March 4, 2014 Broadcast

The Legalist Distortion

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Not every ethical situation in life has a Bible verse that explicitly addresses it. At that point, we are left with biblical principles to guide us. Perhaps there is a way that we could codify every perceivable infraction against these principles and use them as safeguards to prevent us from breaking God’s written Law. In this message entitled “The Legalist Distortion,” Dr. Sproul considers this, and warns us against the multiple ways people distort the grace of the gospel.

From the series: Building a Christian Conscience

Get the Donkey Who Carried a King Book and Audiobook for a Gift of Any Amount

Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Grace and Law?

  2. article

    When to Stop, When to Go, When to Slow Down

  3. devotional

    The Threat of Legalism

Grace and Law?

John Sartelle

“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). When one becomes a Christian there are certain changes that usually take place in his life. It was my privilege to witness God draw an Air Force general to Christ over a two-year period. When I first met this veteran of World War II he was an atheist, and his language was as “colorful” as his personality. I soon realized that his strong words misusing the Lord’s name were permanently sewn into the fabric of his everyday life. However, even though he was over eighty years of age when he was converted, his speech was modified as the Holy Spirit transformed his heart. The ungodly expressions of habit that had become part of his routine disappeared in a short time. Was my friend made righteous by his faith in Jesus or by the cessation of his cursing God? Was He saved by grace or by his “good work” of cleaning up his speech pattern?

You may think this question is too elementary for you. As a regular reader of Tabletalk you probably affirm the biblical truth that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Indeed, I do hope that you know you are a wretch of a sinner whose only hope is in grace alone. In Galatians 5:4 Paul explained that if you trust in obedience to the Law to save, you have cut yourself off from salvation through Christ. He was saying to the Galatians: “You cannot trust in Christ and in the Law to make you righteous.” In terms of salvation you must choose between the two. If you trust in the Law, then Jesus is of no use to you. You cannot work for some “pay off” from God and call it “grace.” Paul was saying you must choose between Christ and the Law.

I have come to believe that many of us, even those of us who subscribe to solus Christus and sola gratia, are not consistent in applying these incredible truths. Many times in our evaluations of other Christians and in our evangelism we choose the Law instead of Christ; we choose the Law instead of grace.

A young friend of mine was working for a Christian institution that professed to adhere to biblical orthodoxy. She came from a godly home. Her parents taught her and her siblings to celebrate daily God’s wonderful grace in their lives. She was a thinking young lady who lived an exemplary life through high school and college. One evening she came home with a young man she had been dating for some time to tell her parents with tears of contrition that she was pregnant. Her parents were crushed but reached out to her and the young man in grace. They wanted to marry, and after much counseling to confirm their commitment to each other, their vows were made and the union was celebrated in a worship service. The evangelical institution where she worked let her go a few weeks later. By the testimony of her employers her work was excellent, but they were under pressure from their constituents to let her go. Before a watching world this organization that gave allegiance to the doctrines of the Reformation chose the Law over grace. They had an opportunity to demonstrate grace and failed.

We live in a fallen world where life is messy. Legalism “shuns” the mess; grace meets the mess — grace embraces the prodigal and throws a party. So I ask you, reader, and I ask myself, have we really chosen Christ over the Law, or is it Christ and the Law? Have we chosen grace over the Law, or is it grace and the Law? What was it Paul said? “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law.” We can’t have it both ways.

Time and time again, as Christians evangelistically approached my friend, the Air Force general, they wanted him to clean up his life and become a Christian. They got the proverbial cart before the horse. They would rebuke him about his language instead of telling him about Jesus. In fact, one day he asked me why I had not said anything about his blasphemous words. I told him that he could clean up his mouth and he would be a “properly spoken” sinner still on his way to hell. 

O, dear reader, we must learn, “Jesus saves” and Jesus alone. The unmarried couple living next door to you, do we go and tell them they ought to be married, or do we tell them there is a Father who gave His Son for sinners? Jesus and the Holy Spirit not only save, but they clean up lives much more thoroughly than we can.

Am I not giving license to the Christian to sin with abandon? You know I am not! Usually people who make such accusations are evangelical “closet legalists” running in their pride to the Law because they think it shows them to be superior. When he denied Jesus in that courtyard, Peter did not say, “Well, Jesus told me I would do this, and I know He will forgive me. This is no big thing.” We read that he went out and wept bitterly. Jesus did not fire Peter. Instead, He met him for breakfast on the shore in Galilee.

When to Stop, When to Go, When to Slow Down

R.C. Sproul

The college I attended was situated in a small western Pennsylvania town in an area heavily populated by one of the largest gatherings of Amish people found in the United States. The Amish are a delightful group totally committed to separation from this world. They go out of their way to avoid any social mixing with the non-Amish, or the “Gentiles,” who are present among them. They are easy to discern, as the clothing they wear is a clearly defined uniform, commonly consisting of blue denim. The men wear beards. Their clothes are never adorned with buttons but are gathered together with hooks and eyes.

The Amish make their way about the area in horse-drawn buggies. They studiously avoid the use of any modern devices and conveniences, such as cars, tractors, electricity, or running water. An Amish house can easily be identified by the presence of sheets hanging over the windows rather than the more ornate curtains that would indicate the home of somebody more worldly.

In any case, the entire system of Amish religion is dedicated to a kind of separatism that sees the use of modern conveniences such as electricity and gasoline operated engines as a descent into worldliness. The lifestyle of the Amish is driven in large measure by an ethical commitment that regards such separation as necessary for spiritual development.

The rest of the Christian community regards the use of buttons, electricity, and gasoline as a matter of moral or ethical indifference. That is, there is no inherent or intrinsic ethical content with respect to the use of the gasoline engine. To be sure, the use of the gasoline engine may be the occasion of sin if we use our cars in an ungodly manner, risking people’s lives and limbs by reckless speeding, for example. Yet the very existence of an automobile and its function in society has no intrinsic, ethical content. We regard automobiles, electricity, or telephones as matters that are adiaphora — things that are morally or ethically indifferent.

The concept of adiaphora was developed in the New Testament when the apostle Paul had to address emerging ethical concerns in the nascent Christian community. Christians coming out of a background of idolatry were particularly sensitive to issues such as whether it was appropriate to eat meat that had been offered to idols. After using such meat in their godless religious ceremonies, the pagans sold it in the market place. Some early Christians were convinced that such meat was tainted by its very use in pagan religion, so they went to great lengths to avoid it, thinking, according to their scruples for godliness, it was necessary to have no connection with such meat. Paul pointed out that the meat itself was not inherently good or evil, so the eating of meat offered to idols was a matter of ethical indifference. Yet at the same time, the apostle gave significant instructions as to how the Christian community is to relate to those people who develop scruples about certain behaviors that are not by nature ethically charged.

This problem that faced the early church persists in every Christian generation. Though we don’t struggle with the question of eating meat offered to idols today, we have other issues that touch upon the question of adiaphora. American fundamentalism, for example, has elevated adiaphora to a matter of major concern. In some areas of the church and of the Christian community, questions of watching television, going to movies, wearing makeup, dancing, and the like are considered matters of spiritual discernment. That is to say, people are instructed that true spirituality necessitates the avoidance of dancing and going to the movies, as well as other matters of this sort.

The problem with this particular approach to ethics is that these elements, on which the Bible is silent, become ethical matters of the highest consideration for some Christians. In a word, the adiaphora become elevated to the status of law, and people’s consciences become bound where God has left them free. Here a form of legalism emerges that is on a collision course with the biblical principal of Christian liberty. Even more important is that a substitute morality replaces the true ethical criteria that the Bible prescribes for godly people.

Although on the surface it seems rigid and severe to define spirituality as involving the avoidance of dancing, wearing makeup, and going to movies, in reality it vastly oversimplifies the call to godliness that the Bible gives to Christian people. It is much easier for someone to avoid going to movies, for example, than it is to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. True godliness concerns much weightier matters than superficial ways of distinguishing ourselves from our unbelieving neighbors.

At the same time, when these adiaphorous matters are elevated into the status of law, and people become convinced that God requires them to follow a certain path, the Bible gives instructions on how we are to be sensitive to them. It is not a matter of Christian liberty to bash or to ridicule those who have these scruples. We are called to be sensitive to them. We are not to offend unnecessarily those referred to in the Bible as weaker brothers. On the other hand, sensitivity to the weaker brother stops at the point where he elevates his sensitivity to become the law or defining rule of Christian behavior.

In every age and in every culture, discerning the difference between that which God requires and prohibits for His people, and that which is indifferent, requires a significant knowledge of sacred Scripture, as well as an earnest desire to be obedient to the Lord. There is enough in principle to keep us busily engaged in the pursuit of godliness and obedience without adding to it matters that are ethically indifferent.

How this issue applies to the big question of Christian worship is no small matter. But wrestle through it we must if we are to remain obedient to the living God and receive what He offers as the church worships Him — a taste of heaven.

The Threat of Legalism

If church history teaches us anything, it is that legalism — the belief that we must add something to grace to make us acceptable in God’s sight — perpetually threatens the church. The medieval church, for example, made the system of penance a precondition of divine forgiveness. More recently, some traditions identify true Christians as those who do not drink, dance, or smoke.

The first legalists in church history were the Judaizers described in the New Testament. These false teachers asserted that Gentile converts must believe in Jesus and do works of the Law, such as circumcision, to be declared righteous before God (Acts 15:1–35; Gal. 5:2–6). Even the Philippian church needed to be warned about the Judaizers, and we find this warning in today’s passage.

Using the word dogs, Paul ironically contrasts the Judaizers’ false gospel with the true Apostolic gospel (Phil. 3:2). The ancient Jews did not keep dogs as pets because the dogs living in ancient Israel were wild, unclean scavengers. In turn, the Jews often applied the word dogs pejoratively to Gentiles, for they regarded non-Jews as unclean. In calling members of the Judaizing party “dogs,” Paul warns the Philippians that these Judaizers are actually filthy, even if said Judaizers believe they are cleansing Gentile converts by way of circumcision.

Paul continues, calling the Judaizers “evildoers . . . those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil. 3:2). God instituted circumcision as an old covenant sacrament (Gen. 17:1–14), but its new covenant fulfillment is baptism (Col. 2:11–12). By imposing circumcision on Gentile converts, the Judaizers turned back the clock, returning to the old covenant era of shadows and denying the sufficiency of the cross. The significance of Philippians 3:2 is also seen in that old covenant priests who mutilated themselves became unfit for service (Lev. 21:1–5). Under the new covenant, requiring the circumcision of Gentile believers is akin to mutilating God’s priestly nation (1 Peter 2:5); so the Judaizers, despite their intent, really promoted uncleanness.

True circumcision is heart circumcision, the baptism into (union with) Jesus by faith (Rom. 6:3–4; Col. 2:11). This sets us apart as holy, which is why all who trust in Christ alone are “the circumcision,” the true worshippers of God (Phil. 3:3).

Since the beginning,

our aim has been to help Christians know what they believe, why they believe it, how to share it, and how to live it…

More about Renewing Your Mind