All posts by Dr. Dickson

Gospel Freedom (9)


The religious legalist actually promotes a quick fix for Christian growth. He feels that rules and regulations will guarantee the structured life that is in agreement with the behavioral pattern prescribed by law. Therefore, in order to guarantee obedience to law, the religious legalist prescribes codes and religious rites in order to marshal the believers’ lives into conformity with the traditionally accepted pattern of behavior that guarantees obedience to law. Law, therefore, takes second seat to the practice of the codes that are emphasized to make sure law is obeyed.

The same scenario exists today. Those who march according to the religious rites of a legal system of religion are thus judged to be “faithful” to a particular religious group by those who have set themselves up as judges and lawgivers of the group to make sure that the religious rites of the denominated religious heritage are performed. In religions that become legalistic in their behavior, the members are judged by those who have established and maintained the legal heritage by which all members must march. Thus, faith digresses to a behavioral system of religious rites that are established after a particular religious group. This is exactly what Jesus was confronting when He said to the Jews, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men (Mk 7:6,7).

In the Galatian situation, the members of the body were being convinced to return to a system of religious slavery. Paul wrote to them, “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?” (Gl 4:9).

Paul could not understand why they wanted to go back to a system of religious slavery from which they had escaped through their obedience to the gospel of freedom. They were allowing the judaizing teachers to regiment them again into conformity to legal religion in order to supposedly guarantee their salvation.

The problem was that the Galatians were not recognizing the legal trap into which they were going. They were being drawn into a religion where the heart could go unchecked as the believer legally enslaved himself after a system of obedience to outward religious ceremonies. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Their heart is far from Me” (Mk 7:6).

The Jewish religious leaders during Jesus’ ministry expressed outward religiosity, but their religious acts were regimented behavioral actions that could be performed without any heart. They could keep the religious rites without checking their hearts. In one’s zeal to conform to the accepted regimentation of legal rites that have been established by the traditions of the fathers, one begins to ignore God in order to focus on strict obedience to the legal identity of a particular religious group. One’s mind is slowly changed from focusing on pleasing God to pleasing those who have set themselves up to be the guardians of the “truth.”

The religionist in this structure of religion moves from focusing on God to focusing on making sure his behavior is according to the leaders of the group who enforce the legal codes of identity of the group. The members of the group have a greater concern about being accepted by the group than allowing the gospel of Jesus to reflect their appreciation for the grace of God.   Their motivation as a member of the group turns from God to doing those things that will make one accepted to the group leaders and group itself. In order not to be an outcast of the group, their motivation turns from God to upholding group heritage in order that they not be intimidated by others in the group.   In the slow, and often unintentional change of focus, each member of the group gives up being motivated by the gospel of God’s grace.


Gospel Freedom (8)


The gospel is the message that one is saved by the initiative of God, who at the cross, justified us legally before Him apart from our efforts to self-justify ourselves by legal performances of law (Rm 5:1,2,8; see Is 53:5; Jn 3:16; 15:13). In other words, there is no salvation apart from the gospel of grace simply because it is impossible for anyone to keep law without sinning against law (Rm 3:9,23). If meritorious works can atone for sin against law, then it would be assumed that the grace of the cross was insufficient.

The religious legalist believes that his law-keeping and meritorious works must be the foundation upon which he is saved.   He may believe in the grace of God.   However, by his belief to self-sanctifying himself through meritorious works of religious laws, he feels that the grace of God must be subsidized by his legal performances.

The judaizing brethren of the first century believed in the gospel of God’s grace. However, they also believed that circumcision and other Jewish religious rites of their tradition were also necessary. Paul’s argument with these religious legalists, therefore, was directed toward the false implications of their teaching. Their teaching assumed that the grace of the gospel was not sufficient. If self-sanctifying legalism were correct, then men could add to the gospel of God in reference to one’s salvation. If legalism is correct, then the atonement of Jesus on the cross was insufficient. They were obligating God to add to His grace their self-sanctifying meritorious religious rites in order that sin be forgiven. In other words, since the atonement of the cross was supposedly insufficient, then complete forgiveness must come from somewhere else.   Complete forgiveness must come from one’s self-sanctifying meritorious good deeds.

The problem with self-sanctification through good deeds is that one can never feel that he does enough in order to be confident that he has atoned for the wretchedness of sin in his life. If he does feel confident, then he becomes religiously arrogant. It was this religious arrogance that came into the early church through self-sanctifying religionists who stood confident before God on the basis of their religious performances. Their religious arrogance changed their behavior. Jude wrote of them:

“For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ (Jd 4).

Such men “reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries” (Jd 8). They “speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves” (Jd 10).

The arrogance of the religious legalist is in the fact that he believes his performance of law and good deeds are sufficient to add to the insufficiency of the gospel of grace. He subsequently puffs himself up in his relationship with those who are not performing according to the excellence of his religious rites.


Gospel Freedom (7)


 We must not accuse the judaizing brothers in Galatia of being insincere. Neither should we view many of the Pharisees during the ministry of Jesus of being insincere. They sincerely thought that they were right. They never viewed themselves as false teachers. Such is often the case with those of a legalistic persuasion.   Because their legalism has come to them through the tradition of their fathers, they feel confident in their self-sanctifying religious heritage. However, the zeal of the Jewish legalists was without knowledge of the will of God.   Their goal was often one of selfish ambition (See Gl 6:13).

The problem with legalistic religion is manifested in the results or behavior of those who believe in and practice such.   In order to understand the confrontation of Jesus with the religious leaders during His ministry, and to understand the background upon which much of the New Testament was written, it is imperative to understand the nature of self-sanctifying legalism, which is basically the definition of religion. Our understanding of this system of religious thought helps us to guard ourselves from denying the truth of the gospel.

We must understand that the nature of the Jews’ religion into which Jesus came is the same nature of any religion throughout history. Religion exists because men obey self-sanctifying religious rites of each unique religion.

The Jews’ religion that was constructed after the traditions of the fathers is typical of institutional religious structures today where heritage and tradition has been exalted over the Bible.   We live in a world of traditionally oriented religions that view their traditions after the same manner the religious leaders of the Jews viewed their traditions during the ministry of Jesus.   Religious tradition was sacred to the Jews. It is sacred to religions throughout the world today.

Because traditions have become so sacred to religions in the world, such traditions are viewed as a legal system by which one is to stand justified before God. In other words, adherents of the particular religion must honor the traditions of the religion in order to supposedly be pleasing to God. It is essential, therefore, to understand the nature of religious legalism in order to understand the religion that confronted Jesus and the legalistic system of religion that made attacks against the gospel.


Gospel Freedom (6)


In the first century, the Jews viewed religion from the standpoint of the ability of the individual to perform established religious rites in a manner by which one could self-sanctify himself before God.   This system of meritorious justification inevitably made an attack against the gospel. There was thus the rise of the judaizing teachers who sought to promote in the church this system of legalistic justification by meritorious works. The evidence of this invasion of heresy was the judaizing teachers’ binding on Christians various statutes of the Sinai law, as well as many of the religious traditions of the Jews.

When Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, he sternly attacked the theology of the self-sanctifying religious teachers in the church. It must be emphasized again that the sternness of the letter reveals the fact that the Holy Spirit did not view this as a minor threat to the gospel. The nature of the Galatian letter clearly indicates that God was serious about this system of theology that attacked the very foundation of the truth of the gospel.

There were judaizing teachers threatening the Galatian disciples, and thus, the disciples in Galatia were on the verge of a whole scale apostasy from the truth of the gospel. The nature of the Galatian letter, therefore, reveals to us that God will not tolerate today those who marginalize the gospel through the teaching of meritorious self-justification.


Gospel Freedom (5)


When Jews were converted in the first century, many often brought into the church the religious legalism of the Judaism from which they came. The letters to the Romans and Galatians specifically dealt with this threat that denied the foundation of the gospel of freedom.

Galatians was possibly the first inspired letter of the New Testament canon to be written. It was a stern letter that was directed against the self-sanctifying legalist theology that was invading the fellowship of the disciples in southern Galatia. If Galatians was the first letter of the New Testament, then the Holy Spirit considered Jewish legalism to be a great danger to the continued existence of the early church. The sternness by which the letter was written indicates the seriousness of the attack of legalism against the truth of the gospel.

Paul’s purpose in writing Galatians was to investigate the erroneous nature of the Jewish legalism of the first century in reference to the threat of any legalistic theology that would attack the gospel at any time in history. One of the great threats against the church today is systematic legalism.   This was the primary threat against the church in the first century.

Throughout every century, systematic legalistic theology has always sought to divide Christians from one another. It is imperative, therefore, that disciples be very familiar with the characteristics and behavior of legalistic religiosity.


Gospel Freedom (4)


Meritorious legalism is the belief that one can legally justify himself before God on the merit of his self-sanctifying performance of law and good works. When sin occurs, the self-sanctifying legalist assumes that He can atone for his violations of law through meritorious good works. The legalist assumes, therefore, that his salvation is centered around his ability to perform law and do meritorious deeds in order to stand justified before God. He thus seeks to earn his salvation by putting God in debt to save him because of his self-sanctifying meritorious law-keeping and good works.

Combined with traditional religious codes, the traditional legalist has constructed a religion that conforms to his desire to justify himself before God through perfect law-keeping. The result of this thinking moves the legalists into numerous erroneous conclusions. Principle among these is the fact that religious legalists often move their traditions into the realm of law, and thus, make their traditions meritorious requirements for salvation. The result is that the legalist moves himself further away from the commandments of God.   Because he has assumed that he can meritoriously justify himself before God through law-keeping, he often arrogantly sets forth his religious deeds before others in order to manifest his religiosity and self-imposed righteousness.

When Jesus began His ministry among the Jews, the fury of the religious leaders was inflamed against Him because He did not conform to their legal codes of Judaism. He was thus rejected as the Messiah of Israel. The intensity of the legal mentality of the religious leaders was manifested in their scheme to murder Jesus, which thing they eventually did.

Therefore, one must never underestimate the control religious legal thought places on the behavior of people. Judaism was a religion that was based on the theology of meritorious religious behavior. This was the religious environment into which Jesus came. It was the leaders of this theology that put Jesus on the cross.   It was the leaders of this theology who defiantly continued to oppose to the preaching of the gospel.


Gospel Freedom (3)


It is only natural for people to establish religion upon their religious traditions since people are beings of tradition. We are creatures of culture, and culture is a systematic obedience to behavioral characteristics by which individuals live in harmony in any society. We thus seek to mold our religious behavior around the traditions of the fathers in order to live in harmony with one another. However, the problem is that the traditions become the final authority of our traditional religion, and thus, the religious traditions of the fathers lead the children away from God. The traditions institutionalize the religion by becoming the identity of the adherents who seek to self-sanctify themselves by adherence to their religious traditions.

Traditional religion in Israel was at its peak when Jesus came into the world. This was the system of religious thought and behavior that Jesus confronted throughout His ministry. This was the religious behavior that Jesus stirred up in order to take Himself to the cross (Jn 10:17,18). It is imperative, therefore, that every Bible student understand the nature of the traditional religion that was maintained by the Jews of the first century in order to understand the same conflict between the gospel and religion in this age.

The majority of the early disciples were Jews.   Therefore, some of these Jewish converts brought into the church the legalistic system of religious behavior that defines Judaism for several centuries. The greatest threat against the church in its early beginnings was the legalistic system of Judaism that was characteristic with the religious world of the first century.


Gospel Freedom (2)


The problem with men satisfying their religious yearnings is that most people do not seek the one true and living God through His inspired revelation. They seek to create a god after their own image and a religion after their own desires.   In order to fulfill their innate desire to search for and worship a being that is higher than themselves, people throughout the world have resorted to various “systems” of religiosity in order to self-sanctify themselves before their gods. In the absence of God’s word, and a knowledge of the one true God, religious people throughout the world have created self-sanctifying religious rites after their own desires.

Regardless of the system of religion that one might create in order to fulfill the desire to worship, all religions of the world fall into two basic categories. The first is that people follow after their emotions or feelings. Man is certainly an emotional being. Those religions of the world that are based on emotions as the fundamental foundation of the religion, are carried to and fro by the emotional state of the adherents in order to self-sanctify themselves emotionally before God. The adherents say, “If it feels right, then it must be right.” Such self-sanctification in religion places man at the center of the religion and his emotions as the authority upon which faith is based. Such religions are basically humanistic in the sense that man himself is the foundation upon which the religion is based.

Solomon wrote, “There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way of death” (Pv 14:12; see Pv 16:25). It is not within the power of man to direct his own self-sanctifying religious behavior. This is especially true in reference to one’s religious feelings and beliefs. When the foundation of one’s religiosity is based on his own feelings, the end result will be death.   Therefore, we can never trust our feelings to be the final authority by which we should judge faith to be on a solid foundation.

The second system of religion that is established by man is the most common, and thus, the most difficult for the gospel to penetrate. This is religion that is based on the traditional religious institutions of men. Most world religions that have been developed throughout the history of mankind have found their foundation in tradition. This was particularly true during the time Jesus came into the world (See Mk 7:1-9).


Gospel Freedom (1)


The most significant obstacle that faced Jesus during His earthly ministry was the “Jews’ religion” (Judaism) that was propagated by the Jewish religious leadership. It is impossible to understand the setting of the ministry of Jesus without understanding the nature of the religious world of Judaism in the first century. God used the misguided religiosity of the religious leaders of Israel to take Jesus to the cross and reveal the gospel. This occurred because the gospel of grace that Jesus brought into the world was entirely different from the legal system of religion that was promoted by the Jewish religious leaders. In defending their legal religiosity, the antagonism of the religious leaders against Jesus became so tense that they eventually schemed, and subsequently were successful in having Him crucified. All of this was in the eternal plan of God to bring the gospel into the world.

Jesus was sent forth into the world at a predetermined time. God knew that the religion of Israel would digress to a legal system of meritorious religiosity. Men have a tremendous urge to meritoriously self-sanctify themselves before God. This is exactly where the religious leaders of Israel had led the people. Jesus came this people at a time when this system of religion had developed to its fullest in Israel.

Israel’s digression into legalistic and institutional religion was no different from the thousands of similar religions throughout the world today. Therefore, when we study the confrontation of the religious leadership of Israel against Jesus throughout His ministry, we discover how the gospel conflicts with the religious world today that is built on the foundation of meritorious religiosity.   Our study of Jesus’ ministry is our preparation for the conflict that we face when dealing with the religions of the world in which we live today. Jesus’ conflict with meritorious religion gives us an insight into how the religions of men conflict with the gospel.

Understanding this conflict begins by understanding that we were created religious beings. God created us with a spiritual yearning so that we “should seek the Lord” (At 17:27). Paul stated to the Athenians that the instinct of man should be that he would “grope for God” (At 17:27). Man is thus a religious being. Regardless of his selfish wanderings in order to satisfy the lusts of the flesh, lusts of the eyes and pride of life, he must eventually satisfy his religious cravings to worship God.


Warning Signs (E)

  • WARNING: Frigid society: “The love of many will grow cold” (Mt 24:12). Imploding civilizations that are based on economic inequity, seek to marginalize the poor of the society, just as James explained was the case in Israel at the time he wrote. Such societies become as the society of the northern kingdom of Israel when that civilization of Israel at that time came to an end. God said that “they [the rich elite] sold the righteous [poor] for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes. They pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor and pervert the way of the meek” (Am 2:6,7). God was preparing the northern kingdom of Israel for their demise.   He wanted them to know exactly why He was bringing judgment upon them. As with the elite Sadducean Jews of the prophecy of Jesus, God was bringing judgment upon northern Israel because of those who exploited the poor:

“Therefore, because you [rich elite] trample on the poor and you take from him tribute of grain, and have built mansions of hewn stone, you will not dwell in them. You have planted pleasant vineyards, but you will not drink wine from them” (Am 5:11).

The judgment that God unleased on the elite of the last generation of the northern kingdom of Israel, was the same judgment He was going to unleash on the last generation of Israel about which Jesus prophesied. “I will smite the winter house [of the rich elite] with the summer house. And the houses of ivory will perish, and the great houses will have an end” (Am 3:15).

In the last section of Jesus’ prophecy concerning the consummation of national Israel, Matthew 24:14 is probably one of those statements of Scripture that has been misinterpreted more than most statements of the Bible. In the historical context of Jesus’ statements, He had the consummation of national Israel in mind in reference to the fulfillment of the prophecies of both Daniel and Ezekiel.

The prophecy of Matthew 24 would be fulfilled within forty years from the year in which Jesus made the prophecy. In order to spare Jewish Christians as much suffering as possible during the conflicts that led up to the final destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Jesus wanted to sift out of national Israel all those who were children of God by faith. These were those who would believe in Jesus as the Messiah. In order to call out of Israel all those who would obey the gospel, then the gospel had to be preached from synagogue to synagogue throughout the Roman Empire. All Jews had to be given an opportunity to obey the gospel in order to escape the coming consummation of Israel. In order to do this, Jesus promised, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations, and then will the end come (Mt 24:14). Those who believed and obeyed the gospel would also believe Jesus’ prophecy of Matthew 24.

The phrase “all the world” was in reference to all the world of the Roman Empire. It was all the world that would suffer from Roman’s wrath that she would pour out on rebellious Jews. The “end” would be the end of Israel, the consummation of all that a Jew was nationally.   The end would be a tragedy for every Jew.

While in prison in Rome in A.D. 61, Paul wrote to the Colossians concerning “the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was preached to every creature that is under heaven (Cl 1:23).   We must affirm that the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in prophecy of Matthew 24:14 had been fulfilled by the time Paul wrote to the Colossians in A.D. 61. In only a few years after Paul wrote that the gospel had been preached to every creature under heaven, Rome commenced her campaign to bring national Israel to an end. Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:23 was his indirect affirmation that Jesus’ prophecy of Matthew 24:14 was fulfilled.

In the first consummation of Israel in the days of Amos, God warned the people through the prophets. Amos wrote, Surely the Lord God will do nothing without first revealing His plans to His servants the prophets (Am 3:7). And in reference to the end of national Israel in A.D. 70, this He did through Jesus and James. He warned the Jews to get out of Judaism through obedience to the gospel.   And in getting out of Judaism, they would listen to the warning of Matthew 24 to get out of Jerusalem.   Therefore, the warning to all those of Israel prior to the termination of national Israel in the first century, the words of Amos still rang loud in the ears of those who knew the work of God:

“Therefore, thus I will do to you, O [unbelieving] Israel. And because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (Am 4:12).

Those who recognize the fall of civilizations, prepare for such by the renewal of their commitment to the unchanging Jesus Christ. When Christ becomes unfashionable, then the faithful renew their faith in he incarnational Son of God who gave His life that our existence will permeate any fallen civilization of this world.

The beautiful thing about being a Christian in this life is that Christians need not to fear when civilizations either fall through military conflict, or fall to the change of in moral standards and systems of government. Jesus and His moral standards have existed unchanged throughout the fall of numerous civilizations over the past two thousand years. Civilizations come and go, but the Christian can trust in the following words of Jesus regardless of the rise and fall of civilizations.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rv 1:8).

“I Am He who lives. And I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. And I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Rv 1:18).

[I will post when I have more!]