After the Way which They call Legalism, so Worship I God (IV)

By Ron Halbrook

Paul Fought Legalism

What is the legalism Paul fought? The New Testament is the legal, lawful, and right standard proceeding from God. Paul objected to a legalism which returned to a standard which, though good for its intended purpose (Gal. 3:19), is wholly incapable of taking away sin. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). In view of that impossibility, the only way The Old Law system could “save” a man is by his never sinning. “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). Once a man sinned, he stood under the curse; under the Old Law he could then obey the conditions of forgiveness laid down, which brought forgiveness only with a view to the coming death of Christ. Now that the New Covenant was in effect; the Old was removed. For a man to bind himself back to the domain of the Old Law was to reject the only forgiveness there is. The first time he sins, he is under the curse with no hope of forgiveness. Can the blood of bulls and goats help him? No. “And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them” (Gal. 3:12). So the only way the Old system could “save” a man would be by his living a sinlessly perfect record. Thus Paul reduced the hope of those who went back to the Old Law to a futility. The first mistake they made, the curse of sin would be upon them with no hope of forgiveness in the system to which they had bound themselves.

During the age of Moses’ law, that law was the standard and God required it to be obeyed in all particulars (Heb. 2:2; 10:28). Rightly used, the Law was legal, lawful, and right. But after Christ came, to go back to that standard implied an attempt to be saved by never sinning-because that is the only way that system could “save” after Christ came. Here is an attempt which puts one in the position of having to earn, deserve, and merit eternal life by means of a perfect record. And, that is legalism in its harsh, uncomplimentary sense. Here is an implicit attempt to present ourselves before God with this plea, “God, I have never sinned against your Law; search my life and see that I have never faltered nor stumbled. My life is perfection. I never sought forgiveness because I never needed it. Now I demand the judgment of the bar be that I am `righteous’ because You can do no other. And I demand eternal life as a consequence. What I have earned, deserved, and merited, you must give.” If the person sinned even once, there is nothing in his legalistic attempt that could remove even that one sin. This is the legalism which Paul names, indicts as a failure, and fights.

As Paul shows, this sort of legalism is preposterous on the face of it. If a man decided late in life to pursue this course, supposing one could live a perfect life from that point, he still would face his former sins. What would he have to remove them? One might decide early in life that he wants to earn, deserve, and merit eternal life, and so determine to do everything that God declared to be right. Thus, the person would see in the Old Law, and in the New as well, many things God taught to be right. But the poor fool is looking at a remedial system-a system to prepare and bring about forgiveness for sinners. God’s revelation is for man, for man as he finds himself in sin. So our foolish legalist would see it is right to offer sacrifice–which were designed to teach men the horror of their sins. And, as he might look at the New Law as so many more marks set by God for a perfect man to meet, he would (1) repent of sins never committed, (2) be baptized to wash away sins he did not do in the first place, and then (3) keep the Lord’s supper to remember a “gift” which he has no use for! What a travesty! It misses the point of the reality of sin and the point of the design of God’s revelation.

If there is any travesty more absurd than this one, it must be that of calling God’s system of grace on the condition of obedient faith “a cold, futile legalism.” If the Judge pronounces one “just,” it may be because (1) He can do no other, i.e. the man merited it, or (2) He shows His mercy. In either case, His pronouncement. is legal, lawful, and right. Next, mercy may be extended. (1) unconditionally, or (2) conditionally. Either way, the Judge’s transaction is legal, lawful, and right. When the Judge by His mercy, upon stated conditions, declares us free from all charges and punishment, He acts legally. We must meet the stated conditions without addition, subtraction, or alteration. When we meet the conditions, this is not seeking the pronouncement “just” or “innocent” on the basis of meritorious works! On the other hand, the least alteration of the conditions is evidence of dependence on some ground other than the conditional mercy of the Judge. The sum is: we are saved by the Judge, by ourselves, by mercy, by conditions, by a gift, by effort, by a divine arrangement-legal, right, and lawful in every way. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). All of which shows the scheme of redemption can be called “a remedial system” and “a legal system,” but not a system of legalism!

Does God Take Man’s Finiteness Into Account?

But does the scheme of redemption take into account man’s frailty and finiteness? Yes, it is designed for man as he is. For instance, as Marshall E. Patton points out, “Some commands are absolute and some are relative.”(1) Absolute commands can be obeyed absolutely by finite man. Absolute commands are “void of any relativity. Obedience to such is determined not upon the basis of its relation to something else, but rather upon the basis of being wholly independent of everything else.”

“One may keep absolute conditions to the degree of perfection. In fact, if they are kept at all, they are kept perfectly. There is no relativity about it …. Grace is seen in the nature of the commands themselves-they are within reach of human effort.”(2)

In this regard, salvation is conditioned on “conforming to the do-its and don’t-do-its of statutes” given by God, to borrow Brother William Wallace’s description of legalism.(3)

God told Israel to march around Jericho, and even specified the rules for marching! He told them not to inter-marry with the Canaanites, and specified penalties for disobedience. “Every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward” (Heb. 2:2). God gave a pattern for the ark, the tabernacle, and the temple. “See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern. . . ” (Heb. 8:5). If these commands were kept at all, they were kept perfectly-for man was capable of obeying these conditions of God’s favor. When they were obeyed, nothing had been earned, deserved, or merited. Had Israel earned Jericho when the walls fell, or did the walls fall by the grace of God . and was the city given as a gift from God??? When faith motivated Israel to worship and offer sacrifices exactly as God commanded, faith saved, i.e. brought men into the unmerited favor of God.

Today the pattern of worship, the pattern of sound words, and the pattern of church organization are clearly revealed. The things that are written prescribe the limit, the rule, the law of God in these matters (1 Tim. 3:14-15; 2 Pet. 1:13-15; 2:1-3; 1 Cor. 4:6; 2 Jn. 9; 2 Tim, 3:16-17). Obedience to the law of Christ does not earn, deserve, or merit anything; it is simply the condition of receiving the unmerited favor of God and continuing therein.

Brother Patton continues by pointing out that “relative commands” are determined in “relation to something else,” citing the graces in which we are to grow as examples (2 Pet. 1:5-11). Obedience to the command to grow in these graces

“. . . must be determined in relation to other matters. People may possess these graces in varying degrees …. Obedience in this instance depends upon one’s ‘giving all diligence’ (v. 5J. Diligence requires a sincere effort commensurate with one’s time, opportunity, and ability.

“. . . the relative conditions, void of their relativity, cannot be kept by humanity to the degree of absolute perfection. Man. . . cannot attain to such. In recognition of this, God’s grace has made such conditions relative. Because of this a child of God can be righteous in spite of his coming short of perfection.”(4)

Thus while God is infinite-and therefore infinite in patience, etc., i.e. perfect in all qualities-man is finite. A Christian will grow in the grace of patience as long as he lives! He will never in this life attain unto the perfection of God in such qualities. God’s grace recognizes this; because of His grace and love and understanding, God has not conditioned salvation on man’s perfection in such qualities. As Brother Patton points out, He has conditioned salvation on man’s giving diligence to constantly grow in these qualities. The scheme of redemption which is the expression of God’s grace is legal, lawful, and right, and it takes into account the finiteness of man. Furthermore, as one gives diligence and grows in these graces, he does not earn, deserve, or merit eternal life.

As pointed out earlier, God even takes into account man’s proneness to sin, his weakness for sin in the face of temptation. As sin enters the life of the Christian from time to time, he humbles himself in a penitent attitude and seeks the cleansing blood of Christ (Acts 8:20-24; 1 Jn. 1). Habitual practice of sin-whether it be stealing, not obeying the pattern of worship, or anything else-is not covered by grace. Such violates the terms of grace, the covenant of grace, the conditions of grace. Such evidences that one abides in Satan’s family, not God’s. . . all pleas of, “I know him! I know him!” not withstanding (1 Jn. 3:9; 2:4; 4:6).

Legalism Inherent In Calvinism

In studying legalism, we cannot help but note the irony involved in the fact that some who cry the loudest about legalism have themselves made the scheme of redemption a system of legalism. Some who cry the loudest about legalism accept the Calvinist-Reformation theory of the imputed righteousness of Christ. This imputed righteousness theory makes the scheme of redemption a system of legalism! Forgiveness of sin is not enough in this system. God actually requires a sinlessly perfect record, it is said. But only God is perfect; man is not God, thus is not perfect. So how shall the system of legalism (requirement of a sinlessly perfect life) be satisfied? By imputing the sinlessly perfect record of Christ to each Christian!

We studied how Paul reduced to absurdity the legalism involved in the effort of some teachers to bind the Old Law. Paul quoted from the Old Law, “The man that doeth them shall live in them” (Gal. 3:12), to show the only way the Old Law could “save” a man would be by his living a sinlessly perfect record. When John Calvin was trying to explain why “the obedience of Christ is reckoned to us as if it were our own,”(5) he was forced to make the scheme of redemption a system of legalism. In so doing, he quoted the very passage Paul quoted, only Calvin quoted it to say even under the New Law God really does require what the verse says for salvation! “Righteousness consists in the observance of the law” and Christ “reconciled us to God as if we had kept the law,” thus “we obtain through Christ’s grace (i.e. his acts of obedience, RH) what God promised in the law for our works: ‘He who will do these things, will live in them.'”(6) In other words, God not only required the shed blood of Christ to remove our sins, over and beyond that He additionally required a life of perfect works from us.

Present Truth Magazine has made a specialty out of promoting and defending the view that the perfect record of Christ must be imputed to us. One article complains of what is called “Arminian theology” which “thinks of justification only in terms of forgiveness of past sins by virtue of Christ’s death. It fails to see that justification is also the imputation of Christ’s life of perfect obedience to the law-an obedience which gives to the believer a full and free title to eternal life . . . . ” The complaint adds that failure to accept the Calvinist view results in too much emphasis “on the active obedience of the believer in his life” in seeking “final salvation.”(7) Further pressing the point that God absolutely demands a real life of perfection in addition to forgiveness of past sins, the same writer says,

“St. Paul declares, `. . . the doers of the law shall be justified.’ Rom. 2:13. Perfect obedience to His law is the only condition upon which God will give any man eternal life ….

The good news of the gospel is that Christ has lived this life of perfect obedience. He has fulfilled the conditions upon which God will justify unto life eternal. He lived this life in our name and on our behalf. This is why the apostle says that we are justified. . . by His obedience. . . While the death of Jesus (passive obedience) is the basis upon which God forgives sin, the life of Jesus (active obedience) is the basis upon which God can impute to us a life of perfect obedience.”(8)

The truth is that from the beginning of time God has taught that the result of sin is death; sin requires blood, death, taking of life. Never has He taught that He demands a perfect life (whether personal or imputed) to save men.(9)

“Your iniquities have separated between you and your God,” but in the plan of God Christ “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities …. the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 59:1-2; 53:4-6). Those who accept this gift have that which separates from God (sin) removed …. “their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:12). This makes them “right,” “just,” or “innocent” in the sight of God-the gift of grace. Any supposed additional demand of ‘a perfectly sinless record is the product of human imagination, reason and philosophy, tradition, and creeds. And it makes the scheme of salvation a system of legalism. Yet by further twists and contortions in this human system, it turns out that less actual obedience on man’s part is required, rather than more obedience.

After The Way They Call Legalism

In conclusion, let not the charge of legalism shame us into hedging, compromising, or speaking ambiguously regarding “the whole counsel of God.” Just as God is unchanging, the eternal principles of His word are unchanging. Here are some things called legalism by those holding denominational concepts: (1) Insistence that people must hear and believe gospel preaching in order for them to be converted and saved (Rom. 10:17); (2) Insistence that one’s sins are not forgiven until he is baptized in water (Mk. 16:16); (3) Insistence that unity with God and the faithful is broken when men deviate from the New Testament pattern for the church -whether in worship, mission or work, doctrine, organization, discipline, . etc. (1 Tim. 3:14-15); (4)”Insistence that conformity to the world makes one the enemy of God-whether in vulgar speaking, dancing, immodest dress, social drinking, adultery and fornication, anger fits, dishonesty, covetousness, frantic anxiety for material concerns, etc. (Jas. 4:4; Matt. 6:31). To which charge we simply reply, -“After the way which they call legalism, so worship I the God of my fathers.”

We are legalists after the order of Noah. Noah found grace in the eyes of God, not because he never sinned, but because he was a man who met the conditions of grace through active faith (Gen. 6:22; Heb. 11:7; 1 Pet. 3:20). Had he built the ark according to the divine specifications, except for making ten windows instead of one, or except in regard to the length of the ark, or except for the type wood used, he would not have met the conditions of grace. After the way which many call legalism, so served Noah the God of his fathers. And so must we serve God “by the law of faith,” according to “the law of the Spirit,” “under the law to Christ,” fulfilling “the law of Christ,” looking into and practicing “the perfect law of liberty,” fulfilling “the royal law” (Rom. 3:27; 8:2; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; Jas. 1:25; 2:8).


1. Marshall E. Patton, “Answers For Our Hope,” ‘Searching the Scriptures, Vol. XV, No. 9 (Sept. 1974), pp. 136-138.

2. Ibid.

3. William Wallace, “Not Under Law,” op. cit.

4. Patton, op. cit.

5. John T. McNeill, et. al., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion in Two Volumes (Vol. I), being Vol. XX of The Library of Christian Classics, p. 753.

6. Ibid., p. 533.

7. Robert D. Brinsmead (editor), “Justification by Faith,” Present Truth, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Aug. 1973), p. 27.

8. Robert D. Brinsmead, “Justification by Faith and Christian Ethics,” Ibid., Vol. 3, No. 3 (July 1974), p. 29.

9. Did not Christ live a sinless life (Heb. 4:15)? Yes, but not in order to fulfill the requirements of Calvin’s system. A perfect life was necessary so he could, as a lamb without spot and without blemish. die for sins of other, not his own (Isa. 53:6).

Truth Magazine XIX: 25, pp. 394-396
May 1, 1975