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)

What I Appreciated the Most About Kevin Pendergrass’s Book on Legalism (Legalism, Part 3 of 14)

In this, the third part of a 14 part series, I want to point out three things that I greatly appreciated about Kevin Pedergrass’s book entitled, “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”.

You can read the earlier parts here:
The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)
Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)

First of all, this book was a wonderfully written book. This is one of those books that you don’t want to put down. After a brief introduction (chapters 1-4), Kevin tells his personal story (chapters 5-33). Kevin begins with his upbringing, and describes how he grew to becoming legalistic without realizing it, questions he wrestled with, mistakes he made, relationships he struggled with, and how he finally came to develop a deeper appreciation for God’s grace. I have always respected Kevin, but after reading his story, I grew to develop a deep appreciation of his courage and his sincere desire to stand for the truth. There were times where I struggled to hold back tears, felt his frustrations, and felt his excitement as he grew closer to God.

Beginning with chapter 34, the tone shifts as Kevin systematically walks the reader through how and why his thinking shifted. This section reflects the depth of Kevin’s thinking, and yet it is communicated in a very simple and easy to follow style. Kevin has an incredible talent as a writer, a storyteller, and a teacher. In this respect, the book was thoroughly enjoyable.

Secondly, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book on legalism was not written to discourage our commitment to obedience and teaching the truth. As I stated in part 1, this was one of my biggest concerns going into the book. But right off the bat in chapter two Kevin writes:

Please understand that obedience to God is not legalism (Heb. 5.8-9; 1 Jn. 5.3). Teaching that the Bible is the objective standard of right and wrong is not legalism (2 Tim. 3.16-17; Jn. 8.32). Teaching against sin is not legalism (2 Tim. 4.3). Holding other Christians accountable is not legalism (Heb. 3.12-13). Emphasizing the whole counsel of God is not legalism (Acts 20.20, 27). (p.8)

And he doesn’t stop there. At multiple points throughout the book, Kevin pauses to make sure that his readers understand that he is not suggesting that obedience doesn’t matter. Kevin recognizes that “a true faith is a trust in Jesus that will produce works” (p. 168; cf. Ja. 2.19). Now perhaps Kevin is lying, or perhaps he’s a lunatic, but I really think we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really isn’t trying to downplay the important of teaching and obeying the truth.

Thirdly, this is not a “church bashing” book. Yes, the book offers some critiques for the church, but critique can be healthy.  Paul warned Christians never to think of themselves above self-examination. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13.5). But there can sometimes be a very fine line between self-examination and bitter church-bashing. There are far too many self-appointed “church critics” out there, eager to vomit bitter accusations against the church every chance they get. But Kevin chose a different path.

Kevin does an excellent job offering his critiques in a loving way. In fact, Kevin seems to go out of way not to name any specific churches with which he has been associated. He has obviously taken great care to avoid painting the church in a negative light. The worst villain of the book is none other than Kevin himself.

In chapter 52, Kevin writes a passionate appeal to those who, like him, have grown frustrated and discouraged with legalism, in which he urges them to “show mercy and grace to those around you” (p. 240). But even more importantly, Kevin practices what he preaches. It seems evident to me that Kevin loves the church, even those within the church who have mistreated him.

If other Christians desire to write a book which critiques the church, I highly recommend Kevin’s book as a model and an example of how this should be done. I am deeply appreciative to Kevin for this aspect of the book.

In short, I respected Kevin Pendergrass before reading this book (that’s part of the reason I was excited to read it). But after reading this book, I’ve grown to appreciate and respect Kevin even more. If every Christians shared Kevin’s passion, Kevin’s willingness to grow, Kevin’s courage to follow what he understands to be true regardless of the consequences, the church would be much stronger in knowledge. If every Christians learned to navigate differences of opinion with the kindness, mercy, and love that Kevin has worked to develop, the church would quickly grow in their reputation of graciousness. Yes, I have disagreements with Kevin, several of them significant. But these disagreements have nothing to do with a lack of respect, admiration, or love for Kevin Pendergrass.

Continue reading Part 4 here:
An Overview of Kevin’s Argument (Legalism, Part 4 of 14)

Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)

In this series I will be in conversation with a book written by Kevin Pendergrass entitled “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.” If you would like to purchase his book or read some of Kevin’s articles, you can do so here.

You can go back and read part 1 here:

The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)

There is an excellent chapter in the book entitled “Confirmation Bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency to process and analyze information in such a way that it reaffirms one’s preexisting ideas and convictions. Kevin observes:

The truth of the matter is we are all guilty of confirmation bias to an extent. Let me demonstrate this point.

When we study something that we already disagree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is wrong. When we study something we already agree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is right. (P. 76)

Kevin is exactly right on this point. To be fair, it needs to be recognized that I was reading Kevin’s book from the perspective of figuring out where he was wrong.

Kevin describes confirmation bias as a “subconscious disadvantage”. And while this might be true at times, I believe that more often than not confirmation bias is actually a subconscious advantage. I believe that God designed us to have confirmation bias. That’s just how we think. It’s how we identify falsehoods. We process information through a paradigm built upon other supposed truths. When we hear an idea that doesn’t seem to fit within our paradigm, our first response is to examine the new idea extra critically to find it’s error. In other words, confirmation bias encourages us to be critical thinkers and to examine ideas very closely.

In Scripture we are encouraged to examine scripture to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17.11), “be wise in what is good and innocent and in what is evil” (Rom 16.19), “pass judgment” when we listen to teachers (1 Cor. 14.29); “examine everything carefully” (1 Thess. 5.21); and “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn. 4.1). Confirmation bias makes “red flags” go off in our minds when we come across an idea we suspect to be wrong. We are self-aware of our need to examine the new idea critically. In this sense, confirmation bias is a subconscious advantage.

This doesn’t mean we should automatically dismiss any new teaching that doesn’t fit neatly into our paradigm as being wrong. After “searching to scriptures to see if these things are so” we must have the humility to reexamine our preconceived understandings in light of our study and reflection. It is possible, after all, that we are the ones who were wrong. Kevin rightly observes,

Humility is the best friend of objectiveness. On the other hand, the more arrogant someone is, the more they tend to be subjective and closed-minded…

The road of pride leads to destruction and the road of humility leads to God (Prov. 16.18; Ja. 4.10). The arrogant are closed off to listening to others (Prov. 18.13; 15.22). Instead, they only wish to express their own hearts and beliefs (Prov. 18.22; 28.26). It doesn’t take any humility to admit when we are right, but it does take humility to admit when we are wrong. (p. 77)

It should be noted, however, that our natural tendency towards confirmation bias is not a subconscious disadvantage. The real subconscious disadvantage is pride, which refuses to admit when we are wrong.

With this in mind, there is a sense in which confirmation bias can be a disadvantage, but it’s not found when we critically examine the uninspired words of those we suspect to be wrong. The real disadvantage of confirmation bias is found when, we pridefully and uncritically accept the uninspired words of those we suspect to be right.

We are at a subconscious disadvantage when we are listening to preachers we trust and when we are reading books and articles (and book reviews) which argue a position we believe to be true. The very best preachers and authors among us are still uninspired people with the capacity to be wrong. We must not stop critically examining the teachings simply because we believe someone is probably right.

For this reason, I believe that those who are already frustrated with the church or already suspect the church is “too legalistic” are the ones with a subconscious disadvantage as they read Kevin’s book. It would be too easy for them to get entangled in the idea that neither they nor Kevin could be wrong, pull arguments out of Kevin’s book that they can use against “legalistic churches”, while failing to critically examine those arguments.

Whatever your bias might be towards Kevin as you approach his book, it is important to approach Kevin’s book with humility. We should strive to understand the real reasons why Kevin takes the position he does, and be careful not to misrepresent his arguments. For those who are bias against Kevin (like myself), I believe that if you approach Kevin’s book with humility, you will find that he raises some really important questions and makes some really important points; points which the church needs to carefully consider. For those who are bias in Kevin’s favor, I believe that if you will approach Kevin’s book critically, closely examining his arguments in light of scripture, you will find that his perspective has a few big flaws as well.

Continue reading part 3 here:
What I Appreciated the Most About Kevin Pendergrass’s Book on Legalism (Legalism, Part 3 of 14)

The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)

I’ve only had a few interactions with Kevin Pendergrass over the years, but I’ve been intrigued by his story. Just a few short years ago, Kevin had a reputation among many as a “sound” gospel preacher, or, if you ask others, they might say he had a reputation as an “ultra-conservative”.  Yet over a relatively short time, Kevin changed drastically. According to some, he “left the faith” and joined the ranks of liberalism. According to others, “he came to understand his own shortcomings and his desperate need for God’s grace.” Regardless of your opinion of Kevin Pendergrass, the fact that someone could change so drastically in such a short period of time is intriguing. (If you want to get a feel for yourself, you can read some of Kevin’s recent articles here).

Kevin grew up running in many of the same circles I did. He graduated from the East Tennessee School of Preaching (now the Southeast Institute of Biblical Studies), and spent over six years living in Oklahoma working as preacher, debater, and co-host for “The Gospel of Christ”, a television show that has been supported by several congregations I’ve been associated with.

I first had interactions with Kevin back when he was at preaching school and I was in college. Although there were some points of doctrine where he and I disagreed, I’ve always respected Kevin. Even in our disagreements, I have been impressed by Kevin’s knowledge of scripture, his logic, and his ability to skillfully combine the two when he makes his arguments. More than anything, Kevin has always struck me as someone who loves the truth and is willing to follow the truth wherever it leads.

After college I lost contact with Kevin for several years. Then a few months ago I noticed an article on Facebook which he had written, and I was shocked. Kevin had changed his position, drastically, on several points of doctrine. Kevin had apparently swung from one extreme to another. Yes, I had several disagreements with him in the past, but now I found myself disagreeing with him on a number of issues – issues that I think are important.

Shortly thereafter I learned that Kevin was working on a book on legalism. This was a book I definitely wanted to read for multiple reasons.

For one, I have had it “up to here” with the accusation of “legalism” being thrown out against churches simply because they emphasize Scripture as an authoritative standard for right and wrong, teach against sin, emphasize obedience, or hold other Christians accountable to the whole counsel of God. And more than that, I’ve had it “up to here” with church bashing books, written by bitter souls who seem to look for every possible shortcoming of Christians to tear down the church which Jesus loves.  In part, I wanted to read this book so I could be better prepared to make counter arguments against such false accusations.

But secondly, I wanted to read this book because of the respect I have for Kevin. Whatever can be said about Kevin, nobody can accuse Kevin of being ignorant of scripture, insincere in his pursuit of truth, or illogical in his thinking. That’s why I was so curious. Why would Kevin, of all people, write a book to bash the church for being too legalistic? What had happened with Kevin? Why had he changed? I couldn’t wait to read this book.

The book is entitled “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. If you are interested, I encourage you to purchase the book here.

After I received Kevin’s book and started reading it, I’ve had several ask me to “share my thoughts” on his book. So I planned on writing a book review. But once I got started, I quickly realized that the depth and the importance of the topic of “legalism” demands much more than a quick book review. So what started as a book review has quickly developed into a multi-part series on legalism.

Even if you aren’t familiar with Kevin Pendergrass or his story, there is a good chance that you know of stories similar to his. Kevin is certainly not the only Christian to leave “conservative” churches behind. This story happens often. Why is this? Why do so many accuse the church of being too legalistic? Could they be right? Does the church need to make changes to avoid legalism?

Throughout this series I plan on conversing with several of the ideas discussed in Kevin’s book. From the start I want to say that I greatly enjoyed reading Kevin’s book, and I recommend that you read it. After a couple of introductory posts, I want to share some specific things that I really appreciated about this book. After that I plan on giving an overview of Kevin’s argument as it is presented in the book. Then I plan on spending several posts addressing what I see as the book’s major flaw and flushing out some of the implications of this flaw. Finally, once we have developed a biblical understanding of legalism, I want to discuss how our understanding of legalism can help the church to navigate some tricky issues.

Continue reading part 2 here: Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)