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Testimony of Truth
People of The Living God
Webster’s definition of legalism is two -fold:
1. strict, often too strict and literal, adherence to law or to a code.
The doctrine of salvation by good works.
While both of these definitions are correct, they are generally misunderstood and misapplied. We often hear accusations of “legalistic” hurled at people who endeavor to live above reproach regarding God’s law, as if it is somehow sinful to obey the word of God.
On the basis of strict adherence to law or a code, we must confess that Jesus Christ was the most legalistic person who every walked the earth, for He stated emphatically that He very strictly adhered to the will of His Father:
“I came…not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38).
“I seek not mine own will, but the will of the father” (John 5:30).
“I do nothing of myself: but as the Father hath taught me, I speak these things” (John 8:28).
“I do always those things that please Him” (John 8:29).
“I have kept my Father’s commandments” (John 15:10).
“as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do” (John 14:31).
So, it is a fact that Jesus followed the Father’s orders to the letter.
At the same time, He drew a line between the Father’s will and the traditions and commandments of man. He was not about to toady to the demands of the religious zealots of His day who were so apt to “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.”
Their vain conceptions of righteousness, all of which revolved around outward show of piety and religious ritualism, became transparent before His gaze, for He knew the workings of the human heart.
Man is religious by nature. He takes delight in being absorbed in various practices which, to himself, denote a certain measure of godliness or holiness.
Specific dress codes, mannerisms, affectatious behavior meant to impress others are some of the more common actions used to prove one’s sanctity.
By way of example, there are those bodies of people whose men would not be seen wearing a necktie. To them it is not only disgraceful, but sinful, because it speaks of pride. But, there are others who, for the same reasons, would not be seen without a tie. Not only would they feel half-dressed, they would consider it demeaning and uncouth to appear at a religious gathering in such a manner.
Which of these two views is correct?
Neither, for this is legalism! Strict adherence to a code which is not based upon the words of the Father or His Son has no redeeming value whatsoever. In fact, such practice can be very dangerous because it becomes a screen or a façade behind which people hide their true selves, not only from others but from themselves as well.
To observe and obey the words of God is not legalism (as proved by Jesus’ testimony). God commanded Israel to obey all the words of the law or risk annihilation. He was not recommending that they become legalistic but obedient, for God knew what was best for them.
Over the years, scribes added to God’s code their own versions of righteousness, most of which involved doing things which were immediately evident to the human eye. Thus, Jesus berated the Pharisees, “for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23).
The motive behind these actions is described in verses 5 and 6, same chapter:
“But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries (a signet worn on the forehead and arm to denote a prayerful
attitude; to make a greater impression, these were enlarged), and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts,” etc. The Pharisees were geniuses at pretense – legalists, true – but disobedient to the word of God.
At the same time, however, it is possible to strive to keep the law of God with the wrong motive, or for the wrong reasons (which brings us to definition number 2); that is, to secure our salvation by good works. Good works, alone, have never saved anyone, “for by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9).
Salvation is not obtained by works of goodness. Had it been possible to gain salvation by such good behavior, or even adherence to law or a code of ethics, then Jesus would not have needed to die. Man through his own efforts and diligence could have ascended the ladder of righteousness and possessed eternal life.
But the Scriptures declare that this was impossible. Mankind cannot save himself. There is no single act of benevolence nor any combination of good deeds which can absolve man’s sins, rehabilitate his soul, transform him, and make him a child of God.
Grace and faith are the divine increments of our salvation and both are gifts from God. They originate in and emanate from Him and are not subject to, nor bound by, the whims of mankind.
Their dispensation is not based upon the inherent goodness of the recipient, nor are they governed by the degree of degradation of the person(s) involved.
Thus, Saul of Tarsus was eligible to receive the grace and faith gifts from God as was Cornelius, even though Saul was guilty of falsely accusing saints and consenting to their deaths, while Cornelius was a devout and praying man who gave to the poor.
Grace has no favorites; it caters only to the needs of the needy: it forgives the past, grants strength for the present, and promises help and hope for the future. It is understanding of man’s fallen state and takes into account his inability to help himself.
Faith makes it possible to believe in grace, to accept the truth that God so loved the world that He gave Jesus, to grasp the forgiveness of God, and to know that He is able to keep that which we have committed unto Him.
Good works, then, are the net result of that which grace and faith have already wrought in the heart, and not vice versa. Works do not obtain nor secure salvation; but they can testify that salvation has come, and it is upon this premise that the divine economy is generated.
Obedience to God and producing good works are predicated upon LOVE. Jesus stated it most succinctly with these words: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). There are far too many religious people who are keeping the commandments as a duty or as a supposed admittance into the kingdom of God. That is legalism but it will not work. Any effort to keep the law apart from the compelling force of love for God is in vain.
We observe His words because we love Him, not because we are coerced by fear or dread of the consequences. “For this is the love of God, that we
keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous” (I John 5:3).
His commandments are a delight to those who love God, and they do not fear legalism, for they obey the One they love, because they love – and that is not legalistic!