Are You a Sin Defender?
One of the most popular excuses for sin in the church today is the cry of legalism. When someone preaches obedience to Christ, or the need to walk in holiness, we often hear accusations like “that’s legalism” or “you’re a Pharisee”, etc. Very often then, this is the accusation that holiness preachers and believers receive. But is this what the apostle Paul is referring to in Galatians when these churches went back to the law of Moses? After all, this is the “go to” epistle everyone refers to when accusing others of legalism. So, are holiness preachers, and those who claim that we can have victory over sin in this world, guilty of legalism? Or is the apostle Paul talking about something else in Galatians?
Whatever it was that Paul wrote this epistle about, let’s establish first and foremost what he was not saying. In chapter 2 and verse 17 he states “but if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.” Paul clarifies that being found in Christ and a sinner at the same time is not compatible! Let’s repeat this again in case you missed it! Whatever it is that Paul is teaching in this epistle it is clear from this verse that you cannot be in Christ and be a sinner at the same time. Why is this important? Because, when preachers preach holiness and obedience to Christ the cry is again “legalism”, which is the very opposite of what Paul teaches there! Paul is saying we must obey Christ and walk in holiness in order not to be found a sinner!!! In other words, Paul is saying don’t use faith in Christ to cover your sin, which in fact he states in Romans as well (especially chapter 6)!
So then what is Galatians referring to when Paul says “for as many as are of the works of the law are under a 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” (Gal. 3:10). Does obedience to Christ, holy living, and forsaking all that offends God lead to a curse? Do we bring a curse upon ourselves when we obey the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2)? Do we curse ourselves when we preach this? Was Jesus cursing himself when he stated twice “stop sinning” (John 5:14; 8:11). Was the Apostle John cursing himself when he wrote “my little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not… (1 John 2:1). Or is Paul saying something else, and therefore the holiness message is being mis-judged?
As one reads the book of Galatians, it becomes crystal clear what “going back to the law” means. It was the rituals of the law of Moses! So, how did Paul know they were going back to the law? - was it because they were obeying Christ, living holy, telling people to repent of their sins? No, Paul said “ye observe days, and months, and times, and years” (Gal. 4:10)! In essence, Paul says they were going back to the Jewish dietary plan, external washings, and ceremonies associated with the Judaic temple, etc. “… How turn ye again to the weak, and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?” (Gal. 4:9). Furthermore, all of these outward ceremonies were deeply associated with preaching physical circumcision as a requirement for salvation! (Gal. 5:3, see Acts 15). The ritual plus Christ is what they thought could save them! It was not obedience to Christ and his commands (John 14:15) that was the issue! So, adding these outward rituals to Christ as a requirement for salvation results in departing from Christ! Understanding Paul then, we could say that once a person allows these rituals to creep back in they would ultimately push Christ out, thus causing the person to fall from grace! But somehow any preaching that emphasizes obedience to Christ and holy living gets thrown into this mix and gets labeled ‘legalism’. Please let me highlight this. Have you ever heard a holiness preacher say “if you’re not circumcised you can’t be saved”? Have you ever heard a repentance preacher say “if you don’t keep the feast, or new moon, you are not saved”? But how is it that when they hear “repent of your sins”, “live holy”, “forsake your idols”, etc., then they immediately equate this with ritualistic laws and cry “legalism!” I’m going to show you that this accusation is wrong!
I also want to demonstrate that this charge of legalism in this sense would mean that every New Testament author, including Jesus Christ himself, then would be guilty of legalism too. But before we turn to the New Testament, I want to ask one further question. Who gave these accusers the authority to judge holy living, repentance preaching, forsaking sin, etc., as legalism? Where in the New Testament do we find examples of rebukes for this kind of preaching? As you ponder that question, I will now cite every New Testament writer and demonstrate that this is contradicted by all these scriptural citations coming next.
Let’s begin with Jesus himself. Never once did our Lord Jesus Christ ever suggest that we have a passive faith in Him and expect that His obedience and compliance with the will of the Father would substitute for ours. To place one’s faith in Christ yet remain defiant, rebellious, and live in unrepentant sin was not Christ’s teaching or expectation of his disciples. Jesus said “if ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and not “if ye love me break my commandments”! He further stated “he that hath my commandments, and keepeth (not breaketh) them, he it is that loveth me… (John 14:21)! Was Jesus Christ being legalistic? Further in the chapter He stated “he that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings” (John 14:24)! If we were consistent then we would have to judge Jesus Christ as legalistic because here, Jesus requires obedience to His commands! Once again in John 15:14, Jesus said, “ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you”! Boy, imagine charging Jesus Christ with legalism!
Now what about the apostle Peter? Did he expect obedience and conformity to the will of God or did he give the impression that unrepentant sin can be overlooked? “As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: but as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:14-16). Peter exhorts us to follow Christ’s example, or “follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:21)! As Peter continues his epistle he declares “that we, being dead to sin, should live unto righteousness…” (1 Peter 2:24). Then Peter really drives the point home when he says “forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1)! It’s not Christ who ceased from sin, for Christ was sinless! It is the believer that must cease from sin! So, is Peter being legalistic by teaching we must obey Christ and cease from sin? Is Peter encouraging believers to add to their salvation by obeying Christ? Is obedience then optional? “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear” (1 Peter 4:17-18)! Peter then nails the coffin shut by saying “wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (2 Peter 1:10). Imagine a preacher today saying “you don’t have to fall into sin”! “Legalism”, they say! In contrast, the false teachers Peter says have “eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin” (2 Peter 2:14)! So what happens if a believer falls into sin and doesn’t overcome? “…For of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage. For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them that the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2 Peter 2:19-21). What was delivered to them? The holy commandment, says Peter! “That’s legalism”, says the false teacher! It is sad that so many professors today don’t want the holy commandment and hide behind the charge of legalism to excuse their sin.
Let’s move onto Jude and hear this apostle too. In the short epistle of Jude we read, “and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh. Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 1;23-24). Once again we have the reminder that grace can “keep you from falling” and “present your faultless”, not by ignoring and covering up sin, rebellion and disobedience, but by living it. It was Jude who warned us that grace would be falsely offered as an excuse or cover-up for sin. He said they would be “turning the grace of God into lasciviousness” (Jude 1:4)! So is Jude also being legalistic when he exhorts “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 1:21)? What is the love of God? Jesus has already answered that one! “If ye love me keep my commandments” (John 14:15)!
Surprisingly, even James could be accused of legalism if one uses the standards of today’s sin defenders. Listen to his words. “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded” (James 4:8). “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (James 1:25). “Perfect law” and “doer of the work” would evoke cries of legalism! James even insists that we keep the law perfectly! “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). Most sin defenders say that this means we cannot keep the law of liberty. Yet, James further states “if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2). James is so legalistic he says “even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17). James too, if standing in a public square today preaching the necessity of works, would be shut down really quickly and called a heretic!
Now let’s turn to the apostle John. John says “these things write I unto you, that ye sin not…” (1 John 4:7). Two verses later John says “and hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). In fact, John is so into obedience to Christ that he further states “he that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4)! Wow, by today’s standards John too then would be labelled a legalist since his main message is stop sinning and keep the commandments! But it gets even worse than that. The apostle John also tells us that we have to do something, an abhorrent thought to those who accuse people falsely of legalism. “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7). The common lie today is if you insist that someone has to do anything, then you add to your salvation. Well, I guess John is guilty by that standard. Or is it the false preachers that are guilty? Imagine John today, standing on the street corner and preaching “whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9). There would be so many professing believers mad at him and we would probably hear them defending sin like there’s no tomorrow.
John even takes it a notch higher and insists that believers can actually have victory over sin and the world! Imagine that! “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not” (1 John 5:18). And finally, “keep yourselves from idols” would also probably provoke shouts of legalism from sin defenders (1 John 5:21)!
Lastly, we will look at the apostle Paul, the herald of the gospel of grace: “wherein we stand” (Romans 5:2). But as we will point out, Paul does not preach a different message than all the other apostles. In fact, Peter warns us that :“in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” ( 2 Peter 3:16). Why would Peter warn that Paul’s letters would be twisted to mean something he never intended to say? Because that’s what they have done to the grace message! But even within Paul’s own epistles it can be shown that his grace message was not a cover-up, nor a defense to stay in sin, but in fact the contrary - to overcome sin.
So does Paul sound like the current day preacher who promotes a form of lawlessness? “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” ( Romans 3:31). Grace does not mean I can be lawless! Also, grace does not allow me to linger in my sins! “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Romans 6:6). “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). “What then, shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? God forbid (Romans 6:15). So then why do all the false grace preachers defend sin so vehemently? Paul does not preach this! “Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life” (Romans 6:22). Paul preaches the same victory and holiness message that all the other apostles preach, as well as those today who are accused of being legalistic - the holiness preachers. Finally, before Agrippa, Paul said something that today would be classified as legalistic no doubt. “But (I, Paul) shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent (legalism) and turn to God (legalism), and do works (legalism) meet for repentance” (Acts 26:19). So Paul insisted on repentance, turning, and good works! Well then, there you have it! He sounds like those modern day street preachers accused of being legalistic.
What about you? Will you preach a false grace message or what all the apostles and the Lord Jesus Christ preached? Will you continue to encourage people to stay in their sin or preach what all the apostles preached?