Early Christians, the Law and Legalism


Early Christians, the Law and Legalism

 Lessons From the Jews 

The Jews, the chosen people, had a long history of rebellion against God; and they had a long, hard journey before they learned the importance of doing God’s will. Finally, after Judah ‘s seventy years in the Babylonian captivity, the Jews were cured of their idolatry. However, this cure did not solve their problems because their national life came to an end, and many of the people were scattered. The remnant that remained developed the Judaism religion. For them, the pendulum swung from rebellion to strict legalism based on the oral and literal interpretation of the law. God wanted the Jews to change, but their change to a zealous desire to keep the letter of the law caused them to miss the spirit and intent of it. Consequently, they built a whole system of traditions that was firmly grounded, not on the spirit and intent of the law, but on the letter.

This new emphasis on strict obedience to the letter of the law and to the elders’ traditions was a source of the conflict that developed between the Jewish leaders and Jesus. It was a cause of the Pharisees and scribes’ increasing opposition to Jesus that finally resulted in His crucifixion. Jesus tried to correct them when they accused His disciples of transgressing the tradition of the elders. He asked them, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3). He pointed out the fifth commandment to “Honour thy father and mother” (v. 4) and reminded them that they said, “It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me. . . . he shall be free” (vv. 5, 6). By this they “made the commandment of God of none effect by [their] tradition” (v. 6). Jesus applied a prophecy from Isaiah to them: “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (vv. 8, 9; cf. Mark 7:1-13; Isaiah 29:13).

The Church’s First Outreach to the Jews Only

The legalism of the Jew carried over into the early church and threatened to pervert the Gospel message. This legalism not only confused some early Christians, but it also caused some of the apostles and other church leaders to fail to grasp the meaning of the law and its relation to the Gospel.

Many early church leaders failed to see that redemption is for all men, that Gentiles did not have to come under the Mosaic law to become Christians, and that Jewish Christians did not have to continue under it. Peter himself had this problem. It took an angel, a Gentile centurion named Cornelius, and a vision for Peter to see that the Gospel was for all men. Peter, having been on a long journey, desired something to eat. While his meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw an object like a great sheet coming down from heaven containing all kinds of four-footed animals, crawling creatures, and birds. “And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:13, 14). Then the voice said, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (v. 15).

“Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean” (Acts 10:17). Then three men came telling him that “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God” (v. 22) was directed by a holy angel to seek and listen to what he had to say. Peter went to Cornelius and told him, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for” (vv. 28, 29). Peter explained later, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (vv. 34, 35). He then told them of Jesus Christ.

Making salvation available to Gentiles without them becoming Jews was something new to Peter and some of the other early church leaders. The apostles received the great commission to preach the Gospel to all nations (Matt. 28:19; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8), but they were slow to realize this meant preaching to others besides the Jews and their proselytes. Yet there was some preaching to others, as may be seen in Philip’s preaching to the Samaritans (Acts 8). For the most part, however, the concept of the Jews being God’s chosen people and the Gentiles being “common or unclean” was firmly grounded in the Jewish mind, and it influenced their outreach. The early Christians even failed to grasp the full meaning of Peter’s experience with Cornelius. When they were scattered because of persecution after Stephen was stoned to death, they continued to speak the word “to none but unto the Jews” (11:19).

Christian Dissension Over Keeping the Law

Gradually, however, the word went beyond the Jews to the Gentiles. As more and more Gentiles came into the church, the question of their relation to the law became an issue. The church leaders now knew that God no longer showed partiality, but did this mean Gentile Christians could ignore the Mosaic law?

This issue came to a head when some men from Judea went out and told the Gentiles, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). This caused “no small dissension and disputation” (v. 2). Finally to settle this issue, Paul and Barnabas (two who had labored much among the Gentiles) were appointed to go to Jerusalem with others to confer with the other apostles and elders. A conference was called at Jerusalem to find God’s will on this matter.

One of the first to speak was Peter. He explained his earlier experience how that God “put no difference between us [the Jews] and them [the Gentiles], purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). He continued, “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved, even as they” (vv. 10, 11).

The Holy Spirit led the apostles to the conclusion that Gentiles need not keep the Mosaic law but should abstain from idolatry, immorality, things strangled, and blood (Acts 15:20, 28, 29). These decisions were not the result of man’s reasoning but involved revelation given to the Lord’s chosen apostles.

This conference did not settle the question for all. Some still sought to make Christians live in obedience to the Mosaic law. The Judaizers (those who insisted that Christians must keep the Mosiac law) kept this issue alive during the last part of the first-century, and many of the New Testament books were written to explain the relation of the Mosaic Law to the Christian faith. Among these books are Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews.

Galatians–By Law or by Faith?

The earliest of Paul’s letters dealing with the relationship of the Mosaic law to faith is Galatians. The churches in Galatia were composed mainly of Gentiles. Trouble came into these churches concerning the relation of Gentile Christians to the law because certain Jewish Christians (Judaizers) came and taught that Gentile Christians had to keep the law of Moses to be saved. Paul saw this as “another gospel,” a perverted one, foreign to the one he had preached to them (Gal. 1:6).

Paul stressed that the Gospel he preached was “not after man,” but that it came “by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11, 12). He told them of his relation to the other apostles and how the circumcision party had caused trouble before. Thus the trouble the Galatians were now facing was not new; others had faced it before.

To clarify the Gospel again for them, Paul wrote, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

The question that probably came to the Galatian Christians’ minds, put there by the circumcision party, was, “If salvation is now by faith, how were those who lived before Christ justified? Was Abraham justified by works? Is the basis now changed?” To answer this, Paul quoted from Genesis: “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Galatian 3:6; cf. Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3). There was no mention of works of the law, and this basis of justification always remained in effect. It is, “They which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (v. 7). Paul explained this by pointing out, “The scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (v. 8). Those who do not accept this basis but rely on works will not receive this blessing. They are “under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (v. 10).

The law Paul refers to here is the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments, the elaborate worship and offerings, the civil and social regulations, etc., found in the first five books of the Old Testament. The purpose of this law was never to justify man. The Old Testament states, “The just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). “And the law is not of faith: but, the man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:12-14).

The circumcision party problems were caused by its failure to see that the promises spoken to Abraham and to his seed were not based on obedience to the law. The promises were made to his “seed,” not “seeds” (Gal. 3:16). The promise thus referred to one, not to many. This One is Christ. The law did not annul or alter this promise: “The law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect” (v. 17). The law did not invalidate the covenant God made with Abraham. So if we claim the blessing promised to Abraham and his offspring, it is not on the basis of the law but of faith.

Paul, after refuting the idea that the law is connected to the promise, next answered the logical question that follows: “Wherefore then serveth the law?” (Gal. 3:19). He answered this by stating, “It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” It was needed to confine men or to keep men under restraint until the Seed came. The law was a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (v. 24). It was only a temporary thing, “but after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (vv. 25, 26). Since men are no longer under the schoolmaster, “there is neither Jew nor Greek” in Christ (v. 28). Christians “are all one in Christ Jesus. And if [they] be Christ’s, then are [they] Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to promise” (vv. 28, 29).

Paul warned his readers not to turn back “to the weak and beggarly elements” of the law (Gal. 4:9), from the promise they possessed through Christ. Paul was afraid some were doing this by observing “days, and months, and times [seasons], and years” (v. 10). By doing things to earn salvation or by saying that one must receive circumcision to be saved, a person is severed from Christ and “fallen from grace” (5:4). The point is that “neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision” (v. 6). What counts is “faith which worketh by love” and “a new creature” (6:15).

Romans and Justification

The relation of the Christian to the law of Moses was not a problem only in Galatia . Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about this relationship. The theme of the Book of Romans is the same as Galatians, but Romans is a longer book, containing additional issues. Its theme is, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:16, 17).

The Jews thought they stood in favor with God because they were the children of Abraham. They did have a special relation to God as the chosen people; nevertheless they still needed salvation by faith. To bring this to their attention, Paul first wrote to them about the Gentiles’ sins and drew the conclusion that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). The Jews knew the Gentiles were exceedingly wicked. Paul portrayed this wickedness in Romans (1:18-31).

The Jews would have agreed with Paul’s observation and conclusion that “God gave them [the wicked Gentiles] up” (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). In the Jews’ minds, the Gentiles deserved spiritual death. As the Jews read Paul’s letter to the Romans, they no doubt were glad they were separate from the Gentiles. But as they read on in the Book of Romans, they were in for a surprise. “Thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things” (2:1). The Jews had judged the Gentiles rightly, but the Jews were no better off since they were doing the same things. The Jews too refused to do God’s will and were unrighteous and ungodly.

The Jews had misunderstood what God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience meant for them. God would not overlook their sins because they were the chosen people. Paul asked them if they understood the significance of “the riches of his [God’s] goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). Because the Jews had hard and impenitent hearts, they too were storing up unto themselves “wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath” (vv. 5-8). The important thing was not whether a person was a Jew or a Gentile, because there will be “tribulation and anguish” (v. 9) for all who do evil, and “glory, honour, and peace” for those who do good (v. 10), whether they are Jew or Gentile. “For there is no respect of persons with God” (v. 11).

All who “have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). It is not the hearers of the law but the doers who will be justified. The Gentiles who may not have the law yet “do by nature the things contained in the law” can be justified too (v. 14).

Paul explained that being circumcised may or may not have value. “Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision” (Rom. 2:25). So the physical act of circumcision does not make one a real Jew. “He is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter” (v. 29).

If this is the case, “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?” (Rom. 3:1). If being one of the chosen people and being circumcised does not justify one before God, then what advantage does a Jew have? Paul answers this question. He says the Jew does have an advantage. It is “chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (v. 2). But the Jew is not better off in other ways. “Both Jews and Gentiles . . . are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (vv. 9-12).

Everyone will be held “guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19, 20). The purpose of the law is to reveal sin, not to be a basis of righteousness before God. This righteousness “is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justifed freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (vv. 21-25). The Law and the Prophets bore witness to Jesus Christ (v. 21).

Now, in the Christian era, “the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ [is] unto all and upon all them that believe” (Rom. 3:22). Man is justified, that is, declared righteous, acquitted, free from condemnation, set free, etc., by faith in Jesus Christ. He was sent to be a “propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins” (v. 25). Through Christ’s blood the convert can find forgiveness and eternal life.

By contrasting the works of the law to faith, Paul shows that faith involves belief in whom Jesus Christ is and acceptance of the body of Christian truth. Faith is more than belief and trust; it represents the way God justifies men under the new covenant. Christian faith is more than faith alone, but, as we have seen earlier, it includes repentance, the new birth, and discipleship. Justifying grace creates in the sinner a new nature than is dead to sin but alive to righteousness. The sinner is justified by “his [Christ’s] righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). By God accepting Christ’s righteousness in place of the repentant sinner’s sins, God is just to His own character when He declares the sinner righteous. It is Christ who works justification, not man’s attempt at keeping the Old Testament law. Redemption through faith in Jesus means no one can boast because he is one of the chosen people or because of things he does. “A man is justifed by faith without the deeds of the law. . . . It is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith” (vv. 28, 30).

Since this is the case, “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?” (Rom. 4:1). Was not he justified by works? No, he was not. The Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (v. 3; cf. Genesis 15:6). Abraham was not counted righteous because of the works he performed, but because he believed God. “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Paul then draws an important conclusion by comparing the time when Abraham’s faith and circumcision occurred. “We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised” (vv. 9-11).

Thus “the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:13-15). The law does not make us heirs to the promise given to Abraham. The purpose of the law was not to bring salvation but the knowledge of sin. We become heirs through the righteousness of faith.

Since salvation comes by faith, it is by grace, and it is a gift given to those who are “of the faith of Abraham” (Rom. 4:16). Abraham had a strong faith. When he was told, “I [God] have made thee a father of many nations” (v. 17), he did not have any children. Yet, “against hope [he] believed in hope. . . . And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about a hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (vv. 18-21). Abraham believed God’s Word and was persuaded that God’s promise would be fulfilled. His faith brought action and remains an example for men because of the written Word.

Righteousness and justification “shall be imputed [to us], if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:24, 25). Jesus died for our sins that we “should live unto righteousness” (I Pet. 2:24; cf. II Cor. 5:21; I John 3:6-10).

The conclusion to the discussion of Romans chapter 4 is given in chapter 5. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand” (vv. 1, 2). This peace came about because “when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (v. 6). We now have hope “because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” (v. 5). Christ’s death for the sinner is not what one would expect a man to do: “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die” (v. 7). Jesus Christ was different because of the love of God within Him. God showed “his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8). Since He did this for us “when we were enemies” (v. 10), we can now expect “much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” Christ died for sinners when we were enemies of God, and now “much more” are we reconciled and saved by His resurrected life.

The benefit of Jesus’ death–reconciliation to God–is a “free gift” to all men who will meet the necessary conditions. The transfer of this benefit is different from the transfer of the consequence of Adam’s sin. The benefit of Jesus’ death is much greater than Adam’s trespass, which brought death to all men. Adam’s one sin caused his sinful nature and death to be transmitted to all his descendants. Because of this we have a nature that leads each of us to sin, that is, to rebel and disobey God’s Word. This depravity was transmitted to and inflicted on each of us through our fallen nature. [We definitely question the doctrine of inherited sin, inherited guilt, and even this explanation may be questionable.  This we know: All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, therefore they have earned the wages of sin—death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). RH]

Adam brought sin to all through a natural transmission, but Christ’s gift of grace has had a much greater effect: “Much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many” (Rom. 5:15). Grace far exceeds the effect of Adam’s sin. [See note above.] It has the power to remove the rebellious nature of all who come under sin’s influence and bring repentance, regeneration, and discipleship. Adam’s sin brought death, but Christ brought life to the dead. Bringing life is a vastly greater achievement than bringing death.

Paul contrasts how one man’s offense brought condemnation and how One’s (Jesus Christ’s) obedience made many righteous:

by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. Rom. 5:18-21


Because Galatians 3 teaches against observing the Law, some believe Christians should not place importance on God’s commandments because this would be “legalism.” This is not the issue Paul addresses in Galatians 3. In this chapter he addresses the first-century issue that Gentile Christians need to keep the Mosiac Law in order to be saved. There was no debate about the issue–all Christians knew it involved keeping the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. Today we need to be careful making another pendulum swing, this time from strict keeping of the law to lawlessness (Greek anomian).

The point of Galatians 3 is not what modern Protestant scholars call “legalism.” If this chapter was addressing “legalism” as defined by Protestants, Paul himself would be a legalist because he writes:

“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21).

Such an interpretation would also make Jesus a “legalist” too because, for instance, He spoke in the Sermon on the Mount about God’s will and warned of the consequences of not following it (Matt. 5-7).

We must remember that only those who have repented, exercised faith, experienced the new birth, and have received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will obtain salvation. These believers will obey and be faithful disciples of Christ. Discipleship is necessarily a part of the Christian faith.

Discipleship is strongly emphasized by the Lord. He said that only those who obey and are faithful disciples will obtain redemption. Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21), and “He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 10:38, 39; cf. Luke 9:23, 24). Likewise He says, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:24, 25; cf. Mark 8:34, 35). Jesus told His followers, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death” (John 8:31, 32, 51).

This obedience Jesus calls for is possible only through the new birth and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. It results from being set free from sin and receiving a new love for Jesus (John 8:31-38). “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. . . . If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me” (14:21-24; cf. 15:9, 10).

John explains this further in his first epistle.

Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? I John 5:1-5.

Christians who love the Lord and follow His commandments are not legalist but disciples of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The above is from Redemption Realized Through Christ by Leland M. Haines, © copyright 1996 by Leland M. Haines, Northville, MI. USA

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The source of the above article is http://www.bibleviews.com/legalism.html.

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