AN INTRODUCTION TO LEGALISM
By Pastor Peter Bond
The Lord has been directing me in recent weeks to teach from the book of Galatians. As I have sought Him in prayer for these studies, the Holy Ghost has impressed upon me the importance of the content of this epistle, and its relevance to conditions in the church in the British Isles, as well as further afield.
The Lord has made it clear to me that the traps and snares laid for ‘ churches of Galatia’ are still very much in evidence, albeit in forms adapted to suit the religious climate in which we find ourselves today.
A Spiritual ‘Spell’
Preparations for these teachings have led me to focus much attention on the third chapter, beginning, “O foolish Galatians…” The apostle spares no words in his efforts to convince these believers that, in effect, they are under the influence of a kind of spiritual ‘spell’: “who hath bewitched you,” he continues, “that ye should not obey the truth?”
Such a question clearly indicates the strength of the spiritual forces they were facing, and, I believe, we are currently facing. It also instructs us as to the devilish intent of ALL deception, namely: to pull us away from obedience to the truth. That ‘pull,’ in the case of ‘the churches of Galatia,’ was towards certain aspects of Mosaic Law, – principally, circumcision – on the basis that these were necessary for salvation. Acts 15:1 records: “And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, EXCEPT ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, YE CANNOT be saved.” The trap then and now, for thousands in the professing church, was the trap of LEGALISM.
The Origin of Legalism
An important ‘key’ to this subject is found in the third verse of Galatians chapter three, where Paul again appeals by saying, “Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” The origin of legalism is ‘the flesh’. All legalistic practices that intrude upon salvation by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are classified under one heading – ‘the flesh.’
An amazing truth emerges here: we learn that things which had once been the Lord’s commands under Old Covenant; things such as: ‘circumcision which is outward’ (Romans 2:28); regulations governing ‘meat…or drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of a new moon, or of the Sabbath days’ (Colossians 2:16), are presently, under New Covenant, not only to be viewed as ‘a shadow of things to come’ (Col 2:17), but have been classified by the Holy Ghost as ‘the flesh’. Such may be pressed upon believers as essential to salvation or, indeed, part and parcel of it, yet they are contrary to the work of the Spirit of God (see Galatians 5:17).
A Seed of Deception
As previously quoted, Acts 15:1, states that ‘certain men…came down from Judea’ teaching that, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, YE CANNOT BE SAVED” (capitals mine).
Notice here the principle that Satan seeks to establish: he tries to introduce something under Old Covenant as a condition of salvation under New Covenant. The seed of deception lies in the fact that he is using the Lord’s own commands to undermine God’s offer to the world of salvation ‘by grace through faith’ in Christ Jesus alone.
A Personal Reflection
In our early Christian walk, my wife and I took a full year’s ministry training in the Shenandoah Valley in the state of Virginia, USA. The area was literally saturated with so-called ‘holiness’ churches, each one promoting its own brand of legalism.
Among the beliefs represented were these: wedding rings should not be worn; Christians should not have televisions in their homes, or radios in their cars; women should not cut their hair, wear make-up, or high-heeled shoes; wrist watches and all forms of jewellery should not be worn; men should not wear ties, or short-sleeved shirts.
Sometimes regulations in one church conflicted with those in another: while one believed that men should not grow beards, another held that beards were mandatory! – and all these strongly held views, over time, had hardened into what were, in effect, recognised as conditions for salvation; and visitors to these congregations (as we discovered), who did not comply with particular requirements, were regarded either as unsaved, severely back-slidden, rebellious, or in error.
Many of the regulations I have mentioned had, indeed, a slender scriptural basis to them; but the dangerous and deceptive consequence of all of them was, that unsuspecting souls were offered the opportunity of appearing to be saved, without necessarily being saved: they were offered ‘a fair shew in the flesh’ (Galatians 6:12) which might have robbed them of the transforming experience of a new birth.
Human nature is more comfortable adhering to codes of practice, regulations and restrictions – however exacting they may seem to be – than it is walking humbly by faith, led by the Spirit of God, and in intimate communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. This requires a death to self, while the former allows a degree of preservation of self, and a perilous appeal to pride in determining by a kind of ‘religious ready reckoner,’ the spiritual standing of others.
Thankfully, legalism is incapable of completely restraining the carnal man, who can only be satisfactorily and progressively dealt with at the cross of Christ. A dear brother comes to mind who believed strongly that it was possible to live entirely free from sin in this life. Travelling with him on many occasions, I observed that he habitually broke the speed limits, and actually carried a device in his vehicle that warned him of approaching speed cameras!
Are we greater in spiritual standing than the apostle who gave us the mighty book of Romans? and who cried in Romans 7:24 – 25 “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord, so then with the mind I serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” “…there is no discharge in that war” (Ecclesiastes 8:8); it will continue to rage until we ‘awake, with [His] likeness’ (Psalm 17:15); and the only pathway to overcoming power is the application of the cross of Christ. Paul described himself in II Corinthians 4:10 as, “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus”: but the glorious purpose of that crucified life is revealed to us in the second half of the verse, namely, “that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.”
Legalism’s Intimidating Influence
To return for a moment to that first thrust of legalism in New Testament times, we have already noted the subtle persuasion and pressure of insisting upon God’s own commands – viz. physical circumcision (no longer in force under New Covenant), – as conditions of salvation – remember, “Except ye be circumcised…ye cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
At this distance in time, it is hard for us to imagine the fear that must have fallen upon these young Gentile believers. Not to comply with the demands of these Jewish teachers would seem as if they were actually rejecting the word of God itself. There is not time here to comment on the comparable pressures being placed upon believers today by the ‘revived circumcision’ teachers of our day. Suffice it to say, that these pressures are very real, and a great many in the Christian church are bending to them, not out of faith, but out of fear.
Our safeguard is to saturate ourselves in the body of apostolic teaching, in the scriptures, where Paul devotes time and space in several of his epistles to addressing these issues, and methodically applying the light of the Gospel to them. “Great peace have they that love thy law. . .” (Psalm 119:165)
The Root Cause of All Departures
A good doctor will not only try to minister relief from symptoms of disorder in the natural body, he will also endeavour to treat that disorder at its source. All departures from the faith of Christ, including legalism, have a root cause.
There were perhaps a variety of motivations underlying the thrust of those first century ‘circumcision’ teachers who so successfully ‘bewitched’ the ‘churches of Galatia’, and other churches in the Gentile world; but the real nature of all such attacks, masked behind whatever brand of legalism (be it past or present), is a denial of the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ, in all areas relating to salvation.
Martin Luther was once challenged by one of his superiors in the early days of the Reformation: remove rituals, icons, images, relics, pilgrimages, festivals, and all the elaborate paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic system, and what could be offered to the people in their stead? Luther’s answer was essentially this: All a man or woman needs is Jesus Christ.
My brother and sister in Christ: whether it be an insistence on physical circumcision; adherence to the food laws; compliance with the sacramental ordinances of the Anglican and Roman Catholic church systems; observance of the Jewish Sabbath; a tendency towards the wearing of prayer shawls, or the commemorative celebration of certain Jewish Festivals: if these things become increasingly part and parcel of what it means to be ‘saved’ in the minds of believers, then we are looking at a denial – through a diversity of forms, customs and traditions – of the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ, His atoning sacrifice and the blood of the New Covenant, ‘shed for many for the remission of sins’. Biblical ‘faith’ will be demonstrated by a life of obedience to the Father’s will, yes; but a life of apparent obedience, generated by human effort, and delineated by the imposed requirements of men, will never amount to a ‘faith’ recognized by, or pleasing to God. That is the crucial distinction. The only ‘faith’ pleasing to God is ‘the faith of the Son of God’ recorded in Galatians 2:20. All else, as the scripture warns, is merely a quest, generated by man’s will to be ‘made perfect by the flesh.’ (Galatians 3:3)
A Picture from Scripture
The last four verses of Romans chapter nine give us a very clear picture of the point I am seeking to emphasize. Israel sought justification ‘not by faith’ (verse 32), ‘but as it were by the works of the law’ and failed miserably; becoming as a consequence, the driving force behind the crucifixion of the Son of God, (see Acts 2:36). Remember how Paul, concerning the outward observance of ‘the law’, declared himself in Philippians 3:6 to be ‘blameless’ before his conversion, even though he was the persecutor of Jesus, and of His church, (see Acts 26:14).
That ‘stumbling stone’, that ‘rock of offence’ (Romans 9:33), is still the dilemma facing many who profess Christ, and claim to be born again. The flesh is more comfortable living by Man’s edicts, than living in vital communion with Jesus Christ, and in obedience to His word. It is easier to walk by some kind of ‘law,’ that can be both recorded and applauded, than it is to be ‘led by the Spirit’. It is easier to comply with rules, regulations, restrictions and requirements of a religious system, than it is to make a full surrender to the will of God, to allow Him to progressively sanctify us by His truth (see John 17:17); and to ‘mortify [our] members’ (Colossians 3:5) by the preaching and application of the cross of Christ.
May I encourage all who read this article to continue pressing ‘toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Phil 3:14). The path is narrow, rugged and glorious. It leads us to Calvary, to an empty tomb; and ultimately to an Acts chapter 2 empowering ‘with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.’
God bless you as you determine, by His grace, “not to know anything…save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2). Amen.