As faithful churches of Christ strive to follow the New Testament pattern of worship, proclamation, and organization (Jno. 4:24; Col. 3:17), they often are charged by the denominational world, as well as by other members of the churches of Christ, as being "legalistic." In certain circles, it has become taboo to even speak of a "plan" of salvation. It is thought that having to meet conditions, in some way, nullifies the grace of God. Is the charge justified? The answer hinges on how the term "legalist" is defined. More importantly, consideration must be given to how the term is used.
What Is Legalism?: -- The first significant hurdle to this query lies within the definition of the term itself. According to Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary, "legalism" is defined three ways. The first definition is "close adherence to law; strict conformity to law." The second definition offered is a supposed theological definition, "The doctrine of salvation by works as distinguished from that by grace." The third definition is "The tendency to observe the letter rather than the spirit of the law." All three definitions are of interest.
It is noteworthy that the terms "legalism" or "legalist" are not found in the Scriptures. Yet, it is difficult to argue, given the common definitions of the term, that the Pharisees of Jesus' day weren't thought of in this light (Matt. 15:7-9; ch. 23). Nonetheless, it should be suggested that what Jesus confronted in the Pharisees was quintessentially different from what some presume to be confronting today.
Usually the "legalist" moniker is applied based upon the demand for Scriptural authority for religious practices. It is suggested that churches of Christ place too much emphasis on "the letter of the law" while ignoring "the spirit of the law." Keep in mind, this was the third definition mentioned above.
To understand the letter of the law is to understand the spirit of the law. This is a part of good exegesis. Close attention to the law, and the spirit in which it was given, is critical to ascertaining the correct meaning of any given text. The two should not be separated, for the law was given for a specific purpose. Both must be respected.
Next, what of the legitimacy of the second definition? When did legalism become associated with "The doctrine of salvation by works, as distinquished from that by grace"? History seems to indicate, due to Roman Catholicism's emphasis upon a works-based salvation, that reformers like Luther, Calvin, and others propelled themselves to the opposite end of the salvation spectrum in an effort to distinquish themselves from the abuses of Roman Catholicism. "Grace only" or "faith only" advocates, in my estimation, have knowingly or possibly unknowingly adopted this mindset. In this author's opinion, their conclusion has been that obedience to conditions for salvation constitutes "legalism."
Does the respect and observance of God's required conditions for salvation necessitate that New Testament Christians be called "legalists"? If certain man-made definitions are truly legitimate, then the answer would be "yes." Even so, it would be only in the sense of the first definition.
Salvation is "by grace through faith...not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9). The works of men through the Law of Moses, contextually, were not the basis on which God would extend salvation to humanity. A God, "rich in mercy" (Eph. 2:4), is responsible for pardon through Christ Some of the greatest biblical figures ever to have lived, exemplary examples of faithfulness to God, did nothing by reason of how they lived to warrant God sending His "only begotten Son" (Jno. 3:16) to the cross. Simply because such is the case, though, doesn't warrant the conclusion that man can do nothing in order to be saved. Neither can it be said that biblical works of righteousness are not important (Jas. 2:24).
The Demand For Adherence To The Law: -- By design, the Hebrews writer expressed
the development of Christianity with legal terminology. He illustrated the replacement
of the Old Covenant ("testament") by the New Covenant ("testament")
with the example of the execution of a legal will: "And for this cause
He is the Mediator of the New Testament, that by means of death, for the redemption
of the transgressions
that were under the First Testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth" (Heb. 9:15-17).
Later, he emphasized one of Jesus' purposes, "Then said He, Lo, I come to do Thy Will, O God." and then provides commentary by stating, "He taketh away the first, that He may establish the second. By the which Will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:9,10). The first will or law had to be removed so that the second could be incorporated. The two wills could not function concomitantly over a people united as one by the blood of Jesus (Eph. 2:14,15).
Furthermore, consider the terminology used by Paul that, likewise, established that the gospel system is a system of law. To the church at Rome, he spoke of "the law of faith" (Rom. 3:27) and "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (8:2). In his epistle to the churches of Galatia, he commanded, "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).
James taught that it was by God's "will," that the group to which he wrote were begotten with "the word of truth" (Jas. 1:18). He urged them to "receive with meekness the engrafted word," which was able to save the soul (vs. 21). He continued by insisting they be "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (vs. 22). This "doer of the word" would be one who would continually look to "the perfect law of liberty" (vs. 25). James, by divine inspiration, sought to convey that Christianity was a system of law.
Finally, Jesus Himself taught that He was implementing a law that must be obeyed.
"If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall
know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jno. 8:31,32). He unhesitatingly
placed conditions upon discipleship. Was Jesus demanding "strict adherence"
to His Word when He said, "If ye love Me, keep My commandments" (Jno.
14:15)? What did Jesus mean when He told the same men, "He that hath My
commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me: and he that loveth
Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifiest Myself to
him" (vs. 21)? If obedience to the laws of the New
Testament is "legalism," then Jesus was a "legalist" (cf. Jno. 6:38; Heb. 5:8,9) and the churches of Christ are, therefore, in good company.
Interestingly, the same dictionary cited previously defines "obedience" as "Submission to command, prohibition, law, or duty." It appears a synonymic relationship between the two terms exists. It therefore must be asked, "Can a person really be submissive to a law without closely adhering to it?"
The Legalism Jesus Exposed: -- If it can be said that Jesus exposed "legalism" per se, then what kind was it? When Jesus criticized the Pharisees and scribes, He wasn't criticizing their "strict adherence to law." It would have been contradictory for God to have demanded obedience to the Law of Moses by the Hebrew people and then have Jesus condemn them for it. What Jesus exposed was how they taught "for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9). The Pharisees had supplanted the Will of God with the will of men. More emphasis had been placed on oral traditions and interpretations of the Law of Moses by the fathers, than the law itself.
In Matt. 23, Jesus offered a scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees. He indicted them for binding "heavy burdens" (vs. 4) upon the Jewish people. Were those "heavy burdens" God's Will or their own? It seems the Jews were burdened more by having to adhere to Pharisaic tradition than keeping the Law of Moses. These traditions and doctrines of men should not have been bound upon the masses by the Pharisees. This constituted an addition to God's law, a violation of the law itself (Deut. 4:6), and therefore they were rebuked.
Conclusion: -- God, through His Word, demands obedience (Heb. 5:8,9). Obedience and faith work harmoniously (Heb. 11), but to assert that faithful churches of Christ do not believe in salvation by grace is unfounded. To contend that churches of Christ believe in salvation solely by works is to contend for that which isn't true. To say that man plays no part in the salvation equation (Eph. 2:8,9; cf. Acts 2:40) is equally untrue. Therefore, the theological definition of "legalism" stands on the basis of misconception and in that sense it cannot be applied to faithful congregations of the Lord's people.
By Doug Young, via, The Sower, Vol. 52, No. 2, March/April 2007.
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