiss these questions as being silly or unimportant. Our eternal salvation might be at stake!

Ultimately, the heart of all these questions can be summed up Kevin’s question on page 127:

Did God leave us with this kind of hopeless “hope”? Had God given me a belief system that was that shaky? Let me remind you, I knew that the Bible says I can know I am saved and be confident, but that didn’t make any sense with my understanding of Christianity as the time. I was left wondering if I was going to always have this constant fear of my salvation. (p. 127)

With these questions in mind, I wish to raise a new question. If we understand “faith” as “faithfulness and loyalty to Jesus as Lord”, how does that impact the way we answer these questions? That will be the topic of discussion for an upcoming post in this series.

But for now, I simply want to applaud Kevin for giving such clear articulation to questions that have troubled many Christians for many years.

Continue to the next part here:

The Centrality of Love (Legalism, Part 11 of 14)

 

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)