By Ron Halbrook
Paul was once charged as being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” He denied that he was guilty of the political motivations and methods of strife with which he was charged. “Neither can they prove the things whereof they now accuse me. But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers. . . ” (Acts 24:5,13-14). The charges of political motives, methods of strife, attempting to ringlead a sect, and an attitude of legalism are being hurled today in the controversy over grace, unity, and fellowship. Veterans of by-gone battles must find the charge legalism very familiar, as will veterans or new-comers who have tried to convert denominationalists. This writer, for one, denies the charge of legalism, but confesses without shame, “After the way which they call legalism, so worship I the God of my fathers.”
Have such charges really been made? What do the chargers mean by legalism What is legalism Is the scheme of redemption a system of legalism? Is it possible that the scheme of redemption in Christ is misunderstood by some, so that when it is preached in its simplicity and purity, such preaching seems to be legalism in the eyes of some?
The Charge “Legalism” Has Long History
Denominations have charged gospel preachers with legalism for generations. During the 1800’s, those who pled for a return to the ancient gospel without addition or subtraction were charged with legalism and neglect of God’s grace. Baptist D. B. Ray objected to the legalism of making “the connection between justification and baptism. . . inseparable;” Rom. 3:28 (“justified by faith without the deeds of the law”) shows “the conclusion of Paul was quite different from that of the Campbellites; for they conclude that justification is made to depend on baptism, while Paul makes it to depend on faith without works.”(1) The “Campbellite” system of legalism is criticized as being based on the motivation of fear. “Campbellites” fear their sins will not be removed without baptism; from this, Ray creates and destroys a straw man.
“This shows that it is fear alone which moves the Campbellites to obedience. But the true spirit of Christianity is that we obey God because we love him. All those who attempt to keep the ordinances through fear of punishment alone are not the children of God. If we are Christians, we love God because he first loved us, and then we will keep his commandments, for they are not grievous.”(2)
A man would be a fool not to fear hell, but that does not mean that he does not love God when he obeys the gospel. If the scheme of redemption arouses fear of the consequences of continuing in sin, much more does it arouse love for deliverance from those consequences. Still, in the New Testament the Holy Spirit has preserved many approved examples, of warning men “against the day of wrath and revlation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:4-5). Gospel preaching which includes such warnings is considered legalism by those who have a denominational concept of the gospel.(3)
Ben Bogard objected to the legalism of (what he calls) Campbellism. “Campbellism Teaches Salvation by Infallibility Instead of by Grace.”
No matter how fully a man has repented, no matter how strong his faith, no matter how pious his life, if he has been mistaught concerning baptism, and even through ignorance misses baptism, he must go to hell! The mere mention of this devilish doctrine is enough to turn every right-thinking man against it. Such a doctrine demands infallible knowledge, which no man has…(4)
Men with denominational concepts, like Bogard, always object to the “bad spirit” of (what they call) legalism.(5) “I Object to the Spirit of Campbellism. Everywhere its spirit is bad. They are contentious, nagging, strifebreeding.”(6)
Anyone who reads Carl Ketcherside’s Mission Messenger or Leroy Garrett’s Restoration Review, or other papers which have capitulated to denominational concepts (Mission, Integrity, etc.), is familiar with the constant charge of legalism. F. L. Lemley is Ketcherside’s doctrinal twin brother (with articles appearing in Mission Messenger, Integrity; Firm Foundation, Gospel Guardian(7)); after William Wallace finally printed an article openly questioning the loose concepts of Ed Fudge, Lemley objected the author “is legally oriented and argues from a legal point of view.”(8)
Loose Use of “Legalism” By Ed Fudge
Edward Fudge has been chasing and charging, here, there, and yonder, Don Quixote style, after something which he calls legalism-with which he sees himself in mortal combat. Some brethren have read Fudge’s writings thinking that his lance was pointed at a real monster all of us should be willing to attack. When his writings are taken in the total context of his teaching and in connection with his applications, it becomes apparent that the monsters he so valiantly fights are nothing but windmills; the war he wars against legalism is a fantasy. The enemy he pierces is imaginary. Yet the damage he is doing is very real. How can fighting an imaginary enemy do real damage? By arousing others to see the same fantasy, fight the same fight, chase the same windmills. Every soul that puts on denominational concepts for his armour and goes out to do battle with this legalism is lost to the cause of truth.
In his tract on The Grace of God, Brother Fudge lampoons legalism as a view which says, “Keep the rules perfectly and be saved; good luck!” (p. 14). In one place he says, “It is not legalism to seek to do God’s will as accurately and exactly as possible,” and that “legalism is not law-keeping, but law-depending,” (pp. 13-14), all of which sounds like Ed preaches that we are required to do God’s will accurately and exactly. It sounds like he says such is required, but when done such is not meritorious–which would be exactly right!, But in another place he says, “Salvation cannot come by lawkeeping . . . . Legalism is not grace. God does not simply give a list of rules in the New Testament and say: ‘Here are the rules. Keep them and be saved. Good luck!”‘ (p. 17). Now we will agree that God did not just wind up the world and walk off, as the Deists claim; nor did He simply wind up the New Testament and walk off, leaving us to ride it like a mechanical toy. The Gospel is Spiritual. God is Still Alive, Still Ruling The Universe, Still Here, Still Concerned, Still Answering Our Prayers. No, God did not simply drop us a rule book, tell us to never make a mistake, and make no provision for the fact that we stumble and sin from time to time. He did not say, “And I will be back in a million years to snatch. up every one who stumbled and sinned on any occasion to hang them from the highest tree with glee. Don’t call for my help, don’t ask for my forgiveness when you stumble, don’t expect anything from me until hanging time. Good luck!” But is this all Ed is saying when he says salvation does not come by keeping the law or rules revealed in the New Testament. ‘If that were all He is saying, there would have never been a problem. But there is more to it.
He says repeatedly things like, “. . . man, by nature, is a sinner . . . . man, by nature, does not keep the rules perfectly!. . . Just as license ignores the nature of God, so this doctrine (legalism, R. H.) ignores the nature of man . . . . the very eternal truth we have already been talking about: the nature of man-the fact that he is a sinner, that he has never kept the rules perfectly and that any hope of salvation on the basis of his own performance is doomed from the very start …. It is an eternal principle that man, because he is a man sins …. It is impossible because of the way man himself is and has always been-for law to save. . . Grace is not legalism. Legalism says, ‘here are the rules; keep them and be saved-good luck!’ Legalism frustrates the true grace of God. It ignores the fundamental fact of man’s nature, that he is weak in the flesh and always sins. He never keeps the rules perfectly” (pp. 14-18).
Ed not only is saying men do not live perfectly before God-i.e. we sin and must seek salvation. He is also saying that because of the very nature of man, man cannot comply exactly with the conditions – of forgiveness when forgiveness is sought. Because of the very nature and make-up of man, man cannot sustain a relationship with God on the basis of obedient faith–cannot maintain a life of obeying the word of God by faith. Ed realizes as all of us do, that as a Christian sins from time to time, he has forgiveness by confession and prayer to God. In this respect, whenever we fail to obey we have conditional forgiveness. But when Ed talks about man by his nature not being able to perfectly obey, he means something more than sins we commit and confess from time to time. He means something more than sins we commit, repent of, confess, repudiate, and quit practicing. He means there are some sins we may commit throughout our lives, never repent of, never confess, never repudiate, and never quit practicing. Sin is in our very nature, in our lives constantly, in the very sir we breath. There is something broken in man. Man is sinful by nature. The dark cloud of sin hangs constantly over man. As we shall show, in application of this Calvinistic or Neo-Calvinistic view of human nature, Ed finds people who worship with instrumental music or who centralize and institutionalize the church as being in the grace of God. These are problems that arise because of people’s sinful nature, just as we all supposedly have sins in our lives that will never be repented of, confessed, repudiated, or quit because of our sinful nature.
So while we may try to meet the conditions of forgiveness and of a continued right relationship with God, our sinful nature prohibits us from doing so. To preach that we must meet those conditions is to be guilty of legalism. To receive brethren who obviously are not meeting those conditions is to show a good understanding of (1) the sinful nature of man, and (2) the grace of God. Ed thinks he has hit the happy medium by telling people that God wants them to try to obey His will, but that on account of man’s sinful nature God will receive men by grace even when they are disobeying his will. . . or what Ed calls not “keep(ing) the rules perfectly.”
How can man be saved while constantly practicing sin on account of a sinful nature? Apparently this problem which is posed by accepting a Calvinistic or NeoCalvinistic view of human nature, is solved by accepting another tenet of Calvinism: the imputation of the perfect obedience of Christ to the believer. “Because of His obedience, those who are in Him can be saved although they never do achieve perfect obedience themselves . . . . there is a sphere where sin is not imputed to the sinner and that sphere is ‘in Christ.’ ” Speaking of “the person who expects to be saved because of his own full knowledge or his own perfect record,” Ed says, “To him, Christ is a mere law giver, not a representative law-keeper who justifies others by His obedience.”(9) In other words, a proper understanding of Christ includes this: he is “a representative law-keeper who justifies others by His obedience.” To think we do not need this representative perfect lawkeeper who kept the law in our stead, to think the obedience we render to God in meeting the conditions of forgiveness is sufficient is to be guilty of legalism.
This article will deal with the term legalism and with the idea of merit later, so we will not fully review the following quote just yet. We simply offer it in establishing what Fudge thinks he is fighting. In The Grace of God, Ed states, “Legalism says that man will be saved because he has kept the rules,–because he has earned it” (p. 15). Ed equates meeting the conditions of grace, just as God stated them, with earning salvation. In another article, Ed returns to his happy medium, “We must not choose between legalism (depending on our own performance for salvation) and license (denying the necessity of seeking perfect performance).” Ed believes, “The man ‘in Christ’ is saved. . . not because he is ‘right’ on every issue, but because he is right about Jesus Christ and seeks to obey Him.” But those embracing legalism believe, “The man ‘in Christ’ is not saved, although he is right about Jesus Christ and seeks to obey Him, unless he is also ‘right’ about every issue.” Such legalism is “dangerously near repeating the very central error of first-century Judaism, of making salvation conditional on human performance in addition to Bible-defined faith in Jesus Christ.”(10)
Ed is fighting a fantasy when he claims brethren require a man to be right on every issue or make salvation conditional on human performance in addition to faith in Christ. Obedient faith requires meeting and maintaining the conditions of Grace! The conditions of grace do not require a man to be right on every issue-many issues do not involve sin, do not involve the conditions of grace (cf. Rom. 14). The conditions of grace do require that a man not abide in sin (1 Jn. 3:9). Ed charges that we minimize the sins we practice because of our sinful nature, and maximize the sins of other brethren which they practice because of their sinful nature: “categorize sin.”(11) Thus he makes it appear we make some sins more important than others. No, we teach in regard to sins of all kinds which men continue to practice, ourselves included, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We do claim what Ed will admit: some misunderstandings are not sins at all, do not involve the terms and conditions of grace. What does all this teach us about the legalism Ed (Quixote) Fudge is fighting? The monster (1) tries to earn, deserve, and merit salvation; (2) requires brethren to be right on every possible issue brethren can raise; (3) requires something in addition to genuine faith in Christ.
To understand Ed’s tracts and articles against legalism, one must take into account the applications Ed makes which are related to this problem. For instance, he said in 1967 that certain “principles” should be “put . . . . into practice” regarding issues like “instrumental music. . . , the support of human organizations, the use of social dinners and recreational activities as an aid to evangelism, centralized programs of inter-church activity.” He argues such things should not be viewed as departures “from the pattern” or conditions of grace; whatever a man believes about such issues “will not interfere with his salvation.”(12) The following year, he objected to that legalism which applies 2 John 9 to such issues between brethren on how best to please the Lord. “John was not dealing here at all with differences or arguments between saints on how best to please the Christ in whom they all believe.(13) Later Ed assured a church which had gone over to institutionalism that legalism is not the basis of salvation–so the fact that such brethren were not “keep(ing) the rules perfectly” did not mean they had violated the terms of grace. Here is the way he put it, “. . . we are saved ones because of God’s grace to us in His Son, and we are accepted by Him ‘in the Beloved!’ Not because we know it all, or do it all right.” We are not saved “through works of righteousness which we may do, but by the grace of God.”(14) Regarding such issues as named above, Ed recently said,
“There are those who simply want to serve the Lord in all things and happen to be convinced that what we call the ‘conservative’ position does that best. There arse those who want to serve the Lord in all things and happen to be convinced that what we call the `liberal’ position does that best… With either of these groups of folks I can feel a common aim in Christ for I am seeking only to serve the Lord, and that is what these brothers are committed to as well…(15) (To be continued next week)
3. J. W. McGarvey observed the futility of Lazarus going back to preach to the rich man’s brothers. Those brothers would have been just like people today who object to plain preaching “of the fearful consequences of continuing in sin.” The brothers would have said, “You tell us that our brother whom we loved so well, who was so good and tender and noble-that he is in the torments of hell? We don’t believe a word of it.” McGarvey observes, “My brethren, you will not find many men to-day who are willing to believe that that good, nice, honorable fellow who died recently, is in hell. It is not considered polite to express the opinion that anybody has gone to hell” or that continuing in sin will send anybody in particular to hell. J. W. McGarvey, Sermons, p. 105.
5. “Anyone who comes out fighting strongly for what he believes is regarded as having a bad spirit. To attack the validity of another’s doctrine is seen as bigotry; to expose a practice which is unscriptural is viewed as biased judgment growing from an unkind feeling.” Ervin Himmel, “Fight, Brother, Fight!” Truth Magazine, Vol. XVIII, No. 45 (September 19, 1974), pp. 13-14.
6. Bogard, op. cit., p. 34. Those who have kept up with various doctrinal positions in the new unity movement will find Bogard’s objection on p. 56 interesting. ‘Campbellism Denies Imputed Righteousness, and Thus Again Denies the Teachings of the Bible …. Campbellites proudly reject the imputed righteousness of Christ and, hence, reject salvation.” Obviously Bogard had not run into the new breed of preachers like Edward Fudge who Affirm Rather than Deny the Reformation-Calvinist position on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Cf. Edward Fudge, “Truth, Error, and the Grace of God,” Gospel Guardian, Vol. 21, No. 44 (Feb. 12, 1970), pp. 689-690.
7. It is appalling that William Wallace has printed so much material in the Guardian by men like Lemley without challenging, exposing, and reviewing such dangerous material. It is shocking to see him print articles by Steven Clark Goad After Promising Not To Print Material By This Liberal In Particular. The promise was made in the presence of many brethren at the Expressway church in Louisville, Kentucky, Dec. 3, 1973. and was kept for several months; but then the Aug. 22, 1974 Guardian broke the promise by printing Goad’s “Sin of Revenge”! By the time my article appears in Truth Magazine, the Guardian will be under the editorship of Eugene Britnell; my confidence in Brother Britnell is such that I know the Lemleys and Goads have been sent riding into the sunset by now. Therefore the comments I am making cast no reflection on the Guardian under its new editor.
14. Edward Fudge, public letter to the Perkins Road Church of Christ in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, copy in my possession, January 4, 1971; (cf. Truth Magazine Vol. XVII, No. 46 (Sept. 27, 1973). p. 724). Ed assured the Perkins Road brethren that brethren “on both sides of the so-called ‘institutional issues’ ” stand in “grace” because God imputes the obedience of Christ to them. . . “His Son lived a perfect life in our stead! Praise God!” In closing, Ed says such brethren can accept each other.
Truth Magazine XIX: 22, pp. 345-348
April 10, 1975