Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Liberated from Legalism 2

posted by Scot McKnight

Freedom.jpgWe are looking into the matter of legalism in the Christian life and in the Church. We have argued that the issue in legalism can’t be reduced to having rules, but today I want to look at this issue of rules.

Legalism always ends up adding something to the gospel. What might those things be? Laws, rules, regulations, experiences, education, cultural taboos or political parties. So, yes, legalism is about laws or practices or beliefs that are added to the gospel, and the result of the addition is that it compromises the sufficiency of Christ or jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit.
Legalism often is noted by an overemphasis on performance that, in some way, calls into question the sufficiency of what Christ has done and what the Spirit can do.
Legalism always erects boundaries between people and puts a boundary between people who are designed by God and called by God to be at one. For Paul, this was seen in the Judaizing believes wanting the Gentiles to become Jews and, if they didn’t, then they were not accepted. Paul’s simple word against all of this is one: We are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).

Legalism creates an atmosphere that is pervaded by judgmentalism. Judgment, yes; discernment, yes. But legalism ramps this up and a judgmental spirit pervades a person — always judging others — or the church — always assigning who is in and who is out. Yes, discernment: the issue here is whether or not a person is accepted because of what Christ has done and how the Spirit can lead. 
Legalism’s concerns are nearly always good things. The beliefs or practices are added to the gospel, and they are usually good things: not drinking too much or not putting yourself into a place of temptation or extra rigor in one’s spiritual disciplines — all these things could be, and frequently are, good things. But, legalism takes these things to the next level and calls into question the sufficiency of our acceptance in Christ and the adequacy of the Spirit’s power to guide us.
Legalism often goes beyond the Bible in order to protect the Bible. The additions we so often encounter in legalism are often ideas or behaviors that go beyond what the Bible says, and those extras are designed to keep us from getting near the Bible’s “rules” and “laws.”  “Keep the Sabbath,” the Bible says. When does begin? Let’s say it’s 5pm on Friday evening. OK, that’s reasonable. At 5pm, one finds another working: Breaker of the Sabbath? Well, not necessarily. 5pm isn’t what the Bible says. I could go on.
Legalism, finally, often has a reverse logic: if I don’t break the law, then I am righteous. That is, “not breaking” becomes equivalent to “keeping.” But one can “not break” and not keep. I have not, the hypocrite says, had sex with another man’s wife, so I haven’t broken the law. I’ve kept the law. But, no, Jesus says, the law is about loving your wife and it’s about your mind and your heart….
Well, these are my points about defining legalism.


Advertisement
Comments read comments(29)
post a comment
Brett Glover

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:12 am


Excellent Post, I liked your observations and I agree with them but would like to add a heart motivation that Jesus talked about; that is a desire to seek the praises of men and I should add women. look carefully at Jesus’ teachings in the gospels and you will find a pattern of praise seeking from self-righteousness. seeking praise from legalism. It will not only stop the grace of God in your life but it will lead you down an evil path. I wrote about hunting for praise and legalism in chapter 7 & 8 of my book Grace v Self-Esteem.
Self-righteousness will lead to self-worship!
Bless you for holding out the grace of God.



report abuse
 

David Yates

posted March 4, 2010 at 6:10 am


Scot, you seem to be making your topic of legalism very wide. I would make a stab at the more restrictive legalism being the idea that righteousness is obtained by not sinning (or keeping the law). That is, in the context of Galatians, of which I’m hoping for some penetrating exegesis from yourself and others in this discussion (Paul is so difficult)! If indeed Galatians is going to be a very particular focus. If so, to begin to indicate something of where I might be coming from in any posts I make: ‘Nomos’ in Galatians seems to mean Torah rather than law in general, though the two are surely not unconnected. Faithful Christians are not under Torah. I’d like to be able to assert that faithful Old Testament Jews were likewise not under Torah. Unfaithful Old Testament Jews were. Possibly I’d like to be able to get away with asserting ‘the nations’ were in some sense under Torah. By ‘under Torah’ I suppose I’d want to mean condemned by it. So, the trouble with Torah is not that it’s been abolished because Christ has come and established a new era, but that it condemns. Maybe what I’ve said so far doesn’t help much, but I hope future discussion goes such a way that such ideas become clearer to everybody, including myself – and that I can, if not get to understand Paul better, at least discover the limitations of some avenues to trying to understand him!



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted March 4, 2010 at 6:43 am


David, the series will develop some answers to what you say, but I do take the Law as Torah (not law in general) in a salvation-historical framework, that is, it belonged to the pre-Christ era. That is clearly taught in Gal 3:15-26. I’m not sure I’d give much emphasis to the Law condemns as you have it, but there is some of that in Gal 3:10-14.



report abuse
 

Dean

posted March 4, 2010 at 6:56 am


Question…
If the law is good (as Paul stated), what purpose does it serve to the person and community who have the heart desire to honor Christ and reflect his presence?
I have a compelling interest in this because I serve a community of Christians that have not practiced a disciplined Christian life and it is producing personal frustration for many of them and sometimes for the larger community. They know the freedom of Christ but not the joy of consistently growing in Christ-likeness.
My take is that the law (yes, both Torah and Christ’s teaching) may serve as instruction and invitation to holy living. Grace provides the freedom and enables us to be “disciples”. I grew up in a legalistic culture so I’m a bit conflicted. Yet I can see the primary problem our folks have is one of practical discipline. Their hearts are plainly good; they just haven’t taken on the task of particpating in the holiness for which Jesus has called them.



report abuse
 

Glenn

posted March 4, 2010 at 7:04 am


It seems every pastor or church has to create and enforce some type of rules. When I helped with my church’s youth group during the summer, we had multiple pool parties and made a rule-no bikinis allowed. We made this rule to reflect a level of modesty within our youth group. Of course, the bible doesn’t require this. Is this legalism? Some churches require members to pledge to give 10% of their net income to support the ministry of the church. If someone is able but not willing to give 10% of their income, they are asked not to pledge themselves to the church as a member. Is this legalism? While I agree we should not overemphasis performance, erect boundaries, etc. on some level it will exist. The girls in the youth group who insisted on showing up to the pool parties in improper dress? They were excluded until they were willing to conform to an agreed upon standard set by the leaders of the group.



report abuse
 

Jim

posted March 4, 2010 at 8:31 am


Good observations. However, you also need to examine the other extreme to legalism – those who say that the Bible is just a “guidebook” – that there are no laws or commandments and I can thus do whatever I want to do as long as it is in the name of God.



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted March 4, 2010 at 8:54 am


Glenn,
I reiterate a point because it needs to be emphasized: legalism is not about having rules. Paul used the imperative and gave rulings and had rules all over the place. The issue is the role the rule plays. Does it detract from the adequacy of Christ or the sufficiency of the Spirit? That’s when it becomes legalism.
I wish there were a better term than “legalism” but “markers” is a good, if not altogether eloquent and memorable, way of saying it.



report abuse
 

T

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:00 am


Scot,
This reminds me of a discussion you had with a pastor (I believe at an airport) about what was gospel: Holy Spirit? No. Restoration of covenant vocation? No. Part of people of God? No. etc., etc.
Too many would view all these as “additions” to the gospel, which, like with this pastor you talked with, is restoration of good legal status with God alone. I think RJS’s post today also bears on this issue. Many would say a “robust” gospel is a legalistic one.



report abuse
 

nick gill

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:01 am


Dean,
Galatians answers that question as well. For the God-lover, the God-fearer, Torah is a schoolmaster – a servant of the Lord to bring up the Lord’s children in wisdom and peace.
Legalism (of which I think the Pharisees were mostly innocent) takes the commandments of Scripture and relies upon our experience of obedience to save us.
Externalism, a related but different creature (of which I think the Pharisees were actually guilty – the Jews knew they were God’s people by His grace; the Hebrew Scriptures overflow with that kind of language) takes certain visible markers of identity (diet, dress, and day being the big 3 in Jesus’ time) and makes them, rather than ‘faith working through love,’ the essential justifying marks of salvation. To use the idea in a specifically Galatian way, ‘All who are justified by the Lord will have been circumcised’ (circumcision does not save, but all whom the Lord will save will have been circumcised), and all who are not circumcised are not justified.



report abuse
 

RJS

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:02 am


Scot,
Is the kind of legalism you describe in this post really the legalism with which Paul interacts in Galatians? It is certainly part of the legalism in the NT – and in the interaction with the Pharisees, but I thought that Galatians was dealing more explicitly with circumcision. One must be marked as a member of the people of God – and this is required of all. Do some views of baptism border on this kind of legalism?



report abuse
 

Scott Leonard

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:08 am


It seems to me that there are two aspects to the gospel of grace. The single message is that in Christ God has done EVERYTHING we need to be restored to one-ness with Him. We appropriate it by faith. The two beautiful aspects of that are seen in numerous passages. Romans and Galatians are full of it. The purpose of the Law is simply to show us we need a Savior. In that Savior God has provided ALL we need to be free from (1) the PENALTY of sin and (2) the POWER of sin. So many who understand the first aspect miss the second and spend their whole Christian life trying to perform FOR God in the strength of the flesh. It seems too good to be true that just as justification was 100% free, so is SANCTIFICATION! So, having begun in the Spirit, they seek to be “perfected by the flesh.” (Gal. 3:3) So the FOCUS becomes the COMMANDS, rather than the indwelling One who is our very LIFE and wants to live HIS life THROUGH us. The result is Romans 7.
BOTH of these aspects are part of the same glorious truth that the enemy despises. He delights in keeping people in bondage. Blindness to the first aspect will send you to hell. Blindness to the second will keep you from experiencing freedom from the debilitating bondage of the flesh!



report abuse
 

pepy3

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:12 am


I am also more recently aware of how much legalism involves fear. This is something I am observing more and more lately (stage of life??): there is a grip with legalism that, in some circles, seems so very terrorizing or debilitating.



report abuse
 

Bob Smallman

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:46 am


Should a differentiation between one’s personal scruples and group-wide requirements enter into this discussion? That is, may I as an individual believer adhere to certain scruples for my own behavior that I would not demand of others in the church?



report abuse
 

JoanieD

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:48 am


To Scott in #11 who wrote, “The purpose of the Law is simply to show us we need a Savior. In that Savior God has provided ALL we need to be free from (1) the PENALTY of sin and (2) the POWER of sin.”
I like that very much, Scott. Thanks!
I can understand, though, where people get confused about what our deeds can “do” for us or for God. In today’s readings, we have this included from Jeremiah 17:9-10: “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the LORD, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds.” (I bold-ed that end part.) This is from the New American Bible, but the NIV has it as “to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve,” so it’s very similar. The NLT has it as: “I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.?
I think there is enough in both Old and New Testaments to indicate that when God creates the new heavens/new earth and resurrects his people in a form like Jesus, that people will be “rewarded” differently depending upon how they behaved while in this life. The people will all be living with God and thus we will all be joyous and yet it appears that there are various rewards. I cannot really even imagine what this will entail, though. I cannot really imagine any other reward other than being totally united to God and his Love.



report abuse
 

John W Frye

posted March 4, 2010 at 11:11 am


I like Scot’s paradoxical way of defining legalism, i.e., adding something, yet subtracting from Christ’s sufficiency and the Spirit’s adequacy. I think there is almost always a mutant element of *righteousness* in legalism. There is a “legal” righteousness (a righteousness according to the Law) and Paul told the Philippians he had it 100%, but Paul considered that righteousness “dung” next to having Jesus and his righteousness. When any Jesus follower does anything and feels superior or better or more right(eous) than another Jesus follower who does not do that thing, legalism’s ugly head is seen.



report abuse
 

David Yates

posted March 4, 2010 at 11:15 am


You say, Scot: “I do take the Law as Torah … in a salvation-historical framework, that is, it belonged to the pre-Christ era. That is clearly taught in Gal 3:15-26″.
I wish there were some things I could find clearly taught in Galatians! Yes, Torah belongs to the pre-Christ era, so the interesting question is, what was it doing there. So, what type of salvation-historical story are we going to tell, with great relevance for where we are now. Let’s see how the discussion develops.



report abuse
 

MatthewS

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:12 pm


About the penultimate paragraph: Somehow this leads to fear, which leads to a need to control, which leads to the dark side…
I grew up thoroughly bathed in Gothardism – seminars, home-school program and all. Church and family life added to it.
Somehow I began to live with a hidden fear that God’s Word and truth were slipping away and there was only a small army of people trying to save it. I would never have verbalized this but when I realized that even if I were to go crazy and curse God and fight against him, his Word would still be here and would still stand – what a relief! It felt like humility and devotion but it was really pride and fear.



report abuse
 

Ted M. Gossard

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:21 pm


I just left a carefully crafted comment which this site said is not lost but it is.



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:24 pm


RJS, circumcision in Galatians is the prototypical symbol of commitment to Torah, and for Paul the issue is not the formerly circumcised but a Gentile who gets circumcised because he thinks that will complete his salvation in Christ. Thus, Christ + Torah/Moses = Salvation.
Bob Smallman, I would totally agree — as long as those scruples don’t question Christ’s adequacy or the Spirit’s sufficiency and our standing with God.



report abuse
 

MatthewS

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:25 pm


Related to the last paragraph: It seems to me that followers of legalistic systems begin to assume something the teachers would deny they have taught: that God owes me something. Most of these teachers would be quick to assert that God owes us nothing, in fact they may do so often. Still, followers of a rigid system that demands obedience to a system of rules and promises to separate the in group to God away from the outsiders – these followers tend to be surprised when they don’t get preferential treatment from God. When their kid has a disability or a loved one dies or some disaster occurs it seems to come as a cold shock that somehow God hasn’t played by the rules.
Somehow there tends to be a quiet assumption that all these rules will result in some sort of quid pro quo from God.



report abuse
 

Ted M. Gossard

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:25 pm


Faith working through love. Test by fruit. If of the law/flesh, then the works of the flesh. If of grace which Paul calls the Galatians and us to: the fruit of the Spirit.
I’m too tired to duplicate my comment and short on time. I have to remember to do this on my test blog because unlike any blog/host I’ve ever known, you get your comments erased. Sorry for the complaint.



report abuse
 

MatthewS

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:09 pm


Ted, I think that some who THINK they are exemplars of Christian discipline are actually living in the fruit of the flesh. This does not invalidate all Christian disciplines. But when a preacher or leader turns out to be a controlling, harsh, maybe even angry person – I wonder if there is more fruit of the flesh than Spirit.
This would be a rabbit trail, but so many focus on the warfare metaphors of the NT at the expense of the student, athlete, farmer, parent, brother metaphors. In a battle, you don’t yell “sir!” when you knock a superior into a foxhole to save his life (I read that somewhere). I get the impression that some believers almost think “battle now, fruit of the Spirit later.”



report abuse
 

Randy

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:21 pm


I have appreciated the repeated theme of fear and control that runs through some of the comments. This has long struck me as “The dark side” of the Church, as MatthewS (#17) terms it.
Perhaps this is because my own thought and reflection tends toward the “divergent thinker” rather than the “convergent thinker” pattern. Madeline L’Engle first gave me vocabulary for expressing this difference. It is also one of the themes that I have most appreciated in N.T. Wright’s work:his recognition that we are tempted to want to draw insider/outsider distinctions and buttress them, and that this is far from the center of what Jesus and Paul were up to.
Peace,
Randy G.



report abuse
 

Denise Fath

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:51 pm


MattewS, “Somehow there tends to be a quiet assumption that all these rules will result in some sort of quid pro quo from God.” So true!
It’s a slippery slope from “I’m not going to break these laws because it’s what God wants for me” to “I’m not going to break these laws so I won’t end up in hell”. Motives definitely matter!



report abuse
 

Your Name

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:54 pm


JoanieD-There is an awesome sermon by Pete Briscoe on the Bema-The Judgement Seat of Christ, that is circulating a lot right now. It is well worth hunting down. Clearly Scripture teaches that all our sins were punished in Christ, so saints will not be judged for them. We will be judged for rewards, and I think we will see an amazing array of difference in things like teh state of our glorified body, our eternal responsibilities and privileges…..in eternity. Those in Hebrews 11 who refused to be delivered from their suffering did so that they might experience “a better resurrection.” Jesus parables on talents spoke to this as well. BUT, the good news is that there will be no jealousy nor envy there, and the thing that will outshine all else will be the unspeakable glory and delight of being in the presence of the King of Glory, our very own Father, enveloped in His love, experiencing his loving purpose revealed in places like Eph 2:7–”…that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” This is woefully inadequate illustration, but….it will be like having tickets to the Super Bowl. Some will be in the front row on the 50 yard line, some will be in corporate boxes, but the guy in the upper deck is absolutely thrilled just to be there!
Even so, Come, Lord Jesus!



report abuse
 

Scott Leonard

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:00 pm


JoanieD-There is an awesome sermon by Pete Briscoe on the Bema-The Judgement Seat of Christ, that is circulating a lot right now. It is well worth hunting down. Clearly Scripture teaches that all our sins were punished in Christ, so saints will not be judged for them. We will be judged for rewards, and I think we will see an amazing array of difference in things like the state of our glorified body, our eternal responsibilities and privileges…..in eternity. Those in Hebrews 11 who refused to be delivered from their suffering did so that they might experience “a better resurrection.” Jesus’ parables on talents spoke to this as well. BUT, the good news is that there will be no jealousy nor envy there, and the thing that will outshine all else will be the unspeakable glory and delight of being in the presence of the King of Glory, our very own Father, enveloped in His love, experiencing his loving purpose revealed in places like Eph 2:7–”…that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” This is a woefully inadequate illustration, but….It will be like having tickets to the Super Bowl. Some will be in the front row on the 50 yard line, some will be in corporate boxes, but the guy in the upper deck is absolutely thrilled just to be there!
Even so, Come, Lord Jesus!



report abuse
 

Scot

posted March 4, 2010 at 3:23 pm


Am I right in saying that the “circumcised believers” in Acts 11 were of the same mindset (focused on circumcision but as a symbol of commitment to the law)?



report abuse
 

Scott Leonard

posted March 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm


Looks that way to me. Peter’s response certainly seems to be indicating that.



report abuse
 

Scott

posted March 4, 2010 at 4:56 pm


They didn’t get it yet. Grace seems soooo dangerous!



report abuse
 

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the beliefnet.com terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to beliefnet.com and may be used by beliefnet.com in accordance with the agreements.



Previous Posts

More Blogs To Enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Jesus Creed. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Red Letters with Tom Davis Recent prayer post on Prayables Most Recent Inspiration blog post Happy Reading!  

posted 11:15:58am Aug. 16, 2012 | read full post »

Our Common Prayerbook 30 - 3
Psalm 30 thanks God (vv. 1-3, 11-12) and exhorts others to thank God (vv. 4-5). Both emerge from the concrete reality of David's own experience. Here is what that experience looks like:Step one: David was set on high and was flourishing at the hand of God's bounty (v. 7a).Step two: David became too

posted 12:15:30pm Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Theology After Darwin 1 (RJS)
One of the more important and more difficult pieces of the puzzle as we feel our way forward at the interface of science and faith is the theological implications of discoveries in modern science. A comment on my post Evolution in the Key of D: Deity or Deism noted: ...this reminds me of why I get a

posted 6:01:52am Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Almost Christian 4
Who does well when it comes to passing on the faith to the youth? Studies show two groups do really well: conservative Protestants and Mormons; two groups that don't do well are mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. Kenda Dean's new book is called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Ou

posted 12:01:53am Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Let's Get Neanderthal!
The Cave Man Diet, or Paleo Diet, is getting attention. (Nothing is said about Culver's at all.) The big omission, I have to admit, is that those folks were hunters -- using spears or smacking some rabbit upside the conk or grabbing a fish or two with their hands ... but that's what makes this diet

posted 2:05:48pm Aug. 30, 2010 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.