By Mike Willis
In 1 Timothy 1:8, Paul wrote, “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” With all of the recent writings about “law,” one could get the impression that law is bad.
Those in the grace-unity movement have emphasized that the New Testament is a series of love letters instead of a legal code. Here is the typical statement of the grace-unity doctrine:
The Apostolic epistles do not compromise a written code. They were never intended to be a compilation of laws . . . . The apostolic writings are guidelines to happiness. No one confuses the guidelines on the highway, provided for safety and convenience, with a statute book (Mission Messenger, Vol. 32, No. 11, p. 162).
The grace-unity advocates repeatedly condemn legalism, charging brethren such as ourselves with being guilty of that sin.
Man cannot establish his own righteousness, and anyone who thinks that he can and seeks to do so is really “ignorant of God’s righteousness” as the apostle Paul says.
But this is exactly what we who are heirs of the American Restoration Movement have done and are still doing to a large extent. We have reduced Christianity to a legalistic relationship contrary to the teachings of the new covenant scriptures . . . . We who are heirs of the American Restoration Movement are steeped in legalism” (Jimmy Albert, “A Zeal Without Knowledge – Legalism,” Outreach [May/June 1977], pp. 5,7).
Consequently, I want to study what the Scriptures teach about “legalism.”
What Is Legalism?
To begin my study of legalism, I went to Young’s Analytical Concordance to find all of the passages in which “legalism” was condemned. The concordance went directly from “leg” to “legion,” without listing “legalism.” That should tell me something.
I then turned to “law” and “lawful” to see what the Scriptures said about this subject. I found several entries that referred to “that which is lawful” (cf. Matt. 12:2,4,10,12; 19:3; 20:15,17). 1 could not find any criticism from the Lord for someone asking, “Is it lawful?” Indeed, several Scriptures teach men to ask just such questions (Jn. 8:32; 1 Jn. 4:1; Acts 17:11).
Then I also found some passages which condemned the effort to be justified by the “works of the law” (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16). This I understood to affirm that man could not be saved by perfect conformity to law, whether the law of Moses or the law of Christ, because all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). This idea corresponded to the dictionary definition of “legalism” – “strict, often too strict and literal, adherence to law; in theology, the doctrine of salvation by good works.” The second definition, the theological definition of salvation by good works, affirms that man can earn his salvation by his good works, by perfect conformity to the law. This is not true because no amount of good works can forgive any sin.
The problem which faced me then was this: “Who among us is teaching salvation by good works, by perfect conformity to the law?” I have neither read nor heard any preacher among us affirm that man can earn his salvation by good works. Consequently, I was unable to conclude that those writing in opposition to “legalism” were opposing the figment of their imagination.
Redefining the Terms
During this part of the study, I found this comment about “legalism” from Gordon H. Clark, my former professor at Butler University, widely known philosopher and author. He called my attention to the modernist use of the charge of “legalism” saying,
The term legalism in theology used to designate a theory of justification by works. Liberals have now redefined it so as to exclude rules, laws, and obedience from moral living. Amorphous love replaces definite commands. This enables the liberals to transfer the odium of legalism in its historic sense to the evangelical view that is not subject to such a criticism (“Concerning Justification,” Christianity Today [16 March 1973], p. 5).
Now, things began to fall into place as I understood what was occurring among brethren through the charge of “legalism.” Some of my brethren, under the influence of modernism, have begun to criticize those who call for conformity to the Bible pattern for morality, salvation, church organization, corporate worship, etc. as “legalists.” They do not mean that we teach salvation by perfect obedience. What they mean is that they do not believe there are any rules and laws which man must obey to be pleasing to God! This depreciation of the law of God manifests a sinsick attitude toward God’s revealed word. It is a conscious effort, on the part of those who cannot cite Bible authority for what they practice, “to transfer the odium of legalism in its historic sense” to those who call for book, chapter and verse authority for all that we do and teach.
What the Bible Says About the Law
I would like to present some of the statements from the Old Testament Scriptures which demonstrate what God says about the law. These are drawn from Deuteronomy 4-6.
1. The Law is the veritable word of God. The law is the “commandments of God” (4:2), his statutes and judgments (4: 1). The law is not the invention of men, even good men such as Moses. The law is the word of God.
2. The Law should be strictly followed. “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (4:2). “Ye shall observe to do therefore as the Lord your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (5:32).
3. Man shows wisdom and understanding when he walks in obedience to the Law. “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations” (4:6).
4. God drew near to Israel by giving her the Law. “For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for. And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (4:7-8).
5. Obedience to the Law comes from love for God. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart . . .” (6:4-6). D. Davis wrote, “The love of the Lawgiver produces love of his law. Law is a projection of God’s thought, a mirror of his mind, and overt act of love. The true child will highly esteem every known wish of its father” (The Pulpit Commentary: Deuteronomy, p. 128). Writing in Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Deuteronomy, A. Gosman said,
It is clear also from the reference of our Lord to this command, that the law and the Gospel do not differ as an outward and carnal service from an inward and spiritual one. Love holds the same prominence in both, but the gospel gives new and peculiar motives to enforce this love (95).
One demonstrates his love for God by his obedience to the Lord’s law.
6. This law was given for man’s good. “And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us” (6:24-25).
Jesus’ Teaching On Drawing Near To God
When Jesus confronted the Pharisees who rejected the revealed word of God in order to cling to their traditions, he boldly proclaimed that their spirit was the spirit of rebellion which separated man from his God. He stated what the traditions of men do:
1. Cause men to lay aside the commandments of God (Mk. 7:8).
2. Cause men to reject the commandments of God (Mk.7:9).
3. Make the word of God of none effect (Mk. 7:13).
4. Cause men to transgress the commandments of God (Matt. 15:3).
These comments demonstrate that Jesus thought that the “traditions of men” could be distinguished from the “commandments of God” and that men should obey the commandments of God and reject the traditions of men. Consequently, he made this declaration regarding those who lay aside the commandments of God in order to keep their traditions:
Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophecy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men (Matt. 15:8-9).
Those who seek to draw “nigh” to God through the commandments of men are only guilty of hypocrisy.
We can see a modern application of Jesus’ statement in our own day. The Catholic celebration of Christmas is a ceremony in which the religious leaders “draw nigh” to God “with their mouth and honor” God “with their lips.” Nevertheless, those who participate in this ceremony have a heart “that is far from” God.
The heart that “draws nigh” unto God is the heart of the man who approaches God through his Law. Recognizing that the Law is the relevation of the mind of God and resolving not to depart from the law either to the right hand or left are necessary to have a heart that is near God. Jesus taught that men draw nigh unto God through obedience to the revealed Law!
The spirit of innovation comes from a heart that is “far away” from God. Regardless of how much love for God might be professed, departure from the revealed Law of God takes one away from (it does not draw us near) God! Those who have departed from the faith to walk in the commandments of men are hypocritical when they honor God with their lips. The man who draws nigh to God is the man who abides in the doctrine of God and approaches God in the revealed way!
Those Who Shout “Legalism” Are Libertines
The modernists among us who condemn brethren who call for book, chapter, and verse authority for everything we practice or preach are libertines, men who reject the restraints of law. We need to recognize the modernists among us who cry “legalism” just as we identify the modernists in the denominations. Their rejection of God’s law has not taken them so far as those further down the road of modernism have gone, but it is the same leaven of apostasy which is working in both cases. Where you hear the cry “legalist,” look for the man who refuses to confine himself to the law of God. Those who shout “legalism” have no appreciation for what God’s revelation to man does. They need a good baptism in Psalm 119.
Under the entry “Legalists,” McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature warns against the danger of releasing men from responsibility to obey God’s law. They described some antinomians saying,
They think that whatever leads or leaves men, without distinctly rejecting Christian virtue, to feel little anxiety and take little pains about it; anything which, though perhaps not so meant, is liable to be so understood by those who have the wish to leave them without any feeling of real shame, or mortification, or alarm on account of their own faults and moral deficiencies, so as to make them anxious and watchful only against seeking salvation by good works, and not at all against seeking salvation without good works – all this (they consider) is likely to be much more acceptable to the corrupt disposition of the natural man than that which urges the necessity of being “careful to maintain good works.”
In their admonition, the writer said, “Christian teachers should not shrink, through fear of incurring the wrongful imputation of ‘legalism,’ from earnestly inculcating the points which the apostles found it necessary to dwell on with such continual watchfulness and frequent repetition” (XV:325).
I suggest that we, too, need to avoid being driven off preaching the oracles of God by those modernists among us who point their accusing finger and shout “legalists.” For “we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8).
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 9, pp. 258, 278-279
May 3, 1990