Guarding Against Legalism

Peter had heard the voice of the Rabbi beckon him to follow. He had even started walking on water to follow his Master. He had received forgiveness and reinstatement after humiliating himself by disowning his Lord. He had seen tongues of fire descend from heaven.

After beginning his “career,” so to speak, with such excitement, what would matter in his later years? This same man was contending for the same cause he had been enlisted into so many years earlier. What was at stake in his final years was so important that he wasn’t afraid of repeating himself. He knew his death was near, but he cared deeply that those he left behind would remember his words after he was gone. What mattered to him was that they would heed his warnings, and his warnings had to do with how the gospel of Jesus Christ relates to character.

During this year, I would like to write about the topic that was so important to Peter in his final years. Before we look at it, however, we need to keep something else in mind. The warnings that Peter gives in his second epistle are only one end of a spectrum. What is the other end of the spectrum?

In a recent talk, Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilaender mentioned two ways that Christian traditions tend to view grace: as power, and as pardon. On the one hand, the grace-as-power view sees God’s grace evident in the way we live. If you know God, you live differently, because God transforms the way we live our lives. On the other hand, the grace-as-pardon view helps us to see the grace of God in the way He forgives our sins. We can never measure up to His perfect standard, and He shows his goodness in forgiving our sins.

Both of these perspectives are true. The problem comes when we neglect one of them. If we neglect the grace-as-pardon perspective, then we are at one end of the spectrum, which we often call legalism. We fixate on obligations, norms and behavior, and we lack the brokenness that comes through basic faith in Jesus Christ. What is legalism? Philosopher Paul Helm, in “New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology,” defines legalism as “an attitude of mind which gives excessive respect to the law and which seeks to enforce conduct of a similar kind in others.”

Jesus encountered legalism during His own ministry, through many of His discussions with the Pharisees. Because of their fixations on ritual purity, the fact that Jesus’ disciples pluck grain in a field on the Sabbath enrages them (Mark 2:23-28), as does Jesus’ act of healing a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). Jesus diagnoses them as “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9, ESV; cf. Isaiah 29:13).

What results from legalism? We miss the sins in our lives, and, through our own blindness, we hurt others. The Pharisees were “blind guides,” as they focused on the lesser important issues while missing the more serious issues (Matthew 23:23-24). Notice the way Jesus flips the lawyer’s question in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The question was, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), when the question should have been, “Am I a neighbor to those in need around me?” The lawyer had missed the forest for the trees because legalism had blinded him to the truth.

Can legalism infect churches? Perhaps the most intense example of legalism in a church is what happened in the churches of Galatia. Despite a very close relationship with Paul, the predominantly Gentile believers began to stray from his message. What makes a person righteous before God? Paul could not have been clearer: Now that Christ has come, it is faith in Him that justifies us (Galatians 2:16). Some teachers who came to Galatia after Paul left claimed that Jewish badges of identity were essential — keeping the laws concerning Sabbath, food and circumcision. Sure, Jesus was the Messiah, but you had to be a Jew to be righteous before God.

For Paul, to return to these works of the law was to have “fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). To claim that circumcision was a necessary requirement for a person to be justified — to claim that any work of the law was necessary — was the same as denying Jesus Christ. If one could be justified in that way, then Jesus died for nothing (Galatians 2:21).

Thus, legalism distorts our view of ourselves. It hurts others, and churches are certainly susceptible to this error. We overemphasize the little things and underestimate the important things. It’s important for Christians to avoid this. Galatians gives us a detailed look at Paul’s struggle with a form of legalism, as do sections of Romans (3:19-8:39), 1 Corinthians (8:1-10:33), Philippians (3:2-21), and Colossians (2:8-3:17).

It’s important for Christians to discuss how we can avoid being legalists. How can South Carolina Baptists avoid this spiritual danger? What are some things we need to repent of? Have we underemphasized the grace-as-pardon perspective, “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9)?

Legalism however, is only one end of a spectrum. Next month, we will look at the other end, which is the problem that vexed the Apostle Peter in his final years.

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