Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Legalism vs. Liberty (Part 1)

On Sunday, I began our Sunday school lesson on Galatians 2 by writing two words on the board and asked for either their definitions or the connotations or implications of these words. These words were “Legalism” and “Liberty“.

Concerning legalism, most people (including my class) would define it as strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to a law or to a rule.1 Generally, in Christian circles, the title of legalism is applied to people who place boundaries or rules on themselves or others that are derived from biblical principles, but are not necessarily explicit biblical commands. Some of these types of rules can be seen at some churches or Christian schools and they include regulations on how a woman can dress (i.e. she must wear a dress or have long hair), no card playing of any kind (because it might appear to be gambling), no dancing (because it might lead to impurity), and other things.

We then went to discuss what liberty means and implies and only one word was said in the long space of time that was given for an answer. Freedom.

Could someone consider the statement “you should not commit adultery” as a legalistic requirement? The initial answer might be no, but is that true? This statement (the 7th of the 10 Commandments) is a rule that Christians ought to follow.2 I think that because Scripture so clearly states that the sexually impure will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) and that Christians will be sexually pure because of their new nature (1 Corinthians 6:11).3 So, being true to what legalism means, technically it is legalistic (i.e. a rule that should be strictly adhered to) even though no true Christian would probably classify it in this way.

Where does application of this command to be sexually pure go from being something that is universally understood and adhered to into being a legalistic imposition on the command? If I asked you that question, the following discussion between us would boil down to an issue of what action is commanded and where we have some freedom to apply that principle to our lives in various ways without compromising the letter and the intent of the command.

That brings us directly to the other issue of liberty. Now, where legalism was defined (or over defined and overused), liberty is just the opposite and is a very vague concept in our minds and is usually just thought of as a synonym for freedom. As an American, liberty means freedom, and it means that no one controls what I do. If I want to do something, I basically can. If I were to ask an American from the 1700’s what liberty meant, I would get an answer that probably included some reference to King George and being free from the tyrannical rule of England. Likewise, if I were to ask this same question to an African-American in post Civil War America, I would hear an answer of no longer being in slavery and not being owned any longer.

Because of the vagueness of our primary understanding of liberty and our liberal use and definition of legalism, I am advocating for a more specific use of these terms in our Christian dialogue.

When we discuss religion (Islam, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Christianity, or whatever), I would argue that we should not use the term legalism unless it is referring to a works righteous system of salvation. In the case of Christians who put restrictions on clothing, food, drink, or recreation, usually the reasoning is not one of attaining or maintaining salvation, but it is more for the edification and sanctification of the individual or community of people. This is very different from Islam where you must do the 5 Pillars in order to possibly have a chance that Allah will be merciful to you. Although the others are more veiled works-righteous systems, Mormonism, Hinduism, and every other world religion is basically a works righteous (quid pro quo) system. Similarly, Catholicism teaches that one must be baptized, take the Lord’s Supper, and do other things to be saved, to keep your salvation, or to regain it once you’ve lost it. That is different than saying that one should do these things once they are saved as a means of sanctification, and therefore it is a works-righteous and non-Christian system.4

It is this exact issue of legalism (works righteousness) verses liberty that Paul was referring to in Galatians 2. In this text, Paul recounts his experience with the heretical teaching of some of the Pharisaic converts to Christianity and the resulting council that was held at Jerusalem. When reading Galatians 2 and Acts 15 (the parallel historical account of this situation), you find that some of the Pharisees who had converted to Christianity had gone down to Antioch and were explicitly teaching that all people (Jew or gentile) must be circumcised (Acts 15:1) and keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5) in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas opposed this teaching vigorously, and because of the disagreement they went to Jerusalem and, “submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain.” (Galatians 2:2)

There was much debate over this issue (Acts 15:7), but the issue was settled when Peter and James both declared that the teaching of the Judaizers was wrong, and therefore heretical. Peter was explicit in stating that both Jews and gentiles were saved in the same way, “He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:9)

Since the legalism of the pharisaic teachers was condemned and the liberty of the Christian was defended, I feel that we (today) must define liberty in the same context as we defined legalism and not leave it as a way to excuse poor or unedifying decisions. I think that we should define liberty with three basic statements that will get to what the bulk (I think) of what Christian liberty, or the law of liberty, implies. Christian Liberty says that:

  1. We have freedom from needing to fulfill the law in order to be righteous. God demands holiness, perfection, and sinlessness in order to be acceptable to God (1 Peter 1:15,16). We no longer have the requirement to fulfill the law in order to be made acceptable to God because Christ has already done that (Matthew 3:13-17; 5:17). Not only that, but it is impossible to be holy before God because everyone is guilty of sin (Romans 3:23; Galatians 3:22). So, the freedom that we have through faith in Jesus Christ is truly a great freedom from the oppressive and impossible yoke of becoming righteous by works.

    “Christ fulfills the Law by His person and work. So believers are under a new law; the obligation to walk by the Spirit of Life (Rom. 8:2-4). If we are under the Spirit then we are not under the Law (Gal. 5:18).”5

  2. We have freedom from the slavery and bondage to sin. We are also freed from our slavery and bondage to sin. All people are slaves of sin before Christ saves us through faith in Him (John 8:34; Romans 6:6,16-20; Ephesians 6:6).

  3. We have freedom to serve and follow Christ. Before we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), and our good and righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), not as acceptable or pleasing to God. But since we have been made alive in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13; 1 Peter 3:18), we can then go forward in good works “which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) But this only happens after we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, and only as a fruit of that salvation, not as a way to attain it.

Part 2 will follow very shortly, and in it I will deal with the practical application of shunning legalism in favor of grace and mercy and cling to the liberty in Christ.


2 I would argue that Christians, as a rule follow it. If you claim to be a Christian by you are a habitual adulterer or fornicator, your actions betray your claim, and you likely are not a Christian.

3 Again, this is not a statement that someone who commits adultery is by definition not a Christian, but I am referring more to the lifestyle or ongoing unchecked nature of sin versus a war with sin. See 1 John and Romans 7:14-25 for more on this concept.

4 I firmly believe that people can be saved in a Catholic Church. Not because of any mystical “specialness” of that church, but because the Word of God is read there and because the basic doctrines about the deity of Christ, the incarnation, and the Trinity may be heard. I believe that one can be saved in spite of the bad theology and wrong gospel that is preached there. I think the same thing regarding modern non-Trinitarian churches, a health and wealth charlatan of a TV preacher like Benny Hinn, and other venues. It is because of the power of the Word of God that this is possible.


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