Legalism, Liberalism and True Grace

I got into two discussions on legalism this week with people in a liberal church. It seemed that their understanding of legalism/phariseeism extended to cover someone (like me) who insists that professing Christians be obedient to scripture and repent when they fail to do so, and (like me also) someone who harshly rebukes church leadership who are rebelling against God’s word.

I never got to finish either conversation to find out for sure.

However, I, being someone like me, feel the need to have a more thorough examination of the matter, so I wrote a more lengthy discussion of the Legalism/Liberalism/True Grace discussion that Keller et. al. were discussing in my last blog post….

Legalism, Liberalism and True Grace

Legalism – works with out faith

Legalism is the idea that The Law can save you (The Law being the OT and/or NT commands of God depending on if you claim to be a Jew or a Christian). That by conforming to every Letter of The Law you earn God’s favor and earn your way to heaven. In this practice Law usurps Grace.

This is wrong on many levels, the first of which is that no one can fulfill the law, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so no one can earn God’s favor through a lifetime of focused obedience. Another is that, if this was actually possible, then there would have been no need for Jesus to come to earth and die for our sins. And of course the message of Jesus and the entire NT is that salvation is through faith in Christ.

This is what the Pharisees were practicing. But in truth, they were not even practicing legalism (since it cannot actually truly be practiced by man as all are fallen and will always sin), because they were still violating portions of the law.

Matt 23:23
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”

They disobeyed the command in Proverbs 31:8-9 to defend the rights of the poor, in fact, abusing their legal authority to confiscate the homes of women whose husbands had died and could not defend themselves. They disobeyed Micah 6:8 which commanded them to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God”. They were unjust, would not extend grace when it was appropriate, and were arrogant. They made a false claim that obedience to a standard could save, and claimed to be living up to that standard (both were lies). They were lawyers who abused The Law privately while running a great PR campaign of public holiness.

Matthew 23:28
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

They had also actually added to the commands of God, and then were holding the people accountable to things that God never said, all to their advantage of course. In Matthew 12 when the Pharisees scold Jesus and the disciples, they were scolding them for breaking the Pharisees version of the rules that came from The Law, while they never actually broke The Law.

God called men to keep the sabbath holy and not to work on that day.

Exodus 34:21
“Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.

The Pharisees then redefined what was “work” and then tried to accuse Jesus and his boys of sin. Jewish farmers were not to harvest on the Sabbath, but there is no rule against picking food off the stalk to eat any more than there was for picking up food off a plate to eat.

Matthew 12:1-2
“Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.”

At this point my husband likes to ask, “What were the Pharisees doing hanging out in a grain field?” They were likely following them around, trying to trap Jesus and his disciples doing ANYTHING so they could claim that they were in sin by breaking the Sabbath. Eating was the worst accusation they could come up with.

Jesus responds by pointing out their sin and hypocrisies and then healing a man to make them mad.

Again… no law against healing on the Sabbath, but he knew that because they had artificially narrowed the meaning of “no work” (orthodox Jews still believe that it is sin to flip a light switch on the sabbath), the would take exception to what He was doing. However, I think you would have a hard time making the argument that healing a man’s hand was “work” for the God who spoke the entire universe into existence.

Also note the accusation by inference that the pharisees made in verse 10, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”  They knew it was, as they had no law to refer to and say, “Look here Jesus, it is written that you cannot heal people on the Sabbath”, so they could only infer that He was doing something wrong. In addition, their tone was not of worry for Jesus and the disciples, that they were offending God and should repent. Merely accusations with out an offer of grace or mercy.

Jesus again pointed out their hypocracy and then brought them around to the “Spirit of the Law” argument, that the Sabbath was made to replenish man, not to burden him further with silly rules that God never made. They had redefined the law to the point that the law became meaningless and absurd. If you worked for me and I told you to take the day off so you could relax, then dropped by your house to find you gardening because that is your hobby, and claimed that you were defying me, that would be stupid. You would be using your “sabbath” exactly for what I (and God) had intended.

Out of this passage comes a LOT of false doctrine and a heresy that is opposite to Legalism – Liberalism.

People claim that this was Jesus breaking the law and saying it was OK to break the law. That Jesus was saying “The spirit of the law is what is important, not the letter of the law”, but that flies in the face of everything else he taught.

See my post on East Coast v. West Coast Heresy.

If you are in the West, or in an “Emergent Church” look out for the opposite heresy…

Liberalism – faith with out works (Antinomianism)

This is the idea that one can have faith in God that saves him, and because man is saved by “faith alone”, obedience to the law is unnecessary.

Paul dismissed this idea in Romans, and James spent his whole book putting nails in the coffin of this heresy. Faith that does not result in good works, obedience to the whole of scripture, is not saving faith. It is just making a claim to a faith that you don’t actually have.

James 2:17-20
“Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

You believe that God is one, You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God.

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

The passage where Jesus heals the man with the withered hand in the temple is often misused to back the assertion that Christians can ignore scriptural commands, don’t have to repent after doing so, and are still right with God. That the “Spirit of the Law” is more important than the “Letter of the Law”.

But that is just as heretical as Legalism.

In fact Jesus Himself says that people who claim to be believers and don’t practice good works are not Christians:

Matthew 7:15-26
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

“You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“So then, you will know them by their fruits.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.

“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.

Notice that those rejected by Christ put forward their great public works, and Jesus points out their rebellion to His commands. Note that Jesus says the difference between those whose houses stood and those whose fell were their actions (because actions spring from the heart and will prove or disprove a man’s claim of faith).

John 14:21-24
He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”

Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, “Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. “He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.

Obedience to scripture is necessary for salvation, in fact it is proof of salvation. Claiming that you are saved with out good works is like claiming that someone is alive despite having no heartbeat or respiration. That might be true for 10 minutes or so, but after a sustained absence of “proof of life”, its a pretty sure bet that the subject is dead in both cases.

Liberalism says that only “The Spirit of The Law” is important and that “The Letter of The Law” may be ignored.

This argument can be used to excuse ANY sin, or any pattern of sin, including unrepentant sin, while still claiming to be a Christian.

Legalism and Liberalism – both just two sides of the same coin

In the end, both of these approaches are just different ways to excuse your own unrepentant sin (whether it be the sin of unbelief or the sin of disobedience) while laying claim to being in Christ. In our sin and selfishness, we usually have a dominant practice, but switch into the other when it suits us.

The Legalist unrepentantly sins in private, claiming he has no sin. The Liberal unrepentantly sins in public, claiming it is not sin. They both claim to be right with Christ when they are not.

Which brings us to the most important part:

True Saving Grace – faith AND works! WHEEE!!!!!

The entirety of the New Testament teaches we are saved by our faith in Christ, He thus attributes HIS righteousness to our account (which all have negative balances) and fills us with the Holy Spirit who does good works through us.

Any who claim that either “The Spirit of The Law” or “The Letter of The Law” is more important are both wrong.

God has commanded us to obey both the Spirit of The Law AND The Letter of The Law!

Let’s go back to the first verse I quoted:

Matt 23:23
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”

God didn’t tell the Pharasees to start neglecting the Letter of The Law, but to honor both.

And most importantly, when we are in a right relationship with God, knowing how sinful we are and how undeserving of His amazing Love we are, we WANT TO EMPHASIZE BOTH!

Please see my previous post on justification of lying, which ask the question, “Hey wait… shouldn’t we WANT to tell the truth in the first place?”

Our salvation is priceless. We deserved prison and he gave us a castle.

True Love and Gratitude toward Christ + True humility = True Desire to Please God Through Obedience!

So if we are tempted to start making up rules that we can keep to justify ourselves via good works and practicing legalism, then we just need check the humility meeter, realize what big fat failures we are, and figure out why we are rejecting God’s freely given grace?

And if we don’t feel like being obedient to scripture, then we just need stop the madness and go back and find our first love!

If we find ourselves resisting obedience to Christ’s direction (which includes loving enemies and always offering grace), that is our signal that we need to stop what we are doing, wander back to the cross, throw ourselves in a pile before God and let Him do his work in us through the Holy Spirit.

When that happens we neither dismiss the Letter of The Law nor The Spirit of The Law. We learn to love the law like Christ did, wonder at its brilliance and worship the genius God who created it.


Author: Ginger Taylor

I am a thirty something wife of a wonderful man and mother to two beautiful boys. I am a Johns Hopkins educated family therapist with a current case load of one, my autistic son Chandler. I want to God and what He really has to say to us and especially what He really wants from me. I approach Scripture from the Reformed perspective of Luther and Calvin and those that followed them, and encourage lively debate here at Daily Discernment.

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