A Brief History of Judaizers and Legalism (and How it Differs from Obedience)

I have posted before on the debate of legalism vs obedience, grace vs the Law, and the difference between ethical and ritual law both here and here; however, this is a topic that continues to come up and I feel the need to address it again.

Let’s face it; the modern Christian church is desperately in need of an overhaul. Or better yet, a good ol’ fashioned revival. We need to get back to our roots, back to teaching the uncomfortable yet joyously freeing truth of the gospel.

What is it we’ve gotten so wrong, you ask? We have somehow become so confused that we think that any hint of biblical obedience must mean we’ve become slaves to legalism. Anyone who dares to suggest that an Old Testament command ought to be kept is immediately shut down and accused of pharisaical talk. “But we’re under grace!” you say, or, “We are a New Testament church and no longer held to the Law.” People always seem to remember the bit about Jesus coming to fulfill the Law, but conveniently forget the part about him not coming to abolish it (Matthew 5:17). For these Christians, the death of Jesus on the cross immediately invalidates the authority of the Old Testament, rendering it as naught but a collection of interesting stories. Anyone who believes that the Old Testament still has relevance today and that joyfully desires to keep the Lord’s commands is condemned for being guilty of legalism.

legalism

To begin my rebuttal of this erroneous way of thinking, I believe we should first address the true definition of legalism. To quote Dr. C Matthew McMahon, the Biblical definition of legalism is “any person who takes the Law and uses it in a way which would merit salvation.” Basically, from the biblical standpoint, true legalists are people who use the law in an attempt to bring salvation to themselves rather than accepting that salvation can only come from Christ. The whole concept of legalism came about when Judaizers within the early church presented an incorrect version of the gospel which alleged that the key to heaven was a combination of faith in Jesus and works of obedience. They taught that an adherence to the Mosaic law was required for salvation, and that without both a belief in Christ and obedience to all Old Testament laws we can never be assured of our place in Heaven. Essentially, according to the Judaizers, all Gentiles must become Jewish before they can become Christian. Paul addresses this heresy throughout the book of Galations.

I am clarifying the definition and history of legalism because so many modern Christians seem to believe that anyone who asserts that our hearts should desire biblical obedience is guilty of legalism and should not be listened to. Let me be clear: at no point have I ever – nor will I ever – contend that salvation comes through our deeds. Our salvation can only come through Christ alone, and obedience should be a natural, heart-felt response to receiving and fully understanding the gift he has given us. It may seem a minor thing to some that Judaizers taught that we must follow the Law to be saved, while my assertion is that we do not receive salvation from the Law but rather that it should be a response to salvation. It is not splitting hairs, however. You see, I feel it important to note that our responsibility does not end upon receiving salvation. If we simply accept the salvation and then continue to live just as we did before becoming Christians (that is, to live and act like the rest of the world), then we are devaluing that ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made upon the cross. I do not believe that He allowed himself to be tortured and crucified as a sinner when he never sinned even once in his life for us to go on about our lives as though nothing had changed after accepting his selfless gift. True salvation – world-shattering, heart-changing, life-altering salvation – requires action and response from us. Our hearts were designed to love the Lord and to respond to Him.

So, what is that response? I can answer that question in one word: obedience. The Lord outlined throughout His word, in both the New and Old Testaments, how we are to conduct our lives. We are to love the Lord and keep His commands to be righteous, to live differently from the world, to be a light in the darkness, to be ever-striving for sanctification, and perhaps most important of all, to SHARE his gift of salvation with others. How can we ever hope to do these things without obedience? Can we realistically expect the unsaved world to see the light of Christ in us when we dismiss our duty to obedience, and use God’s grace as a license to live in sin? I understand that none of us can be perfect, and I do not profess to have it all figured out (not even close!), but I can tell you that my heart yearns to be more like Christ, and to be closer to the Lord. I cannot be like Jesus nor can I hope to grow closer to the Father in the absence of obedience.

If you glean nothing else from this post, let it be this: obedience is not a requirement for salvation, but rather a response to salvation.

My prayer is that today’s Christians will feel the Holy Spirit tugging on our heartstrings to return to the true teachings of the gospel, and to no longer believe the lie of watered-down Christianity. May we live boldly, love like Christ, and share the joy of his salvation with everyone we meet.

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