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The Antithesis between Legalism and the Gospel

The Antithesis between Legalism and the Gospel

Legalism holds its grip upon the minds and hearts of countless numbers of people in our time. It was no different in the sixteenth century when Martin Luther drew a radical distinction between the gospel of grace and the legalism of all other religions outside of biblical Christianity. As Luther contemplated religions of works in his time, he immediately thought of Judaism, Islam as exemplified by the Ottoman Turks, late-medieval Roman Catholicism, and various heretical splinter groups. He declared in his Commentary on Galatians: “If the article of justification be once lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost. And as many as are in the world that hold not this doctrine, are either Jews, Turks, Papists or heretics.” 

Sad to say, the ancient Jewish leaven of legalism even infected the church in the first century. Let us reflect upon this phenomenon and then draw out some practical applications.

The Legalism of the Pharisees

The Pharisaic movement of the first century demonstrates the tendency of legalism to slide into fanatical excess. Even as Jesus pronounced woe upon the Pharisees, he reflected upon their lack of balance: “You tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). As we read the Gospels, we are continually astounded. We are presented with blind, nitpicking fanatics who could not see the glory of the divine Messiah Jesus who ministered in their very midst. Jesus, for example, was “grieved by the hardness of their hearts” when “they kept silent” after he asked them a simple question, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4–5). Their response to Jesus healing a man with a withered hand was diabolical: “Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him” (Mark 3:6).

Paul acknowledges that he too had been an angry man, a violent aggressor, even while clothed with the garments of outward religiosity. His assessment was an insider’s perspective, for he himself had been a Pharisee, and “as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:6). He had excelled at dotting every letter i and crossing every letter t in the Pharisaic rule book of man-made religion. His heart, nevertheless, was far from God. He makes a startling admission for one who was “advanced in Judaism” beyond many of his contemporaries, “being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions” of the fathers (Galatians 1:14). He felt that he needed to make this confession: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (1 Timothy 1:13). Indeed, he had consented to the murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1). He is presented as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He “persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).

 Grace, though, brought radical change. Paul became a new man. He came to embrace a truly Christian perspective regarding law righteousness, the righteousness that a person seeks to build up by meticulous keeping of the law of God and the tradition of the elders. This was a righteousness that tended to lead to pride and a spirit of self-congratulation. Jesus, in fact, spoke a parable in which he described a Pharisee who trusted in himself that he was righteous and viewed others with contempt: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that
I am not like other men.” “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:9–12).

He came to regard his past religious achievements as dung—as the King James Version of 1611 translates the Greek skubalon in Philippians 3:8. Everything that he did by way of outward religious observance was tainted due to his unbelief. As he himself said, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). He would have concurred with Jesus’ woe of judgment which rested upon hypocrites who outwardly appeared to be righteous before men, but inwardly were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:28). He knew that the way of salvation came by faith appealing for mercy. As Jesus said, the “man who went down to his house justified” was the tax collector who “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’” (Luke 18:13–14).

For Paul, there was something far superior to human righteousness—which, in reality, is nothing but filthy rags in the sight of the thrice-holy God (Isaiah 64:6). Paul desired “the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9). He wanted to be one of “those who receive abundance of grace” and “the gift of righteousness” and would thereby “reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).


Spreading Even into the Church

The power of Pharisaic life and thought is demonstrated in the fact that there was an outbreak of the contagion even within the apostolic church. Luke explicitly refers to “the Pharisees who had believed” (Acts 15:5). They gave their assent to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. Their problem was not so much in their doctrine of Christ, but rather in their teaching about salvation. It was not enough in their view that many Gentiles were putting their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. Faith alone was not enough. Faith plus works, later known as Semi-Pelagianism, was their creed. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved,” they affirmed (Acts 15:1). But even circumcision was not enough. They boldly declared at the Jerusalem Council: “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Faith for them was only the beginning. One must follow the dietary regulations of Moses (Leviticus 11). Salvation depended upon works, even upon eating the right kind of food.

The Pharisaic sect within the church was oblivious to the divine revelation given to Peter in Joppa underscoring a major change in the transition to the new covenant. When Peter asserted, “I have never eaten anything common or unclean,” a voice from heaven declared, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (Acts 10:14–15). They had no conception of the truth that “food does not commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8). They were ignorant of the apostolic principle that “nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4–5). Thus their position was completely rejected by the Jerusalem Council in favor of the cardinal gospel truth that God cleanses hearts “by faith” and that “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:9, 11).

Unfortunately for the church, the Jerusalem Council did not forever bury the legalistic mentality, which resurfaced in monasticism and the idea that the devoted monk actually earns eternal life. Benedict of Nursia reflects the legalistic mentality which became so widespread in the medieval church. “Let us,” he said, “gird our loins with faith and the performance of good works, and following the guidance of the Gospel walk in His paths, so that we may merit to see Him who has called us into His kingdom” (The Rule of Saint Benedict). Luther, commenting upon the religious life of many during his time, declared, “They build their confidence . . . on the works they have done” (Treatise on Good Works). 

Things to Remember

The legitimacy of the sharp antithesis drawn by Luther between biblical Christianity and all other religions is underscored by Paul’s assessment of what the Galatians embrace of the Judaizer’s teaching really entailed. “I am amazed,” Paul wrote, “that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another” (Galatians 1:6–7). Their desertion from the apostolic gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone involved the reception of a religion which was not another of the same kind, but a religion which was completely different. Indeed, “If righteousness comes through law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21). Thus, he must warn them that the attempt to be received by God through human effort and achievement brings disaster upon the person: “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

  The Jews, steeped in the mentality of legalism, once asked Jesus, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:28). This is the typical question of the unsaved person who does not know the gospel: What work of righteousness shall I do? How can I be good enough to  enter heaven? Jesus’ response is crucially instructive: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:29). 

Luther properly maintained, “The first, highest, and most precious of all good works is faith in Christ” (Treatise on Good Works). What, though, does it mean to believe in Christ. Jesus himself gives the answer in the same discourse: “He who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35). The parallel clauses are significant. To believe in Christ is to come to Him. If we come, he assures us that He will receive us: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37)

Jesus was essentially repeating the gospel as it had been made known by the prophet Isaiah: “Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6–7).

Surely this is the pre-eminent blessing, mercy and an abundant pardon! Paul notes, “David describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from work: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin’” (Romans 4:6–8). 

 If we, like David, will forsake even our unrighteous thoughts and call upon the Lord for salvation, forgiveness will be granted. May we each be able to say with David, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.’ And you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).  

Mark J. Larson
Pastor Emeritus
Warrenville, South Carolina

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