This month’s Tabletalk addresses a serious error into which the church of Christ and Christians can easily fall – that of legalism. Legalism goes hand in hand with other sins as well – pride, self-righteousness, Phariseeism, and judgmentalism to name but a few.
Editor Burk Parsons introduces this subject in his editorial “Legalism vs. Gospel Religion.” The first main featured article, “Legalism Defined: Taken Captive by Empty Deceit,” is by Rev. Nick Batzig, and it is from this one that we quote today.
In an early paragraph, Batzig defines legalism this way:
Legalism is, by definition, an attempt to add anything to the finished work of Christ. It is to trust in anything other than Christ and His finished work for one’s standing before God. The New Testament refutation of legalism is primarily a response to perversions of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The majority of the Savior’s opponents were those who believed that they were righteous in and of themselves, based on their zeal for and commitment to the law of God. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes exemplified, by their words and deeds, doctrinal legalism in the days of Christ and the Apostles. While they made occasional appeals to grace, they self-righteously truncated and twisted the Scriptural meaning of grace. The Apostle Paul summed up the nature of Jewish legalism when he wrote: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:3–4).
But then he also shows how a proper understanding of justification by faith alone in Christ alone keeps us on the right path:
Understanding the relationship between the law and the gospel for our justification is paramount to learning how to avoid doctrinal legalism. The Scriptures teach that we are justified by the Savior’s works—not our own. The last Adam came to do all that the first Adam failed to do (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:47–49). He was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5). He came to be our representative in order to fulfill the legal demands of God’s covenant—namely, to render to God perfect, personal, and continual obedience on behalf of His people. Jesus merited perfect righteousness for all those whom the Father had given Him. We, through faith-union with Him, receive a righteous status by virtue of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. In Christ, God provides what He demands. The good works for which God has redeemed believers, that we might walk in them, do not in any way whatsoever play into our justification. They are merely the necessary evidence that God has forgiven and accepted us in Christ.
Finally, after pointing out how legalism can creep into our hearts and lives in practical ways too, he ends by showing that the only cure for this error is the pure grace of God:
The grace of God in the gospel is the only cure for doctrinal and practical legalism. When we recognize doctrinal or practical legalism in our lives, we must flee to Christ crucified. As we do, we will again begin to grow in our love for the One who died to heal us of our propensity to trust in our own works or achievements. On a daily basis, we need to be reminded of the grace that has covered all of our sins, provided us with righteousness from outside of ourselves and freed us from the power of sin. Only then will we joyfully pursue holiness. Only then will we love God’s law without attempting to keep it for our justification before Him.