The Error of Legalism

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:1-3).

The background to the text is Acts 10, where the apostle Peter had a vision in which he was instructed to rise and kill to eat from a sheet with different animals —“reptiles and birds of the air.” The narrative further tells us Peter, upon further instructions from the Holy Spirit met eventually with Cornelius—a Gentile— and preached salvation to him and his household. It was upon returning to Jerusalem that some of the brethren took issues with his having fellowshipped with Gentiles. Peter’s response in the vision and the subsequent criticism of him by the brethren points us to the error of legalism in full force.

I believe you may have in your life encountered or are presently encountering people who are bogged down in “do’s and don’ts”. Their idea of Christianity is built on legalism. One may ask, what is Legalism? Legalism in Christian terms is making rules or works the basis of salvation. When we propose rules; do’s and don’ts for the justification of a sinner, we have signed up to Legalism.

Legalism is the excessive and improper use of the law (10 commandments, holiness laws, e.t.c). This legalism can take different forms. The first is where a person attempts to keep the Law in order to attain salvation. The second is where a person keeps the law in order to maintain their salvation. The third is when a Christian judges other Christians for not keeping certain codes of conduct that he thinks to be observed.¹

Simply, Legalism makes works or self-righteousness the basis for Christian living. To better appreciate the subject of Legalism, we will examine the response of some Jewish brethren when they heard Peter had been with Gentiles. And also examine Peter’s own responses in the vision.

Legalism Denies The Work Of Grace

Throughout all of Scripture, Salvation is only by grace through faith (Rom. 3:28; Eph.2:8-9; James 2:10). When Peter was instructed in the vision to kill and eat, he answered that “By no means, Lord ; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”(Acts 10:12-14). Peter was rebuked for calling unclean what God has sanctified. Further in the narrative, we understand how through that vision God was bringing salvation to the Gentile world through faith. Again, in the narrative, we come face to face with the fact that “it is God who justifies” (Rom. 8:33). When Peter protested he had not eaten any unclean thing, he was rebuked: “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:15).

Now pause on the words “What God has made clean”. This surely is a work of grace. If God doesn’t clean a sinner, no one can be saved. But out of his mercies, he saves and cleanses us.

Paul, in Galatians — a letter that opposes the error of Legalism — notes that “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.(Gal. 5:1). Legalism enslaves and Paul is here dealing with people who are making circumcision a matter for salvation. He didn’t take that lightly. Indeed when it comes to the matter of grace, any aberration must be dealt with with all seriousness. “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are a severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law”(Gal. 5:2-4).

You see, if we are to make any part of the law the basis for salvation, then we would have to keep the whole law because as James said, breaking one of the laws is breaking the whole law (James 2:10). What a burden to make laws, regulations and rules the basis of our salvation. No one can be saved who makes the law their focus. Legalism therefore denies the work of grace that God has wrought on behalf of sinners. The brethren criticised Peter for having eaten with Gentiles and in the process denying God’s work of grace.

Legalism Opposes Freedom In Christ

There is a freedom in Christ legalism opposes and we see the brethren in the narrative bogged down in Legalism. They saw nothing good out of the encounter between Peter and the Gentiles but their religious prejudice. Instead of rejoicing that Salvation has come to the Gentile world, they were concerned with their religious rites. The description of them, “the circumcision party” tells a lot. This points us to brethren who are still bound to keeping the law to be right before God. These “circumcision party” are mentioned at different places in the New Testament and whenever they are mentioned, grace is under attack.

In Philippians 3, after Paul has opened the chapter with a charge to “rejoice in the Lord”, he next warned the Philippians to “look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil.3:2). That expression “mutilate the flesh” is reference to circumcision and making it a requirement for salvation. One can argue that these circumcision party are “joy stealers.” Their insistence on circumcision rob people of their joy in the Lord. Instead of looking to the grace of God, they place their confidence in their works. Paul again says “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). You see, rather than glorying in Jesus Christ our Saviour, legalism glories in the flesh and makes self-righteousness rather faith in Jesus the basis of Salvation.

Charles R. Swindoll in The Grace Awakening notes that “God has given His children a wonderful freedom in Christ, which means not only freedom from sin and shame but also a freedom in lifestyle, so that we can become models of His grace.”². Here is a beautiful description of grace: “freedom from sin and shame.” Let no one dear friend hold you in the shackles of Legalism.

What Can We Do About Legalism?

Receive God’s Word By Faith

What made the difference in the life of the Gentiles is that they “had received the word of God.” It is even the Jews who testified to this. Now the phrase received the word of God means they believed it. They accepted it as the truth of God’s word and did indeed act on the word by faith. The best opposition to legalism is therefore faith. The believer must accept there is nothing more they can do to be accepted by God apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Paul in Galatians draws an analogy with Abraham’s faith and tells us that “just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:6-7).

Dear believer, be on the alert not to fall prey to any system of belief which prescribes rules for salvation. It is faith alone in Christ that saves. Amen

Notes:

1. Matt Slick, “What Is Legalism”, https://carm.org/what-is-legalism, accessed 7th April, 2019

2. Charles R. Swindoll, The Grace Awakening: Believing In Grace Is One Thing, Living It Is Another (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1990), 122-123

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