There is a vast difference between the relational fellowship of the saints of God and those of a religious social club. The revelation of this difference lies at the heart of 1 John 1:3:
That which [the incarnational Son of God] we have seen and heard we declare to you so that you also may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the biblical definition of our relationship with God and with one another. John prefaced this statement with the declaration of the incarnational Word: “For the life was manifested and we have seen and bear witness and show to you that eternal life that was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1 Jn 1:2). John wanted to focus the attention of His readers on the “incarnational Word” with which he had commenced his epistle:
That which was from the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our eyes, that we have looked [Gr., gazed] upon and our hands have handled, we proclaim concerning the Word of Life (1 Jn 1:1).
A more clear statement in any language could not have been made that explains the fellowship (relationship) of the saints with God and one another. The saints’ relationship with one another is a fellowship that is based on the gospel fact that “in the beginning was the Word … and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1,14). And since all the saints have obeyed the gospel of this incarnate Word, then He, not ourselves, is always the foundation of our relationships with one another. There can be no other foundation for true Christian relationships.
Christians are drawn together because of their common obedience to the incarnational offering of the Word on the cross, His burial for our hope, resurrection, and His present reign over all things. Connection (fellowship) with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through our common obedience to this gospel is what establishes our relationship with God and one another. Our obedience to the gospel of the incarnational Son of God is the impetus, the foundation, the eternal bond of fellowship that we have with the eternal Word of Life, and thus, the guarantee of living forever. The Christians’ relationships with one another is far beyond the relationship of friendship.
We hear a great deal today about relationships in the religious world. Religions throughout the world have invented every possible stimulus to produce relationships among the members of their respective churches. We have heard on numerous occasions the statement that “Christianity is about relationships.” And, it is. However, are the relationships of religion truly based on the incarnational and resurrected Word of Life that the members have obeyed in their burial and resurrection with the Word of Life? Or, are they manufactured relationships through relational encounters of the members with one another in order to enhance friendships?
If our relationship with one another is not first based on our obedience to the gospel of the Word of Life, then we will become a religious social club when we come together in assembly as friends. If our relationships are simply fabricated and maintained by the art of human relational mechanisms of psychology, then the gospel soon passes from being the primary purpose for which we come together in assembly. We must remember that the relationships that gospel-obedient Christians have with one another goes far beyond friendships. There is something much deeper in the relationships of gospel-obedient disciples than having “good buddies,” or being faithful in attendance at the local church social club.
The bond of the relationships that gospel-obedient disciples have with one another is not initially based on their friendships with one another. John clarified that we have a relationship (fellowship) with one another because of our common obedience to the gospel of the Word of Life. Paul explained that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Co 12:13). And because baptized disciples are one body, they organically function as a body of relational disciples (See 1 Co 12:15-27).
Cult members have strong relationships with one another. They are driven together because of their great respect for, or fear of, the leader of the cult. Religions often lean toward cultism in the sense that the “pastor” is the attraction of the hour of assembly and center of reference for the faith of the members. Assemblies that are generated and maintained around a dynamic personality can never be the relational fellowship that is so natural with gospel-obedient saints. Gospel-obedient saints are drawn to one another because of their common obedience of the gospel of the Word of Life. They are relational before they show up at any assembly that is designed to promote relationships. In other words, the relationships that Christians have with one another are divinely generated, not humanly manufactured. If one simply wants to be a co-religionist with other religionists, then he can simply “join the church of his choice.” But when one joins himself to Jesus through obedience to the gospel, he is added by God to a family of gospel-obedient disciples (At 2:47).
Religionists assemble in order to experience either a relational or experiential event that would enhance their relationships with one another. But gospel-obedient saints come together in assembly because they have established a relationship (fellowship) with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through their obedience to the gospel. They were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into a covenant relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). Their motivation for assembly, therefore, is not to establish a greater relationship (fellowship) with one another and God, but to celebrate the fact that they already have a gospel-obedient relationship with one another and God because they have been baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their individual addition to the body of members has brought them into a relationship of a gospel-obedient family of disciples.
It is for this reason that we question the assembly of those who have come together with little desire to celebrate the gospel through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. By this we mean that those who assemble on the first day of the week and fail to partake of the communal (fellowship) Supper of the incarnational Word of Life, have either forgotten, or never established the purpose for which the saints assemble in the first place. If we assemble without the Supper, then we are simply renewing our friendships with one another. Our assembly has become no different than the assembly of the local “Rotary Club.” If our purpose is simply to come together with the saints in order to reestablish our relationships, then we have become a religious social club that can cerebrate nothing greater than our friendship with one another. If we have come together to fulfill our narcissistic desire to enjoy a Sunday-morning entertainment event, then we have failed to come together for the purpose of honoring the incarnational Son who came in the flesh in order to establish our covenant relationship with Him.
Saints who come together simply to reestablishing relationships, experience an emotional event (speaking in tongues, or concerts), or simply out of obedience to law, have not yet understood the purpose for the saints’ assembly. If they have lost their way in this matter, then they are not drawn in attendance to the Table of the Lord. Their assembly simply becomes an attendance to a Hollywood experience. If Jesus does not take center stage for our assemblies, then our assemblies have become narcissistic productions in order that we “get something out of the Sunday morning event.” Those who fail to show up at the Table of the gospel have identified themselves to have lost their motivation by the gospel of Jesus.
The early disciples came together in a relational manner in order to experience together the celebration of the Word of Life. It was this Word that the early apostles handled, touched and gazed upon. Because of their relationship (fellowship) with the Father through the incarnational Son, the saints came together to remember and celebrate the incarnational sacrifice and risen Word who came down out of heaven into this world in order to take us out of this world. The saints in Ephesus remembered and celebrated this gospel event every first day of the week in a fellowship meal that surrounded the Supper of the Lord (At 20:7).
The “breaking of bread” among the early disciples was a fellowship meal that they enjoyed with one another in their remembrance of the blood and body of the Lord. The Holy Spirit reminded the Corinthian saints that their participation in the feast was a relational (fellowship) experience.
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not the fellowship of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, it is not the fellowship of the body of Christ? (1 Co 10:16).
The Corinthians started to marginalize, or corrupt the Lord’s Supper during this love feast. They turned the “breaking of bread” into a drunken occasion where they revealed their inconsiderate relationships for one another. Because their assemblies digressed into pleasing themselves (narcissism), they were not able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper that should have revealed their fellowship with the Lord and one another (See 1 Co 11:20,21). In other words, their dysfunctional relationships with one another in assembly revealed that they had a dysfunctional relationship with the One who should always be the center of attraction for every assembly. They had lost their way for coming together for a love feast that should have been an expression of their love for one another (See 1 Co 11-14).
When we produce attractions to stimulate attendance, then our assemblies move away from a clear focus on the gospel. When people are not motivated in life by the gospel of Life, something other than the gospel must be the stimulus for them to attend the religious assemblies.
Gospel-obedient saints come together in assembly in order to celebrate the reason why they have a common bond with one another. It is because they have fellowship with one another through their common obedience to the gospel that they come together in assembly. Every Christian has a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit because of his or her obedience to the gospel (Rm 6:3-6). And because this relationship has been established by obedience to the gospel, they have a relationship with one another before and after any assemblies.
Christians can come together because they are good friends. But their relationships with one another in friendship never has priority over their friendship with Jesus through their obedience to the gospel. In fact, the friendship (relationship) of Christians is based on Jesus, not simply on a relational friendship they might have with one another as neighbors in a community.
Those religious groups that minimized the observance of the Lord’s Supper in their assemblies have lost their way, if indeed they ever knew the way to a gospel covenant relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through baptism into Christ. Because they have not focused on obedience to the gospel, their assemblies have often become narcissistic Hollywood productions, religious parties as some in Corinth, or simply the observance of ceremonial rituals that bring some comfort to those who are ridden with guilt.
Unless the gospel is preached and obeyed, assemblies will always be religious ceremonial exercises or concert experiences. Unless the gospel of the incarnational Son of God is restored as the center of reference for assembly, the attendees will never realize the worshipful experience that results from an assembly that is focused totally on the resurrected and reigning Son of God who first brought them together in their common obedience to the gospel.
Matthew, a Jew in writing to Jews who greatly valued their families, mentioned that one of Jesus’ early disciples asked of Him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Mt 8:21). In societies as the Jews that greatly valued the family, what Jesus said to this son would seem almost inexcusably harsh: “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Mt 8:22).
We believe that Jesus assumed that the disciple should have understood that the “spiritually dead” must bury their own “spiritually dead.” But still, it was the young man’s own father. Does discipleship at times call on us to commit to Jesus more than burying one’s own father?
The historical context of the above incident could have been that the father was not yet dead. The son simply wanted to hang around home close to his father until the aged father died. Matthew stated that the son was a disciple. But even at this time in the ministry of Jesus, the young disciple realized that the gospel message that Jesus was introducing would eventually demand of him as a disciple to go far beyond Judea, Samaria, but into the uttermost parts of the world. Peter, James, John and the other disciples had made this commitment to allow Jesus to move them beyond their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, even their own lands, which to the Jews was a sacred heritage (Consider At 4:32-37). Even if one could not go into all the world, he or she could, as Gaius, financially support those who could (See 3 Jn 5-7). One is a disciple of Jesus by either going personally to preach the gospel, or going through the sending of others (See Rm 10:14,15). One is not truly a disciple if he or she is doing neither.
Many years ago we were in the coastal city of Malindi, Kenya. We were about to teach a seminar for area religious leaders. Before the meeting began, one young leader showed up just before the seminar started. While he was introducing himself, he said to all of us, “My wife and I were on our way to the burial of a relative and I heard about the seminar on the way.”
The committed disciple then informed us, “I said to my wife to go on to the burial of the relative. The seminar on Bible study was more important. I will go to the seminar.”
If a possible conflict arises that calls for a decision to be made between Jesus and funerals, does Jesus really call on us to commit to Him above the burial of relatives?
On the occasion of the introductory incident during the ministry of Jesus, Jesus was passing through the area of the young disciple. The opportunity to follow Jesus was brief. Our preceding Kenyan friend knew that the seminar was only for two days. The opportunity would pass by the time he returned from the burial of his relative in a far village. He made a decision, and that decision was to seek first kingdom business. He seized the opportunity to follow when the opportunity presented itself. He obeyed that command of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4:27: “Do not give opportunity to the devil.”
Jesus was not teaching that everyone must forsake their families in order to be His disciple. But it does mean that we must have our priorities correct in reference to putting Him first before all human relationships of this world.
We never cease to be amazed at the cleverness of Satan. If Christians could only be as clever as Satan in reference to committing themselves to preaching the gospel, then we would have long ago preached the gospel to the entire world, and then called on Jesus to come and end it all. But Satan is clever. He would convince good-hearted Christians to consume all their financial resources on good things, but things that do not involve the saving of the lost.
We recently heard a new phrase that expressed a thought that we had read in our Bibles and preached for over a half century. But we had never heard the teaching expressed so specifically. We heard the phrase at a local restaurant while enjoying a great cup of coffee with a religious leader of a local fellowship with whom we had recently encountered.
During the conversation, the husband and wife team said, “We have trouble with ‘family idolatry.’”
Did that ever ring a bell of reality in a culture where family, as in the Jewish culture, is often prized above faith. When relatives are in town, faith and God’s family is forsaken for family in the flesh.
These two committed disciples further explained that family relations and earthly considerations in their area of work were almost always considered more important than God’s work. Paying for private education, bigger houses, and new cars were always more important than contributing to the preaching of the gospel to the world.
They explained that when relatives were visiting one of the members of their group, the members would shut down their association with the family of God in order to be with the visiting relatives. There was sin beneath the good. The sin to forsake the family of God seemed justified by “burying the dead” of visiting relatives. This is nothing new in Satan’s bag of clever tricks to divert the attention of Christians from the prime objective of our Founder who said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness …” (Mt 6:33). “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19:10).
It is certainly right to bury one’s father. But when Jesus called a disciple from burying his own father in order to go into all the world, there would have been sin beneath the good if the disciple had forsaken Jesus for a funeral service. Was Jesus simply teaching a hyperbole of discipleship? Or, was He teaching a principle that family, lands and things, should never be exalted over commitment to preach His gospel message to the world?
I remember that in my world ministry of preaching the gospel, I personally never had the opportunity to bury my own father or mother who at the time lived on the other side of the world. I was somewhere in the world when both passed away. Fellow brothers and sisters at home who had partnered with me in world evangelism carried out the burial necessities without my presence. If I had left my mission to bury either father or mother, my faithful mother would have “rolled over in her grave” if I dared leave the mission of preaching the gospel in order to throw dirt on her grave. She understood precisely what Jesus meant when He called His disciples to exalt Him above family. Our memory of her commitment to Jesus throughout her life echoed in our hearts to stay the course of preaching the gospel of Jesus to the world. While she was living, both of us were willing to exchange “good bye’s” for “hello’s” in heaven. Both my wife and I determined long ago not to involve ourselves in “family idolatry.”
Jesus calls for total commitment, the level of commitment that calls on us to refrain from making our families the god of our lives. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37). According to the meaning of this statement, those who are involved in “family idolatry” have judged themselves to be unworthy of Jesus. Jesus continued, “And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37).
We know fathers and mothers, sons and daughters who would consider family business above kingdom business. Peter, and the other eleven disciples of Jesus, were willing to make the sacrifice of family for faith.
“Then Peter began to say to Him [Jesus], “Behold, we have left all and have followed You.” And Jesus answered and said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for My sake and the gospel’s, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:28,29).
Peter and the other disciples were not “family idolaters.” Peter was a good husband and providing son (See Mt 8:14,15). The Holy Spirit instructed that one must provide food and shelter for his own family, though he does not need to stay at home in order to do this (1 Tm 5:8). When providing beyond food and shelter, one must be careful not to forsake his or her commitment as a disciple of Jesus by focusing on things of this world that will pass away. Seeking first the kingdom of God may involve allowing someone else to bury our fathers.
“Unlike Jesus, I don’t need a silly cross to save my people. I believe I’m the messiah of our time, I’m gonna save this nation like Jesus saved Christians. Except, I’ll be able to save you without some silly cross.”
So said the leader of one the prominent political parties here in South Africa. Such blasphemous statements remind us of the circumstances surrounding Herod when he allowed the people to say of him, “The voice of a god and not a man” (At 12:22). And then the Holy Spirit reported on the result of Herod’s arrogant behavior: “And immediately an angel of the Lord smote him because he did not give God the glory. And he was eaten by worms and died” (At 12:23).
In response to the preceding statement of the South African politician, Dr. Jan Venter wrote in the Farmer’s Weekly, the century-old weekly publication of South Africa, “Leaders who claim godlike qualities often face disastrous ends” (FW, April 13, 2018). Such a disastrous end came upon Herod. We have witnessed throughout history the same end of similar self-proclaimed demagogues.
God established governing authorities for the sake of the people of a nation. Therefore, “let every soul [of a nation] be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God. The authorities that exist are ordained by God” (Rm 13:1). God ordained government, not specific government officials.
When some authorities called the apostles Peter and John into their council chambers and commanded them not to speak in the name of Jesus, the apostles responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things that we have seen and heard” (At 4:19,20). If ever our religious leaders of a country move into the political wings of government, and make statements as that which was voiced by the preceding opportunistic South African politician or Herod, then it is time to take a stand for truth.
Satan does not idly lurk quietly in a dim street alley awaiting for some unsuspecting innocent to wander where lions roar. He more often covertly rises in the ranks of the legislators of government who enact antichrist laws that reflect their unbelief. Before indifferent Christians finally realize that the “governing authorities” are commanding us “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus,” it is sometimes too late. Before the indifferent realize it, they have lost their freedom. When Islam swept across North Africa in the seventh century, this antichrist faith swept Christianity off that part of the continent. When the atheistic communist regime of Mao se Tung rose to power in China, he too did house cleaning and sought to sweep Christianity out of China. It is not the work of Satan that is the problem. He is only doing his business. The problem is inert and inactive and indifferent Christians.
In one of our neighboring countries to the north of us, some secular politicians have begun to affect the churches of the nation. One example was the banning of land to be sold to religious groups for the construction of church buildings in the capital city. Another example would be in our country of residence. When anyone buys food from any of the major food suppliers, he or she unknowingly pays the Halaal price to a Muslim imam who must bless the food. This is a violation of any constitution that guarantees freedom of religion. Christians in South Africa are not free from this ransom price that must be paid to the Muslim faith when they purchase food at any of the large food stores. The problem is ignorance on the part of the general public who mostly no nothing of this practice by the Muslim community. The rest of the citizenship of the country keep themselves in darkness by their own indifference.
Satan often works himself in by way of the back door. Those Christians who are indifferent—which indifference they pass off as being forbearing and patient—will always find themselves at the mercy of the devices of Satan. Christianity is a “militant” faith, but not by guns and suicide bombers. It is through a persistent stand for truth that enables Christians to be the preservative of society.
When Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” He did not mean “indifferent as serpents,” and “idle as doves” (Mt 10:16). Those metaphors would make no sense. We must not forget that Jesus used the metaphor “wise as serpents,” not “wise as Solomon.” Serpents have a bite, and that bite has venom. A serpent will certainly be patient. He will not strike unless threatened. But if threatened, he will strike with a venomous bite.
It is quite interesting that Jesus would use the behavior of a serpent in reference to those who follow Him. Unfortunately, many of Jesus’ disciples today forget what Jesus said to His immediate followers: “Do no think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). We never hear the subject of “Christian serpents” preached. We feel that most indifferent Christians have no desire to bite back with the truth when threatened … ever. But when the truth of the gospel is threatened, Christians must be reminded that it is time to sling the sword of the Spirit in standing up for the truth. When political “messiahs” arrogantly blaspheme the cross by which we are saved, it is time to bite back with the venom of the truth of God.
GOSPEL SEEKS LAW
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 PROMOTES SINCERITY
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 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.
GOSPEL DENIES THE FLESH
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 AVOIDS CONTENTION
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 PREVENTS BOASTING
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.”