Pharisees in the Pulpit Part 1

Adding Legalism to Faith

By Jim Allen

This blog post is part one in a three-part series about evangelical ministers who allow legalism to play a role in the doctrines of grace. Legalism by any measure is religious restriction imposed by "forced adherence" to strict rules and/or by excessive conformity to religious or moral conduct. Legalism is all about doing something extra to help God save us. Faith is all about believing God did everything required to save us. From online searches about legalism in the church, it would appear many evangelicals have become powerless to discern the difference between legalism and faith and consequently resort to teaching both from the pulpit.

While many evangelicals successfully guard against legalism, others appear to have no clue and are intent on releasing what appears to be the mystical water creature in Greek mythology with many heads. Mythology students know this creature as the Hydra, which I am using to depict legalism, a monster with lethal intent to destroy the faith of believers in the church. The multiple heads of the Hydra symbolize the many facets of legalism that lash out to destroy believers saved by grace. The heads of this creature are everywhere, snapping, hissing, and denying that faith alone in Jesus is enough to save a believer. From these dragon-like heads, one can smell the stench of legalism, a dark and foreboding substitute for the finished work of the cross.

Ministers who unknowingly endorse legalism are modern-day Pharisees who give life to the monstrous Hydra and, in doing so, fashion a dark side to Christianity. While one message on Sunday gives salvation by grace through faith alone, another message the following week takes it away when a believer fails to measure up. Legalism is not new nor is the practice of mixing the law of works with the law of faith. In fact, one of the earliest accounts of legalism in the church appears in the letter to the Galatians when the apostle Paul admonished the church for going back to the law after hearing the gospel of grace (Galatians 1:6-9; 3:1-9).

One key divisional truth in the Bible often lost in the fray of doctrinal debate among evangelicals is the miraculous revelation of God's redemptive plan after the resurrection of Christ. God changed the requirement for salvation from deeds of the law to faith in Christ. Whereas the deeds of the law require faith plus works, faith in Christ is faith alone. The apostle Paul said of this change, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28).

The significance of Paul's epistles is no small matter. His epistles describing the transition from the old (legalistic practices of the law) to the new (saved by grace through faith alone doctrine) are paramount. What Jesus (through the Apostle Paul) said then and is saying now to the church is that the gospel of grace supersedes what He (Jesus) said to the Jew under Law (legalism). Without question, the Gospel of the Kingdom spoken of by Jesus is foundational to Gospel of Grace in the Paul's epistles (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Paul refers to any teaching apart from his gospel (the gospel of grace) as "another gospel." To say it another way, God overlaid legalism with faith when Jesus fulfilled the Law. Paul goes on to articulate that God will judge men not by the words of Christ to the Jew but by the words of Christ through the apostle Paul:
"…in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel" (Romans 2:16) — Paul is referring to the Gospel of Grace given him by Jesus Christ (Acts 20:24).

"…so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24) — The gospel of grace introduces the law of faith (grace), thereby displacing the law of works (legalism).

"But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8-9) — When Paul says, "any other gospel," he is referring to the modern-day Pharisees who desire to add performance (legalism) to faith in Christ."
Undeniably and without challenge, the preceding verses from Paul are sobering. Exactly what do you suppose the Apostle Paul means by "his gospel?" Many of the doctrinal constructs spoken by Jesus to the Jew were in a "format" favorable to the law, which is the format of DO and RECEIVE. This format is legalism! The DO in legalism may be defined as any human effort to atone for sin and/or please God; and, the RECEIVE in legalism may be defined as the blessing from atoning for one's own sin and obedience to the law.

Here is my point: Jesus' ministry was all about "doing" a great work on our behalf in order for believers to "receive by faith" the benefit of that salvation in Christ. Jesus came to Israel under law for the purpose of keeping the law (doing) and receiving salvation for all who would believe in Him. Jesus' faith empowered Him to do the works required by the Law. Conversely, many of the words spoken by Paul to the church are in a "format" favorable to faith under grace, which is the format of DONE if you BELIEVE! DONE may be defined as any work completed by Christ on our behalf; and, BELIEVE may be defined as our willingness to embrace that truth leading to salvation.

Jesus came to do what no person could do, pay a ransom no person could pay, and die a death that no person could die. His death, burial and resurrection changed everything and set up the "paradoxical confrontation" between the law of works and the law of faith. So then, whenever two truths appear diametrically opposed to each other, such as legalism and faith, there is always another truth in the fray that will bring both into alignment. That truth is Jesus' DO through legalism (law of works) became our DONE through faith (Galatians 3:24-25; 5:4; and Romans 3:27)! By any measure, to miss this transitional truth from legalism to faith is a serious lapse and perhaps the reason so many evangelicals open the door for the multiple-head monster of legalism.

In my next post, I want to talk about the dark side of legalism and its impact on innocent believers. The problem with legalism is not the goal but the method for achieving the goal.

Pharisees in the Pulpit, The Series
Part 1: Adding Legalism to Faith
Part 2: Bondage to the Law of Works
Part 3: Freedom in the Law of Faith

Image Credit: Antonio del Pollaiolo; "Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra"; Creative Commons

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Published 6-11