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).