December 3, 2020
THE PERIL OF LEGALISM
When one completes a study of Galatians, one might conclude that Paul defeated the teachers of legalism so effectively that the issue would never trouble the church again. History and experience prove otherwise. Legalism has become so important a part of Christendom that people believe that it actually belongs.
Yes, the legalists are still with us. What else should we call those professed ministers of Christ who teach, for instance, that confirmation, baptism, or church membership are necessary for salvation; that the law is the believer’s rule of life; that we are saved by faith but kept by human works? What is it but Judaism brought over into Christianity when we are asked to accept a humanly ordained priesthood?
And what is it but the Galatian heresy when believers are warned that they must keep the Sabbath if they are to be saved at last? Modern preachers of legalism are making inroads among those who profess faith in Christ, and for this reason every believer should be warned of their teaching and instructed how to answer them.
The prophets of the Sabbath usually begin by preaching the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ. They use beloved evangelical hymns to lure the unwary and appear to place much emphasis on the Scriptures. But before long, they put their followers under the Law of Moses, especially the commandment concerning the Sabbath. (The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, or Saturday.)
How do they dare to do this in the light of Paul’s clear teaching that the Christian is dead to the law? How do they get around the plain statements of Galatians? The answer is that they make a sharp distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law. The moral law is the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law covers the other regulations given by God, such as rules concerning unclean foods, leprosy, offerings to God and so forth.
The moral law, they say, has never been revoked. It is an expression of God’s eternal truth. To commit idolatry, murder, or adultery will always be contrary to God’s law. The ceremonial law, however, has been done away in Christ. Therefore, they conclude, when Paul taught that the Christian was dead to the law, he was speaking about the ceremonial law and not the Ten Commandments.
Since the moral law is still in effect, Christians are bound to keep it, they insist. This means that they must keep the Sabbath, that they must do no work on that day, they assert that one of the popes of the Roman Catholic Church ordained the change from Sabbath-observance to observance of Sunday, an utter violation of Scriptures.
CONTRARY TO GOD’S WORD
This reasoning sounds very logical and appealing. However, it’s great condemning feature is that it is entirely contrary to God’s Word. Note the following points:
1. In 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, the Ten Commandments are definitely stated to be “done away” for the believer in Christ. In verse 7, the law is described as “the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones.” This could only mean the moral law, NOT the ceremonial law. Only the Ten Commandments were engraved in stones by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18). In verse 11, we read that the ministry of death, though glorious, is done away. Nothing could be more decisive than this. The Sabbath has no claim on the Christian.
2. No Gentile was ever commanded to keep the Sabbath. The law was given to the Jewish nation only (Ex. 31:13). Although God Himself rested on the seventh day, He did not command anyone else to do so UNTILL He gave the law to the children of Israel.
3. Christians did not switch from the Sabbath to the first day of the week because of the decree of any pope. We set aside the Lord’s Day in a special way for worship and for service because the Lord Jesus rose from the dead on that day, a proof that the work of redemption was completed (John 20:1). Also on the first day of the week the disciples came together to break bread (Acts 20:7), and it was the day appointed by God for the Christians to set apart their offerings as the Lord had prospered them (1 Cor. 16 1-2). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit was sent down from heaven on the first day of the week to indwell believers and guide believers through their lives. Christians do not “observe” the Lord’s Day as a means of achieving holiness, or from fear of punishment; they set it apart because of loving devotion to the One who gave Himself for them.
4. Paul did not distinguish between the moral law and the ceremonial law. Rather, he insisted that the law was a complete unit, and that a curse rests on those who seek to obtain righteousness by it yet fail to keep it all.
5. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament as moral instruction for the children of God. They deal with things that are inherently right or wrong. The one commandment which is omitted is the law of the Sabbath. Look, the keeping of a day is not inherently RIGHT or WRONG. But know this: There is no instruction to New Covenant believers to keep the Sabbath. Rather the Scripture distinctly states that the believer cannot be condemned for failing to keep it (Col. 2:16).
6. The penalty for breaking the Sabbath in the Old Testament was death (Ex. 35:2). But those who insist on believers keeping the Sabbath day today do not carry out the penalty on offenders. They thus dishonor the law and destroy its authority by failing to insist that its demands be met. They are in saying, in effect, “This is God’s law, and you must keep it, but nothing will happen if you break it.”
7. Christ, and not the law, is the believer’s rule of life. We should walk as He walked. This is an even higher standard than was set by the law (Matt. 5:17-48). We are empowered to live holy lives by the Holy Spirit. We want to live holy lives because of our love for Christ. The righteousness demanded by the law is fulfilled by those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4). Thus, the teaching that believers must keep the Sabbath is directly contrary to Scripture (Col. 2:16) and is simply a “different gospel” upon which God’s Word pronounces a curse (Gal. 1:7, 9).
May each one be given wisdom from God to discern the evil doctrine of legalism in whatever form it may appear. May we never seek justification or sanctification through ceremonies or human effort but depend completely and only on the Lord Jesus Christ for every need. May we always remember that legalism is an INSULT to God because it substitutes the shadow for the REALITY – ceremonialism for Christ.
One only has to read chapter 5 of the book of Galatians to see that legalism makes Christ of no value. In verse 2 the Judaizers insisted on the necessity of Gentile believers being circumcised for salvation. In the Galatian situation, circumcision to Paul was not a surgical operation, nor merely a religious observance. It represented a system of salvation through human works. It declared a gospel of human effort apart from divine grace. It was law supplanting grace; Moses supplanting Christ – for to add to Christ was to take from Christ. Christ is the only Savior – solitary and exclusive.
In verse 3 we read that legalism requires men to keep the whole law. People under law cannot accept the easy commandments and reject the others. If a person attempts to please God by being circumcised, then he is under obligation to keep the whole law. Obviously, if he is entirely under law, Christ is valueless to him. Then again, we also read in verse 4 that legalism means the abandonment of Christ as one’s only hope of righteousness. Many people profess to be Christians but are not truly saved. They are seeking to be justified by trying to keep the law even though it is an impossibility – not one person is able to keep the law 100% at all times except for our Lord Christ Jesus who came to fulfil the law and on His death gave us a New Covenant to follow. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:37-40).” Verse 4 concludes with the apostle Paul telling them that they cannot have two saviors; they must choose either Christ or the law. If they chose the law, then they are severed from Christ as their only possible hope of righteousness – they have fallen from grace.
In verse 5 the apostle shows that the hope of the true believer is far different from that of the legalist. The Holy Spirit is going to do it all for the born-again believer. The believer simply looks to God in faith to bring it to pass. The legalist, on the other hand, hopes to earn righteousness by his own works, law keeping, or religious observances. It is a vain hope, because righteousness cannot be achieved in this way. If righteousness could be achieved by the law, then Jesus would NOT have come to atone for our sins and give us a New Covenant.
What God looks for in the believer is faith working through love. Faith is complete dependence on God. Faith is not idle; it manifests itself in unselfish service to God and man. The motive of all such service is love. Thus, faith works through love; it is prompted by love, not by law. This is the truth found many times in the Scriptures – that God is not interested in rituals, but in the reality of a godly life.
In verse 7 we find legalism is disobedient to the truth. The Galatians made a good start in the Christian life, but someone had hindered them. It was the Judaizers, the legalists, the false apostles. By accepting their erroneous teachings, the saints were disobeying the truth of God. In verse 9 we also see legalism leads to more and more evil. Leaven in the Scripture is a common symbol of evil. Here in verse 9 leaven refers to the evil doctrine of the Judaizers. The natural tendency of leaven, or yeast, to affect all the meal with which it comes in contact is used here to show that a little error must inevitably lead to more. Evil is never static. It must defend its lies by adding more lies. If a few people in a church hold false doctrine, they will get more and more followers, unless sternly dealt with…. Sorry, but I’m going to have to stop here and close things off as I’ll be running out of space.
In closing, the gospel of grace has always been accused of permitting men to live as they like. Legalists will say, “If salvation is by faith alone, then there is no control over a person’s conduct afterwards.” But in the following verses the apostle Paul is quick to point out that Christian liberty does not mean license to sin. The believer’s standard is the life of the Lord Jesus, and love for Christ impels him to hate sin and love holiness. The believer is free from the law, but not lawless.
The believer’s liberty does not permit sin; it rather encourages loving service. Love is seen as the motive of all Christian behavior, whereas under law, the motive is fear of punishment. One can say, “Love’s slaves are the true freemen.” The born-again believer’s freedom is in Christ Jesus, and this excludes any possible thought that it might ever mean freedom to sin. Paul reminds us that we must never turn our freedom into a base of operations for the flesh (V.16). “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are NOT under the law (v.17-18).”
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