I have a friend, a senior citizen now, who is still getting people out of bed early in the morning and late at night to study the Bible. Whenever she hears anyone putting down legalism, she gets upset. She says, “I am a legalist. I am glad to be a legalist.”
Her definition of legalism, however, is that a legalist is one who believes in the Law of God. In that case, then, every Christian ought to be a legalist!
But the usual definition of a legalist is a little different from that. When most people hear the word legalist, they think of it as meaning one who is trying to work his way to heaven by keeping the law. They would say that a legalist is one who depends on his good deeds to earn his salvation, and one who thinks that being good is what makes a person a Christian. If there is anything that the apostle Paul is against in his writings, it is the idea that the law can ever be used as a method of salvation. “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” “Where [is] boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” Romans 3:20, 27, 28.
Let us go one step further and define legalist: A legalist is a person who is hoping for salvation apart from faith in Christ. He does not have daily personal devotions or daily prayer, and does not study his Bible regularly. He depends upon his own works, and he is sufficient to measure the goodness of those works.
Everyone in this world has suffered from the disease of legalism to one degree or another. Every day we experience it, and even though we might have a theory of faith alone in Jesus Christ, it is only the daily acceptance of the grace of God that can in practice keep us above the life of the legalist.
Black or Scarlet
This can get a little tricky, because there are two different kinds of legalists. There is the black legalist and the scarlet legalist! We might call them the rigid legalists and the liberal legalists.
By the black legalist, I mean the one who has the black suit, black tie, black shoes, black socks, and a long face! He finds his security in the standards of the church that he upholds, and he judges everyone else who falls short of his achievements. By the way, from his viewpoint, practically everyone else does fall short! He is the Pharisee, and his outward performance is well controlled.
The scarlet legalist is described in Revelation—the woman who is clothed in scarlet and adorned with jewels. (Revelation 17:4.) This type of legalist is reacting against the old-guard form of legalism. This person wears jewelry and makeup, is not particular in regard to attending church, and takes real pride in the fact that she is no longer legalistic.
But both kinds of legalists are deceived. They are as legalistic as ever, but just afflicted with different forms of the same disease. The liberal legalist is as much a legalist as the rigid one, for both know nothing of the personal relationship with Jesus. Both of them are trusting to their own ways instead of trusting in Jesus, who alone has the power to give salvation.
Good News and Bad News
Let’s read the good news and bad news for legalists, beginning with Romans 9:30–32, first part: “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because [they did] not [seek it] by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.”
This was the problem of the religious world back then—people trying to save themselves by their own works in keeping the law. And, the passage continues, “For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’ ” Verses 32, last part, 33. Who is the stumbling stone? It is Jesus.
Continuing with chapter 10:1–4: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
There is bad news for legalists in this passage, because they will never attain to righteousness by working on it, no matter how hard they work. But there is also good news for legalists, because they do not have to keep wearing themselves out with fruitless effort.
It is the legalist who has been working the hardest on trying to gain salvation, and the words of Jesus’ friendly invitation, “Come to Me, all [you] who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), can be the best news the legalist has ever heard, when their meaning finally becomes clear. It is good news to hear and accept that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes.
Overcoming Without Becoming A Legalist
In spite of the fact that we can never attain to righteousness by our good deeds and our obedience, the fact remains that the subject of obedience and victory is still important in the Christian life. Even the legalist recognizes that the subject of overcoming must be handled somehow. The scarlet legalist concludes that victory is not needed, maybe not even possible. But the theory does not even hold up to logic and reason, much less to Scripture. For even the most liberal legalist, who has lowered the standard in place of improving performance, will agree that there are limits.
Let us say that you are having problems with church standards, and you scrap them. That may appear to work out, if the standard with which you are having a problem is attending movies. But what if your problem is that you are a murderer, a child abuser, or you cannot stop robbing banks? How low can the standard go? The liberal legalist may be able to meet the liberal standard today, but what about the more liberal legalist who would like to see a more liberal standard? Suppose you were to find that you could not even join the liberal legalists, because your willpower was so weak that you could not even force yourself to meet the lowest standard of performance. What then?
On the other hand, for too long the rigid, traditional legalist has met all evidence of weakness on the part of others as simply an evidence of lack of sincerity. They look scornfully at the struggling sinner and say, “If you really wanted to, you could overcome. If you would really try, you could make it.” And the one who has failed has not only the guilt of defeat but the additional burden of being considered insincere and hypocritical as well.
There has to be good news for both types of legalists. There has to be a third option, and there is! It is the option of a relationship with Jesus. To all of the legalists of His day—to the liberals who wanted the standard lowered, as well as to the traditionalists who wanted the standard even more rigid—Jesus came and offered Himself. Jesus was the end of the law for righteousness then, and He is the end of the law for righteousness today, for those who trust in Him.
But being legalists naturally, we find it hard to understand how righteousness works. We accept the theory that works is not where it is. We admit that it is good news. And then we try to figure out how it actually works in practical life.
The Blue Letter
A young minister’s wife, a brilliant woman who had studied Greek and Hebrew and who was a theologian in her own right, once expressed the dilemma to me in a letter. She was trying to grasp the practical side of the good news for legalists. It was written on blue paper, so I have come to call it “The Blue Letter.”
“Help! I have some questions I thought were answered a couple of years ago; they are so elementary that I hesitate to ask them. Please overlook the baby Christian ideas and tell me what you have discovered, since you have been on the route longer than I have. This business of the will: How far do we take it? In giving our will to God, is that all we have to do?
“To clarify, here is an example, and that is all it is; it is not the problem, just an example, but the principles might apply. How does one go about fighting his appetite? Does he just tell God he cannot control it, ask Him to control it for him, give Him his will, and then let God make him not want to eat?
“In the meantime, when he is hungry, should he take diet pills to help God out? Stay busy all day to keep from food? Run out of the kitchen so he will not be tempted? Or just say, ‘Okay, God; You do whatever You want with my will, including controlling my appetite. I cannot, so the rest is up to You’? Do you claim the promises that God will and do in you, according to His good pleasure, and then sit back and eat while you are waiting for God to change your will and actions?
“When God gets me to the place where I do not want to eat because I know it is against God’s will and I do not want to hurt Him, but I still want to eat because it tastes good, should I go ahead and eat while I wait for God to take away the desire? Or should I exercise my willpower and try not to eat? What is this relationship between will and willpower? When I ask God to wash away my sins and give me a new heart, am I to believe He does this because He has promised? Then do I just wait for Him to do it all, no matter how long it takes—the don’t-sweat-it-just-surrender philosophy? Does God take away the food or the appetite? Will He answer prayer for other things while the appetite indulgence continues?
“I have read a lot of answers and promises, in the Bible and other places. I have experienced the solution to many problems, but this time I am baffled. Maybe I am impatient or looking for an easy way out, but I think I am being honest with God and with myself. How literal are these instructions? I am anxious for your reply because the hang-up hangs on!”
An Answer, Please
Soon after I received “The Blue Letter,” I took it with me to a ministers’ meeting and began to ask around for some answers from my colleagues. One person said, “She does not have enough faith.”
Another said, “She is impatient. She should give God more time.”
Someone else said, “I think she really has a problem!”
And I responded to them all, “Thanks a lot!”
Another person said, “God will sometimes give us a thorn in the flesh to keep us humble.”
And someone else said, “No one is perfect.”
Yet another said, “I would need more detail before I could give an answer.” On and on the answers came.
The question of obedience, overcoming, and victory is by no means that clear in our minds, and the nearer we come to the closing scenes, to the time of the judgment, the more anxious we become.
There are people everywhere who know about the eschatology [a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world], and they cannot miss the evidence that things are just about over. They say, “If I am supposed to be perfect and be one of these overcomers by such and such a time, then I am going to have to do better than I am doing now.” This is precisely why some have made a major shift in their theology in recent times. They know, according to their present and past performance, that they are not going to make it, so they shift their theology to meet their experience.
In so doing, perhaps they are missing one of the greatest avenues that God has in mind to enable them to be overcomers—that of coming to the end of their own resources. It is because they thought that they were doing pretty well, and because they figured they had plenty of time, and because they have thought that they could become overcomers if they tried a little harder and a little longer, that they have waited so long to surrender, to submit themselves to God, to give up on the hope that they could ever succeed in their own strength. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Matthew 9:12. Is it possible that one of the major reasons why they are not yet whole is that they have not yet admitted to being sick and so have not come to the Great Physician for healing?
I knew a woman one time who could not stop smoking. She could not understand her own problem. She had experienced a marvelous deliverance from alcohol and from some of her other problems, but her problem with smoking persisted. After my family and I had moved on to another town, one day I received a phone call from this woman. She was dying of lung cancer and was calling from the hospital where she was awaiting surgery. She asked me to pray with her, and then she said, “By the way, I have quit smoking.”
I asked, “How did that happen?”
And she replied, “I had to!”
As I questioned her further, she told me two things. First, she had never thought that smoking was that big a deal. She could see giving up the drinking. She could see the adverse effect it had on her behavior when she was drunk. But smoking? No biggie. What was so bad about smoking? And, second, she had always thought that she could stop smoking anytime she wanted. Sure, the drinking had been something she could not control. She had been compelled to give up on that and allow God to give her the victory. But when it came to smoking, she had thought she could handle that herself. She thought willpower was enough.
When the smoke began to rise for her personally, when she developed the lung cancer, she was brought face-to-face with two facts. One, smoking was a biggie. It was deadly. And, two, she had found that she was as helpless to control her desire for cigarettes as she had been to control her desire for alcohol. But she had continued her relationship with the Lord Jesus, and once she recognized and admitted her desperate situation and her need of God’s power, she was enabled to receive the gift of victory over her smoking as well.
Surrendering Means Giving Up
No one ever surrendered to the other side while he still thought he could win the war. Surrender comes only after all hope of winning is gone. The reason why we have not surrendered in the first place, or not stayed surrendered in the second place, is that our legalistic natures keep rising to the top, and we keep hoping that perhaps if we fight a little harder or a little longer, we can win by ourselves.
Have you ever come to the end of your rope on a particular problem, turned it over to God, and experienced victory that comes as a gift from Him? And, then, have you ever stayed in the position for a period of time, only to have the devil come and tempt you this way? “You are doing great on overcoming that sin. Now that you have broken the habit of sinning and are in practice with the overcoming bit, you can handle it yourself.” And as soon as you try, you fall again. Have you seen it happen? And so we fluctuate back and forth between surrender to God and trying to manage things on our own.
What will finally happen is that we will run out of time. For those who are absolutely locked in on the relationship with Christ but who have run out of time in learning how to be overcomers, there is only one alternative left. It is the alternative God has been trying to bring us to all along—it is to give up, completely, forever. When we finally realize the deadly results of the sin problem we have been trying to handle on our own and, at the same time, how helpless we are to handle sin on our own, we will give up on even attempting to overcome in our own strength. Once we have given up—finally, completely, totally—we will learn what Paul learned when he said, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 11 Corinthians 12:10, last part.
The Bottom Line
In all of the discussion, dialogue, and debate in the church today, there is one common thread. It is often disguised, but the basic issue is whether obedience comes by faith alone in Jesus Christ or by our own hard work. Let me explain why this is the bottom line.
If my obedience is something that I work on myself, then my end product will be filthy rags. (See Isaiah 64:6.) Even if I go so far as to say, “Well, God is going to have to help me,” as long as I rely on myself to do any part of it, my end product is going to be, to any extent I am involved, filthy rags. Any kind of righteousness, obedience, victory, or overcoming that I am in any way trying to produce is going to be imperfect. I have no other option. If that is true, then it would be impossible for me to keep God’s commandments.
But the remnant people spoken of in Revelation 12:17 are those who do keep God’s commandments. It is the overcomers whose names are retained in the book of life during the time of the judgment, so there must be a way of obeying God and keeping His commandments that has escaped some of us. We need to understand something. What is it? It is that obedience comes by faith alone in Jesus Christ. This means that we must come into a relationship of absolute dependence upon Him. This relationship allows Him to do what He has always wanted to do—live his life in us. Then He wills and does according to His good pleasure, and whatever Jesus does is real obedience through and through. So the person who believes that obedience comes through faith alone, through dependence upon Jesus to bring the power, also believes that it is possible for Jesus to obey God’s commandments within the depending person.
For a long time the church has held two incompatible beliefs. One is that we can keep God’s commandments, that we can overcome. Some have even dealt with things like perfection. The other is that while we do need God’s help, we are supposed to work hard on our own obedience. Those two are incompatible.
At least those who modify their theology are consistent in that area. They say, “Yes, you are supposed to work hard on your own obedience and do the best you can, but you cannot obey; you cannot overcome; you cannot keep God’s commandments.” At least they are consistent, for the two go together.
The time will come when we will have to either modify our theology and reject the possibility of overcoming, or we will have to find out what obedience by faith alone in Jesus Christ is all about.
Obedience By Faith Alone
Obedience can come by faith alone; the Bible says so! “The righteous shall live by faith.” Romans 1:17. The righteous are those who have accepted justification by faith. Living the Christian life is understood to be part of sanctification. So Paul is saying that those who have been justified by faith are to be sanctified by faith as well. This in no way does away with works. To the contrary, only the one who lives by faith alone is able to do the works.
In John 15:5, Jesus says, “without Me you can do nothing.” But Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” So the conclusion is that we must get with Him, through communication, through relationship, through time spent with Jesus day by day. And that is the very thing that three-fourths of Christianity is not doing. This lack of relationship is the reason we get panicky when we see that the end is right upon us. We have forgotten that the entire basis of the Christian life is the fellowship and relationship with Jesus day by day. We spend our time and effort trying to be good. But we forget that the Christian is one who knows Jesus personally.
The only alternative to legalism is a relationship with Jesus. It is good news to the one who has been working on his behavior, trying to do his duty, trying to do what is right, trying to learn that there is a much higher motivation available. That motivation is the power of love. As we learn to know Jesus, we will learn to love Him. Love for Him will change our desires, our motives, and our hearts. The obedience that seemed to be either an unpleasant duty or a total impossibility now becomes the most natural thing in the world, for we become changed into His image by beholding Him. (11 Corinthians 3:18.) Duty becomes a delight and sacrifices a pleasure, and the news that Jesus’ coming is right upon us becomes good news, terrific news even for legalists!
Domingo Nunez is Director of Outreach Ministry for Steps to Life. He may be contacted by telephone at: 316-788-5559.