Gospel Freedom (12)

GOSPEL AVOIDS SPIRITUAL DISCRIMINATION

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.

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Gospel Freedom (11)

GOSPEL AVOIDS DIVISION

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.

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Gospel Freedom (10)

GOSPEL INSPIRES SPIRITUAL GROWTH

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.

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GOSPEL FREES FROM RELIGIOUS RITES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GOSPEL FREES FROM SELF-SANCTIFICATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LEGALISM DEFINES RELIGION

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

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

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

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

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

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VICTIMS OF LEGAL RELIGIOSITY

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

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

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

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RELIGION ATTACKS GOSPEL

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

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

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

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

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MERITORIOUS RELIGIOSITY

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

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

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

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

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CREATURES OF RELIGIOUS HABITS

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

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

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

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