Legalism

Table of Contents

Legalism

  • …not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephe- sians 2:9)

We are not saved by works!” is usually the kneejerk reaction to any suggestion today that we should actually obey Scripture. We
need, however, to stop acting like brute beasts that believe by instinct rather than by enlightened faith. We must understand one thing very clearly. A person does not become legalistic by obeying Scripture. If that were the case, then all the Apostles would have fallen from grace.

Indeed, remember that Paul preached obedience—obe- dience that comes from faith, but obedience nonetheless. The botPaul line is that if a man has true faith in Jesus, his life conforming to Scripture testifies of that faith. As a preacher I am to preach obedience, to “call” for an obedience that comes faith.

  • Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. (Romans 1:5)

Three kinds of “obedience” take place in the church today. Only one, however, is the true obedience that comes from honest belief in Jesus.

  1. “Spirit-filled” and “charismatic” obedience: The claiming of the Holy Spirit without obedience. Where emotions and the flesh feel elevated to the position of God. It is an emotional, fleshly application of Scripture with each person doing whatever feels comfortable to them.
  2. Legalistic and logical obedience: Scripture is obeyed selectively, but without sur- render to the Holy Spirit and cross. This is true legalism.
  3. The obedience of true discipleship: Surrender to the Holy Spirit that allows grace to work obedience to Scripture. This is the new life that Jesus came to bring. Let us look at these points in greater detail.

True Rebellion

First of all, some believers claim to have the Holy Spirit, but they do not obey Scripture. Such is the case for the vast majority of “Spirit-filled” or “charismatic” Christians. Those on the outside can easily see that such people claim to follow the Word of God, but merely please themselves in the name of Jesus. They are the golden calf worshipers of today that will not wait for the commands of God to flow down from the holy mountain. They desire only to have liberty, fun, and freedom in the name of Jesus. The same thing happened in Exodus 32, when the Israelites made themselves a golden calf and danced around it with great joy and zeal; all in the name of the Lord.

  • When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Paulorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” (Exodus 32:5)

Many people say they are filled with the Holy Spirit, yet refuse to obey God. They will often use the tired old excuse that they do not want to be “legalistic” or fall into salvation by works. But simply obeying God’s commands does not constitute trying to earn salvation. Nor does doing a work in Christ mean that a man nullifies the free gift of God. Indeed, God creates us to do good works that He “prepared in advance for us to do.”

  • For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)

If we refuse to allow God to “work” in us, we cut our- selves off from saving grace. A man cannot just do as he pleases, refusing to be moved by God’s saving, working grace, and then expect to go to heaven. That would be like the Israelites standing beside the parted Red Sea and whining to God, “This is salvation by works! Why are you asking us to do something? Why do we have to walk across? Why do we have to be baptized in Moses? Why do we have to pass through this water?” If they had stood there with that attitude, Pharaoh’s army would have de- stroyed them. Sin and worldliness would have overtaken them. As Jesus would say, “Let the reader understand.”
A faith in God, unaccompanied by obedience, is not a saving faith, but a demonic one that takes selfish liberty in the name of God’s mercy. True “friends” of God demonstrate that they receive a true faith, and their actions prove it. For this reason, water baptism can save a person without it being a work to earn salvation. For if the Holy Spirit works true faith in a person, there will also be, at the same time, obedience to what God commands. The man or woman who takes the prompt- ing of the Holy Spirit and responds in a manner that God does not command is a rebel and liar. Such a faith cannot save them. If Abraham had tried to offer up a cow instead of his son, he would not have been called a “friend” of God. If a person refuses to obey God’s command to be baptized, but instead tries to earn his salvation with a canned prayer, he shouldn’t expect to enter heaven.

  • Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righ- teous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. (James 2:21–23)

True Legalism

Secondly, we find the group made up of legalists and “logical” thinkers. They form most of what we consider the mainstream Protestant churches—such as Baptist, Church of Christ, Methodist, etc. Though many now embrace the foolishness of the Charismatic type churches, the majority remain very conservative and, in their approach to Scripture, greatly concerned with things like the “historical context” and the Greek or Hebrew. Like the first group, they claim something that they do not really have. They claim a belief in the Holy Spirit, but have no cross to make this a true reality. Such
people very logically approach the Scriptures, and base their beliefs on human wisdom, not enlightenment by the Holy Spirit and a mind crucified by Christ.

As we have already seen, it is how we obey that de- termines whether a person has fallen into legalism. The test of legalism is not the number of Scriptures we obey but how we obey those Scriptures. Jesus condemned Bible study by human effort when He declared that many people refused to come to Him to have true life. Christians can “diligently study the Scriptures” but refuse to submit to the cross of Jesus, so their Bible studies and debates have no life. They are legalists that seek to obey Scripture apart from the power of Jesus Christ, even as they lay claim to that power.

  • You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39–40)

If a person seeks to obey by human effort or, in other words, if they try to use their own mind to apply Scrip- ture to their life, they fall under legalism. On the next page is the Scripture that defines legalism. It is trying to apply the Bible to our own life in the best manner we can. Legalism is choosing how we view Scriptures and how we will apply them. It uses our own minds to understand and obey Scripture.

  • Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:3)

Everyone who goes to church obeys some set of rules or principles, which must be crucified. The only kind of obedience that counts is one that comes from death to self by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Legalists and logical thinkers do not want to give up their lives and follow the Holy Spirit in everything, so they turn to outlines, biblical principles, and their own concepts of what Scripture commands us to obey. This is actually the kind of Christianity most people walk in, even though they may talk about being Spirit-filled. Legalism is merely a man taking some idea out of the Bible and seeking to live it in his own strength and understanding. Salvation by works is nothing less than living by godly principles or getting oneself pumped up from a sermon and setting out to live those principles. It is the Garden of Eden lived out all over again, where each man decides what is right and wrong for himself. This is true salvation by works and in the end, it cannot save a person. Fig leaf faith will never cover our sin.

True Life

The third and last type of obedience is demonstrated
by those who have found the narrow gate and walk the narrow road. They allow the Holy Spirit to crucify human effort in their life and do not rebel against the demands of grace. They understand that God’s grace provides the power to live the Christian life. Indeed, they see no excuse for not living it. True humility marks their walk, along with rich obedience.

  • His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3)

Look above again at what Peter wrote. The kind of faith that comes from heaven is loaded with power to obey. We have no excuse when we fail. We must admit our stubbornness and self-righteousness, for “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” The church today so easily shouts “legalism” because it overflows with rebels that have no honest desire to obey God by grace. The church claims to know God but, by their actions, prove the opposite and are “unfit for doing anything good.”

  • They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. (Titus 1:16)

If anyone says they have faith in God but they do not have a life full of obedience, then they do not have a faith that comes from heaven. Instead it is man’s faith, man’s opinion, man’s religion, and man’s idea of the Bible. That kind of faith is man working to follow Jesus—it is salva- tion by works. God only gives the Holy Spirit to those who “obey him.” Obey “Him,” and not our idea of what Scripture says or what a denomination declares. Those unwilling to submit to God’s commands by saving grace simply do not have the Holy Spirit.

  • We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (Acts 5:32)

Only those who are willing to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit leading and instructing them daily, will find the New Life. All others are liars, thieves, and robbers trying to earn their salvation in some other way.

True Saving Faith

Can faith without deeds save a man? Can faith without…

  • denying self
  • taking the Lord’s Supper
  • hearing God’s voice
  • baptism
  • hating one’s own life
  • despising the dollar
  • prayer
  • going to church
  • taking proper roles in church
  • watching what we watch
  • giving to the poor
  • watching what we say
  • being led by the Spirit
  • hating our father, mother, brother and sisters
  • giving up all
  • hair length that glorifies God
  • becoming aliens and strangers in the world
    Can faith without all the many other Scriptures save a man or woman? God, through James, has already given us the answer.
  • What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? (James 2:14)

So, finally, what is salvation by works? What is legalism? Simply, man trying to obey anything apart from the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. It is not the fact that a man obeys God’s commands in Scrip- ture. To only claim that we are saved by faith, as currently understood by the church, is to deliberately ignore the Bible and rebel against how God defines His grace. Such belief rebels against God’s actual grace and mercy. What a heavy judgment will befall such individuals for they have trampled on the blood of Jesus that they claim so strongly to have faith in. After all, mercy gives man time to repent, act, obey, and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Let us not sin against heaven itself by misunderstanding mercy.

  • The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

Let me recap again what we have covered, because those who hold to once saved always saved will inevitably try to confuse the issue. We are not saved by our works. Every true Christian can agree with Paul that works do not save us. We all agree that salvation is a free gift from God.
Most people have never really thought about the true meaning of “salvation by works.” They may have some vague ideas about trying to earn their salvation, but they rarely turn to Scripture for a true definition. The most common, current understanding usually boils down to this: If you teach that a person has to “do” anything in order to be saved, then you preach salvation by works. We have already seen the blatant hypocrisy of such a statement. Even teaching that we just have to ask Jesus into our hearts still advocates that we “do” something.
We must accept on Jesus’ terms an understanding of what it means to trust Him for salvation, not what we wish He meant. “Trust” has come to mean just a shallow verbal acknowledgment that Jesus died for our sins. Nowhere in Scripture will we find such a concept. Even the demons know that. To trust or have faith in Jesus means that we obey Him by the power of the Holy Spirit as the cross is allowed to crucify self. To sum up our choices in the Lord:

  • Holy Spirit without Obedience = Rebellion
  • Obedience without the Holy Spirit = Legalism
  • Holy Spirit with Obedience = The New Life Which choice will you make?

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