Hugh’s News & Views (Legalism)

Hugh’s news & Views


Sometime ago I received an email from a brother in Christ that told of a group of deacons who had resigned and who along with their wives had left the congregation where they had been serving in order to form a “grace preaching” church. It got me to wondering: has anyone ever left a congregation in order to form an “obedience preaching” church? Are grace and obedience mutually exclusive?

Frequently, when obedience is emphasized the charge of “legalism” is hurled against those who give that emphasis. Is it being “legalistic” to emphasize obedience to the Lord in all things? What is legalism?

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, says, “Legalism, in Christian theology, is a usually pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of [the] law at the expense of the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.”

Interestingly, neither “legalist” nor “legalism” is to be found in the Bible. But there are legalists to be found on the pages of the New Testament to be sure. The Judaizing teachers who dogged the footsteps of Paul, teaching that Gentile Christians, in addition to submitting to the gospel, must also keep the Law of Moses were legalists in the bad sense of the word. Paul deals with them in a number of his letters, most notably in Galatians. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day often concerned themselves with the minutest details of the Mosaic covenant while neglecting “the weightier matters of the law.” However, Jesus never indicated that they were wrong in giving attention to the “little matters”; rather, He said, “These [the weightier matters, hf] you ought to have done, without leaving the others [the little things, hf] undone” (Matthew 23:23).

The reality is that obedience to the gospel and strict adherence to the will of God as set forth in the New Testament is not legalism in the bad sense of that word. God never gave a command that He did not intend for the one/ones to whom it was given to obey it! If so, which one was it?

Paul “received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name” (Romans 1:5, emphasis mine, hf). The “mystery which was kept secret since the world began” was, in time, made known “for obedience to the faith” (Romans 16:25-26, emphasis mine, hf). “The faith” is the gospel, and obedience must be given to that faith! (Alternate renderings (ASV, NASB, et al) say “the obedience of faith,” but either way, obedience to the gospel is the end in view.)

In refutation of the Judaizers, Paul affirmed, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what counts” (I Corinthians 7:19). In a similar statement, the apostle wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). What a tremendous thought: faith (the principle) working (obeying) through love (the motive)! This is legalism of the very best kind—adherence to the will of God out of a heart of love!

Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). He further said, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14). The apostle John placed great emphasis on commandment keeping. He wrote, “By this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:3-4). Strong words from the apostle of love!

All informed Christians understand that they are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). But neither grace nor faith negates the necessity of obedience. Of Christ it is said that “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:8-9).

Moses E. Lard, one of the great Bible scholars devoted to the restoration of New Testament Christianity, wrote: “The term legalism I do not like. It is an offensive term, with a bad sense as popularly used, and should, therefore, not be employed. Obedience to the commandments of Christ is its exact equivalent, and should always be used in its stead. But few men, however, could be found bold enough to speak against obeying the commandments of Christ. The results here would be too glaring. None would fail to see it, and few would hesitate to pronounce it infidelity. A more insidious method is adopted. Legalism is the thing inveighed against. But the act amounts to the same. Legalism and obedience to Christ’s commands are the same. Hence to speak against that is to speak against this. Nor have I any respect for the man who masks the law of Christ, and then speaks against it, than I have for him who insults it indirectly” (As cited by Earl I. West, The Search for the Ancient Order, Volume II, p. 269). Brother Lard’s statement remains unassailable in spite of the efforts of the antinomians among us to belittle it!

The final beatitude of the Bible gives this wonderful assurance: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14). No one can earn eternal salvation, but no one has the right to the tree of life and heaven who does not obey the commandments of the Lord!

Hugh Fulford

August 27, 2013

#hughfulford, #legalism, #obedience