The Christian, the Law, and Legalsim, Part 1 (of 6 Parts)
by Karl Kemp 12/18/2012 / Bible Studies
This paper was originally published in December 1997. It has been modified in several ways for this internet version of the paper (June 2006). For one thing, the original paper was done using a Smith-Corona word processor that didn't permit me to use italics, different size fonts, footnotes, etc. I converted that document to a Word document (using a scanner) to make the internet version of this paper. Some of the quotations (or parts of the quotations) were deleted for the internet version. Now in November 2011, I am breaking the complete internet version of this paper into six parts, so I can put these articles on this internet article site, and I am making some improvements at this time.
I frequently make comments in the middle of quotations using brackets [ ] or [[ ]] to make the brackets more obvious.
"Scripture Quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission." (www.Lockman.org)
(These page numbers go with the complete version of this paper.)
1. Introduction..... 4
Several Quotations from the Book "The Law, The Gospel,
and the Modern Christian: Five Views"..... 8
2. Christians are Enabled, and Required, TO KEEP THE LAW OF GOD, Including the Law Contained in the Old Testament, Excluding the Ceremonial Law. 10
Matthew 5:17-48. 10
Matthew 7:23; 13:41-43; and 19:17b. 11
Matthew 22:36-40 (Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28) with Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14. 11
Romans 2:1-16. 11
Romans 2:26-29. 14
Romans 8:4. 16
1 Corinthians 9:20, 21; Galatians 6:2. 16
Hebrews 8:10; 10:16 with Jeremiah 31:33. 16
James 1:18-2:13. 17
James 4:11, 12. 19
1 John 3:4. 20
Some Other Verses to Consider. 20
3. Christians Are Enabled, and Required, TO KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS of God/Christ. 20
Matthew 28:19, 20. 20
Luke 17:10. 20
John 14:15-24. 21
John 15:10-17. 21
1 Corinthians 7:19. 21
1 Corinthians 14:37. 21
Ephesians 6:1-3. 21
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. 22
2 Thessalonians 3:4-15. 22
1 Timothy 6:13, 14. 23
2 Peter 2:21. 23
2 Peter 3:2. 23
1 John 2:1-6. 23
1 John 3:22-24. 23
1 John 5:1-4. 24
2 John 1:4-6. 25
Revelation 12:17; 14:12. 26
4. Christians Are Enabled, and Required, TO OBEY God/Christ (including His Word/Law/commandments). 26
Luke 6:46-49. 26
John 3:36. 26
Romans 2:8. 26
Romans 6:16-18. 26
Romans 10:16. 26
2 Corinthians 2:9. 27
2 Corinthians 10:1-11, especially 10:5, 6. 27
Galatians 5:7. 28
Ephesians 2:2; 5:6. 28
Philippians 2:12-16. 28
2 Thessalonians 1:8. 30
Hebrews 4:11. 30
Some Other Verses on the Requirement for Obedience. 30
5. Christians Are Enabled, and Required, TO LIVE/WALK IN RIGHTEOUSNESS,
which means living/walking in the will of God, according to His Word/Law/Commandments. 30
6. Christians Are Enabled, and Required, TO BE HOLY/TO LIVE IN HOLINESS, which Includes Living in the Will of God, According to His Word/Law/Commandments. 34
Romans 6:19. 34
1 Thessalonians 4:1-8. 35
1 Peter 1:13-19. 35
Ephesians 4:17-24; John 17:11. 35
7. Christians Are Enabled TO DO THE WORKS that Are Required According to God's Word/Law/Commandments, by His grace/Spirit through faith; the works aren't optional. 37
Acts 26:20. 37
Ephesians 2:10. 37
Titus 1:15, 16. 38
Titus 2:14. 38
Revelation 2:1-7; 3:1-6, 14-22. 38
Some Other Verses that Will Help Us Understand Works. 38
8. Doesn't the New Testament Teach that the Mosaic Law/Old Covenant Has Been Set Aside and that Christians Aren't Under this Law? And Doesn't it Teach that No One Will Be Justified by Doing Works of the Law?.... 38
9. Legalism 40
Quotations Dealing with Legalism and a Few Other Matters Relevant to this Paper. 41
Law and Gospel. 43
Martin Luther (AD 1483-1546). 43
Ulrich Zwingli (AD 1484-1531). 44
John Calvin (AD 1509-1564). 44
More on the Lutheran and Calvinistic Views of the Law. 44
Reformed Tradition. 45
Dispensational Antinomianism. 46
More on Dispensational Antinomianism and the No-Lordship Viewpoint 46
Further Quotations Dealing with the State of the Church in Our Day. 47
1. INTRODUCTION. A few months ago I was asked a question regarding what is legalism for Christians, and regarding the Christian's relationship to the law of God. I gave a brief answer but later decided it would be beneficial to give a more complete answer to this question. As I started preparing the answer, it became obvious that it would require a paper to adequately cover this topic. There's much confusion in the Body of Christ on this topic, and there's much inadequate and out-of-balance thinking. I'm speaking of missing the balance regarding what the Scriptures teach.
The thing that motivated me the most to write this paper was the fact that this topic is so relevant to the all-important topic of Christians living in righteousness and holiness, with the victory over sin. Much of this paper is directly applicable to that topic and will help the reader better understand that topic. We desperately need the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches regarding repentance, redemption, righteousness, holiness, faith, law, works, legalism, salvation, etc. in the Body of Christ. For one thing, Christians can unite around the balanced truth, and we should be united according to the Bible (cf. John 17:20-23; Eph. 4:3-6).
The Table of Contents will enable the reader to see where we're going. In SECTIONS 2-7 I demonstrate from the Scriptures (mostly the New Testament) that Christians are enabled (by God's grace/Spirit), and required, to keep the moral law of God (including the moral law found in the Old Testament, but not the ceremonial law of the old covenant), to obey God, to be righteous and holy, and to do the necessary works (the works of righteousness). It's important to see that we need God's moral law to know what it means for Christians to be righteous and holy, to walk in love, etc. It's also important for us to have a proper perspective regarding God's law: It's not that we must obey God and keep His commandments (though we must), but that we have the great privilege of obeying God, of keeping His commandments, and of coming into divine order, into peace with God, and [before long] into eternal glory. In SECTION 8 we'll consider the verses where the apostle Paul said Christians aren't under the Mosaic Law. We're aiming for the balanced truth of what Paul said. In what senses is it true that Christians aren't under the Mosaic Law, and in what context did Paul make these assertions? In SECTION 9 we'll discuss what legalism means for Christians. The first quotations in the APPENDIX help explain the different approaches to the moral law of the Bible (including the Mosaic Law) by Martin Luther and the Lutherans and by Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin (key leaders of the Reformed churches) and the Reformed (often called Calvinistic) tradition. Other quotations from three books by John MacArthur help explain dispensational antinomianism and no-lordship salvation, and they point out some key problems we must face, and deal with, in the church of our day.
There's quite a bit of legalism in the Body of Christ, and we all have the potential to be in legalism to one degree or another. It can be a serious problem. There are, however, many other problems equal to, or greater than, legalism in the Body of Christ: There's far-too-much sin and worldliness (actually any sin is too-much sin). There's far-too-little recognition of sin as sin. There's far-too-much viewing Christianity in a man-centered way (instead of a proper God-centered way), putting most of the emphasis on our self-esteem, our desires, our opinions, our rights, and our needs (instead of putting the emphasis on our obligation to learn God's will and to make it top priority to do His will by His grace, for His glory, and for our eternal good). There's far-too-little fear of God and repentance. There's far-too-much emphasis on forgiveness and right-standing with God (though these things are an important part of the truth of the gospel) while there's far-too-little understanding of the fact that the Bible teaches that Christians are enabled, and required, to live/walk in righteousness and holiness by grace/the Spirit through faith, based on the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our faith and our walk/life in Christ cannot rise above our understanding of what the Bible teaches. It's of crucial significance for Christians to rightly divide God's Word, and especially regarding the basics of the gospel. It's necessary for us to know and understand, and for us to believe (and not doubt), that the Bible teaches that Christians are enabled, and required, to walk in righteousness and holiness with the victory over sin. These things aren't optional; they are mandatory for God's people, according to the Scriptures. This is good news! The more we understand and teach the balanced truth of God's Word, the more we'll see a healthy, Biblical fear of God and repentance, and the more we'll see Christians with faith that yields righteousness and holiness, to the glory of God.
We must always keep in mind that the righteousness Christians have comes from God; it's His righteousness imputed and IMPARTED to us through Christ Jesus at a very high cost to Himself; it isn't that we, in our strength, or for our glory, keep God's commandments; however, we must, by God's grace, keep His commandments. A primary goal for this paper is to help bring forth transformation (where it's needed), not condemnation. For us to be transformed and live in the will of God and for the glory of God is what Christianity is all about. God hates sin, for one thing.
Here I want to say a little about what isn't legalism, though it is often wrongly called legalism by some Christians. The charge of legalism often comes from those denying that Christians are required to keep God's law/commandments, or from those who are putting all the emphasis on forgiveness and right-standing. It's not legalism for Christians to make living in righteousness and holiness a top-priority item; this is something that Christians are called, enabled, and required to do (but many don't know it). It's not legalism for Christians to make it a top-priority item to find out what the Bible teaches, very much including the moral law/commandments; we must learn what God provides for, and requires of, His people; all Christians are called to do this.
Christians are quite dependent on the Old Testament, including the moral law found in the Old Testament. We need all the help/grace God has made available to us. The New Testament is built on the foundation of the Old Testament, and much of it we couldn't adequately understand without a knowledge of the Old Testament. Many things we need to know, including quite a bit of God's moral law, are not repeated in the New Testament. There was no need to repeat it because it was understood that the Old Testament is part of the Christian's Bible. It's clear that the ceremonial law (which includes, for example, circumcision, food laws, and the sacrificial offerings), which isn't part of God's moral law, has been set aside and isn't applicable for Christians (cf., e.g., Mark 7:14-23, espec. 7:19; Acts 15:1-29; Rom. 14:5, 6, 14; Gal. 2:3-5, 11-21; 4:9, 10; 5:2-4; Col. 2:16, 17; 1 Tim. 4:3-5; Heb. 6:1; 10:1-18; and 13:9-16).
There's also widespread agreement that the Christian church isn't under the civil law of the Old Testament. The civil law includes the penalties that were to be enforced by those governing in Israel. The Old Testament frequently spelled out the particular penalty to be enforced for breaking specific commandments - often the penalty was death. The New Testament shows that these penalties typically aren't applicable for the new-covenant church. For one thing, the church consists of believers called out from the nations but still living in the nations, whereas Israel was set up as a theocracy, with God somewhat directly ruling the nation.
On occasion there can be a difference of opinion as to whether a particular Old Testament commandment is in the category of moral law and binding for Christians, or not. (Again, let me say that it's not bad news and bondage if something is binding upon Christians in accordance with God's will; God's commandments, rightly responded to, bring guidance, order, and blessing.) Let's briefly consider tithing, which some consider not binding for Christians. Tithing was clearly commanded in the Old Testament, and Jesus spoke of tithing (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42); however, it could be argued that Christians aren't commanded to tithe. I don't know that we must dogmatically say that Christians are commanded to tithe; however, with the teaching of the Old Testament, I can't imagine Christians not tithing, even if we aren't commanded to tithe - and I don't have the knowledge or the authority to say we aren't commanded to tithe.
We, in common with the old-covenant saints, are dependent on God for all things (only we have a lot more to be thankful for), and if we really trust Him as our God, we certainly won't think of not trusting Him and showing gratitude to Him in the area of tithing. In old-covenant days the tithe was primarily used to support those in the ministry (priests and Levites), and today the ministry and the work of God still needs to be supported (cf., e.g., Matt. 10:10; 1 Cor. 9:4-14; 2 Cor. 11:7-9; Phil. 4:10-19; and 1 Tim. 5:17, 18). Even if it's not strictly a commandment for Christians to tithe, I'm quite sure that Christians can get into trouble with God by not tithing, and all-the-more so if He has been dealing with a Christian in this area.
The gospel of the new covenant, which includes the moral law/commandments that we are required to keep, wasn't given to bring bondage - it brings the only real freedom. We are set free from bondage to the evil task-masters of sin, Satan, and spiritual death. See, for example, what Jesus said in John 8:31-36, what the apostle Paul said in Rom. 6:14-20, and note that James spoke of the word of the new covenant (very much including the need for Christians to fulfill God's moral law/commandments) as the "perfect law, the law of liberty [the law that gives freedom]" in James 1:25. The law Christians are required to keep isn't burdensome (see Matt. 11:28-30; 1 John 5:3 ["His commandments are not burdensome"]). A lot depends on how we look at God's law: It's a blessing (not a curse) for God to give us direction through His commandments. This is especially true for new-covenant believers, but it was also true (in some ways) for old-covenant believers (cf., e.g., Psalms 19:7-14; 119).
We aren't just automatically transformed to a life of righteousness and holiness because we have received the new birth. We must know that God enables, and requires, us to be righteous and holy through the gospel and by the Holy Spirit who dwells in every true Christian (Rom. 8:9). We must submit to this all-important aspect of gospel truth in faith, and we must walk in/after the Holy Spirit on a continuous basis by faith. The Spirit of God always guides us to a walk of righteousness and holiness, and away from everything that is sinful. But some Christians think the Holy Spirit is going to guide them to a life of righteousness apart from knowing and understanding what the Bible (very much including the moral law/commandments) teaches about righteousness and holiness. We can't walk in God's will without knowing His will (cf., e.g., Col. 1:9, 10). The Holy Spirit doesn't just teach us about God's definition of righteousness and holiness and guide us into a walk of righteousness and holiness apart from the Bible. (In a situation where it wasn't possible for a person to learn what the Bible teaches, God might teach them, and guide them, to a much greater extent directly by the Spirit.)
Many Christians wrongly think they don't need God's law - all they need to do, they think, is to walk in love (being enabled by the Holy Spirit). It's true that Jesus taught that the whole law depends on the two great commandments to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:34-40), but we need God's Word, very much including His commandments, to know what He means by His command to walk in love (love for God and love for the neighbor). Loving God includes doing things His way; however, some people are experts in justifying sin while claiming to walk in love - this can be done a thousand different ways.
One of the main reasons a paper like this is needed is because of the viewpoints around the Body of Christ that set aside or at least substantially minimize the importance of God's law for Christians. I'm speaking of God's moral law found in the Old Testament and the New Testament, but it's the Old Testament moral law that is most often set aside.
The extreme view, which is called antinomianism (meaning "against law"), isn't very common around the Body of Christ (at least not when the term is understood to include a disdain for living in righteousness; we'll say quite a bit on the meaning of antinomianism as we continue), but there are many who teach that Christians aren't required to keep God's law, including some dispensationalists. (Quotations in the Appendix will help the reader understand "dispensational antinomianism"; see under that heading. Other quotations in the Appendix help explain the Lutheran viewpoint, going back to Martin Luther, toward the law of God. Lutherans, of course, aren't all the same; there is much diversity among them in our day, as there is among Calvinists, Methodists, etc.)
"Webster's New World Dictionary" defines the antinomian as "a believer in the Christian doctrine that faith alone, not obedience to the moral law, is necessary for salvation." I'll include several excerpts from L. Berkhof, a Calvinistic scholar, that will help us understand antinomianism ("Systematic Theology," Eerdmans, 1941):
"Antinomians...desiring to honour the unlimited pardoning grace of God, maintain that sins of believers are not accounted as such to the new man but only to the old, and that it is quite unnecessary for them to pray for the forgiveness of sins" (pages 514, 515). "...the imputation of His [Christ's] righteousness to us makes us personally righteous, so that God can see no sin in believers at all" (page 518). I have even heard it said several times that God doesn't even see it when Christians sin because He looks at us through the blood of Jesus. "...good works necessarily follow from the union of believers with Christ. 'He that abideth in me and I in him, the same beareth much fruit,' John 15:5. ... The necessity of good works must be maintained over against the Antinomians, who claim that, since Christ not only bore the penalty of sin, but also met the positive demands of the law, the believer is free from the obligation to observe it, an error that is still with us today in some of the forms of dispensationalism. ... The law as the standard of our moral life is a transcript of the holiness of God, and is therefore of permanent validity also for the believer, though his attitude to the law has undergone a radical change. He has received the Spirit of God, which is the Spirit of obedience, so that, without any constraint, he willingly obeys the law" (page 543). "Jesus taught the permanent validity of the law, Matt. 5:17-19. Paul says that God provided for it that the requirements of the law should be fulfilled in our lives, Rom. 8:4, and holds his readers responsible for keeping the law, Rom. 13:9. James assures his readers that he who transgresses a single commandment of the law (and he mentions some of these), is a transgressor of the law, James 2:8-11. And John defines sin as 'lawlessness,' and says that this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments, 1 John 3:4; 5:3" (page 613).
This paper was designed first of all to be used in a class setting where I am able to supplement what is written here. Some of the verses cited are not typed out in this paper; the reader will have to read these verses from their Bibles. I recommend the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and all the Bible quotations in this paper are from this translation (1977 edition) unless otherwise noted. Now I use the 1995 edition. (In November, 2011 I'm adding some of the quotations of verses that I didn't include in the original version of this paper. I'm quoting them from the NASB, 1995 edition.) Typically I don't discuss in this paper verses that have already been discussed in the books or papers I have written, but I refer the reader to those discussions. I have included some lengthy quotations in this paper from other writers because I realize that it would be quite difficult for those reading this paper to obtain copies of those books. May God be glorified, His will be accomplished, and His people be edified through this paper!
Several Quotations from the Book, "The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views." I'll quote from three of the five authors of this book, which was edited by W. G. Strickland (Zondervan, 1993). All three authors are professors at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. (In this internet version of my paper, I'll just include a small sampling of the quotations. I didn't receive permission to quote extensively from this book beyond the original paper.)
First I'll quote from Willem A. VanGemeren: " Regrettably, while the academic discussion of the law has significantly advanced, the observance of the law has eroded. Growing individualism and narcissism ["Webster's New World Dictionary" defines narcissism as "self-love; excessive interest in one's own appearance, comfort, importance, abilities, etc."], the closing of the American mind, and ignorance of the Bible have resulted in an ethical crisis, affecting even evangelical Christianity. " (page 14).
"Obedience to the law always begins with a heart that fears the Lord: 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil' (Prov. 3:5-7). The fear of the Lord comes to expression in acts of obedience.... Obedience to the moral law brings peace (Prov. 3:17; 12:20) and order with God and man..." (page 34).
"...God's will demands a response of obedience. It is the Father's will that his children conform to his character and learn 'obedience.' Of course, obedience must come from a believing heart. Nevertheless, I want to stress the word 'obedience,' because in our modern intoxication with liberty, many evangelicals have lost the art of simply trusting God by being obedient to specific commands. ... " (page 202).
Now I'll quote from Walter C. Kaiser: "The current evangelical generation has been raised almost devoid of any teaching on the place and use of the law in the life of the believer. This has resulted in a full (or perhaps semi-) antinomian approach to life. Is it any wonder that the unbelieving society around us is so lawless, if those who should have been light and salt to that same society were themselves not always sure what it was that they should be doing?
The time for a powerful proclamation of the proper uses of the law is now long overdue. [Even more overdue is the need for the proclamation that Christians are enabled, and required, to walk in righteousness and holiness with the victory over sin by grace/the Holy Spirit through faith.] Meanwhile, the moral character of the living God continues to be what it has ever been, even before it was codified and given to Moses by revelation. " (page 75).
And, lastly, I'll quote from Douglas J. Moo: "...the last two decades...have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of interest in the theology of the Mosaic law. A deluge of books and articles has examined virtually every bit of evidence and from almost every conceivable perspective. Yet nothing even approaching a consensus has emerged. Several factors account for the radically different conclusions reached by biblical scholars and theologians, the most important of which is the diverse theological and hermeneutical [dealing with the interpretation of the Bible] frameworks that are used to order and arrange the various texts [of the Bible]. Theological and confessional allegiances - Lutheran, Reformed, dispensational, etc. - thus dictate which texts are given precedence and used to interpret others" (pages 319, 320).
This may sound trite, but Christians (especially ministers) need to check themselves to make sure their primary allegiance is to God and His truth. It's all too easy to get locked into a system that doesn't represent the fully balanced truth. There's no doubt in my mind that most Christians have a need to make major adjustments in what they believe. It's amazing to me that each group is so sure that their system is close to perfect, if not perfect, while being sure that everybody else is in substantial error. There must be a lot of fleshly pride at work here, not to mention the devil; it ought not be; it need not be; it's a serious problem!
2. CHRISTIANS ARE ENABLED, AND REQUIRED, TO KEEP THE LAW OF GOD, INCLUDING THE LAW CONTAINED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, EXCLUDING THE CEREMONIAL LAW (things like circumcision, the dietary laws, and the sacrificial offerings).
Matthew 5:17-48. "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. (18) For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. [[Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in several significant senses. For one thing, by the time He has finished His work, everything prophesied in the Word of God (including the Old Testament) will have come to pass. Furthermore, He lived a sinless life, and He enables, and requires, His people to walk/live in righteousness and holiness, thereby fulfilling the moral requirements of the Law. Although it's not specified in this passage (for one thing, they were still in a time of transition, before the new covenant had been fully revealed and implemented), these words must be qualified by the subsequent, fuller revelation that the new covenant (which was established on the atoning death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ) sets aside the old covenant, which was established on the Mosaic Law. In a very real sense, Christians aren't under the Mosaic Law (we'll discuss this later in this paper), but this doesn't contradict Jesus' words here in that the setting aside of the Law to make way for the new covenant is what enables Christians to fully enter into the righteousness and holiness required by the Law. The following verses of this chapter (Matt. 5:19-48) put all the emphasis on the need for righteousness and holiness in God's people, and rather than setting aside the moral obligations specified in the Old Testament, Jesus demands (He also supplies the enablement) a higher level of righteousness and holiness.]] (19) Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (20) For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. [It would certainly be worthwhile to study the following verses in detail, but for our present purposes it will suffice to quote and discuss a few of the following verses. The primary message of Matt. 5:17-48 is that Jesus was not diluting the moral requirements of the Old Testament - He was requiring a higher level of righteousness and holiness.]
We'll finish this study of Matt. 5:17-48 in Part 2.
Copyright by Karl Kemp
http://www.karlkempteachingministries.com Karl Kemp worked as an engineer in the space field throughout the 60s. He became a born-again Christian in 1964. He received an MA in Biblical Studies in 1972. He has been a Bible teacher for 45 years. See the website for more info on his books, papers, etc.