Volume Seven — Article 2, Part 1 Volume 7 | Home

The Eyes of the LawLaw and Gospel

Part I

Legalism and the Truth of Justification by Faith

Are you a legalist? "Absolutely not!" most of us may fiercely reply. For anyone even casually acquainted with the Christian message knows the Bible teaching that salvation is by grace, through faith, rather than by human efforts to keep the law (see Eph. 2:8, 10; Rom. 3:28). How could anyone who takes the Bible seriously be a legalist?

Yet we are legalists all of us. Ever since Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness, we have all been legalists by nature through and through. We might just as well confess, "I have no sin," as to confess, "I am not a legalist." Luther vehemently fought against the heresy of legalism; yet he frankly confessed that it was like an oil in his bones.

The heresy of legalism derives its strength from human nature. As long as human beings comprise the church here on earth, there must be constant war against legalism. The gospel of God's saving grace in Christ cannot be learned too well. The disposition to contribute to our salvation is like a desert fox—if it is chased from one hole, it hides in another. The heart of man, being deceitful and desperately wicked, can dress up salvation by human works in the most evangelical garb.

Types of Legalism in Church History

1. Medieval. Classical medieval theology had plenty to say about justification by grace. Yet it worked out to be the most frightful system of legalism in the history of the church. Why? It was a theology skillfully devised by human nature. The prophet Daniel depicts the system as having "the eyes of man" (Dan. 7:8). St. Paul calls it the "man of sin" (2 Thess. 2:3). St. John says it has "the number of a man" (Rev. 13:18). Which is to say, the church was corrupted by man's perverse understanding. Grace ceased to mean the mercy and favor of God to poor, undeserving sinners, and came to mean a quality which God infused or poured into the hearts of men. Instead of grace being in reality a quality in God's heart, it came to signify a quality in the repentant believer's heart. Whereas Paul taught that sinners are justified on the basis of God's work for us in Christ, the medieval church came to teach that saints are justified on the basis of God's work in them by the Holy Spirit. Worshipers were thus led to look to the condition of their own hearts and to the state of their religious experience for acceptance with God, instead of trusting alone in what Christ did for them on the cross.

The essence of Rome's error was to confuse the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in the heart with justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ; or to put it another way, to propose that the new birth is the basis of acceptance with God. (The same confusion is widespread in the Protestant movement today.) In striking contrast, the gospel sets forth the sinless life and atoning death of Jesus as the believer's only righteousness before God (Jer. 23:6). The repentant sinner is accepted because Jesus is accepted in his stead; he is declared righteous solely because his Substitute is righteous. Nothing, absolutely nothing within him, makes him acceptable to God. He is "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6).

The philosophy of medieval legalism is not dead by any means. In recent years it has found its rebirth in popular revivalism and the mad pursuit after exciting religious experiences. Whenever the internal experience of the believer becomes the main focus in religious teaching, the subjective medieval philosophy triumphs. No matter how the charismatics dress up their preoccupation with their religious emotions, it is the essence of medieval legalism. The remarkable similarity between the Pentecostal experience and medieval mysticism is well documented.1

A Discussion of Reason2. Synergism. "Do your best to serve God, Christ will make up for the deficiency, and by this you will be justified." This is how many think they should combine law and grace. John Bunyan had to meet this error in his day, so he personified this type of legalism as Ignorance in his Pilgrim's Progress:

Christian: "How doest thou believe?

Ignorance: "I believe that Christ died for sinners, and that I shall be justified before God from the curse, through his gracious acceptance of my obedience to his Law. Or thus, Christ makes my Duties that are Religious acceptable to his Father by virtue of his Merits; and so shall I be justified."

Ignorance's formula for salvation may be expressed as follows:

My obedience + Christ's merit = Salvation.

In theology, this is called synergism. It reminds us of the story of the man who was condemned to death for embezzlement. But there was pity in the heart of the royal family. The king gave $2,000 from the treasury to make good the debt, the queen gave $1,000, and the crown prince gave $980. Then the people in the public gallery passed around the hat and gathered in $19.90. But it was of no avail, for the poor man owed $4,000. "It is no use," said the judge. "The man must be executed." In desperation the fellow searched his pockets and, to the applause of the spectators, produced the last vital dime from his own trouser pocket. Admittedly the last dime was not a great amount compared with the gifts of the royal family, but it was that dime which secured his reprieve. Even if we think that the contribution which we must make toward our salvation is as small as that dime, it is inevitable that it will seem more important and precious to us than the merit of Jesus Christ.

3. Galatianism. In certain systems of thought, justification by faith is regarded merely as the initiating step in the Christian life rather than throughout the whole Christian life (see Rom. 1:17). This leads to two legalistic propositions:

(a) It is said that justification is initially received by faith but is then sustained by human efforts to keep the law. This is Galatianism — it begins in the Spirit and then seeks to be made perfect by the flesh (Gal. 3:1-3). But the apostle Paul declares that the Christian life is maintained by the same grace and in the same way as it was initiated (Col. 2:6). It begins in faith and ends in faith, and all along the way the just live by faith (Rom. 1:17). God would have His people commit their souls to Him as unto a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:19). He is able to keep them from falling (Jude 24). "Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand." Rom. 14:4. The Lord declares, " . . . they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand." John 10:28. They "are kept by the power of God through faith" (1 Peter 1:5).

(b) It is also said that final salvation rests on works. Those who make this claim will point to the Bible teaching that every man will finally be judged by his works (Rom. 2:6-8; Gal. 6:7-9; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col. 3:23-25; 1 Cor. 3:13; Eccl. 12:14; etc.). Of course, the Scriptures are full of the call to action and a life of good works. As G.C. Berkouwer points out, "Christian activity is certainly not to be excluded, or belittled, or condemned; but if this activity is to be sound it must never be severed from its relation to the mercy of God." G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952), p.27. In the judgment, God's people will be judged with mercy (2 Tim. 1:18); otherwise none of their works could endure the severity of judgment. In this life (as John Calvin would say), "the best work that can be brought forward from them [the saints] is still always spotted and corrupted with some impurity of the flesh"2 (see Eccl. 7:20; Isa. 64:6; Rom. 3:23). In the judgment, the saints are not worthy but are "counted worthy of the kingdom of God" and "accounted worthy to obtain that world" (2 Thess. 1:5; Luke 20:35). The Christian stands in need of as much forgiving grace at the end of his life as at the beginning—only he is more conscious of his need at the end than at the beginning.  

4. Some Distorted Types of Arminianism. Human nature persists in making some contribution toward salvation. As a last resort, it tries to "innocently" smuggle in faith as the meritorious basis of acceptance with God. Does not Paul say that faith is counted for righteousness (Rom. 4:5)? Therefore some have claimed that God counts men righteous on account of their faith, or "evangelical obedience."3

The expression "justification by faith" can be misunderstood. It does not mean that we can be justified on account of our faith any more than we can be justified on account of repentance, regeneration, sanctification, good works, love or any other subjective quality. There is no merit in faith and repentance. But when faith lays hold on Christ, His perfect obedience is credited to the repentanct sinner (Rom. 4:4, 6; 5:18, 19). The saving virtue is not in the faith but in the Object of faith. The faith of the repentant sinner is merely the instrumental cause of salvation.

As a final thrust against the tendency to glory in human achievement, the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, proceeds from faith to predestination (see Rom. 9). He shows that we may believe because we have been predestined and called by God's grace. To turn this around and say that God gives grace in response to faith or that we are predestined because we believe, is to base our salvation on a meritorious quality within ourselves — and hence on legal grounds.

5. Orthodoxy. We cannot close our discussion on legalism without a comment on the most subtle type of legalism—the legalism of trusting in our sound orthodoxy. We need to remember that we are saved by trusting God's mercy and not by our theology. The truth about justification by grace alone, through faith, calls everything that we do and everything that we are into question. It calls our sanctification into question, and it calls even our understanding of the truth into question. In everything, including our statements about justification, we fall short; so where can we find refuge save in divine mercy?

The disposition to denounce those who err from correct doctrine as cut off from salvation, is contrary to the spirit of the gospel. Like the proud Pharisees of old, we are so prone to pass judgment upon the ignorant—"This people who knoweth not the law are cursed." John 7:49. The cold, cruel and intolerant spirit which has often accompanied orthodoxy, reveals a very legalistic heart. We need to look no further for the reason why orthodoxy has generally produced a dead church. History is stained with the crimes of the Lutheran and Reformed churches against pious Anabaptists, American Puritans against Quakers, and established churches against the sects. Jesus' parable about the unforgiving servant is re-enacted again and again. Our relationship with God is always mirrored by the way we treat our fellow men. After all, we may yet be surprised at how many saints in heaven had queer ideas on earth; but somehow, somewhere, God taught them to submit to His mercy in spite of their erroneous traditions.

It would be better if every Christian took stock of his own poor heart and confessed (if we may borrow the words of St. Paul and the dialectic thought of Karl Barth): "O wretched legalist that I am, who shall deliver me . . . I thank God through Jesus Christ I am not the wretched legalist that I know I am."

Legalism Springs from Sinful Ignorance

Legalism has its roots in sinful ignorance — ignorance of the exalted holiness of God's law on the one hand, and ignorance of the defiled and radical corruption of human nature on the other hand. Only the obedience of Him who was filled with all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9) could satisfy the demands of God's holy law. The sinless life of Jesus was the embodiment of divine perfection, infinite purity and inexhaustible love. All this was required, and nothing less than this, to fulfill all righteousness. In the person of His Son, the eternal God endured infinite suffering and humiliation to pay the human debt to divine justice. This was the price paid for our salvation. Nothing satisfies the law but the doing and dying of Christ. In the light of this inestimable price, the best we could ever offer the law would be "rotten stubble and straw" (Luther).

    I did not know the stain of sin was so deep Until I saw Him shed His blood.
    I did not know my pride was so high
    Until I saw His infinite humiliation. I had no idea how deep my pit of sin
    Until I beheld the length of the chain let down to save me.

God will have all the glory of our salvation or none at all. Partners with God we may be in other areas, but not in this. Human nature would rather work its fingers to the bone than humbly accept the truth that grace means to be accepted in spite of being unacceptable. We have no claim on God's love. We can never put Him in debt to us.

    "Who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
    For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things:
    To whom be glory for ever. Amen."
    Rom. 11:35, 36.

Part II
1 See Present Truth Magazine, special issue, "Justification by Faith and the Charismatic Movement."
2 John Calvin, Institutes of the christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), Bk. Ill, Sec. ix.
3 This was the position taken by the immedidte tollowers anci apologists for Arminius, a Dutch theologian who tried to find an alternative for calvin's unsatisfactory synthesis of predestination and human responsibility. It would be unfair to classify all Arminians as subscribing to the legalistic view of faith described here.