Of Legalism And Holiness

Of Legalism And Holiness

And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:24–25) 

As it is obvious from the title, this article is about legalism and holiness. It seems that these two terms are often viewed as being synonymous, yet they are vastly different. There are many people today who are legalists who think that they are holy, and there are many holy people who are called legalists by others. Can one be a legalist and be unholy? Can a person be holy and not be a legalist? What in the world is legalism anyway? And what is holiness? 

We must begin by defining the terms. Legalism– The belief that salvation demands or depends upon total obedience to the letter of the law. Examples of legalism include an excessive concern for minute details of the law coupled with a neglect of its fundamental concerns, and a preoccupation with human legal traditions.1 To this we can add that legalism is often seen in the effort to establish our sanctification by external fleshly means rather than by living in the grace of God by faith. Holiness- The quality of God that sets him utterly apart from his world, especially in terms of his purity and sanctity. The holiness of God is also manifested in the persons and work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Believers are called upon to become like God in his holiness.2 I believe that it is obvious to even the most casual of readers that holiness and legalism are different things, although they have one similarity in common, which is an adherence to certain standards that are found in God’s Word. The difference is what is the great thing, and that is the motivation behind the rule keeping and standard following. Why does a person do what he does? Does he do it to be saved? Does he do it to earn brownie points with God so that God will hear his prayers and count him holy? Does he do the things he does to honor God and yield his flesh, mind, and heart to Him?

Our text above comes from the book of Galatians, and I want us to spend most of our time in Galatians as we consider this issue.

In chapters one and two of Galatians, Paul takes a very strong stand against legalism. There were those who were preaching a so-called gospel that was anything but good news. It was not revealed by God, not given by God, and was accursed of God. The Spirit of God is so vehemently opposed to the idea that a person can work for salvation or add works to faith for salvation that He pronounces a curse against anyone, even angels, who would preach such a perverted gospel! Paul then tells us about rebuking Peter for acting hypocritically and refusing to fellowship with Gentile believers because they were not circumcised. In a strong blast against legalism, Paul said that he was trusting Christ alone to be saved and to live the Christian life. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Galatians 2:20–21) 

Chapters three and four present the believers as being heirs of God in Christ and partakers of the Abrahamic blessing and covenant. Paul stands strongly against the idea that one’s salvation is completed by fleshly works, reminds them that the law brings a curse, and the none of us have obeyed the law or will fully obey the law. Instead, the good news is that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law and counts us righteous by faith alone. Because of this we are God’s children and heirs according to the promise.

Chapter five of Galatians is where the rubber meets the road for Christian living. It is there that we see the issues of legalism and holiness in stark contrast. There are those who seek to be holy by fleshly effort. They think that there are things that they do which will cause God to love them more, to hear their prayers, and to bring blessing upon their lives and families. They are seeking to earn the blessings of God which only come by grace. This is a form of legalism regarding sanctification. (As an aside, it should be noted that it has much in common with the paganism that treats God as one who has needs and will repay us as we help Him out. It also has much in common with the modern paganism of the prosperity gospel, which speaks of doing certain things in order to move or manipulate God to bring health and wealth to us.) When Paul calls on us to walk in love and walk in the Spirit instead of walking in the flesh, he is fighting against two extremes: one is that of yielding to unbridled lust and sin in the name of freedom and the other is that of trying to please God by fleshly efforts. Both of these have the same results: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19–21) It cannot be said too strongly that legalism will often lead to immorality, because legalism is living in the flesh. This is why we are told to walk in the Spirit and live the life of one whose flesh has been crucified and continues to be mortified.

As we look at the issue of walking in the Spirit, however, we do see that there are standards of holiness mentioned to us. We are to measure our lives by what we need to get rid of (Galatians 5:19-21) and by what we add, which is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Those who live in the Spirit have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires and are commanded to walk in the Spirit. This means that we are to follow the leadership of the Spirit in the Word of God and trust in the power of the Spirit of God to enable us to glorify God in our bodies. These standards of holiness are to be evident in our lives. They are not optional. They are essential to Christian living. Paul stated that those who lack those things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). 

While these standards do not earn our salvation, they are things that we should use as a measure of our sanctification. I need to be sure that I am growing in godly love, possessing and spreading joy in the Holy Ghost, learning to suffer long in adverse circumstances, growing in kindness and gentleness, controlling myself both in the passions of anger and fleshly desires, and ever yielding myself to God. As we read and study God’s Word, we find that these things will show up in the things we wear, the places we go, the things we do, and the words we speak. 

With this in mind, we must recognize that there are some of us whose standards may be what appears to be more strict concerning certain things such as clothing, music, various media involvements, and perhaps other things. A person can have standards that are more strict that yours, and you can disagree with them on those things, and yet that person may not be a legalist. If they are seeking to walk in the Spirit, and they are convinced that these things are part of walking in the Spirit and helpful in submitting the flesh to God, then they are more likely holding to these standards as an issue of holiness rather than legalism. In such a case, it would be very uncharitable to label such a person a legalist. In fact, in our day when folks seem so prone to saying, “Judge not!” it is very judgmental to declare a person is trying to earn their salvation or earn the blessing of God when they are simply trying to yield themselves to God and walk in the Spirit. It is crucial that we understand this.

Finally, Paul uses chapter six of Galatians to call the saints to live out their faith in Christ by showing mercy and kindness to sinning brethren, to sow to the Spirit, and to not give up in their walk with God. He assures them that who faithfully serve God will reap the good results of sowing to the Spirit in God’s time. As he concludes, Paul warns against those whose legalism was real, who took pleasure in appearances, and who tried to lead others to follow them for the sake of appearances alone. He declares that all boasting and glory belongs to God alone, is to be in Christ alone, because of His cross that is the means of our salvation and sanctification. We must recognize that anyone can glory in appearances, whether the legalist who walks in the flesh or the one given to license and walks in the flesh. One glories in the appearance of holiness while the other often glories in yielding the flesh and the appearance of liberty from the legalism under which he or she long lived. Both are sinning by not giving the glory to God. I pray that we will all take the time to soberly meditate on these things, live in the grace of God, and show one another the meekness that God’s Word commands.

1 Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).

2 Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).

Some Thoughts On The Christian And The Law

Christianity And The Law

(Christ And The Law)

    What sort of attitude did Jesus have toward the law of God?  This is the question we must ask of ourselves as we study the law of God and its relevance to mankind today.  If Jesus disregarded God’s law, we can do the same.  If Jesus abolished God’s law, we can consider it to be irrelevant.  On the other hand, if Jesus respected, fulfilled, and established God’s law, we must honor and obey God’s law.   Let us see what the Biblical record will show us.

Christ Established The Law

    As Christ preached His Sermon on The Mount, He stated to the people, “ Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.   For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.   Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.   For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:17-20)  What did Jesus mean by this statement?  Did Jesus mean that, when He fulfilled the law, it would be forever useless and irrelevant, or did Jesus mean to say that His fulfilling of the law caused its authority to stand firmly?  First of all, we must found our understanding of this issue upon Jesus’ first phrase in this passage.  The reason we must found our understanding of this issue upon this first phrase of Jesus is because, in this passage, Jesus is plainly stating what people should not think about His attitude and actions toward the law of God.  We must not think that Jesus came to destroy, demolish, or dissolve the law of God.  He explicitly stated to us that we should not think that.  Jesus did not come for this purpose.  Anything else that is said about the validity of the law of God must be based upon this plain statement by Jesus.  This being so, we can at least see that Jesus intends for the law to stand as it did for many years before His earthly ministry.

    Jesus’ words concerning the law were very simple and very plain.  After He told us that He had no intentions of destroying the law, He stated that He had come for the purpose of fulfilling the law.  To fulfill the law meant more than simple obedience to all of God’s commands.  To fulfill means to consummate, render perfect, ratify, or carry through to completion.  This definition informs us that Jesus had a very high view of God’s law.  In fact, since in the Old Testament the moral law of God was considered to be absolute, we can safely affirm that Jesus held the same view.  If the reader will notice, however, there is one thing that Jesus stated that cannot be said by any other man.  Jesus stated that He would fulfill the law.  No other man could ever make that statement, no matter how good he might be.  Why?  Because no human has the authority to make or establish laws for all mankind for all ages.  The only one who could carry the law to its intended end, perfect and ratify it would be the one who was the lawgiver – God.   Jesus was stating that there was more work for the law to accomplish, and He would be the one to cause that work to be finished.  Christ affirmed that the law would not go away, but would be upheld and perfected by Him.

    Next Jesus affirmed the absolute authority of the law of God.  That is, the law of God will continue to be authoritative with no reduction or change to that authority until it has served its purpose.  “Verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matt 5:18)  When we read of “jots and tittles” we are being given a description of the most minute parts of the alphabetical and grammatical structure of the Hebrew language.  It would be roughly equivalent to saying that an “i” and a “.” would not pass away from the word of God.  In other words, even in the smallest of particulars, the law of God would not be dissolved.  Not one thing that would affect the meaning , understanding, and authority of God’s law would be allowed to pass away until the law was fulfilled.  It seems that Jesus believed that the law of God was fully inspired and would be preserved by God, not only in the meaning, but in the writings/manuscripts as well.  That is not to say that we have the original manuscripts with us today, but it is to say that God has preserved His word as He promised.  In fact, Jesus told us that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.” (Luke 16:17)

    Jesus believed that the law was of absolute moral authority.  He stated, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:19)  While Jesus taught that not one of God’s moral commandments would cease to be authoritative (see also John 10:35b), He knew that there would always be those who deemed themselves of sufficient wisdom, etc. to determine that certain commands were no longer in force.  He plainly told us that those who would seek to lessen the authority of the law of God in the lives of men would be considered of very little importance in the kingdom of Heaven.  On the contrary, those who would uphold the absolute authority of God’s law for themselves and others would be counted great in the kingdom of Heaven.  Why is this so?  Simply because God honors those who honor Him, and those who despise Him will be lightly esteemed (See 1Sam 2:30).  One may ask how the honor of God is relevant to the law.  It is relevant because God is the absolute authority who authorized the law.  To obey the word of God is to obey God Himself.

Jesus Taught The Law As Being Spiritual in Nature

    While Jesus upheld the authority of the law, He also reminded men that the law is spiritual in nature.  Notice His statement concerning the Pharisees and the law: “ I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20)  What did Jesus mean by this statement?  To understand this statement, we must know the nature of Pharisaical righteousness.  The Pharisee’s righteousness was external only.  “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.   Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.   Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.   Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.   Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.   Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matt 23:23-28)  The whole focus of Pharisaic living was to appear righteous.  So long as they had the outward form of the law upheld in their lives, they felt themselves to be very righteous.  Jesus stated, in opposition to this fallacious notion, that one’s righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Righteousness is much more than external forms.  In fact, while rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus told them that the weighter things of the law were things of the heart; things such as judgment, mercy, and faith.  He also told the Pharisees that they should first have the inside – their hearts – cleaned before they could truly clean up and have external righteousness.  Why is this so?  Because the law is spiritual and ministers primarily to the heart of man.

    One day a man who was very learned in the law of God asked Jesus which was the great commandment in the law.  We know that the questioning person was testing Christ and hoping to cause Him trouble.  Perhaps the scribe thought that Jesus would prefer one specific command above another and the scribe could accuse Him of either being too harsh on one issue, or being to soft on another issue.  Whatever the case may have been, Jesus upset the proverbial apple cart by saying: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.   This is the first and great commandment.   And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40)  In other words, the issue with the law was not an issue of external commands, and some being of greater importance.  The heart of the law is spiritual in that the law calls for us to love God with all that is within us and with all that we are.  We are then to spread that love for God by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Love is not a material thing.  Love is spiritual, and the law leads us to love.  To obey the law is to love God and to love our neighbor.  That is indeed spiritual.

Jesus Fulfilled The Law

    While Jesus established the law by upholding its authority, He also fulfilled the law by meeting its every righteous demand.  “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.   For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.   For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:  That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” (Rom 8:1-4)  It takes little observation to notice, however, that the law, though morally perfect, was not complete.  Something was lacking.  The law could not be God’s final word to man because the law could not save.  The law ministered condemnation to men by causing them to realize their sinful condition.  Jesus, the Word of God, however, ministered salvation to men by fulfilling the law even by suffering the judgment of the law in His own body as a substitute for us.  “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)  Jesus brought grace and truth to a world full of sinners who were condemned by the law.  It is any wonder, then, that He told the Jews, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)  The law that the Jews felt gave them life was actually testifying to them that Jesus was going to come to bring salvation, thus fulfilling the law.

Since the law could not be God’s final word to man, we must view Jesus and His Word as God’s final word to man. Why? Because the law was absolute morally. Jesus fulfills the law by saving us. What more can God say to us? We have the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (See Jude 1:3). What need have we for additional revelation? None, after all, when we consider that Jesus declared the Father to us (see John 1:18), we have the fullness of revelation. This means that Jesus’ fulfilling the law, and giving us the truth He promised (John 15:26;16:12-15) finalizes God’s Word to mankind. For this we have much to be thankful, because we know where God’s Word is found, and are stable and secure due to the knowledge that we do not have to search for God’s Words, nor keep having to learn more and more due to an influx of additional words from God.

“Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.” (2 Cor 9:15)