By Ron Halbrook
What Is Legalism?
We need to do some searching and studying about legalism. The charge of legalism is being bandied about, and the term is used very loosely in many cases. Faithfulness to the gospel in its simplicity and purity is being caricatured as legalism. Just what is legalism? Is the scheme of redemption a system of legalism? Not everything men call legalism really is such. In fact, after the way which some call “legalism,” so worship I God.
There is a crying need for attention to word definitions. We shall discuss the scheme of redemption in connection with three terms properly defined: rational, emotional, and legal. Christianity is rational, emotional, and legal, but Christianity is not rationalism, emotionalism, nor legalism. As the Christian serves the Lord, he will be rational, emotional, and legal. Yet a Christian is not a Rationalist, Emotionalist, nor a Legalist.
Rational, But Not Rationalism
Rational means “having reason or understanding.”(1) On the day of Pentecost after Christ arose, the apostles preached “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Though people of many nations were gathered there in Jerusalem, “every man heard them speak in his own language.” All who preached were Galileans, so that people asked, “How hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?” They were able to say, “We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” Peter called out to them “Hearken to my words,” and, again, preaching Christ, “Near these words.” After preaching for a time, Peter testified and exhorted “with many other words.” “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:1-41). “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord” (Isa. 1:18). The revelation of God is meant to be understood (“when ye read, ye may understand,” Eph. 3:4); therefore the man of God delights “in the law of the Lord… in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Ps. 1:2). If the word of God were not adapted to human “reason or understanding,” it would be not a revelation or uncovering but only a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
But rationalism is “reliance on reason as the basis for establishment of religious truth,” “a theory that reason is in itself a source of knowledge superior to and independent of sense perceptions.” As another source points out, in rationalism, “. . . man’s natural abilities are to be used exclusively in the formulation of religious beliefs. There is no reliance on authority or revelation-nothing but man’s own reason.”(2) A rationalist is one professing rationalism. Rationalism never has been the basis of serving God. Neither reason nor feeling nor intuition suggested to Abraham that he ought to offer Isaac as a sacrifice-in fact, all reason, feeling, and intuition said to the contrary. Through hearing God speak in words, Abraham understood the authoritative command of God. Abraham believed God even when he could not understand why God commanded the action. Abraham’s faith was not mere intellectual assent. His faith was obedient. “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac” (Heb. 11:17).
Emotions, But Not Emotionalism
Emotion is “the affective aspect of consciousness: feeling.” After the miraculous deliverance from Egypt, “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord… And Miriam the prophetess. . . took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (Ex. 15:1-21). After deliverance from Jabin and Sisera, “Then sang Deborah and Barak. . . on that day, saying, Praise ye the Lord … . ” (Judges 5:1ff). David said, “O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). And again, “I was glad when they said unto me. Let us go into the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1). When the, gospel was preached on the Pentecost after Christ arose, the listeners “were pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37). When the Ethiopian treasurer was baptized, “he went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39). “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (Jas. 5:13). There are many things in God’s word and in our service to God that stir the emotions: the goodness of God, the severity of God, the death of Christ, the effect of our sins, the joy of forgiveness, the joy of worship, the sadness of seeing loved ones stumble, etc.
But emotionalism is “undue indulgence in or display of emotion.” The pagans who accepted Elijah’s challenge could not get response from their “god,” “And they leaped upon the altar which was made . . . . And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them” (1 Kings 18:26-28). When the city of Ephesus was stirred up against Paul’s preaching, “Some… cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together …. all with one voice about the space of two hours cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:28-34). The gospel teaches men how to control their emotions and channel them for good, rather than to abandon themselves to the control of emotionalism (Col. 3:8, 12-14). An emotionalist is “one given to emotionalism;” a Christian is not an emotionalist.
Legal, Lawful, Right
Legal is “of or relating to law,” “deriving authority from or founded on law,” “conforming to or permitted by law or established rules.” A synonym is “lawful,” which means “conformable to law,” “constituted, authorized, or established by law: rightful, ” `law-abiding. ” As another authority points out, “Scripture is full of judicial terms such as righteousness, transgression, judge, judgment, covenant, condemnation. They define the relationship between God and man as essentially one of Ruler and ruled, King and subject. Hence the importance of the concept of law.”(3) Law (torah, Hebrew; nomos, Greek) is “a synonym for the whole of the revealed will of God-the word, commandments, ways, judgments, precepts, etc., of the Lord, as in Gen. 26:5, and especially throughout Ps. 119. . . . in the NT the thought-content of the OT torah, with its emphasis on law as a personal word from God the Law-giver, is nearly always present.”(4)
To say the scheme of redemption has the quality of “legality”-“the quality or state of being legal: lawfulness”-or to say it is “legal” is to say this scheme proceeds from the fountain of all authority, God Himself. The scheme of redemption conforms to the very being of God, is derived from God alone, is revealed as an expression of the very being of God with all His glory, love, and authority. “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world… the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4; 3:9). That which proceeds from God is rightful, thus lawful or legal. Paul spoke of “the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations” (Col. 1:26). Hidden where? In God.
When the mystery was revealed, “God. . . (made) known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery’ =”the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Col. 1:27; Eph. 3:8). The mind of God, or what Paul calls “the things of God,” were revealed-“we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery …. as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:7-9). This revelation, proceeding from God. proceeded from “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” This revelation was of God, through God, and to God- to the praise of His glory. Could anything be more legal, more right, more lawful???
“No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). As the Amplified Bible says, “He has revealed Him, brought Him out where He can be seen; He has interpreted Him, and He has made Him known.” Christ said to see him was to see the Father. “For I proceeded forth and came from God… no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also …. he that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 8:42; 14:6-9). Furthermore, the works and the word of the Son came from the Father, revealing the Father. “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works” (John 14:10). Jesus said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Indeed the words of Christ are spiritual, life-giving, revealing the Father; “for I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. And I know that his commandment is life everlasting: whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak” (John 12:49-50). For this reason Christ could say, “The word that I have spoken the same shall judge him (the one who rejects Christ’s word) in the last day” (Jn. 12:48). The word and work of Christ, all that he taught and did, was of God-thus conforming to the will of God, indeed to the very being of God-thus legal, lawful, and right.
But this is not the end of the matter. He promised the apostles, “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak” (John 16:13). The promise of Christ was very definite, and very broad. The Spirit of truth-who knows the mind or “things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10) would guide the apostles “into all the truth, “(5) or “into the truth in. all its parts.”(6)
“The ‘many things’ which would thus be said must be presumed to have been said on highest authority; and hence the unapproachable dignity of the apostles themselves; hence the secret of all their binding and losing power; hence the revelations they have been able to supply with reference to Christ and salvation, glory, duty, and eternal life, and all the laws of the kingdom. From this vast promise we see the sufficiency of the apostolic teaching, and by implication the portion of it which is committed to writing. Our Lord had delivered to his disciples nothing but the truth;’ but from the nature of the case they must wait for the truth in its completeness, the whole truth of salvation and deliverance.”(7)
This calls to mind what the inspired writer said about that “great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders . . . . ” (Heb. 2:3-4). He who spoke from the first and what He spoke, along with all the fullness of the revelation of God, is made known in the holy writings. Peter wrote “that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance” (1 Pet. 1:15; cf. 3:1-2). “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” giving everything that is “profitable” for every “man of God” regarding every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The scriptures or “holy writings” of the New Covenant are of God-thus conforming to the will of God, indeed conforming to the very being of God-thus those holy writings are legal, lawful, and right.
The New Testament not only “contains” (a word used by elusive liberals for the purpose of ambiguity) but also is the message of God’s grace. “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). How does the word of grace save us–bring us into the unmerited favor of God? “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth” (1 Pet, 2:22). It is like asking how does Christ save us: “he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:9). On the first Pentecost after Christ arose, “they that gladly received his word were baptized” and the Lord added them to that number who stand in His unmerited favor. Primary obedience did not deserve God’s favor or earn it, but was the action of undeserving sinners throwing themselves upon the mercy of the court by meeting the conditions of forgiveness. That was not the end of the matter. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Those who were brought into the unmerited favor of God continued to stand in grace as they continued to abide in the word of His grace. As sin entered their lives from time to time, the blood of Christ was still a fountain free according as they sought forgiveness in an humble, penitent attitude (Acts 8:21-24; 1 Jn. 1). This continuance in the message of grace did not earn, deserve, or merit anything-it rather evidenced an emptying of self and a reliance upon the mercy and grace of God. Just as surely as the scheme of redemption is rational and emotional, it is legal and lawful.
But Not A System of Legalism!
The scheme of redemption is not a system of rationalism or emotionalism. Is it a system of legalism? To answer this, we must not only consult the dictionary but also the Bible as we did with the other terms. The picture will then be complete-and the answer will be an unequivocal “No!”
The dictionary says legalism is “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” We have argued that the New Testament is a literal and complete revelation of God-conforming to His will, mercy, grace, authority,. . . in fact to His very, being. We have also argued that Christ will save “them that obey him.” We have shown that those who obey him are those who obey “the truth.” That sounds pretty strict and literal. Have we painted ourselves into a corner? Let us see.
In discussing terms like love, freedom, and legalism, there must be some absolute standard that gives meaning and content to each term. For instance; when speaking to a group composed mostly of liberals, in trying to communicate with them in a concise way, and in trying to communicate in terms they would understand, Ed Harrell spoke of his own faith and that of conservatives in general by using terms like: “I am a Biblical literalist . . . . Biblical legalism …. legalism…. restoration legalism . . . . authoritarian legalism . . . . Biblical literalism.”(8) Was he saying something harsh and unbecoming about himself? Was he claiming he deserved to be saved? No. he was speaking of the scheme of redemption described earlier in this article. He was speaking as Paul who said, “After the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers,” and as we are saying in this article, “After the way which they call legalism, so worship I the God of my fathers.” Brother Harrell was fully aware that Paul attacked the legalism of the first century. The audience understood exactly what was being said. All of which illustrates the fact that the Christian must go to the word of God for the concepts which give absolute meaning (the meaning God would attach) to terms like legalism and heresy. In modern times, if one does not believe all sincere men will be saved, he is a heretic. That makes many of us heretics (in the sight of men). If one believes the New Testament must be obeyed in all particulars, the modern mind immediately thinks of legalism. That makes many of us legalists, according to modernistic terminology.
What sort of effort to conform to law is “excessive” and abusive to grace, and thus is a failure in the light of God’s revelation? What sort of view toward God’s law is legalism-not in terms of what men make the word mean, but in terms of what God’s word says? Is salvation conditional? If so,where are the conditions found? Must they be obeyed? If they are obeyed, is grace nullified? Does obedience to conditions evidence an effort to earn, deserve, and merit salvation? What saith the scriptures?
We have already shown that salvation is conditional, that the New Testament is the standard or norm by which we know the conditions, and that the conditions must be strictly obeyed. Does recognition of the New Testament as the exclusive standard plus recognition that the standard must be obeyed in all things, equal an effort to earn, deserve, or merit salvation? Does such exclude grace? To the contrary, such recognition, coupled with obedient faith, is ipso facto an admission that one has sinned–is a sinner! Such recognition and faith show a sinner has finally humbled himself to say, “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). It shows he is no longer “wise in (his own eyes,” no longer willing to “lean. . . unto (his) own understanding” (Prov. 3:5-7). He is ready to ask, “What shall we do?” and, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” and, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 2:37; 9:6; 16:30). Such a man is ready to renounce his own “think-so’s” about salvation and to say, “See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” (Acts 8:36). To throw oneself, as a sinner, on the mercy of the court by meeting the conditions of mercy set by the court is an admission that one cannot earn, deserve, or merit salvation! Such action shows the sinner is thirsty for the blessing announced in these words, “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:12).
One who meets the conditions earns nothing. The very fact that he must humble himself to meet the conditions is an admission that he is an undeserving sinner. Could he deceive himself into thinking that if he met the conditions he had earned something? Yes, just as one could deceive himself into thinking the waters of baptism have a magical power to save! Just as the teacher must exercise caution and make the subject of baptism understood, he must so do regarding conditional salvation. This must be taught, “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we have done that which was our duty to do” (Lk. 17:10). This is not mere psychological therapy; for when we meet the conditions of God we still have not made ourselves worthy of the great price paid for our sins! Furthermore, one who meets the primary requirements for entrance into God’s family recognizes that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jno. 1:8); as sin enters his life from time to time, he humbly seeks “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son (which) cleanseth us from all sin.” (To Be Concluded Next Week).
Truth Magazine XIX: 24, pp. 378-382
April 24, 1975