Category Archives: Gospel Freedom

Gospel Freedom (19)


We must understand that Jesus’ ministry was to a religious people who were led by legalistic religious leaders. The early disciples were established first among the Jews who were the product of these leaders. In order to understand the purpose for which much of the New Testament was written, one must understand the nature of traditional legalistic religion.

We must not misunderstand what Paul is saying concerning legalism in many of his writings. Too often critics accuse Paul of believing that obedience to law was not necessary concerning one’s salvation. In fact, some in Rome believed that because we are saved by grace, we are not obligated to direct our lives by the law of God. Paul rebuked some Roman Christians, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rm 6:1). In other words, if grace saves to the uttermost, then in order to have an abounding grace of God in one’s life, we can live as we please.   In doing this, Jude stated that some “turn the grace of our God into licentiousness” (Jd 4). Some felt free to live as they wished because of an erroneous belief that grace would cover all sin. This is the Christian who believes he can get by with all sorts of sin because we are under grace. This is also the Christian who feels he has no obligations because we are supposedly saved by grace alone.

One must not deceive himself into believing he can sow to the flesh and reap the fruit of the Spirit of God (Gl 6:6,7).   One must not believe that he or she has no obligations toward his or her brother or sister, for we must “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gl 6:2). One must not believe that he can idly sit by and do nothing, for in Christ our faith must be working through love (Gl 5:6).   If one is doing nothing, then it is evident that he has no gratitude for the gospel of Jesus.

We must not misunderstand grace. Grace frees one from salvation by meritorious law-keeping. It does not free one to do his own thing, and thus, live after the flesh. We must always remember that when the Scriptures discuss faith, faith in response to the gospel is assumed. If our faith in the gospel produces no good works, then we are dead (Js 2:17). The truth of the gospel is so axiomatic in the lives of those who live by faith, that obedience is simply assumed.

When one understands salvation by grace, he understands that he is not saved by the traditions of men. He is freed from human religious traditions. For this reason, those who preach the gospel of grace have the greatest message in the world to a religious world that is in the bondage of their own religiosity. In a world that struggles to maintain the religious traditions of the fathers, the freedom of the grace of God comes as a message of deliverance.

When one understands salvation by grace, then the law of God is established in his life by faith. Paul wrote, “Do we then make void the law through faith?   Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law (Rm 3:31).   When one through faith recognizes and trusts in the grace of God, he cries out, “Abba, Father.” He seeks to obey the Father as an obedient child of faith.   In gratitude to the Father, therefore, he seeks to obey the Father. His life under grace is thus more abundant than a life of self-sanctifying law-keeping.   Paul wrote of his own life,

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me (1 Co 15:10).

While a legalistic Jew, Paul was known for being a diligent laborer for God. However, when he discovered the grace of God that was revealed through Jesus, he labored more abundantly. Therefore, when one discovers the gospel of grace, he labors more abundantly for God than when he sought God through meritorious obedience. Legalistic theology puts limits on the obedience of an individual. However, the gospel frees one to spiritually grow without limits. Legalism limits; gospel causes growth.

As we venture into the marvelous letters of the New Testament, we discover the nature of God’s heart of grace that sets men free. Jesus came to set men free.   Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32). “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn 8:36). Jesus came to set the captives free (Is 61:1; Ep 4:8,9). The captives are not free from law, but they are free from themselves in reference to meritorious performance of law. They are free from religion through the gospel of Jesus.   They are set free in order to obey God rather than man.

In a religious sense, legalism is religious humanism. Secular humanism makes people the center of reference to life. It is believed that the power of existence centers around the ability of the individual to control his own destiny. The secular humanist discards God for the sake of trusting his own egocentric ability to be his own person.

The religious humanist maintains belief in God.   In the Galatian and Roman context, the religious humanist believed in the gospel of grace on the cross.   However, he also trusted in himself by emphasizing his ability to perform law or do meritorious deeds in order to sanctify himself. The legalist, therefore, becomes the center of reference for his own religion that he has created after his own system of religious self-sanctification.

However, all such beliefs enslave one to himself.   The legalist usually does not have a conscience that is free of guilt. If it is free of guilt, it is arrogant, for he assumes that he has performed law sufficiently in order to save himself. Such a one is self-centered. In his or her self-centered religious egotism, dependence on the gospel fades into a distant past as one arrogantly assumes pride in oneself to self-sanctify oneself through the performance of religious rites.

The more we understand the true mentality of legalism, the better we will understand why Holy Spirit was so stern against its invasion into the Galatian and Roman churches. The better we understand Spirit’s argument against legalism, the better we will appreciate the tremendous grace of God in our lives to save us from ourselves.

It is through this grace that we receive the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. It is because of this grace that the Christian can have confidence in his salvation. He can have confidence, not because of meritorious good works, or his ability to keep law perfectly. His confidence is in the grace of the gospel regardless of human imperfections.   Therefore, because of His grace toward us at the cross of Christ, we live out thanksgiving to Him for the revelation of the gospel.

(End of series)

Gospel Freedom (18)


Paul caught the legalistic teachers of Galatia in the hypocrisy of their own theology. “For not even those who are circumcised keep the law ….” (Gl 6:13). These teachers kept only that part of the law they desired. They turned away from that which they chose to ignore. They ignored animal sacrifices. They ignored those parts of the law that would bring them into conflict with those parts of the law of Christ they chose to apply.

The problem in a legalistic approach to Christianity is that one often finds himself in a hypocritical trap. He professes to keep the law, and yet, he must confess that he is not keeping all the law.

Paul wrote, “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law (Gl 5:3). In other words, when it comes to law, one cannot pick and choose. If one wanted to return to the Sinai law for circumcision in order to be saved, then he must return to all the law. Paul said the same thing to some legalistic teachers in Rome: “For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law [perfectly]; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (Rm 2:25). If one wants to go to the law in order to self-justify himself through circumcision, then he must go to all the law. He must give up the gospel of grace.

The law could be profitable on this basis except for one problem. We break law (Rm 3:23). We are thus lawbreakers. And lawbreakers are dead in sin (Rm 6:23). Circumcision availed nothing toward the salvation of the Jews because they could not keep all the law perfectly. Because they could not keep the law perfectly, they were judged by the law to be sinners, and thus, as sinners they were condemned (Js 2:10).   Those who would seek to be justified by the law of Christ must remember this.

A legalist cannot theologically pick and choose what laws he wants to recognize and practice. He either has to be theologically consistent by keeping all the law and taking his chances, or he has to step forward and accept the grace of God on the foundation of the gospel. He has to either trust in God’s grace or trust in his own perfect performance of law. If he trusts in his performance of law, then he must be perfectly obedient to the whole law, not just that portion he chooses.

When studying the problem of legalism, we must keep in mind that such is a digression from the truth of the gospel.   It is as Paul stated, another gospel (Gl 1:6-9). This other gospel leads one into falling from grace because it leads one to focus on his own abilities to meritoriously keep law and perform good deeds (Gl 5:4).   It destroys the liberty one has in Christ (Gl 5:1). It brings one into bondage (At 15:10; Gl 5:1). It leads one to live in conflict with the truth of the gospel (Gl 3:1).   It leads to boasting (Ep 2:9; Gl 6:13).   It leads to cancelling the effectiveness of the cross (Gl 2:2; 5:2).


Gospel Freedom (17)


In a legalistic religion, all matters of belief of the religion have been established. These beliefs are sometimes recorded in a written form as a creed book or church manual. Sometimes they are unwritten, but believed by the group. The unwritten codes and regulations of a particular group are often more damaging to the unity of the group in the sense that members of the group are always in question concerning what someone else believes and does.   What is developed is a committee of watchdogs in the group who appoint themselves to be guardians of the beliefs of the group. Suspicion and intimidation thus develop in the atmosphere of the fellowship of people who are intimidated to study their Bibles for fear of being attacked by the guardians with whom they might disagree.

This atmosphere of fear and intimidation was prevalent during the ministry of Jesus. For example, Jesus healed a man in Jerusalem who had been born blind.   The Pharisees interrogated the man’s parents concerning the healing that had taken place on the Sabbath. However, the parents would not confess to the Pharisees who or how the man had been healed. John recorded,

“His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue” (Jn 9:22).

In the above scenario of legal religiosity, the religious leaders controlled the adherents of the religion by fear.

Groups that establish their religious behavior on the foundation of identifiable religious rites seek to clone all adherents to the accepted rites. Since the religion exists because of the established traditions, it is imperative that the traditions of the fathers be maintained. If the Bible plays a part in such religions, then interpretations are often traditionalized. All adherents must therefore conform to the accepted interpretations.

Since all beliefs of a traditional religion have been established by the group, there is no need to restudy any points of the established codes or interpretations that are commonly held by the group.   Emphasis is placed on what the group believes on a particular issue or passage, not on any teaching some individual adherents might glean from personal Bible study. It is for this reason that most independent or traditional churches do not have open Bible study classes. In independent churches the “pastor” is the final authority, and in traditional churches, the “heritage” is the final authority in matters of faith. It is the duty of the pastor to uphold the heritage of the group.

The individual members of both independent and traditional churches have given their brains over to the accepted “scholars” of the group or the traditional beliefs of the fathers. The traditional interpretations of the group are then handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth or in books that the group accepts as “sound doctrine.” This is exactly what the religious leaders of Israel did (See Mk 7:1-9).

When we understand the preceding point, we can understand why Paul exhorted Timothy to be a good student of God’s word. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tm 2:15). Christians must know their Bibles well enough to be able to determine what is binding and what is not binding. A generation of believers who become ignorant of the Bible is fertile soil for the germination of the seeds of religion. An ignorant generation is fertile soil because legalists can bind where God has not bound. Those who are ignorant of the word of God will allow their leaders to do such without opposition because they do not know the difference between Bible and Baal.   The membership is then simply held in line by the intimidation of the accepted “scholars” and an ignorant generation of the church who believe the accepted “authoritative” interpreters of the Scriptures. This was the religious environment into which Jesus introduced the gospel of freedom.

In the Galatian situation, the young Galatian converts were swept away by the presentation of the judaizing teachers.   They were being zealously courted by the religiosity of those brethren who claimed to be ambassadors of the truth from Jerusalem (Gl 4:17; At 15:24). These legalists were taking advantage of some young Christians they thought they could bring into the bondage of their religion. They would have succeeded if Paul had not flatly stated that they were teaching another gospel (Gl 1:6-9). If the Galatians followed after the gospel of the judaizing teachers, then they would fall from grace (Gl 5:1-4).

Because there is always a danger of falling victim to the unwritten codes and interpretations of legalistic teachers and their teachings, Christians must continually be good students of God’s word.   John warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). It is important to remember to test the spirits.   However, it is vital that the standard of testing be the word of God, not the accepted interpretations and opinions of any particular religious group. God’s word is the only final authority concerning religious beliefs.   It is for this reason that each Christian must be a diligent student of the Bible.


Gospel Freedom (16)


Legalistic theology often develops a dichotomous behavior. In other words, a supposedly religious person will do those things that are contrary to the word of God, and yet, he will justify his behavior by his self-sanctifying obedience to the religious rites of his particular religion. He will often justify his behavior because he has convinced himself that such behavior does not conflict with God’s will, for he has successfully self-justified himself by his performance of legal rites of worship.

The religious legalist can feel justified before God by performing the act of contribution, or supposed leadership action of taking up the contribution in the assembly, but then taking the contribution for his own use because he feels that his personal need outweighs the purpose for which the contribution was taken. The means justifies the end. The legalist often believes that the merit of his leadership and the performance of a legal act of contribution has atoned for what sin may have committed in taking the contributed money. If the legalist feels he has checked off all necessary requirements for his self-justified worship, then he often believes he is permitted to partake of some sin after the “closing prayer.”

But the problem with the legal religionist is that he fails to deal with the sin beneath the sin. His legalistic approach to religion has diverted him from concentrating on holiness in his heart while he feels self-justified by his legal worship. His concentration on the outward appearance of legal religious rites has hindered his focus to correct inward attitudes that give rise to outward sin.

One does not have to wonder much in order to understand the legalistic mentality of Judas in taking money from that which was contributed to Jesus and the disciples (Jn 12:6). He was born into a Jewish religious system of legalism that justified actions that were wrong, but were right if the end justified the wrong.   In this way, the legalist sees the importance of the outward performance to be more important than inner holiness.   It was for this reason that Paul had to write concerning the works of the flesh in the Galatian context of Jewish legalism (Gl 5:19-21). This explains why the supposedly faithful member can worship God according to legal acts of accepted worship, and then, commit adultery with the church secretary.   This explains why the preacher can preach on kindness, and yet be unkind to his family. This explains why the legalistic church can teach longsuffering, and yet hastily draw up disfellowship papers.

This explains how a self-sanctifying experientialist can enjoy an emotional euphoria that is poured out on a Sunday morning, but in his self-righteous religiosity live a life of sin from Monday to Saturday.

When outward performance becomes more important than inward holiness, then all sorts of contradictions are witnessed in legalistic religion. This is why Paul immediately saw the hypocrisy in the situation where Peter withdrew from the Gentiles when Jerusalem teachers came to Antioch. “And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy (Gl 2:13).

Peter and Barnabas behaved hypocritically because they “were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gl 2:14).   They were not living according to the gospel. Their behavior on that occasion was contrary to the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though their sin was not of the flesh, they were not living in tune with the straightforwardness of the gospel.

Because legalism appeals to the flesh, the flesh is trapped in a system that does not offer complete control over the flesh.   Since the flesh cannot remain controlled by law, it eventually rebels against all the rules, and thus breaks out of control. When the frustration with meritorious law-keeping reaches a certain point, the legalist spiritually crashes. He often discards religion and blames God in his frustration, and then falls away to the world. When the crash comes in the religious life of a legalistic church, the members will fight and devour one another (Gl 5:15; Js 4:1,2).


Gospel Freedom (15)


The judaizing teachers of the first century taught a concept of grace that demanded the addition of self-sanctifying meritorious law-keeping and good works on the part of Christians. They wanted and taught the gospel, but they added their religious rites of conduct after the Sinai law (circumcision and ceremonies).   By their additions they became an occasion for division among the disciples.

Their concept of grace, therefore, was similar to the religious world of today. Those of the religious world believe in the cross. They believe that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our hope.   However, in conjunction with belief in the gospel—though they often deny the necessity of obedience to the gospel by immersion—one must conform to the traditions of a particular religious heritage.   Their view of salvation is the same as the judaizing teachers of the first century. They believe the gospel, but they add self-sanctifying obedience to the rites of their particular religious heritage.

We must not miss a significant point here.   It was the legalistic false teachers in the first century who were binding where God had not bound.   They were binding circumcision and other religious rites of Jewish heritage in order to marshal the Gentile converts into their Jewish heritage.

This is the nature of religious legalism. By binding where God has not bound, the truth of the gospel is compromised. Another gospel is being taught. It is this other gospel, the binding where God has not bound, that divides brethren.   Paul wrote, “They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you [from the rest of the saints], that you may be zealous for them” (Gl 4:17).

The result of the legalistic teachers’ work in Galatia and Rome was division among the saints by the recruiting of Gentile converts to the “gospel of works.” The judaizers had established what was necessary for salvation according to their system of religious codes. They thus sought to bind on the Galatian and Roman disciples what they considered to be additional requirements for salvation. Their binding where God had not bound produced trouble and division among the disciples (See Rm 16:17,18).

When religious legalism arises among disciples, division is inevitable unless all members are intimidated into conforming to the same regimented practices and religious rites. And this is exactly what the false teachers from Jerusalem sought to do when they came down from Jerusalem to Antioch in order to bind where God had not bound (See Gl 2:11-14).   This is what was happening among many disciples in the first century concerning those who were teaching circumcision as a condition for salvation. Luke recorded of the situation, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (At 15:1). By binding where God had loosed (circumcision and the law), these teachers were dividing the brotherhood of believers. In doing this, Paul stated that they were preaching another gospel (Gl 1:6-9). Therefore, anyone who would teach the gospel, plus their added religious traditions, is actually preaching another gospel.

The irony of division over the binding of religious rites is in the fact that the legalist often accuses others of dividing the church than himself. He accuses those who refuse to be bound by the precepts of the legalist’s checklist of actually dividing the church.

The legalist fails to separate his religious traditions from the gospel. His legal religious rites have become law in his mind, and thus he assumes that in order for the saints to be united, everyone must conform to his system of religiosity. He often does not know enough Bible to separate tradition from what is Bible, and thus, sincerely, but ignorantly, binds his traditions on the brotherhood of believers. When some rise up and discover that the accepted tradition is not Bible, and thus, seek to change, then these people are often accused by the religionist of being liberal and dividing the church. The religious legalist thus gives a pretense of spirituality because he is “defending the faith” against those he has judged not to be living according to the “truth” of his religious rites.

The truth of the matter, however, is in the fact that he has defined “the truth” by the addition of matters of opinion or the traditions of the fathers. He has actually twisted the truth of God to his own destruction (2 Pt 3;15,16).

The religionist’s accusation often becomes more intense as he is pressed to find scripture for his traditions, but cannot.   His only recourse to maintain his position is to defensively cry out “church divider,” “liberal” or “unsaved.”   However, one’s position is not proved right by the volume of one’s voice or the zeal by which he defends his religion.   It is proved right only by a finger on a passage in the Book of God.

An explosion into division always lies under the surface of a brotherhood that is constructed on a foundation of religion.   Because no freedom has been taught in order to produce an atmosphere of loving forbearance (Ph 4:5), the potential for conflict between parties within a religion is always present.

Among those disciples where forbearance and liberty have always been maintained in a spirit of gospel love and unity, the potential for division is always defused by love and forbearance before it has any opportunity to divide the saints. It is for this reason that Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words” (Cl 2:4). The zeal of the religious legalist may deceive one into believing that his position is correct. However, Paul warned,

“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Cl 2:8).


Gospel Freedom (14)


As stated in the preceding point, the less talented Christian is not only discriminated against, he becomes the occasion for the talented brother to become arrogant concerning his supposed meritorious abilities. The brother who considers himself greater in good deeds boasts in reference to those he considers not to have reached his level of the Holy Spirit working in his life.

Boasting arises out of an environment where there exists different abilities or talents within the same fellowship. If all had the same ability, there would be no occasion for one boasting of his abilities over those of his brother whom he believes is performing in an inferior ministry. Once a legal chart of performance is produced in a religion that measures performance according to one’s abilities, there is judgment according to that chart. The self-righteous start boasting about “fasting twice a week,” having contributed so much, taught so many Bible classes, or baptized so many people. All such measurements according to the performance chart become occasions for one brother to boast against another.

The judaizing legalists of Galatia were no doubt teachers with great credentials and degrees of education. Because they were such, the Galatians were in awe of their positions and abilities. The legalist had high standards, and thus, used such as the measure by which others were to be judged (See Gl 4:17,18; 6:12-14). Their abilities and standards, therefore, became the occasion for their internal boasting and intimidation, even of those as Peter and Barnabas (See Gl 2:11-13).

If one is saved by performance of either law or meritorious deeds, then certainly there is the opportunity for one brother to boast of his works in comparison to his fellow brother. For this reason, Paul wrote to the Ephesians concerning our salvation, that it is “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ep 2:9).   If salvation is dependent on the gospel of God’s grace, then Paul states, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works, No, but by the law of faith” (Rm 3:27). The problem in Galatia was boasting over meritorious deeds. There was even boasting on the part of the judaizing teachers concerning their recruitment of Gentiles by having them circumcised. Paul wrote, “They desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh” (Gl 6:13). But if one is saved by the grace of God, and not the performance of meritorious works of law and good deeds, then there is no room for boasting.

Paul’s answer to the preceding boasting in the flesh was boasting in the cross of the gospel. “But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gl 6:14). Since one is totally dependent on God’s grace for salvation, he has no opportunity to boast of earning or maintaining his salvation through self-sanctifying meritorious works.

If our friend wakes up one morning and writes us a check for a million dollars because we are his friend, how can we boast that we earned the million dollars? God has freely given us the gift of the gospel. How can we boast that we deserved or earned the gift? In fact, Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rm 5:8).

It is the nature of the religionist to compare, and thus, boast of his works in relation to his brother. He is the one who will pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Lk 18:11). He is thus the man about whom Jesus said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be abased” (Lk 18:14). The legalist exalts himself above his fellow brother and assumes that his law-keeping and meritorious deeds are better or greater. As the Pharisees, he thus boasts concerning his “righteousness.”


Gospel Freedom (13)


The religious legalist is so busy sorting out the brotherhood over the most recent issue, his thinking is diverted from the mission of the gospel. He is so busy troubling the church over issues (Gl 1:7), that the members’ thinking and energies are often consumed and diverted from the work of preaching the gospel to the world. The legalist frets so much about issues that he has no mental time for the lost. His mission changes from saving the lost to saving the saved. When this change has been made, those who revere him as a great prophet among them, also have their thinking diverted. The legalistic leader is in such a struggle to keep the saints in line with “his gospel” that he has no time or energy to preach the gospel of grace to the lost world.

The religious legalist has changed the focus of evangelism. His concept of evangelism is quite different from the one who seeks to preach the gospel of the crucified Christ (1 Co 1:23,24). The Jewish legalists of the first century sought to proselyte Gentiles to their system of religious rites that were manufactured after the traditions of the fathers. Of them Jesus said,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Mt 23:15).

Jewish legalism was evangelistic in that the Pharisees sought to bring Gentiles into conformity with the traditions of Judaism.   This system of evangelistic thought was brought into the first century church by Jews who did not understand the nature of the gospel of freedom in Christ. When Jews were converted, they tried to make the church Jewish by enforcing on the disciples circumcision and ceremonies that God had not bound. Evangelism to the judaizing teachers, therefore, was not bringing people to the cross, but to their system of religious regulations.

Legalistic leaders today function in the same manner in their work as the scribes and Pharisees functioned in the first century.   They search among the disciples for those who would be loyal to them and their systematic theology. They do as the judaizing teachers who followed Paul throughout southern Galatia. They were recruiting Gentile converts to the blade of the scissors of circumcision (Gl 4:17).

The mission of the judaizing legalists was not focused primarily on the lost. Their focus was on the saved. Since they believed that unless one was circumcised he could not be saved (At 15:1), they searched throughout the brotherhood in order to find uncircumcised Gentiles.   Once found, they brought innocent Gentiles into conformity to the law of their scissors.


Gospel Freedom (12)


Obedience to the gospel naturally bring unity between all those who obey the gospel. However, religious legalism inherently works against this united fellowship. Since the legalist views his good works as an effort to meritoriously justify himself before God, then he views his works as a “spiritual level” of attainment. He thus compares his works with those of this brother in order to determine his level of spirituality. He views righteousness to be based on deeds. He thus begins comparing himself with others, and others against others.   His religious arena becomes a field of competition between brothers who compare religious achievements. In such a competitive environment, brotherhood is lost.

Jesus said that the self-righteous pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men …” (Lk 18:11). This expresses the attitude of the religious legalist in reference to his brother. The legalist starts counting his or her meritorious works by comparing them with the works of others. He or she develops a spiritual scorecard of works that are used in reference to others who may not have performed equally as well. The legalist thus spiritually discriminates against those who do not score as high according to his own meritorious scorecard. Paul had this group of religionists in mind when he wrote,

For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Co 10:12).

In the Galatian situation, the Jewish believers had come out of a religious environment of believing in the one true God.   On the other hand, the Gentiles were converted out of idolatrous religions that promoted many gods.   Since the Jewish believers thought they had an advantage in the area of belief, they naturally thought that their past religiosity gave them an advantage over the Gentiles converts.   For this reason Paul stated, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gl 3:28).

In Christ there are no spiritual scorecards by which one brother might compare himself with another. In Christ one cannot consider his background to be a spiritual advantage because all come to Christ as sinners and in need of the grace of God (Rm 3:23).

Religious legalism also tends to puff up those who have been older in the faith, and thus, promotes either scholastic or seniority discrimination among believers. Knowledge of the legalistically established codes supposedly gives one an advantage in the status of brotherhood scholarship. One’s knowledge and teaching of the “precision” of the system often promotes one to be the judge and lawgiver in the brotherhood on matters of the heritage of the particular religious group.

It is often stated that the new convert will “fall in line” as he or she grows. Since the accepted rules of traditional conduct of a particular group have been firmly established in the group into which the new convert has come, he or she usually succumbs to the heritage that identifies the particular group into which he is converted. Once the cloning process is completed, he or she “falls in line” and is no longer considered a new convert. One has thus identified with and accepted the new culture of newly accepted religion.

Religious legalism promotes discrimination in reference to performance. Since the legalist is measuring the faithfulness of his life by his performance of those religious rites that identify a particular religious group, he naturally compares his behavior with that of others (2 Co 10:12). In competitive cultures this often leads to “spiritual” competition among disciples. For this reason, Paul often placed statements concerning the problem of boasting in the context of discussions against performance oriented religiosity. To the Ephesians, he wrote in reference to salvation, that it is “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ep 2:9).   To the Roman disciples he wrote, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded” (Rm 3:27).

In view of the fact that one is saved by the grace of God, he has no opportunity to boast in reference to gospel living.   When one comes into Christ through obedience to the gospel, his religious competitiveness that he had as a member of some man-made religious group, must be discarded as he grows in gratitude for the grace of God.


Gospel Freedom (11)


When the self-imposed laws become the tradition of a particular religious group, then a legal system of religion has been imposed on the members. The members of the group have thus become a denomination because other churches would have imposed other regulations on themselves as to how they must legally take care of orphans and widows. The different means and methods by which each group has established laws for themselves separates them from one another. They thus become denominations in their relationship with one another.

Regardless of how we might define legalism, one thing is common and central to all legalistic thought. The legalist will establish regulations on how the principles of law are to be obeyed. His regulations often digress to tradition, and then, tradition digresses to religious law. His problem then becomes his emphasis on maintaining the “doctrines and commandments of men” in order to make sure that the accepted religious laws of a particular religious group are maintained.

The problem comes when his manner or method to accomplish the principle of the law becomes law or when his way of carrying out the principle contradicts the manner or method of carrying out the same principle of law that is established by another church. Because he has in his mind determined that his way of carrying out the command is the only way it can be carried out, he judges his brother as liberal and in violation of law when he does not conform to his accepted traditional way by which he carries out the principles of law. When the traditional definition for carrying out a principle of law becomes the heritage that identifies a particular religious group, then a denomination has been born.

Add biblical ignorance to this scenario and one can see the difficulty many churches are in today. They do not know the Bible well enough to distinguish between tradition and Bible. When the freedom that we have in Christ is preached to these religious groups, the conflict comes between allowing freedom where God has not bound law. The problem in restoration, therefore, comes not in dealing with obedience to what the Bible teaches, but in giving up traditional religious marks of identity that have been accepted as law for many years.

This was the problem of the Jews in the first century when they became Christians. By the time of Jesus and the establishment of the church, many Jews found it difficult to give up those Jewish traditions that had been established that identified the “Jews’ religion.”   Their answer to the conflict of giving up such traditions was to bind the traditions on the Gentiles. They thus sought to bind where God had not bound.

If we view Christianity to be a legal system of religion, then we will lay the foundation for laying burdens on members of the body as the Jewish religious leaders laid burdens on the backs of the Jews.   The established methods to accomplish the prescribed principles of the law of liberty almost always become a burden to the ones who are struggling to maintain a behavioral checklist.   Traditional laws continue to be bound on the consciences of brothers and sisters until a frustration level is reached.

Those disciples who have a high frustration level are usually those who are very legalistic in their religion. When one is not motivated in heart in gratitude of the gospel, he or she simply becomes frustrated with not feeling good about doing what he or she believes is the will of God. The frustrated become weary of feeling guilty about wondering if the good he does is pleasing to God. There is no peace of mind in the heart of the legalist. If there is peace, then he or she is self-righteous, believing that his self-sanctifying performance of law is accepted by God.   The next step to this feeling is spiritual arrogance.

On the other hand, the one who has responded to the heart of God in obedience to the gospel knows that he can never perform enough for others to repay the debt God has cancelled in his life by grace (See Lk 17:10). He is driven by thanksgiving (See 1 Co 15:10). The legalist is driven by guilt. The one who works in thanksgiving knows he can never perform enough, thus he must trust in God’s grace. The legalist trusts in his checklist that assures him that he has checked off his responsibility toward orphans and widows. The one who is driven by the gospel knows that he can never care for enough orphans and widows. There are too many. Therefore, he must trust in the grace of God for that which he cannot do.

There is a vast difference here between legal religion and the spirit of true gospel living. One system brings frustration. The other brings peace of mind. One breeds arrogance and boasting. The other produces the fruit of humility and service. One puts a ceiling on spiritual growth. The other has no limits to which one will spiritually grow. If one can discover this difference, then the gospel of Jesus has won a victory.


Gospel Freedom (10)


The problem with a legal approach to serving God is that one can perform legal rites of religion without true or long-term spiritual growth. However, once one becomes frustrated with keeping all the rules, it is easy to fall away. Since the religious legalist has given up his focus on the gospel in order to focus on his performance of the identity of his religion, apostasy becomes an act of falling from the accepted rules of his particular religion. It is not apostasy from the gospel of Jesus. Changing churches is simply a matter of changing sets of rules.   Living the gospel is blurred in the maze of denominational regulations that identify each particular religious group.   When one falls away, it is simply apostasy from a religion of man.

In the first century context, the judaizing teachers saw the church as another “sect” of Judaism. Therefore, there were some who accepted Jesus and obeyed the gospel by immersion. However, they simply added the rules of another faith to their existing rules of Judaism. They were as John described, “not of us” because they had not submitted in their hearts to the gospel (1 Jn 2:19). They had simply joined the “Christian” movement in Jerusalem when thousands were becoming members of the body of Christ.

Because those who were “not of us” were not converted in response to God’s grace that was manifested through Jesus on the cross, they were simply moving from one religious group to another. At the same time, they believed that they were remaining within the broader community of Judaism. When they saw many Gentiles becoming members of the “Christian sect” of Judaism, it was only natural for them to demand that the Gentiles also become circumcised and adhere to other ceremonies of the Sinai law.

When one obeys the gospel, he has left religion for grace. He has responded to the grace of God in response to grace. However, when one seeks to produce spiritual growth through religious regulations, one’s life-style is only superficial. True growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pt 3:18) comes as a result of sowing works of thanksgiving for one’s salvation (See 1 Co 15:10 2 Co 4:15). The fruit of the Spirit comes forth from the heart of the one who truly has Christ in his heart (Gl 2:20; 5:24). Those who “live in the Spirit” will manifest long-term growth as opposed to the one who simply follows the accepted pattern of religiosity that has been formed after the traditions of men. When one maintains his focus on Jesus, he will obediently live the gospel in gratitude for that which he has in Christ (Rm 3:31).

On the other hand, there are those religious groups that require little in a legal response to belief. These are those groups that have created a religion after their own desires. And their desire is to have as little involvement in religion as possible, while at the same time, feel comfortable about their faith. There is thus a stagnation of gospel behavior in these groups. As long as one is doing the minimal requirements for “faithfulness,” he is accepted by the group as a “faithful” member.   Legalism in this system of religion produces a mental complacency, a self-deception that everything is fine while one is on the road to destruction. This legalistic religion thus limits spiritual growth because the adherents believe that they are spiritually acceptable to God in their state of indifference.

This “easy going” legalism convinces one that as long as he or she accomplishes the ceremonies of worship of the particular religious group, then he or she has worshiped God. As long as one has gone through the legal steps of conversion, he is once saved and always saved. As long as one clones the correct religious phraseology of the group, then he is legally sound. As long as one functions with accepted methods, then he is sound and of “the truth.”

This form of legalism lacks substance.   Adherents become frustrated with their lack of spiritual growth. In their frustration they feel a change of rules, or a change of churches, or a change in preachers, will produce growth. It is believed that the solution to the problems of stagnation is that the change will produce growth. When we make superficial changes to correct deep spiritual problems, we are failing to deal with the sin beneath the sin.

Once rules and regulations take a back seat to the gospel of Jesus, then His commandments are not burdensome (See 1 Jn 5:3). The Christian who is truly motivated by thanksgiving for his or her salvation finds no commandment of God burdensome. He finds no limits to his spiritual growth. If we deal with the sin of the heart, then we are beginning to correct the sin beneath the sin.

Herein is revealed the nature of the law of Christ, the perfect law of liberty (Js 1:25; 2:8). There is law under grace, but the law of Christ is usually stated in principle. For example, James stated,

“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit [take care of] orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (Js 1:27).

The principle is to care for orphans and widows.   However, there are few instructions in the New Testament on how this is actually carried out in one’s life.   Thus, there is law to do this work, but there is liberty on how it is to be carried out. It is a law of liberty. God gives the principle. He expects our gratitude for His grace to motivate us through love to act in response to grace in order to take care of orphans and widows. When love replaces indifference in the heart, then widows and orphans eat.

The above frustrates the legalist. He needs a set of rules by which he can measure his meritorious performance in taking care of orphans and widows. He must know exactly how to take care of the orphans and widows by establishing regulations on how the law is to be carried out. He must establish a system by which the orphans and widows are cared for, and the number of orphans and widows for which he must care in order to feel confident that he has self-sanctified himself in obedience to the law to take care of orphans and widows. He thus destroys his liberty under the law by establishing self-sanctifying laws for himself.