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“Legalism” Is Not a Four-Letter Word

by Kevin Kay

 

“Legalism” – it’s one of those words, we don’t like to hear or say. It makes us cringe inside. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth when it crosses our lips. Yet I wonder if those who accuse others of “legalism” know what the word really means. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “legalism” as “strict, literal adherence to law.” The Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says that it means “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” Now, what’s so terrible about that? Is “strict, literal adherence to law” something that we should abhor? Is it antithetical to the teachings of Christ in the new covenant?

As often as many people condemn “legalism,” one might think that the terms “legalism,” “legalist,” and “legalistic” are scattered all through the Bible; but in fact they are not used a single time. Of course, the NT does say quite a lot about “law.” For example, it teaches that: the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus (Jn. 1:17); no one will be justified in God’s sight by the deeds (or works) of law (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16); we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14); if righteousness comes through law, then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21); etc. Many people read passages like these and conclude that the NT condemns “legalism” (as that term is defined in the dictionary); but is that really true?

Before we explore that question, let me remind you that any Bible passage must be interpreted in such a way that it harmonizes with the rest of Scripture. If the Bible is really the word of God (and it is), then it does not contradict itself. Therefore if we interpret one passage in such a way that it contradicts another passage, we must conclude that we have either misinterpreted the first passage, or the second, or both. This means that whatever the Bible teaches about “ law” and/or “legalism”: (1) One passage is not going to contradict other passages; and (2) All the passages will harmonize together if they are properly understood.

With this hermeneutical principle to guide us, we must conclude that when Paul says “for you are not under law but under grace: (Rom. 6:14), there are several things he simply cannot mean, because otherwise he would contradict many other clear Bible passages.

Paul Cannot Mean:

The Christian is not under any kind of law at all. When Isaiah prophesied the establishment of the Messianic kingdom, he said, “for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isa. 2:2-3). When Jeremiah prophesied that God would make a new covenant with Israel and Judah, he indicated that this new covenant would have a law from God (Jer. 31:31-34). The NT clearly states that Christians are under law to Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). It specifically talks about: “the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27); “the law of God” (Rom. 8:2); “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2); “the law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25; 2:12); and “the royal law” (Jas. 2:8). Furthermore, the very existence of sin implies the existence of law, because sin, by definition, is the transgression of law (1 Jn. 3:4). Where there is no law, there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15). You can’t break the speed limit if there is no speed limit law. Since Christians sin from time to time (1 Jn. 1:8-10), they must be under law.

Law is antithetical to love. Some people seem to have the idea that “law” and “love” are like oil and water – they just don’t mix – they don’t go together. However, Jesus taught that one of the ways we express our love is by obeying His law (Jn. 14:21, 23-24), and John echoes Jesus’ teaching in his epistles (1 Jn. 2:3-6; 5:3; 2 Jn. 6) To profess love for Jesus and then neglect to obey His commandments is patently absurd (Lk. 6:46).

Christians can continue in sin. Paul clearly teaches that Christians who are “not under law but under grace” may not continue to practice sin (Rom. 6:1-4, 11-19).

“Strict, literal adherence to law” is unnecessary. God repeatedly taught the Israelites under the old covenant that they were to strictly obey His law. Before his death and before Israel crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses repeatedly emphasized the importance of strict obedience to God’s word. He told them to be careful to obey all the commandments (Dt. 5:31-33; 6:24-24; 7:11; 8:1; 11:22-23; 12:32; 15:4b-5; 28:1, 13, 15; 32:46), with all your heart (Dt. 10:12-13; 11:13-15; 26:16), all your days (Dt. 4:9-10; 6:1-2; 12:1). Jesus repeatedly taught the importance of strict obedience. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that those who broke the least commandment would be least in the kingdom (Mt. 5:19), and that doesn’t mean they’ll have to sit in the cheap seats in the nose-bleed section. It means they won’t get in (cf. Mt. 18:1-5). He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Mt 7:21). Although He rebuked the Pharisees for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law,” Jesus did not condemn their punctilious tithing of their herbs; in fact, He commended it (Mt. 23:23). When Jesus gave the Great Commission to the apostles, He taught them to make disciples by baptizing people and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:18-20). Please read that again. Strict obedience to Jesus’ teaching is a part of discipleship. The apostles taught early Christians the importance of strictly obeying God’s law (1Cor. 7:19; 2 Cor. 2:9; Col. 3:17; 2 Th. 2:15; 3:4; 2 Tim. 1:13; Jas. 2:10-11). Many people today seem to have the idea that obedience is not something we must do to be saved, but rather it’s something we do because we are saved. However, the NT teaches that obedience is both an indication of salvation (1 Jn. 2:3-6, 29; 3:24) and a condition for salvation (Mt. 7:21-23; Rom. 2:8-10; 6:16-18; 2 Th. 1:8-9; Heb. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 2:17).

If “legalism” is “strict, literal adherence to law,” that’s not something the Bible condemns, it’s something the Bible commands. If “legalism” is “strict, literal adherence to law,” then Moses and Jesus and the apostles were “legalist.” Friends, what some people call “legalism,” the Bible calls “righteousness.” “And they [Zacharias and Elizabeth] were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Lk. 1:6).

What Does Paul Mean?

When Paul says “for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14), what does he mean? He means that the Christian is not obligated to keep God’s law perfectly to be saved. Paul’s fundamental argument in Romans and Galatians can be stated in the form of a syllogism.

Major Premise: Law demands perfect obedience (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:10-12)

Minor Premise: Man does not deliver perfect obedience, because he’s a sinner (Rom. 3:9-12, 23; 7:14-24; 8:3)

Conclusion: Therefore man cannot be justified on the basis of law (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16)

Fortunately, for sinners like you and me, God has provided a plan whereby we can be saved by means of an obedient faith through the sacrifice of Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). When Paul says we are not justified by “works” (Rom. 3:20, 28), he’s not saying we don’t have to obey Christ (cf. Rom. 1:5; 16:26), and he’s not saying we don’t have to strictly obey Christ. He’s saying we don’t have to perfectly obey Christ. When it comes right down to it, the only man who can “earn” his salvation, the only man who can point his finger in God’s face and say “You owe me” is the sinless man. This becomes apparent when we carefully consider the contrasts that Paul draws in Romans 4:1-8.

The “Legalism” Jesus Condemns

I want to emphasize that there is a kind of “legalism” that the NT clearly condemns. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for: (1) setting aside God’s commands because of their own man-mad traditions (Mt. 15:1-7); and (2) teaching the doctrines of men as the commandments of God (Mt. 15:7-9). The apostle Paul also condemned those who would require men to do things that God has not required (cf. Gal. 2:3-5; Col. 2:16-23).

When we commit ourselves, as the Bible teaches we should, to a “strict, literal adherence to law” this does not mean that we earn or merit our salvation in any way. Jesus said: “So likewise you, when you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” (Lk. 17:10) The very first sin you ever committed forever placed you in debt to God for your salvation, because your first sin made it impossible for you to “earn” eternal life, and its forgiveness required a perfect sacrifice that you could never provide. Fortunately, out of His love and mercy and grace, God provided that sacrifice in His Son Jesus Christ who died for your sins; and you can have that salvation as a gift, if you will accept it with an obedient faith.

If other people call you a “legalist” because of your insistence on “strict, literal adherence to law” don’t let that bother you. Jesus said: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is you reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt. 5:11-12; cf. Lk. 6:22-23, 26)

 

Kay, Kevin. “’Legalism’ Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” Biblical Insights July 2012: pp. 9-10

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Scot McKnight has written a few posts on his dealings with Calvinism and has done a series of post on the warning passages in Hebrews.

Here are the links to the posts.

Calvinism: My History 1

Calvinism: My History 2

Calvinism: My History 3

Calvinism: My History 4

Calvinism: My History 5

Calvinism: My History 6

Calvinism: My History 7

Remember that sometimes the gems are in the comments.

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There is an article from Christianity Today about “Evangelical conversions to Catholicism.” Mark Galli, who is the senior managing editor of Christianity Today, writes an insightful article that covers issues of conversion, parts of the ecclesiology of the church, the leading of the Holy Spirit, among other items of interest. The article begins with a question that was posed by the author.

On a recent trip to Durham, North Carolina, I was asked, “What do you make of all the evangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism?” What immediately came to mind was two recent and well-known conversions of evangelical scholars: Christian Smith, sociologist at Notre Dame, and Francis Beckwith, who at one time was president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Other well-known conversions to Catholicism in my generation—by men whose writings have been important in my intellectual growth—include the late Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wilken (not from evangelicalism as such, but from Lutheranism).

This is an issue that has been occuring for awhile now, as I understand it. Also, it does seem odd with all the scandals that have been going on within the Roman Catholic church. Then you have the disturbing history. Yet, there does seem to be a move going on. And not just from the people in the pews, but some scholars as well.

Mark states one issue for the conversions as being,

…longing for authority. One of the most frustrating things about being Protestant, and especially evangelical, is that there is really no place to turn when you are ready to end a conversation on a controversial point. There is no authority figure or institution that can silence heterodoxy.

Then he makes a very insightful statement in the next paragraph. Basically that the evangelical world has become tired and lazy.

So, we understand the pull of the Catholic magisterium. We’d love to be able to say, “The church believes X,” and then back it up with a papal encyclical. We want “evangelical” to have clear and firm boundaries, so that when someone says they believe something outside of those boundaries, we can tell them definitively and assuredly that they are no longer evangelicals. We’re tired of arguing, of having to prove our point through the careful examination of Scripture and patient deliberation. Frankly, we’ve given up depending on prayer to change hearts and minds. We want to be able to say, “The church teaches …” or “The Holy Father says …” or “All biblical scholars believe …” in a way that separates the sheep from the goats.

We then are taken on a quick journey through church history and the issues that were faced and how conclusions were drawn.

Paul and Peter and John used their authority as apostles to try to settle disputes, though they mostly argued from Scripture or the teachings of Jesus. But even after they spoke or wrote, the church had to go through a period of discernment to determine what the Holy Spirit was, in fact, teaching the church.

Mark brings to mind that we need to listen to one another and discuss the issues, looking to the historic and scholarly sources, and most importantly, mining the Scriptures to see what the Holy Spirit has revealed.

He then closes beautifully.

We don’t need a magisterium. We already have a Lord, who told us that not even the gates of Hades (whose landlord loves to sows confusion in the church!) will prevail against the church.

In short, we don’t need premature closure as much as we need persevering confidence that the Spirit will lead us into all the truth we need, when we need it.

Now, I would personally tweak the last statement he made to read, “In short, we don’t need premature closure as much as we need persevering confidence that the Spirit has led us into all the truth we need.”

I believe we will do another post on some other thoughts I have gathered while reading this article. I hope you have some insights also.

I was notified of this article by Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed. To read the comments there click here.

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Infinite and yet an infant.
Eternal and yet born of a woman.
Almighty, and yet nursing at a woman’s breast.
Supporting a universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms.
Heir of all things, and yet the carpenter’s despised son.”

—Charles Haddon Spurgeon

That man should be made in God’s image is a wonder,
but that God should be made in man’s image is a greater wonder.
That the Ancient of Days would be born.
That He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle?”

—Thomas Watson

Man’s Maker was made man
that the Bread might be hungry,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired from the journey;
that Strength might be made weak,
that Life might die.

—Augustine

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.”
(John 1:14)

Gathered these thoughts from a blog post by Justin Taylor.

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Resident Aliens

I would like to recommend a series of articles by Jay Guin. This is the first installment and sounds interesting. I hope to do some post on David Lipscomb’s “Civil Government”, which Jay Guin mentions, at some point. The topic being addressed is very difficult especially for Americans. Enjoy.

Resident Aliens, By Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Part 1

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THE INDWELLING SPIRIT.

      The apostle Peter, in his sermon at the great Pentecost, promised his hearers the gift of the Holy Spirit on the condition that they would repent and be baptized; and he added, “The promise is to you and your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call to him.” This is a universal promise to Christians of every age and every country; consequently, the gift referred to cannot be any of the miraculous gifts bestowed in the apostolic age alone, and on a few persons in that age; but a gift which is not miraculous, and which is not limited by time or place.

The apostle Paul speaks of the same gift, and affirms the universality of it when he says to the Romans, “Ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. But if any man hath not the Spirit of Christ he is none of his.” In this language the apostle treats the possession of the Spirit of Christ as the equivalent of having the Spirit of God dwelling in us, and he denies that any one in whom this Spirit dwells not, is a Christian.

This indwelling is located in a more precise manner when Paul says to the Corinthians: “Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God?” 1 Cor. 6:19. The Spirit dwells, then, not in our spirits, but in our bodies, in the same locality with our human spirits; and this fact makes every Christian’s body a temple of God. It follows, also, that when these individual temples are brought together in a worshiping congregation, they are regarded as jointly constituting a temple of God in a larger sense. For Paul, after calling the Corinthian congregation “God’s husbandry,” and “God’s building,” says to them: “Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?”

The fact of this indwelling is not a matter of consciousness; for consciousness is limited in its operation to the cognition of the mind’s own states and actions; and it is left for reason to discover the causes apart from the mind which produces them. Neither is the fact that I have a human spirit dwelling in me a matter of consciousness. I know the latter, as I know the former, only by faith. Revelation teaches me both, and without revelation I could never be certain of either. Revelation also teaches me to look for a certain fruit of the Spirit, by which I know that the Holy Spirit dwells in me, as I know that the fruit-producing power dwells in a tree by the fruit which hangs on the boughs. When I find “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness goodness, faithfulness, temperance,” characterizing my life, I know that the Spirit of God dwells in me; for these are declared by revelation to be the fruit of the Spirit, and I know, by both observation and experience, that this fruit is borne by no other tree.

The connection which subsists between the Spirit dwelling in my body and this fruit in my life is not a matter of revelation. I may incidentally learn something of it, as I learn something of the connection between vegetable life in the tree, and the fruit which ripens on the extremities of its tender twigs. From that golden and crimson fruit I can trade back the sap through twig and limb, and stock a root, into the ground; and I can say that in some way the connection is maintained through the sap; but the ultimate connection between the cause and the effect is hidden from my view in the depths of that mystery which is called life. In like manner I find, by revelation and experience, that the chief medium through which the Spirit that dwells in my body produces its fruit, is the word of God; but the method by which the Spirit’s power is brought to bear through this medium is as inscrutable as the Holy Spirit himself. I can, and do, believe the fact, but I cannot know the process. I know, also, that in order to this fruit-bearing, I must cooperate with the Holy Spirit by an active exertion of my own will in the direction of love, joy, peace, etc., and that when I enjoy these blessed frames of mind, I am enjoying them in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. They are not his fruit alone, nor mine alone, but they are partly mine and partly his, so that he and I have fellowship in them, one with the other. My part may be a very small part, as that of the twig may be in producing the fruit which it seems merely to suspend; but yet the twig has fellowship with the sap, and I have fellowship with the Spirit which bears fruit in me. I may boldly pray, then, not only for the grace of Christ, and the love of God, but also for the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

From the solemn fact that the Spirit of God dwells in our bodies, the apostle draws some practical corollaries of the most impressive character. He rebukes the Corinthians for drunkenness, effeminacy, Sodomy, fornication, and all those sins which defile and degrade the body, and enforces the rebuke by demanding of them: “Or, know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own, for ye were [12] bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body.”1 Cor. 6:19,20. What an exalted conception of the dignity of the human body is here indicated!

A filthy temple has always been an abomination to God and man. It was because Paul was suspected of defiling the temple in Jerusalem that the Jews seized him and went about to kill him. What, then, shall be thought of him whose body, after having been a holy temple of God, is covered with the filth and slime of drunkenness, fornication, and all uncleanness? We shudder at the thought, and we make the high resolve that our bodies, thus honored of God, shall be kept clean and pure, shall be guarded against all disease and injury, shall be fed with wholesome food and clad in decent raiment, until God, who gave them, shall remand them to the dust whence they were taken.

The congregations of the Lord are liable to serious injury at the hands of ravenous wolves from without, and of factionists from within. The church of God cannot be destroyed, but a church of God may be. Against the destruction of the church in Corinth, Paul lifts a voice of warning, and he points to the indwelling Spirit for the purpose of giving emphasis to his cry. He says: “Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroy the temple of God, him shall God destroy: for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” 1 Cor. 3:16,17. How many of these holy temples of God bad men have destroyed, the records of eternity alone may reveal; but for every one that has been distracted,, wasted and blotted out, some evil man or men who did the sacrilegious work shall be destroyed. Let all men learn, that far more hazardous than the sin of Uzzah is the act of him who shall lay his hand upon the peace and prosperity of a church of God, his holy temple in which his Spirit dwells.

But the corollaries of the apostle are not confined to warning men against the destruction of the larger temples, or the defilement of the smaller. They follow the latter down to the dust of death, and they light up with a glowing promise the darkness of the grave. “If the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwelleth in you, he that raised up Christ Jesus from the dead shall quicken also your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwelleth in you” Rom. 8:11. God’s temple built by Solomon was destroyed by violent hands, and it shall never be rebuilt; but these later temples, not made with hands, but fashioned by the Spirit of God, shall be raised again from the ruins into which death shall crumble all earthly things, and shall stand forever more. Whether the original text declares that this shall be done through the Spirit that dwelleth in us, or on account of the Spirit that dwelleth in us, is uncertain; for the authorities are almost equally divided between the two readings; but either reading expresses a truth. It is through the Spirit by which the heavens were garnished of old, that the new heaven will be made beautiful with the glorified bodies of the saints; and it is on account of the Spirit which condescended to make these bodies its earthly temples, that they shall be so highly honored.

I once heard Brother Caskey, of Texas, remark that he knew not which God values more highly, the soul of man, or his body. The remark startled me at first; but if the soul is immortal, the body is to be made so; if the soul is redeemed by Christ, there is also a redemption of the body; if the soul returns to, God at death, the body will return to him when death shall be destroyed. If the soul shall be filled with bliss, the body shall be covered with glory. But whether the soul or the body be the more precious to Him who created both, our prayer is that, our “whole soul and spirit and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

J. W. MCGARVEY.

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A quote from “Preaching the Cross” by Jason Hardin.

Soaked With Blood and Singed With Fire

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