I ordinarily do not respond to articles posted on Facebook, but since I had just written on the subject of legalism and the fear created in the hearts of honest, sincere Christians by the teaching of those who are disposed to this error I am making an exception. One church, on the same day I posted my article on fear and legalism, posted an extremely poorly written article under the above title. Whoever posted it commented, “With so many suggesting that Obedience (sic) is really just “legalism”, I like what this brother said..” Credit for the article was given as “Copied from The Instructor, Carrol Ray Sutton, editor, June, 2013.”
I do not know brother Sutton personally nor do I know that he wrote this piece but I do know something of brother Sutton by reputation. And I know that if he wrote it it was not an attack against me so let it be known that I am making no charges against him. Nevertheless I believe this article is a serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation of not only what I believe but of what most people I know who attack (“inveigh”as the article says) legalism believe. I, personally, would have been ashamed to have published such a piece of drivel!
Here is how the article begins …
“Now to insist on obedience to these commands is legalism. Against it of late, not a little has been said, and nothing wisely. The term legalism I do not like. It is an offensive term with a bad sense, as popularly used, and should not be employed.”
The author of this article is definitely confused as to what constitutes legalism as the following quote shows: “Legalism and obedience to Christ’s commands are the same.” There is in this article no proof of the accusation being made against what I consider to be a justified and proper opposition to legalism and neither is there even one scripture to sustain what is asserted. There is only the word of the author that there is such an attack against obedience to the commands of Christ.
The writer clearly doesn’t know what legalism is … he just knows that he doesn’t like the use of the term! And then he turns right around and says he doesn’t like legalism spoken against! But if there is such a thing as legalism, why should it not be openly examined? If legalism is an error, why should should it not be exposed? If legalism is good, why didn’t he make a scriptural defense of it?
The writer believes that to speak against legalism is to speak against obedience to Christ! But there is no scripture nor any argument offered to support the claim that obedience to the commands of Christ is legalism. Just a bold, blanket assertion! Nothing could be further from the truth! To insist on obedience to Christ is NOT legalism. I would like to know who made such an assumption. I know of no one who believes this. Neither do I know of any who believe that to avoid being guilty of legalism one must not obey Christ. I know of no one who would dare encourage anyone to not obey Christ. Anyone who makes such a charge simply does not know what he is talking about! How does one answer such blatant ignorance and/or misrepresentation?
“Legalism, in Christianity, is a term referring to an improper fixation on law or codes of conduct for a person to merit or obtain salvation, blessing from God, or fellowship with God, with an attendant misunderstanding of the grace of God.
“Simply put, legalism is belief that obedience to the law or a set of rules is the pre-eminent principle of redemption and/or favor with God. Its opposite extreme is antinomianism which claims that moral laws are not binding on Christian believers” (Theopedia.com).
The word “legalism” does not appear in the Bible, but the doctrine taught by the Judiazers was definitely legalism. It was the basis of the first challenge made to the gospel in the early days of the church. This is what created the controversy that led up to the conference of the elders and the apostles in Acts 15 where they met together to discuss whether it was necessary for Gentile believers to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in addition to simple faith and obedience to Christ. The decision, after considering the evidence as provided by Peter and the results of the preaching of Paul, was that there should be nothing bound on believers beyond the gospel they had been taught. It was this teaching that Paul called “another gospel” in Galatians 1:6-7, which was not another gospel but a perversion of the true, saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
Had the requirement of law-keeping been bound it would have nullified the sacrifice of Christ (the gracious gift of God) and man’s faith in him as being sufficient ground for justification. It would have put the responsibility for salvation squarely upon man’s shoulders, a burden that no one had ever been able to bear until Christ came and relieved man of that load. James, the brother of our Lord, in writing about this subject said …
James 2:10 “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”
Why is this? The law as given by Moses – especially the ten commandments – is a revelation of the perfection and holiness of God. As a part of the covenant God made with the Israelites, it was a call for them to become like him, to manifest in their own lives the image of himself, their creator. Had anyone ever lived up to this standard of perfection they would have had eternal life. The mistake the Jews made and the mistake of modern legalists make is to think that the perfection of their obedience is what stands them right before God.
Look at some scriptures on the subject.
Rom. 2:13 “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
The doing of the law here means doing every part of the law. It means keeping the law perfectly. No mistakes. No blunders. No trip-ups. No errors. No exceptions. Period. Who ever did that? Only one! Jesus. Do we measure up to him? Not a one of us! So there had better be another way of obtaining right standing before God – and there is. It is the way that Jesus opened for us.
Gal. 3:11 “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
Gal. 2:16 “…yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
The righteous shall live by faith. Faith that trusts in the finished work of Christ. Faith that responds in loving obedience to the forgiveness freely offered to sinners. Faith that accepts the grace of God that offers forgiveness. If man could have been saved by the keeping of law then Christ died in vain!
Should it be objected that the law here referred to the Mosaic law and not the “law of Christ,” let it be understood that it makes no difference what law one has reference to, law cannot save. Jesus didn’t come to give us another law we could keep since the Mosaic law was, as some contend, so hard for man to live by. It is the principle of law as a basis of salvation that is repudiated by the apostle. He didn’t argue for one law over another. If we reckon our justification as being as a result of keeping any law we will always come up short.
What more perfect law could have been given than that which patterned the very holiness and perfection of God? We didn’t need a more perfect law, but a perfect sacrifice. Jesus, coming and condemning sin in the flesh by his righteous life, became the perfect sacrifice and took upon himself the burden of our sin so that we might be perfected and justified before God through the forgiveness that is by grace through faith in him (Eph. 2:8).
Law itself is good. It was praised in Psalm 119 and commended by Paul in Romans 7:12; 7:16. But no law can save. The problem is not in law itself, but in man. It is the weakness of the flesh that nullifies the power of law to save.
Rom. 8:3 “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…”
None of this, however, argues against obedience to Christ. To maintain that one need not obey is antinomianism – lawlessness. Jesus himself insisted that his disciples obey him. But our obedience is not for justification. It is to evidence our love for him.
John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
1John 5:3 “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Knowing something of the thinking of the editor who published this article in his bulletin and of the church whose Facebook page this was posted on, I strongly suspect that what is held to be the commandments of Christ are all the inferred, patternistic doctrines and dogmas by which a particular brand of sectarianism is sustained. All such is legalism, pure and simple. Anyone who would bind such on others in order to have fellowship with them has substituted law for faith in Christ. All such creates and maintains division between the disciples of Christ rather than furthering his intention of oneness in him.
For the information of the writer of this article and for the information of the brother who copied and posted this article let me inform you – legalism and obedience to Christ ARE NOT THE SAME! Legalism is a deadly error. Obedience to Christ is love in action!