Legalism: the power to bewitch

Why legalism seems so attractive and why it is a counterfeit gospel.

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., has been a teacher, pastor, and church administrator in Southern Asia for 32 years. Currently he is an associate editor of Ministry.

The emphasis on obedience to the Ten Commandments, particularly the fourth, often leads to the charge of legalism. The charge, of course, is false, but at the level of personal assurance and appreciation of salvation, the danger of being or becoming a legalist is never far re moved. Legalism is the perpetual foe of the good news of the gospel, and therefore it is our Christian responsibility to be aware of what it is, what it is not, and where our safety lies in the face of its bewitching power.

What legalism is not

Legalism is not the law. If it were so, God Himself would be a legalist, for He is the author of the law. The law is the transcript of His character. It is His definition of righteousness. When God charged Adam and Eve that the difference between life and death lies in their unconditional obedience to the law that He has spelled out for them, God was not being a legalist. The command "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Gen. 2:17)* did not arise from a stern legalist, but from a loving and gracious Creator who wanted to establish a relationship with His creatures on the basis of a love that chooses to respond in love.

It is not, of course, open for the creature to ask, "Why any law at all?" A creature shall always be a creature, and the Creator shall always be the Creator. The difference between the two is God's sovereignty and a creature's finiteness. The law reflects that sovereignty and delineates that finiteness, with limitations within which a creature shall exist and operate. Outside of that limit is death. The prescription of that limit does not mean legalism, but the preservation of order.

The codifying of the law on Mount Sinai is another illustration that the law reveals God's character on the one hand and human folly on the other. The preamble to the law in Exodus is the mighty movement of God's liberation of Israel from Egypt. He liberated a people, He created a community, and He gave them the law. The fact that God wrote the law with His fingers on tables of stone is a symbolic affirmation that the principles of the law are as enduring as God Himself. There's nothing legalistic about the Ten Commandments, but it is the natural sequence to God's gracious liberation and creation of a community whose very existence was expected to be on the basis of faith in this God of deliverance. But it is altogether a different matter that Israel identified its exclusiveness, not in the gracious calling of God, but in the possession of the tables of stone and thereafter went about through rabbinical interpretations to expand that law and make compliance to it the basis of righteousness before God. In the process because of their emphasis on what they could do on their own, they forgot where they came from, and rejected the grace that was responsible for their creation as a covenant community. That was Israel's folly.

Thus legalism's first victor is self enthroning itself and declaring its capacity to be its own god. And the corollary is true as well: Legalism's first victim is faith in, and dependence on, God's saving grace. Legalists deliberately and proudly announce to the universe that they have at last arrived. They are the captains of their souls and the masters of their fate. Legalism is therefore not the law; it is a form of false empowerment that manipulates and misrepresents the purpose of the law and claims self-sufficiency for the human. Legalism is self's golden calf.

Legalism is not obedience to the law. If it were so, Jesus would be a legalist. Consider Jesus' assertion and hope in John 14 and 15. The assertion is His relationship with the Father, and the hope is for the relationship of His disciples with Him. In the first, Jesus asserts, "I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love" (John 15:10). The obedience of Jesus to the Father's commandments is not a legalistic compliance, but an outgrowth of His abiding in the Father's love. If Jesus had to "earn" the Father's love through obedience, that would amount to legalism, but that's precisely what Jesus wants His disciples to understand. The intimate relationship between the Father and the Son is based on love and love alone, and it is this love that led the Father to send the Son to the cross, and it is this love that led the Son to accept the Father's will and taste the bitterness of Gethsemane and Calvary.

Jesus uses the Father-Son relation ship of love that led to the ultimate act of obedience and sacrifice in cosmic history as an illustration of the kind of relationship His disciples should have with Him. The parallelism is perilous as well as promising. It is perilous in that the disciples could be tempted to see in it a challenge to their self-worth and pride, and set up a routine of obedience in order to abide in His love, placing obedience as preceding and essential to obtaining the love of Jesus. Placed in that setting, obedience usurps the place of grace, for it is grace that offers the privilege of discipleship in the first place. Moreover, such an obedience attempts to earn a place in the heart of Jesus. That kind of obedience is legalism, one that has no place in Christian discipleship.

But the promise in the parallelism is simply astounding, and it is to this promise that Jesus directs the attention of the disciples. Just as the relationship of Jesus with the Father preceded the obedience of Jesus to the Father, so should the relationship of the disciples with Jesus precede their obedience to Him. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). "I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father" (verse 31).

Observe the hope Jesus has for His disciples. He does as the Father commanded so that the world may know His relationship of love with the Father. The love and the relationship precede the doing of the Father's will. Obedience has not earned for Him a place in the Father's heart. His place in the Father's heart was already there and has made it natural for Him to obey. He loves His Father, and there fore willingly does His Father's will. Likewise, Jesus anticipates a love foundation for His own disciples. "Abide in me," He says, "as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me" (John 15:4).

Jesus seems to be saying to His disciples: "Don't be a legalist like the Pharisees around you. Don't fret your self about fruits. Don't draw a moral circle for your existence, and figure out each day whether you are within that circle or not. Don' t let yourself be pinned down by a set of do's and don'ts in order to measure whether you have attained a particular ethical maximum. Don't set yourself a merit scale whereby you can measure your own perfection and the imperfection of your neighbor, and look for the day when you can say you are good enough for heaven and it's time for Me to return. That's not My kind of disciple ship."

Christian discipleship is not achievement of a moral status, but reception of Christ's calling; it is not moral perfection, but a constant abiding in Him. It is a love relationship with Jesus. Once that abiding is established, fruits follow as a natural course. The principle is a simple one: first love, then its fruits; first grace, then obedience. Obedience does not produce love; love produces obedience. Obedience does not bring about forgiveness; grace does that. Any attempt to distort the order inevitably leads to legalism. And in rejecting legalism, any bid to deny obedience its role in discipleship turns to cheap grace. Christian discipleship has no room for either the heresy of legalism or the luxury of cheap grace.

What legalism is

Legalism is a counterfeit way of salvation. Paul's case against the Galatian heresy is a classic example of how some can perceive legalism as a way of salvation. "I am astonished," says the apostle, "that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ" (Gal.1:6,7). The Galatians, who accepted the grace of Christ and joyfully entered into a salvation experience through faith in Him (Gal. 3:1, 2), were now in serious peril of losing that experience because somehow they were misled into a confusing situation as to the basis of salvation. The apostle asks, "Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?" (verse 2).

Paul refers back to his own Judaistic experience and points out how futile it was to try to obtain justification through the works of the law. "We know," he says, "that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law" (Gal. 2:16).

To the apostle there is only one gospel: faith in the efficacy of the cross of Jesus. Forgiveness, justification, new birth, sanctification are all a result of the cross of Jesus. Affirmations such as "I have been crucified with Christ," "It is Christ who lives in me," and "I live by faith in the Son of God" (verses 19-21) are experiential exclamations of the good news of salvation in and only in the cross of Jesus. There is no other way.

Paul goes back to history and points out that ever since sin entered the world, God has had only one way of salvation through faith in His forgiving grace. As a witness Paul points to the definitive m^l example of Abraham, in whose case too it was not works, but faith that justified him (see Gal. 3:6- 9).

What then are the lessons of the Galatian heresy? Two at least. In the first place, the Galatian heresy ex poses the danger that even good and honest people who accepted salvation by faith in the crucified Saviour can slip back to another so-called gospel the gospel of works. To Paul, the heresy is so astoundingly false that to use the words "another gospel" is blasphemous. For legalism can never be a gospel; it can never be the good news of salvation. It is indeed the sad news of adding to the burden a sinner already bears. Grace removes the guilt of the sinner; legalism increases the guilt, pushing the sinner even more to the sweat mills of works.

In the second place, the danger inherent in the Galatian heresy must ever keep before the Christian the finality of the cross. Even if "we or an angel from heaven," says Paul, "should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!" (Gal. 1:8). From no source would Paul permit any addition or alteration or mutation to the gospel of grace: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God not the result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8). The cross stands final.

Legalism is the denial of the cross. Whatever form it might take, legalism eventually either denies or limits the power of the cross. Legalism always projects obedience as either the only way of salvation or the human part of it. The absolutist claim is routine to most non-Christian faiths, where emphasis on works, obedience, alms, a morally upright life, penance, and rituals are routinely prescribed as part of the path to salvation. The claim in subtler forms occurs in Christian communities in the form of either an ascetic withdrawal from a corrupt world or striving hard to achieve ethical performances with mathematical precision.

Even though the Bible proclaims that "if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing" (Gal 2:21), legalism attempts to hold its ground. Legalists would say, "We don't deny the cross, but..." That "but" takes many forms, both alluring and dangerous, but in reality everything amounts to a denial of the cross. For example, consider the suggestion that obedience is cooperating with the will of God. There's nothing wrong in the statement per se, but what's behind it? Cooperating for what purpose? Is salvation a result of faith plus something? In the experience of salvation, is grace God's part and obedience the human part? Legalism may not come out with a clear answer, but the end result of its stance is the denial of the all-sufficiency of the cross. The gospel does not permit any addition to the efficacy of the cross and faith in it; legalism would not admit the sufficiency of the cross or the formula of faith alone. And the gulf cannot be bridged. One either accepts the cross through faith or re mains outside of the saving grace of God. The assertion of self to come somehow to the assistance 'of God in the accomplishment of human salvation is Satan's tested way to confuse the simple message of salvation through faith alone. No wonder the apostle Paul angrily yet lovingly cries out, "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (Gal. 3:1).

Guarding against legalism

Legalism has the power to bewitch the unguarded soul into looking to good works as a way of salvation. The only safeguard for the Christian is to cling to the cross. For on the cross we see God's supreme manifestation of love and grace toward the sinner. The crucified Jesus is God's grace incarnate; the cross is God's only way to rescue the perishing world, to redeem the lost sinner, and to return the prodigal home. The God of the cross makes no demand except "Come." He loves us as we are. He does not look into any records of what we did do or what we could do. No amount of evil we have done can keep us beyond the reach of the cross, and no amount of good we have done can gain any merit at the cross. The Samaritan woman and Nicodemus alike need to come to the cross and accept what it offers in faith. Only then a new life is born, and the road of discipleship opens up with its limitless possibilities and surprises in growth again through faith in Christ, who "strength ens" (see Phil. 4:13).

* All Scripture passages are from the New Revised Standard Version.


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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., has been a teacher, pastor, and church administrator in Southern Asia for 32 years. Currently he is an associate editor of Ministry.

March 1995

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