I Am a Legalist


Bible reading

James D. Bales

When one is careful to try to discern just what Jesus said, and then to do and teach it, there are a few preachers who charge: “You are a legalist!  You follow the letter of the law and not the spirit.  The letter kills and the spirit gives life. The church needs a prophet to lead it out of the wilderness of legalism.”  Is this legalism?

If an individual thinks he can earn or merit his salvation, then he can be called a legalist in the bad sense of the term.

Even if there is no legitimate use of the term, have these preachers misapplied the term?

The case of Abel and Cain

“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).  Does it say anything to those preachers who make the above charge of legalism?

What was the basic difference between Abel’s sacrifice and Cain’s?  Abel’s was by faith and Cain’s was not. What does the expression “by faith” mean in this context?  It does not mean:  (a) That Abel believed in God and that Cain did not.  Cain also believed.  (b) That Abel believed that God ought to be worshipped and Cain did not.  Cain also worshipped.  (c) That Abel believed that an offering ought to be made and Cain did not. Cain also made an offering.  How is it that Cain could believe that God is and that he ought to be worshipped, and yet his offering was not by faith?

It must have been that God had commanded an animal sacrifice, which we know typified the blood of Jesus Christ.  Abel’s faith concerning the specific offering must have come by hearing God’s word (Romans 10:17).  Although such a commandment is not recorded in Genesis 3 or 4, such a commandment must have been given to them, for Abel offered by faith, and Cain did not.  Abel did just what God wanted done, and Cain did not.  Cain did something, but he did not do just as God said, and thus he did not do well.  [Additionally, Abel’s personal “faith” or trust was in God rather than his own deed, whereas Cain’s focus may have been on his own deed of merit. RH]

“And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.  And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.  And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.  And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.  And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.  And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth?  And why is thy countenance fallen?  If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?  And if thou doeth not well, sin lieth at the door: and unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him” (Gen. 4:2-7).

Cain was not accepted because God did not respect his offering.  Cain was not accepted because he did not do well.  So although he believed in God, and did something in that he made an offering, he did not do well because he did not make the proper offering.

Let us imagine a conversation between Cain and Abel.

Abel: “We ought to do just what God commanded.”

Cain: “Don’t be a legalist.  Don’t you know that the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life?  It does not make any difference what you do, just so you have the right spirit.  Don’t you know that the sacrifices were made for man and not man for the sacrifices?  God has not given us a ‘booby-trap’ religion.  It is not what you do, it is how you feel about it in your heart.  Just so you worship God, all is all right.”

Abel: “But God commanded an animal offering, one that involved the shedding of blood; surely it cannot be wrong to do just what God said.”

Cain: “It is wrong for you to be so insistent.  You are more of a legalist than I had suspected.”

Abel: “Do you mean it is wrong to do just what God said do?  Is it not right to do his will?  Is it wrong to do right?”

Cain (changing the subject): “It is not convenient for me to offer an animal sacrifice, for I am a tiller of the ground.  It is convenient for you, for you are a keeper of sheep.  Besides, who wants to be a legalist?”

Abel: “God has not promised to accept one’s worship if he does not make an animal sacrifice.”

Cain: “That makes me mad.  You legalists think that you are so much better than other people.  You think God has set ‘booby traps’ for us, and that if we don’t do what he says, he won’t like it.”

And yet, reader, God had respect for Abel and his offering, and not for Cain.  It made Cain jealous enough, or mad enough, to kill his brother, but it did not make his worship right.   Abel did well.  His was a more excellent sacrifice, by it he obtained witness he was right.  God testified of his gifts (Heb. 11:5).

But that was long ago, and far away, and we are under another covenant.  But we cannot dismiss it that lightly.  It has a lesson for it.  “And by it he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).  And certainly, in the light of the entire incident, he says to us today that we ought to be careful to do as God has authorized.  It is not significant that one of the very first controversies that God had with man was over the question of worship?  And yet, some think that anything is all right just so one worships.

Such are Not Legalists

Concerning the charge of legalists, it may be replied that one does not want to be an illegalist.  Although we cannot merit eternal salvation, we must in faith meet some conditions, which conditions avail because God has connected them directly or indirectly with the blood of Christ.  “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).  This law of the Spirit does not enable us to merit salvation, but one must in faith meet conditions so he can as a child of God inherit eternal life.

It cannot be the wrong attitude to want to do just what God has authorized.  It cannot be the wrong practice to do just what God said, and to teach others to do it.  Jesus said that we are to observe what he has commanded (Matthew 28:20).  And He did not say, just so you think you have the right spirit it does not make any difference whether or not you observe what I have commanded.

The best way to show that one has the spirit of the law is to be careful to do just what the letter of the law commands.  Yet some think that such is unchristian, that it is an abominable legalism.

Of course, one has not kept the letter of the New Testament law unless he also has the spirit that goes with it.  For example, baptism is not New Testament baptism unless it is obedience from the heart to the gospel of Christ (cf. Romans 6:17-18).

How could there be any such worship as: (a) vain worship (Matthew 15:9); (b) ignorant worship (Acts 17:23); and (c) will worship (Colossians 2:23) if the only thing that counts is that one have a sincere spirit?

But someone says, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their exactness.  He did not.  He did show, as had the Old Testament prophets, that sacrifices were not accepted if one lived like the devil.  The sacrifice of the unmerciful was not accepted, but in Matthew 9:13 Jesus did not mean that sacrifices under the old law were not required.  To have said this would have contradicted such passages as Leviticus 10, which show that even the right kind of fire had to be used.  It would also have contradicted Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:9, where he said that their human traditions made their worship vain.

What about Matthew 23:23?  “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For ye pay tithe of mind and anise and cummon, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”  He did not condemn strict observance of what God had authorized.  He condemned their exclusion of the weightier matters of the law.  Carefulness to do a few things God had authorized does not authorized one to leave undone other things, some of which may be weightier.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for the very thing which the “illegalists” today authorize.  They often accept the traditions of men, and may think that they are all right, or at least do not make much difference in one’s relationship to God.  The Pharisees did not much care whether one did exactly what God said, just so he did not violate the traditions of the elders.  When one gets to the place that he thinks it does not make much difference what you do, just so you have the spirit of the law, he ends up doing those things that suit him even though some of them may be traditions of men and not commandments of God.

These men, if they had their way and followed their logic to its conclusion, would bring out a revised perversion of the Scriptures in which the word “commandment” would not be found in the New Testament.

Are these preachers right in quoting Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 3 concerning the letter and the Spirit?  No.  Paul is not discussing, in this place, those who keep the externals in a few things, but do not have their hearts right.  He is discussing the Old Testament (2 Corinthians 3:14) and the New Testament (2 Corinthians 3:6).  [That is, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, RH.]

The New Testament is of the spirit [or Spirit, RH] and it gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).  It is the ministration of the spirit [or Spirit, RH] (v. 8).  The old is the letter that kills, it is the ministration of death (vv. 6, 7).  What is the ministration of death?  “The ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away” (v. 7).  What was written and engraven in stones which Moses’ face shone?  The ministration of death?  What was that?  The ten commandment law (vv. 9, 7), and the ministration of righteousness (v. 9), is the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus which makes us free from the law of sin and death (8:2).

Why do some preachers take this position on “legalism”?  We expect that sort of thing from many denominational preachers, but why does it come from some who profess to be members of the New Testament church?  Without having made an examination of the individual cases, it is safe to say that some of the following suggestions will account for some cases.

First, a partial view.  Some may concentrate on the mercy of God and conclude that God will tolerate almost anything.  They also see that one must have the right attitude and conclude that is all that is necessary.

Second, the spirit of reaction.  They see some who are careful to tithe, so to speak, mint, and yet leave undone mercy, etc., that they react against this extreme and go to the other extreme.  Jesus said, “These ought yet to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).  Why not follow Jesus’ teaching, instead of just reacting to another extreme?  Because some do not have the proper attitude while observing a commandment of Jesus, does that authorize me to develop the attitude that observation of the commandments is of no value?  Instead, I should do the right thing in the right spirit.  In reality, one has not done the right thing unless he does it in the right spirit.  And one does not have the right spirit toward what Jesus has commanded if he does not want to do what Jesus has commanded.

Third, there is the spirit of rebellion.  Some do not want to be fenced in.  The letter ties them down to some things that they do not want to do, or that seem foolish to them.  The letter forbids what they want to do, so they rebel against the letter.   So they talk against the letter, and rationalize to the extent that they assure themselves that they are right in talking against the letter.  It is wrong to follow the letter, good is evil (Isaiah 5:20, 21).  Just follow the spirit, they say.  In other words, do not let anything tie you down.  Do not be definite.  Wander off into some vague realm of the letterless spirit, and you can do anything you want to just so you keep telling yourself that you have the right spirit.

The spirit of rebellion may be called forth when an individual has a “pet project,” and someone asks him for Scriptural authority, or attacks it on the ground that it is unscriptural.  The individual is so sold on the “project” that he just cannot stand it, and because he may be unable to find scriptural authority, or may be irked because such is requested, he rebels against the whole idea of being bound by “thus says the Lord.”  All who insist that we are so bound are called legalists, and the individual who refuses to be bound and regard himself as a liberal who is loyal to Christ by being loyal to some vague “spirit” which is not fenced in by any letter.  Thus the individual not only justifies his “pet project,” but he also convinces himself that he is the individual who is right and that others are wrong for even demanding scriptural authority.

God has fenced men in from the beginning.  The spirit of a thing is fenced in by the letter of the thing.  We know nothing of its spirit except through what the word teaches us, and the spirit which the teaching of the Lord produces when followed.  Of course, love for the Lord is to be in all of our obedience, for the letter tells us that we must love.  But love is fenced in so one cannot launch out on an uncharted, unbounded ocean of life where he can sail as he pleases, in any direction he pleases, and to any port which he pleases.

God bounded love when he said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Some think that, if they are friends of Christ, they can do anything, but Jesus said: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:14).  God has fenced the “spirit” of the commandment so that, if you ignore the commandment, you are surely without its spirit.  He knew how men would prefer to ignore all fences by talking about the “spirit” of the commandment, so he fenced us in, and thus without concern for the letter one does not have the spirit of the commandment (John 14:15).  Brother, you ought not to jump the fence, for if you do you will land where Adam landed when he jumped the fence, i.e., under God’s disfavor. And when you are caught in the trap of your own transgressions, it will be futile to say something about “booby-trap religion.”

[The above article was handed to us decades ago, but it had no source stated.  An internet search did not indicate where it may have been originally






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