The Antithesis between Legalism and the Gospel

The Antithesis between Legalism and the Gospel

Written by Mark J. Larson |
Sunday, May 12, 2024

The Jews, steeped in the mentality of legalism, once asked Jesus, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:28). This is the typical question of the unsaved person who does not know the gospel: What work of righteousness shall I do? How can I be good enough to  enter heaven? Jesus’ response is crucially instructive: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:29). Luther properly maintained, “The first, highest, and most precious of all good works is faith in Christ” (Treatise on Good Works). 

Legalism holds its grip upon the minds and hearts of countless numbers of people in our time. It was no different in the sixteenth century when Martin Luther drew a radical distinction between the gospel of grace and the legalism of all other religions outside of biblical Christianity. As Luther contemplated religions of works in his time, he immediately thought of Judaism, Islam as exemplified by the Ottoman Turks, late-medieval Roman Catholicism, and various heretical splinter groups. He declared in his Commentary on Galatians: “If the article of justification be once lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost. And as many as are in the world that hold not this doctrine, are either Jews, Turks, Papists or heretics.”

Sad to say, the ancient Jewish leaven of legalism even infected the church in the first century. Let us reflect upon this phenomenon and then draw out some practical applications.

The Legalism of the Pharisees

The Pharisaic movement of the first century demonstrates the tendency of legalism to slide into fanatical excess. Even as Jesus pronounced woe upon the Pharisees, he reflected upon their lack of balance: “You tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). As we read the Gospels, we are continually astounded. We are presented with blind, nitpicking fanatics who could not see the glory of the divine Messiah Jesus who ministered in their very midst. Jesus, for example, was “grieved by the hardness of their hearts” when “they kept silent” after he asked them a simple question, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4–5). Their response to Jesus healing a man with a withered hand was diabolical: “Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him” (Mark 3:6).

Paul acknowledges that he too had been an angry man, a violent aggressor, even while clothed with the garments of outward religiosity. His assessment was an insider’s perspective, for he himself had been a Pharisee, and “as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:6). He had excelled at dotting every letter i and crossing every letter t in the Pharisaic rule book of man-made religion. His heart, nevertheless, was far from God. He makes a startling admission for one who was “advanced in Judaism” beyond many of his contemporaries, “being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions” of the fathers (Galatians 1:14). He felt that he needed to make this confession: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (1 Timothy 1:13). Indeed, he had consented to the murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1). He is presented as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He “persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).

Grace, though, brought radical change. Paul became a new man. He came to embrace a truly Christian perspective regarding law righteousness, the righteousness that a person seeks to build up by meticulous keeping of the law of God and the tradition of the elders. This was a righteousness that tended to lead to pride and a spirit of self-congratulation. Jesus, in fact, spoke a parable in which he described a Pharisee who trusted in himself that he was righteous and viewed others with contempt: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that
I am not like other men.” “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:9–12).

He came to regard his past religious achievements as dung—as the King James Version of 1611 translates the Greek skubalon in Philippians 3:8. Everything that he did by way of outward religious observance was tainted due to his unbelief. As he himself said, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). He would have concurred with Jesus’ woe of judgment which rested upon hypocrites who outwardly appeared to be righteous before men, but inwardly were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:28). He knew that the way of salvation came by faith appealing for mercy.

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