GOSPEL FREES FROM SELF-SANCTIFICATION
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.