In 1988 D.R.McConnell wrote a book critiquing the modern Faith Movement titled ‘A different Gospel’, but there is another ‘different gospel’ that has been around far longer. Paul describes it as ‘really no gospel at all’ (Galatians 1:7) because the Gospel is good news whereas the ‘different gospel’ is not. This false gospel goes under various names but the one we are all most familiar with is… ‘Legalism’.
Legalism, possibly the most pervasive different gospel of all time, is defined most simply as the belief that we can, and should, do something to earn or merit salvation or divine approval. The formula of legalism is Faith + Something = Divine Acceptance. The ‘something’ usually consists of adherence to a specific set of doctrines, practices, good works, or religious observances.
Paul wrote Galatians, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, mainly to counter a certain form of legalism – the imposition of Judaic beliefs and practices on Christian believers. Some leaders and teachers of the time were insisting that for a Christian to be ‘kosher’ he or she had to become a Jew. Nowadays, we seldom encounter this exact form of legalism, yet the discussion around the recent ‘Return of the Judaizers’ article certainly proves that the perceived requirement that Christians observe the Saturday Sabbath and festivals of ancient Israel is still around in some circles.
However, I want to address a more subtle form of legalism that plagues the church communities of our land. Let me introduce it with a couple of questions.
Why do so many church leaders insist that their members give 10% of their total gross income to their local church? I have heard, and read, the arguments in favour of this Tithing practice and I find them all very ‘thin’ biblically. And most of those who advocate Tithing on the grounds of the Old Covenant don’t insist on Saturday Sabbath keeping on the same grounds. The scriptures encourage generous financial giving (2 Corinthians 8 & 9) but to demand a Judaic 10% is to add ‘something’ to the free grace of God (I feel another article coming on). The other day a young man even e-mailed me to ask how he could ensure that he was Tithing his time! And why do some churches make water baptism a membership requirement? I believe in baptism by immersion in water, but are people unacceptable to Jesus and His church if they are not suitably baptised? In my opinion, these are both forms of legalism.
Of course, the different gospel of legalism has infiltrated at a much deeper level than church policy.
As born again children of God, as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we hold ourselves accountable to the highest biblical standards of life and witness. We do this because we love Jesus and because we appreciate the value of obedience to divine standards for ourselves, our families, the church, our nation, and the world in general. However, legalism goes beyond this, seeks to hold others accountable to the same personal standards, and judges, criticises, and ostracises anyone who falls short. Legalism makes little distinction between perceived sinful behaviours and the people concerned. When a legal-beagle spots a shortcoming in someone else he ‘speaks the truth’ as directly as possible with little or no regard to love and redemption. If the person does not immediately conform, then legalism applies the John 8:11 solution, but with a nasty twist. In effect, Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery “I do not condemn you; go now and leave your life of sin”, but legalism says “I do condemn you; go… now!”