Gracious Legalism

By Mike Henderson

Paul said to those in the churches of Galatia,

You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly  portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Those in Galatia had received the Gospel from Paul during his first missionary journey (Acts 13). In chapter 4 of the letter he says that they even received him as an angel of God as Christ Jesus Himself (4:13-14). However, though they had received Paul’s gospel when he first came something had gone amiss as the above quotation indicates. We see that though they had received the Spirit by hearing with faith they were now seeking to be perfected by the flesh, by law. Looking to the whole of the letter we see that this perversion had been influenced by Jews who came in after Paul and brought “another gospel” (1:6-10) which, amazingly, those in Galatia were receiving as the true gospel. This was a teaching of the work of Christ plus the ongoing practice of Mosaic Law, both of which being necessary for salvation. This was a serious problem for those back in the beginning of the Church while Jews were still persecuting Christians and is still a problem today, but on a much smaller scale. The reason I  am addressing this text is not because we are under massive attacks from Judaism, but because this seems to be the primary, if not the only understanding of legalism the church seems to have. In other words one must work to be saved; this was my understanding of legalism which blinded me to my own  form or legalism.

This leads me to the purpose of this post and an explanation of the tile Gracious Legalism. My hope is to bring those to the truth who may think now as I formerly thought, which was, though I had been saved by grace, and would die for that truth, I was being kept in a right relationship with God by my own faithfulness (Gracious Legalism), rather than the once for all declaration from God that now and forever my standing before Him is as Christs because of Christs holiness being applied to my life through faith.

Now, let me give you a short autobiography of my life in Christ. I was saved by grace in late spring or early summer of 2005. I was 18, newly married, and my life had just been radically transformed by the redemption of my soul by the sacrificial death of Christ 2000 years ago being applied to me at this present time(2 Tim 1:8-10). This was in the midst of beginning to serve in a church as a youth leader. This church, like most churches these days, was considered “seeker sensitive” and the gospel was absent. That is not to say that the name of Jesus was not heard, it was frequently, however, He was never mentioned as is proper, which is as Lion and Lamb. He was the lamb slain for sins that seemed to have no consequence, because He was not also preached as the lion who will one day judge those sins with his vicious and terrible wrath. Meaning they were preaching a Christ who did not absorb the wrath of God for the sins of those who believe. If either the Lion of the Lamb is preached without the other it is no gospel, and when no gospel is preached inevitably, yet not intentionally (I don’t think), a “to-do” Christianity rather than a true Christianity is propagated. For as I have come to understand, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit never meant for us to understand orthopraxy without first and most understanding orthodoxy. In other words, we are never instructed in Christian living without first and most being instructed in gospel truth (see Eph. 1-3, Rom. 1-11, Col.1-2 with subsequent chapters teaching the outworking of those gospel truths).

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    • Tracy
    • January 21st, 2010

    Interesting article, but the last part was a tad confusing. There is a “to-do” in Christianity, but it makes no contribution to one’s salvation since the saving work Christ did alone. And from church to church it seems what those “to-do’s” are differ, but there is work to-do…the work of the ministry.

    Also from the article: “Looking to the whole of the letter we see that this perversion had been influenced by Jews who came in after Paul and brought “another gospel” (1:6-10) which, amazingly, those in Galatia were receiving as the true gospel.”

    While it is a short-cut to say “Jews” with a broad brush, in actuality, it was the Pharisee sect that were responsible for this “other gospel”. Additionally, I’m sure it didn’t help the situation any that after the Jerusalem council meeting where what James, Peter, Paul, the elders in accord with the Holy Spirit agreed to that later Peter played the coward again and Paul had to rebuke him to his face…. See More

    Still though, interesting. I wonder if the author finds any correlation between “seeker-sensitive” churches and “social gospel” / “liberation theology” churches?

      • mike H
      • January 22nd, 2010

      Hi Tracy, thank you for your comment. Let me start by apologizing for the confusion about the term a “to-do Christianity”. No church that I have been to has ever said they believe that salvation is by works. However, they also do not adequately teach about the grace that saves. “…they were preaching a Christ who did not absorb the wrath of God for the sins of those who believe.” Instead what is taught is this “Jesus died for your sins and if you will just accept Him into your heart you will be saved.” Rarely if ever is the nature of sin defined, nor do they discuss what Christ came to save men from, and why He had to die to accomplish salvation. From that so called gospel presentation they will then invite you to say a prayer and then assure you that the deal is done. From that point on in general all the sermons are a list of things “to-do”. However, if the gospel is not preached rightly then sinners are taught how to be a christian with no capacity to actually perform because they are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they are still dead in their sins. Since they are getting instruction in Christian conduct their orientation to God becomes works based, it is a “to-do Christianity”. Now to the believer who is in a church like this, they are never refreshed that the applied righteousness of Christ to their life by faith is why they are right with God, instead it becomes performance based. Men must hear the gospel preached rightly, which is all men have sinned; they have rebelled against God. This is manifest in the breaking of God’s law, and therefore all are under His hateful wrath which, when we die, we will physically experience forever in hell. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love for which He loves men sent His holy, perfect Son to die under His wrath as a satisfying substitute for all who will believe. This is crucial because upon belief the sinner is freed both from the penalty and power of sin (Romans ch. 6) and must be refreshed in this truth constantly(Romans 1:15; 1 Cor. 15:1-3). The gospel is the foundation from which all our good works go forth, therefore it must be preached first and most.

      As to correlations between seeker sensitive, liberation theology, and the social gospel, my limited exposure to the teachings of the latter two leads me to find a common thread being men need only be reformed rather than transformed. Meaning, their focus seems to be only immediate physical needs i.e. new government,new morality, or other “felt needs”, rather than the salvation of their condemned souls through the preaching of the Gospel.

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