Skip to content

Are You A Legalist

May 10, 2009

As we have been dealing with the Book of Romans we have seen that there are people who use God’s grace as a license to sin. Others, like the Pharisees took God’s law and added to it what they thought He was really trying to say and ended up with a legalistic, works based religious system that buried the practitioner in a sea of do’s and don’ts to the point where, if you even breathed wrong, you were condemned. So this morning we must ask the question of ourselves: Have we gone the way of rules and regulations to the point of being legalistic? 

Are You A Legalist? 

Consider: have you ever noticed how a certain mind set or behavior pattern can creep in almost unnoticed? It may be something like a change in your taste of music. Using myself as an example, I used to enjoy nothing but Beatles music. To me, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and classical music like Mozart was strictly for old men. In other words, if you listened to the stuff I didn’t like, you stank as far as I was concerned. Now today I would rather listen to ‘old man music’ than anything else. So where does that leave me? In the world of Stinkydom! 

There are people, who have always had a quiet and gentle spirit; nothing ever bothered them. But then something happened; the reflection in the mirror changed from quiet and peaceful as the day is long, to moody, irritable, and angry. When did this happen? How did this happen? When did Dr. Jekyll move in permanently? Consider too that similar things take place in our spiritual lives. Look within your own life and consider the changes that have taken place over the years. Perhaps when you were first saved you were diligent to defend yourself against sin. But now that diligence has been eroded and once forbidden behaviors have found a place in your heart. They have moved in slowly, unnoticed, like the false teachers of the book of Jude. And now they have taken root and have become a deep seated problem. Worse still, since it was such a subtle invasion, coming in through the back door with no fanfare, announcement or slamming of doors, you woke up one morning and KAPPOW! you’re in trouble! 

This is how sin works…sneaking in subtly without our being aware.  And legalism is one of those sins that it seems is easiest for us to fall into. It’s not that we have set out to mix law and grace, so as to deprive ourselves of peace and joy. Instead we just kind of find ourselves in the depressing world of legalism and we don’t recall the steps that we took to get there. We wake up one day and find ourselves deeply entrenched in a mindset that saddens and repulses us. We began well but we have somehow decided, either consciously or unconsciously to wander off into bypath meadow where the going seemed to be smoother. But Giant Despair has caught us and we are now in prison wondering what happened.  

Now what does a legalist look like? Well let me start out by saying that these folks use the language of grace and would never outwardly admit that trusting Jesus was not enough. But their feelings and actions betray “a legalistic frame of mind.”  They are driven toward better and better performance, not out of love for God, but out of fear that they may not do enough to get into heaven. The professing Christian who is a legalist fights against sin in his life, denies himself many pleasures, keeps himself from bad company, attends church, and helps the poor IN ORDER TO MAKE GOD HAPPY WITH HIM.  He may or may not be conscience of his trying to gain heaven by the works of the Law.  But this is legalism. The professing Christian who understands and lives by grace also fights against sin, denies himself many pleasures, keeps himself from bad company, attends church, and helps the poor, but he does so for an entirely different reason. This person does NOT work to make God happy with him, he works BECAUSE God has forgiven his sin and has made him part of the family of God based on the works and righteousness of His Son Jesus Christ.

 THE CHILD OF GRACE LIVES AND WORKS AS HE DOES OUT OF GRATITUDE AND LOVE FOR THE GOD WHO HAS GIVEN HIM SALVATION APART FROM HUMAN WORKS, BY FAITH IN CHRIST.  This is grace. The difference between law and grace for the unbeliever is the difference between eternal life and eternal death. The difference between law and grace for the true believer is the difference between realizing joy, peace, and assurance of salvation as compared to living with no assurance of heaven, no joy, or peace on earth. 

Our text for this morning is found in Galatians 2:11-14 where we find Paul seeking to correct a problem in the Galatian church: they were guilty of turning away from the truth of the gospel to follow the fable of righteousness gained through keeping the law. Interestingly: this recalls a time when Paul had to rebuke Peter for just this sin. He says in verse 11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; That is, he enjoyed fellowshipping with the gentiles with a clear conscience, sharing meals with the gentiles; eating when they ate and what they ate EVEN THOUGH THIS WAS NOT LAWFUL FOR A JEW TO DO! Because of the clear vision he had received from God (the sheet let down from heaven with all kinds of animals on it and the command from God to call nothing unclean that HE HAD CALLED CLEAN!) because of this freedom that he had in Christ and because of his love for the brethren Cephas abandon the Jewish dietary laws which do not save one or keep one saved.  

But this life of freedom was short lived. It would seem that Peter had a fear of men; he feared the opinions of men when it came to such things because we read, but when they (Jews from James) came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. In short, he feared the Judaizers who believed that you must trust in Christ but also perform the works of the law in order to be right with God. They held that you needed to be saved by the blood of Jesus Christ but then in order to keep yourselves in the favor of the Lord, you had to obey the Jewish dietary laws, observe the feasts and be circumcised or you would be finally lost. 

But when one goes off in the wrong direction he seldom goes alone. 

Notice how Peter’s sin caused a ripple effect which brought others into the bleak universe of legalism. 13The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. Now you’d think that Barnabas would have known better. But we see that he too was silently, quietly, subtly, pressed into this sin against the grace of God by Peter’s example. And Paul would stand for no compromise of the truth. We read in verse 14But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, (the truth being that it does not matter what you eat or drink or who you eat with, food has nothing to do with ones salvation) I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you (now) compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?  

The public chastisement of Cephas had to do with the purity of the Gospel. By Peter’s actions he was saying that the saved Gentiles would not be right with God unless and until they ate, acted, and worshipped like the Jews. And they would not be good enough for him to eat with! It seems as though he had forgotten the lesson learned in Acts 15:10 Here Peter himself said 10“Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  Through the works of the law, no flesh shall be justified, but those who seek to follow the law as a means to an end will be burdened to death in this life and endure hell fire in the next. The Christian Gospel says that sinners are saved from wrath and made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ the Lord PLUS NOTHING.  Our Creator designed salvation so that all human contributions are excluded, both at the point of one’s salvation and during one’s Christian life as well. Sinners are saved by grace and kept by grace through faith in Jesus; it is not of themselves, it is the gift of God entirely, so that God gets all the praise and glory and men get none!

Circumcision is nothing, yet some saved Jews tried to make this rite a requirement for being saved. Baptism, church membership, observing the Sabbath, the length of your dress, or eating lunch with an Idolater-whoremonger, all are of no consequence when it comes to salvation!  For salvation, from beginning to end, is by faith alone, in Christ alone, by the power of God alone, plus nothing. That is what Peter preached with his lips and believed in his heart.  But on this occasion he contradicted his usual message without saying a word. He turned away from the truth for fear. It was the fear of confrontation, of human disapproval, of rejection by one’s countrymen. Peter was taken down in a moment by a common human weakness, the fear of man, the want of approval. In a moment he became what he despised, a hypocrite. 

Peter did not plan to be hypocritical he just suddenly found himself playing the part.  He lost his mind, as it were; he failed to think clearly when these men arrived.  The result of that failure was that he led others into HYPOCRISY with him. Being an Apostle, one who had walked with Christ and had heard the truth from His own lips Peter was someone that people looked to for leadership. They respected him, believed what he taught verbally and watched how he lived so that they could emulate him. Therefore, they concluded, if Peter has broken fellowship with the Gentiles so must we.  BY HIS ACTIONS, Cephas had taught another gospel.  He might as well have announced, “Yes, you must believe in Jesus, but you must also observe the Jewish traditions, get circumcised, keep the Law of Moses, and watch what you eat OR YOU’RE NOT A REAL CHRISTIAN!”  

Peter claimed one thing with his mouth but did the opposite with his life: thus he became a HYPOCRITE.  He was no longer “straight forward about the Gospel.” To be “straightforward about the Gospel”, means that one must preach and teach the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But it goes beyond that to include living out the truth we teach and believe.  Peter had it right when he spoke but contradicted the gospel by his behavior. He did this by breaking off fellowship with the Gentiles when the Jews from James showed up.  

When he moved from one side of the room to the other he effectively declared, “There is something wrong with you Gentiles, there is something lacking in you.” That something had to do with circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses. By siding with the Judaizers, Peter took the place of a legalist and, because of who he was, an apostle, a leader of the church, he laid the yoke of the law on the shoulders of many real Christians.  Salvation is by grace through faith but in this moment Peter was clouding that truth, he was not straightforward about the gospel. 

The true message of the gospel is captured in Rom 10:1-4 Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them (speaking of the Jews) is for their salvation. 2For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. 3For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. 4For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. 

Every sinner who subjects himself to the righteousness of God by trusting in Christ will be saved from the wrath to come. For Christ is the end of the law, that is, He fulfilled the law on our behalf.  He met all the requirements of the law, He is perfect and acceptable TO God FOR everyone who believes in Him.  This is the Good News! Jesus saves all who come to Him by faith!  And I repeat that this is what Peter believed and taught the Gentiles in his charge and this is what he should have said to his Jewish visitors when they came. He should have ended his lesson on grace with “whether you like it or not here I stand, I will not hinder the Gospel of free grace with your laws and ceremonies.”  But he didn’t and Paul was right to rebuke him. 

What would Paul say to us?  Whether Pastor, Elder, Deacon or a Christian with no official title, all believers must search their hearts and ask, “Am I straight forward about the gospel in what I say and how I live?” Or do I hinder the good news with legal requirements? If I somehow make people think that baptism is essential to salvation I have preached another gospel.

I can do the same thing with my comments or bad attitude concerning the way a person dresses, or the form of entertainment he prefers.  I can pollute the truth of the gospel message of Free Grace by the way I respond to a smoker, or a person with a ring in his nose. Say for instance that I teach or in some way infer that one’s salvation requires personal reformation BEFORE God will accept them.  I have just preached a lie, another gospel. The scriptures teach us that a man cannot change the color of his skin, a leopard cannot change his spots, and one who is accustomed to doing evil cannot, by the grit of his teeth, become righteous. Whores, thieves, drug addicts, burglars, rapists, murderers, terrorists, and the little old lady down the street who has never harmed a flea, are saved WHILE THEY ARE ACTIVE, LAW BREAKING, SINNERS.  They are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ who fulfills the law on behalf of all who believe. 

Let’s look a little deeper at Paul’s rebuke of Peter. We read in Gal 2:14-21 “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, (when no one else is around) how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? (Peter might have objected, “I compelled no one to live like the Jews!” But in fact, he had done exactly that by refusing to fellowship with the Gentiles when his fellow Jews had arrived. Paul continues saying 15“We are Jews by nature (born Jews) and not sinners (literally the ungodly or even the heathen who are) from among the Gentiles; 16nevertheless knowing (as we Christian Jews do) that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we (Jews) have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.  

In this short text Paul restates the doctrine of justification by faith when he says that “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus,… and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified!” He is saying what must be said again, and again; that sinners are made right in the eyes of God by looking away from themselves to the perfect person and work of another, Jesus Christ.  He is the justifier of the ungodly by faith! Consider Rom 3:21-28 which states But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; … 28For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.  

Paul continues in Galatians 2:17-21; “But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, (as Paul, Peter, and the other believing Jews were) we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! God had declared believing Gentiles clean, saved, and forgiven by faith in Christ, equal to any saved Jew.  But Peter now acts like they are unclean, like it is sinful to enjoy their company. The question Paul asks is this, “When Christ told you to embrace believing Gentiles did He send you into a sinful relationship?”  Of course not!  Peter had momentarily lost his mind, he had returned to that “works based religion” that had been destroyed by Christ. Paul continues in verse eighteen “For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19“For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. 20“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. 21“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

The first four verses of Romans eight explain that beautiful phrase found in verse twenty of our present text where Paul says, 20“… the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. Christ’s giving of Himself for us and the result of that sacrifice are found in Romans Rom 8:1 – 4 1Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (the law that exposed sin and condemns you to death)

3For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: (He did this by…) sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 

Therefore we must reason, “If Christ gave Himself to fulfill the demands of the law for me, and if His work was effective in fulfilling that requirement then I HAVE NOTHING TO DO FOR SALVATION BUT TRUST IN HIM with the faith that He gives me to exercise toward Him who loved me and called me according to His holy purpose. Peter knew, believed, and taught this wonderful truth but when he walked away from the Gentile believers to stand with the Judaizers he declared that Christ’s work was ineffective without the addition of human works.  He effectively said, “If you hope to be saved you can’t eat pork, you men must be circumcised, you can’t dance or drink wine with you dinner, you must keep the Sabbath, and tithe your spices!” 

Such mixing of law and grace NULLIFIES the grace of God.  Hear the word of the Lord from Romans 11:6 “But if it (salvation) is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ plus nothing.  There is no other way to be made right with God! It had to be hard for Paul to rebuke his dear brother in public. But it had to be done. The peace and comfort of these Gentile Christians was at stake. More importantly, the truth of the gospel was at stake.  What Peter had done, without intent, and without saying a word, was to declare that Jesus death was not enough to save the lost, they must make a contribution of good works, and so Paul stepped in to make the correction. 

When you and I are dealing with truth we must understand that the slightest adjustment in the Good News will turn it into a lie. We must be careful not only with our words but with our behavior.  We must not play the part of the legalist, the hypocrite: teaching, by our silence, what we would never say with our lips. We must never twist the truth of the gospel with our own foolish, man-made messages which include things like this: “In order to become a Christian you must clean up your life, be baptized in our church, increase the length of your dress, speak in tongues, and never ever mow your grass on Sunday”, otherwise, Christ will be of no value to you.  “You must quit all of your bad habits completely and live a perfect life. Then and only then can you be part of OUR CHURCH!” Is this the Gospel?  Is this Good News to slaves of sin, self and the Devil?  Is this Good News to people who know their lives are ruined and have tried for years to reform themselves?  IT IS NOT! 

The Good News is that Jesus saves the ungodly from their ungodliness and the wrath due them for sin. The Good News is that sinners can come to Jesus just as they are, dead in trespasses and sins, filthy and smelly, enslaved to their passions knowing that He is the Savior of all who come to Him by faith.  The Good News is that sinners are saved in spite of themselves and because of Jesus Christ.  1Cor 1:30 -31 “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” I hope you can see the seriousness of these issues; that they require prayer and the spiritual discernment that only God can give.  May He grant us the strength and courage to be patient with weaker brothers and to be straightforward about the Gospel in both our speech and practice at all times and in all situations!  May He guard us against the fear of man and enable us to live gracious lives that speak to men of God’s mercy to sinners through faith alone in Christ alone and apart from the works of the law.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: