Christ Plus Legalism

Many years ago a college acquaintance said to me, “I don’t think you’re a very spiritual person.”

I was puzzled because he didn’t know me well enough to draw that kind of conclusion, so I asked him why he said that.

“Because you don’t go to midweek prayer meetings,” he answered.

“What does that have to do with my spirituality?” I responded. “For all you know I might spend all day and all night in prayer.”

“No,” he said. “Spiritual people attend prayer meetings.”

If he had said spiritual people pray, I would have agreed and confessed that I needed to pray more faithfully and fervently. But condemning someone for not keeping manmade rules or religious rituals is legalism. Jesus faced it often in His conflicts with the Pharisees. Paul warned about it in Colossians 2:16–17: “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”

Paul was addressing legalistic people in the churches who believed, in effect, that a personal, vital, deep relationship with Christ alone is not enough to satisfy God. They had added rules and requirements governing the performance of certain duties that they thought were essential to spirituality—rules about eating and drinking, dress and appearance, religious rituals, and so on. In the Mosaic economy, God gave many such external laws to shield Israel from social interaction with corrupting pagan peoples as well as to illustrate invisible spiritual realities that would be fulfilled in Christ.

Paul also said, “We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). What did he mean? Verses 4–9 answer:

Although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:4–9)

No fleshly circumcision makes one right with God, only the true cutting away of sin by salvation in Christ.

When Christ came, the ceremonial elements of the law were set aside because He was the fulfillment of all they foreshadowed. Nevertheless, legalists in the early church insisted that all the ceremonies—including circumcision, Sabbath observance, and dietary laws—were to be maintained as standards of spirituality. Because these teachers were not genuinely committed to loving Jesus Christ, they were left with a sanctimonious veneer rather than true spirituality.

Their legalism was in direct conflict with the teaching of Christ Himself. Jesus made clear that dietary laws were symbolic and had no inherent ability to make someone righteous when He said that nothing going into a man can defile him. It’s what comes out of a person (evil thoughts, words, and other expressions of a sinful heart) that causes defilement (Mark 7:15–23). That was a shocking statement because Jewish people had always believed there were certain foods that defiled the body. They had misunderstood the symbolism of the dietary laws and thought that following them could really make a person righteous.

In Acts 10 Peter had a vision of various kinds of unclean animals which God told him to kill and eat. When Peter objected because he had “never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (Acts 10:14), a voice from heaven said, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15). A new day had come. God was revealing to His people that the dietary laws were no longer in effect. Peter got the message (Acts 10:28). Believers were free from the law’s bondage, empowered by grace to fulfill the righteousness of the law without being enslaved to its ceremonial details. Paul summarizes the issue in Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

In 1 Timothy 4:1–5 Paul warns:

But the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.

A gospel of human works is no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6–75:2). If baptism, prayers, fasting, wearing special garments, church attendance, various kinds of abstinences, or other religious duties are necessary to earn salvation, then Christ’s work is not truly sufficient. That makes a mockery of the gospel.

Legalism is as much a threat to the church today as it was in Colossae. Even in evangelical churches there are many people whose assurance of salvation is based on their religious activities rather than faith alone in the all-sufficient Savior. They assume they are Christians because they read the Bible, pray, go to church, or perform other religious functions. They judge spirituality on the basis of external performance rather than internal love for Christ, hatred for sin, and a heart devoted to obedience. Obviously Bible reading, prayer, and the fellowship of believers can be manifestations of true conversion. But when isolated from devotion to the Lord Christ, they are reduced to meaningless religious rituals that even unbelievers can perform and by which they are deceived as to their coming destruction. Jesus said:

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.” (Matthew 7:22–23)

Don’t be intimidated by the superficial legalistic expectations of others. Let your behavior be the overflow of your love for Christ and the holy longings produced in you by the indwelling Spirit and the abiding presence of His Word (Colossians 3:16).

Used with permission from John MacArthur.

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