Falling from Grace: Why Legalism Can Damn

While we have to accept Paul’s teaching of justification by faith on the strength of the inspiration and authority of scripture, we should pause to consider why the rule would be that adding works — any works — to faith/faithfulness as justifying the Christian creates a different gospel and causes the Christian to fall away. It’s a truly terrifying prospect that we need to reflect on in a bit more depth.

“Legalism”

When we speak of “legalism,” we don’t mean someone who insists on obedience to God’s commands. We insist on obedience to God’s commands. Rather, by “legalist” we mean someone guilty of the Galatian heresy — that is, insisting that we should add certain works to faith in Jesus as conditions for a Christian to remain saved.

Insisting on baptism is not legalism. Insisting on repentance is not legalism. Damning someone because they disagree with you over instrumental music or whether an elder may have only one child is the Galatian heresy and therefore is legalism.

The dangers of legalism

There are basically two ways that we might respond to being taught a works-based salvation. First, we can be as Martin Luther was before he discovered grace. We can very honestly examine ourselves and conclude we plainly do not merit salvation. If so, we’d live ourselves in constant fear of hellfire — a truly miserable condition. And we’ve known countless good people in the Churches of Christ in this wretched state — unable to believe that their doctrine can possibly be pure enough to be saved and so despondent at their hopelessly damned condition.

But most of us, unable to bear the thought of damnation, respond to works-based salvation by rationalizing that we aren’t as bad as the lost people who surround us, and we are actually better than most. Worse yet, we go looking for concrete evidence that we are indeed better than others. As we often can’t prove our superiority by our morality (are we really morally better than Mother Teresa? A better evangelist than Billy Graham?), we turn to doctrine and claim we in fact have an absolutely pure and perfect understanding of Scripture — at least the parts that really matter — and so we surely merit salvation (though very few would ever say it that way).

Thus, legalism leads to an arrogance that not only damns but is extraordinarily unattractive to the world around us.

Worse yet, legalism inevitably leads to the sin of division. After all, if I have to be right on every point of doctrine that could lead to sin, and if I can’t treat those who disagree with me as saved, then I soon find the church an awfully lonely place, as there will be few, if any, who completely agree with me on every single doctrine.

The divisions have often been hidden by the use of a common name, but every congregation knows the unofficial list of local Churches of Christ that don’t recognize their congregation’s salvation, that refuse cooperation, and that bitterly attack the others in their bulletins and from their pulpits. If we can’t see this as evil, then we really haven’t been reading our Bibles.

This is all in marked contrast to Jesus’ teachings on the unity of believers. In fact, just before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for the unity of all believers —

(John 17:20-23) “My prayer is not for [my apostles]alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

One of Jesus’ reasons for desiring unity among his followers was so the world would recognize us as his followers. He knew that division and discord would only make us look foolish to those we seek to convert.

And even a slight knowledge of the history of the Churches of Christ (and many other denominations) shows that drawing salvation lines contrary to the Biblical lines of faith and penitence leads to division. The result has been an embarrassment to the body of Christ and a major impediment to evangelism.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the solution we propose is the same solution that Alexander Campbell proposed nearly 200 years ago. As he states in The Christian System,

The principle which was inscribed upon our banners when we withdrew from the ranks of the sects was, “Faith in Jesus as the true Messiah, and obedience to him as our Lawgiver and King, the ONLY TEST of Christian character, and the ONLY BOND of Christian union, communion, and co-operation, irrespective of all creeds, opinions, commandments, and traditions of men.

Preface to First Edition (1839)(emphasis in original).

Campbell later notes the problems that arise when we try to create unity based on agreement on a system of doctrines —

To establish what is called a system of orthodox opinions as the bond of union was, in fact, offering a premium for new diversities in opinion, and for increasing, ad infinitum, opinions, sects, and divisions. And, what is worse than all, it was establishing self-love and pride as religious principles, as fundamental to salvation; for a love regulated by similarity of opinion is only a love to one’s own opinion; and all the zeal exhibited in the defense of it is but the workings of the pride of opinion.

Pride, Campbell argued, arises when we define salvation as based upon an elaborate doctrinal system.

But the grandeur, sublimity, and beauty of the foundation of hope, and of ecclesiastical or social union, established by the author and founder of Christianity consisted in this, — that THE BELIEF OF ONE FACT, and that upon the best evidence in the world, is all that is requisite, as far as faith goes, to salvation. The belief of this ONE FACT, and submission to ONE INSTITUTION expressive of it, is all that is required of Heaven to admission into the church. A Christian … is one that believes this one fact, and has submitted to one institution, and whose deportment accords with the morality and virtue of the great Prophet. The one fact is expressed in a single proposition – that Jesus the Nazarene is the Messiah.

The Christian System, pages 125-126 (emphasis in original).

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21 Comments on “Falling from Grace: Why Legalism Can Damn”

  1. Rich Says:

    This is an interesting theology.

    Anyone who is on the right of a progressive is arrogant, a sinner, and condemned eternally regardless of their love for God and their sincerity in understanding and interpreting His Word.

    However, anyone on the left of a progressive has the grace of God as long as they are sincere.

    We seem to enjoy making fun of the Pharisees but forget that Jesus gave equal criticism to the Sadducees. Matt. 16:6

  2. James Says:

    Good comment. The right or left of a progressive. Like it is up to progressives to interpret scripture. I had a progressive “brother” to tell me one time that he had “special” knowledge of Galatians. I just looked at him and smiled.

  3. James Says:

    Why does that little blue guy with gritted teeth show when I comment? I’m not mad.


  4. James, sign up at http://wordpress.com/ and upload a photo of yourself, and then your teeth-gritted blue icon will be replaced wherever you comment on any WordPress blog as long as you use your e-mail address. You don’t have to have a WordPress blog (I don’t!), and it’s free.

    I got tired of having a blue, smug-looking icon.

    If I want to look smug, I’ll use my own, fuzzy pink face!


  5. Does love for God and sincerity in understanding and interpreting His Word guarantee salvation as the folks who consider themselves to the right of a progressive? That’d be a whole new doctrine for most of those folks, wouldn’t it?

    Of course you didn’t mean that.

    Any more than Jay meant what you said, bro.

    Could we be a little more intellectually honest in expressing our disagreements?

  6. Jay Guin Says:

    Rich,

    You are capable of better. I did not say this. Please don’t mischaracterize me.

    It would be much more profitable for you to argue by showing how I’m in error from the scriptures, if that’s what you believe, rather than building a straw man argument.

  7. Jay Guin Says:

    James,

    Who is supposed to interpret scripture? Aren’t we all supposed to?

    When will the conservatives respond to our posts on the scriptures rather than just tossing out accusations? It seems to me that the progressives are at least talking about the scriptures — while the conservatives refuse to engage in exegesis.

    If we are in error in our interpretation of 1 John, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians, where’s the error?


  8. Jay,

    You quote uninspired commentary ALOT. Alexander Campbell is not the standard by which we live and appealing to him as authority is simply addition to the Bible, which is arrogant as Rich claimed. No matter how faithful or not Campbell was, he was a non-inspired, fallible human. God will decide his eternal destiny. Our only standard is the Bible.

    You quoted one passage about unity but the text and context of that verse do not teach what you are teaching. Jesus prayed for unity. Later we read what that unity entailed: “speaking the same thing, perfectly joined together in the same mind and same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10 and others).

    Jay said: …insisting that we should add certain works to faith in Jesus as conditions for a Christian to remain saved.

    “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” (1 Tim. 4:16) Paul told Timothy that obedience to the teachings would not only save Timothy (already saved by immersion) but those he preached to. This is a stark contrast to what you teach, Jay. You teach that one does not have to continue in the teachings of the NT to be saved. I’ll take the inspired Paul’s teachings over your noninspired, commentary driven teachings every time.

    Furthermore, faith is a work (John 6:29). Repentance also is an action. So is submission to immersion in water. Works save (James 2:24). God demands obedience (which requires effort/action/work) to be saved and nothing alone saves no matter what Billy Grahm teaches. Put away the uninspired commentaries, especially those of the denominations of the world and just ready your Bible with some context.

    Because of your complete missing of the point of “the law” (that it is the law of Moses) and “saving grace” (which you have little idea of what it actually is according to what I’ve read of your posts) you implicitly deny that we must continue to love Christ after we are immersed into him. (John 14:15; 1 John 5:2-3). You also continue to hedge around the point of immersion and its reason. You keep saying that faith and repentance save and that you do not argue against immersion but will you actually state that one must be immersed in water into the body of Christ to receive remission of sins? If so, how is that not a work of obedience that saves?

    In Truth and Love,

    Ernie


  9. Ernie, when you state “faith is a work (John 6:29)” I think you miss the context of the passage. Jesus had just done an extraordinary miracle – fed 5,000+ – and people followed Him to the other side of the lake to find out how they could do such “works of God.” His response is that this (singular) work of God was so that they would believe in the One He sent. In other words, the work testified about Him.

    “They said therefore unto him, `What may we do that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, `This is the work of God, that ye may believe in him whom He did send.'” John 6:28-29, Young’s Literal Translation.

    The work was God’s work. He did it through Jesus, His Son. Believing was not their work, but God’s. All of the actions you mention are God’s work in/through us toward our salvation, not our works; they are what He does through us by our submission … “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Even our faith is God’s work in us, a gift from Him.

  10. Jay Guin Says:

    Ernie wrote,

    You quote uninspired commentary ALOT. Alexander Campbell is not the standard by which we live and appealing to him as authority is simply addition to the Bible, which is arrogant as Rich claimed. No matter how faithful or not Campbell was, he was a non-inspired, fallible human. God will decide his eternal destiny. Our only standard is the Bible.

    I quote a couple of sentences from NT Wright, to give due credit for a passage he quotes from Josephus. I ended a couple of posts with quotes from Campbell. That’s all I can recall. What else?

    I actually don’t use many commentaries, because I find the scriptures very lucid. And if you’ll read my posts, you’ll see that I argue from the scriptures themselves — and do so extensively. I only wish my conservative brothers would do the same and join me in studying the very same scriptures at the same time.

    The point of the John 17 quote is to emphasize the importance of unity. I’ve been part of the conservative and the progressive churches — and I assure you that the progressives are vastly more of the “same mind and judgment” than the conservatives, who are constantly at war over issues such as elder re-affirmation and who can be on what editorial board or speak at what lectureship — and busy disfellowshipping other Churches of Christ. You see, once you understand grace — and understand it deep in your bones — then you indeed find yourself of “the same mind and same judgment.” It’s hard to understand it until you experience it. But I’ve been freed from fighting over imagined rules hidden in the silences in order to focus on God’s mission to the world. It’s a change too dramatic to communicate in words.

    Are you arguing that 1 Tim 4:16 means that salvation is found in perfect doctrinal understanding and practice? Do you contend that there is no grace for doctrinal error?

    Is faith a work? Not in Paul’s vocabulary, where “work” is short for “work of the law.” John 6:29 is an ironic sense of “work,” just like Paul’s use of “law” in —

    (Rom 3:27) Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.

    Regarding James, Todd has answered earlier. As you say, you’ve not read all our posts. You therefore misunderstand what we’re saying. I mean, you assert, “you implicitly deny that we must continue to love Christ after we are immersed into him,” which is as far removed from what I believe and teach as is possible.

    We don’t address immersion because we agreed with Greg and Phil at the beginning that this is about falling from grace and not about how to first get into grace.

    Let me suggest this. You’ve obviously joined the conversation late. Go back and read just the posts on 1 John, Hebrews, and Romans 5 and 15. Let’s then discuss just the Romans post. As I’ve said before, I’m looking for a conservative who will converse with me regarding the same passages at the same time. Let start with those passages and see whether we can agree on their meaning for the Churches of Christ.


  11. No Keith, I did not misread the context. The people were asking “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” They were asking what they could do, not what God could do for them. Jesus answers that if they wanted to do God’s work, that “ye believe”.

    I got it right. The only reason to interpret it as you have is so that one can relegate faith to a non-action (non-work).

    In Truth and Love,

    Ernie


  12. The point of the John 17 quote is to emphasize the importance of unity. I’ve been part of the conservative and the progressive churches — and I assure you that the progressives are vastly more of the “same mind and judgment” than the conservatives, who are constantly at war over issues such as elder re-affirmation and who can be on what editorial board or speak at what lectureship — and busy disfellowshipping other Churches of Christ.

    Yes, the conservatives have their diocese mentality and its wrong, too, but I’m not addressing them. This is your forum and your teaching that I’m challenging, not theirs. I’m not a conservative so I won’t respond to any comments you make to or about them specifically.

    And I’m sure there are plenty of denominational people that are of the same mind and judgment. Unity in truth is the goal, not unity in diversity or unity in error.

    You see, once you understand grace — and understand it deep in your bones — then you indeed find yourself of “the same mind and same judgment.” It’s hard to understand it until you experience it. But I’ve been freed from fighting over imagined rules hidden in the silences in order to focus on God’s mission to the world. It’s a change too dramatic to communicate in words.

    The religion “better felt than known”. This is the Gnostic approach and its almost as old as Christianity. Grace is not something that is “felt” or “experienced” the way you are using the word. Grace, saving grace, is God’s unearned gift that saves mankind. And if you think it is something “better felt” that you must “understand deep in your bones” or “experience” then you show me that you are truly ignorant of what that gift was.

    Are you arguing that 1 Tim 4:16 means that salvation is found in perfect doctrinal understanding and practice? Do you contend that there is no grace for doctrinal error?

    Your question is still aimed at conservatives and so is kind of hard to even answer. I contend that your doctrine is flawed because you don’t know what divine saving grace is. To ask “is there no grace for doctrinal error” doesn’t even make sense if you understand what grace is according to scripture. Salvation is found in Christ and He makes us perfect. Some of what you have said about the conservatives rings true, but discussing their lists is not my purpose here.

    Is faith a work? Not in Paul’s vocabulary, where “work” is short for “work of the law.” John 6:29 is an ironic sense of “work,” just like Paul’s use of “law” in –
    (Rom 3:27) Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.

    I have already stated and supported from context that “the law” when referred to by Paul without qualification is only the Mosaical Law, not the concept of law in general. When he does qualify “the law” as he does here in this verse it is a reference to the New Law, the one that replaced and is superior to the Old Law (Heb. 8:6; Rom. 8:2). It is the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), the law of liberty (James 2:12), the law of faith, the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Heb. 8:2). The whole book of Hebrews is about the transition from one to the other. And Romans is a comparison of Jew to Christian, of the old physical law to the new spiritual law. Read Acts. The Jews were the number one external problem the Christians faced until AD 70.

    Regarding James, Todd has answered earlier. As you say, you’ve not read all our posts. You therefore misunderstand what we’re saying. I mean, you assert, “you implicitly deny that we must continue to love Christ after we are immersed into him,” which is as far removed from what I believe and teach as is possible.

    I know you say that. I know you believe that you must continue to love Christ after you are immersed. But denying that it is necessary to obey him, keep his commandments, “that we should add certain works to faith in Jesus as conditions for a Christian to remain saved, to get to Heaven is an implicit denial of what you explicitly affirm. If it is necessary to obey him, to keep his commandments, to work/act/do something to remain saved, then works are necessary for salvation. You can’t have it both ways.

    Nobody, conservatives or you or I, is talking about “adding” anything to scripture as the Pharisees did. What you mean by “adding” in that quote above is any action outside of faith.

    We don’t address immersion because we agreed with Greg and Phil at the beginning that this is about falling from grace and not about how to first get into grace.

    You have to know what grace is before you can talk about falling from it.

    Let me suggest this. You’ve obviously joined the conversation late. Go back and read just the posts on 1 John, Hebrews, and Romans 5 and 15. Let’s then discuss just the Romans post. As I’ve said before, I’m looking for a conservative who will converse with me regarding the same passages at the same time. Let start with those passages and see whether we can agree on their meaning for the Churches of Christ.

    Well, I’m not a conservative so you are out of luck there. I honestly don’t think you are ready for the discussion you want to have. You need to understand grace first and what Paul refers to when he talks about “the law”.

    What is grace? I’m not asking for a definition. God defines grace in Eph. 2:8-9. Grace is God’s unearned gift to mankind. It is a gift given to all mankind. What I’m asking you is, what is that gift?
    When you can answer that question from scripture, then you’ll be ready to move on to the discussion you want to have.

    In Truth and Love,

    Ernie

  13. Jay Guin Says:

    Ernie,

    As you say you are neither conservative nor progressive and as you refuse to say what you believe, I fail to see how we can have much of a conversation.

    Please state plainly your understanding of when someone falls from grace.

  14. Rob Woodfin Says:

    I heard a speaker a while back discuss the tendancy some have to seize upon a particular example or metaphor in scripture and then run with it to the exclusion of all others. I wish I could remember who to credit for this because it was especially helpful to me.

    Consider the illustrations in the NT which use the examples of courtroom and verdict. These verses frequently pop up in conservative dogma because they fit perfectly with the pile driver preaching of “guilty, guilty, guilty.” Aim the gavel in any direction: the denominational, the non-denominational, the unchurched, and of course all those within the CoC who happen not to be seated at the prosecutor’s table.

    There is another metaphor, that of patient and physician. For some reason the firm contenders don’t reach for these verses with the same frequency, perhaps because there is no gavel, possibly because healing just isn’t as much fun, maybe because compassion requires more effort.

    Both of these concepts are instructive. We need not choose one set of verses over the other. But if one desired to infer an emphasis for their own personal approach to ministry, I wonder if the appellation “The Great Physician” might be helpful?

    In addressing this issue of legalism, Ernie comes to this discussion with a writ full of criticism, yet he denies he is a legalist. He accuses Jay of having little idea of what “saving grace” is, but fails to prescribe it himself. Perhaps if he were to shed a bit more light on what is being misunderstood about grace here, then we might all be healthier for it. It will be interesting to see, though, if he brings balm to the task or a subpoena.


  15. Jay,

    How about instead you answer my question so you can understand me when I answer yours. What is Grace?

    In Truth and Love,

    Ernie


  16. A whole lot of talking about how mean I am, or how I’m this or that, or whatever, but no one is answering the question I asked. Yes, I’m blunt. I’m not going to beat around the bush or be all politically correct and warm fuzzy about the way I talk to people. In my experience, that just leaves wiggle room. I’m not interested in trading personal attacks. I’m interested in what you know, what I know, and communicating from the common ground of scripture.

    Attack me all you want, but the only thing I’m interested in is can you answer the question: What is Grace? I don’t think you can, at least not from scripture. If you can’t, then admit that, and at THAT point, I’ll show you what the Bible defines grace as. If you think you can, then do so and stop wasting your time. 🙂

    In Truth and Love,

    Ernie

  17. Jay Guin Says:

    Ernie,

    I’m not interested in conversing with someone who refuses to state his own views. I’ve stated mine at great length over the last several months. If you want to engage in the conversation, you need to tell me where you’re coming from.


  18. I’m coming from the Bible and the Bible alone. Honestly, you are going to find a lot more agreement from me about condemnation, disfellowship, and whatnot than you will from the conservatives/diocese folks. But we have to have common ground and we have to start at the beginning and grace comes first for Christians.

    If you said what you believe grace is, please link to it so I can read it. If you haven’t, why not answer the question? It’s a simple enough question and very straightforward.

    In Truth and Love,

    Ernie


  19. As I said, you have no idea what Grace is, so how can you understand what it means when someone talks about falling from Grace. That you refused to answer the simple question proves my assertion that you do not know what Grace is. I shall point you to scripture that defines Grace for you.

    First, we know that Grace is a gift that God gave to man that man did not earn in any way (Eph. 2:8-9).

    It is helpful, though, to address a few misconceptions about what people think Grace is.

    1. Grace is not undefinable or some nebulous SOMETHING.

    If Grace is what saves us from sin (Eph. 2:5) and we can know what sets us free from sin because Jesus said that we will know the truth and be free from sin (John 8:32), then we can know for certain what Grace is.

    Below is an analogous equation based on Ephesians 2:8.

    For by grace are you saved through faith.

    Grace + Faith = Saved (Eph. 2:8)
    Flour + Water = Bread

    Below we use mathematical substitution to show what would happen if Grace were the things that it is sometimes said to be.

    2. Grace is not salvation: Eph. 2:8 (Titus 2:11)

    Substituting Salvation for Grace in the equation we get:

    Salvation + Faith =? Saved
    Bread + Water =? Bread

    No, all you would get is soggy bread.

    3. Grace is not individual faith: Eph. 2:8

    Substituting individual faith for Grace in the equation we get:

    Faith + Faith =? Saved
    Water + Water =? Bread

    No, all you’d get is water.

    4. Grace alone can’t save us

    Grace =? Saved
    Flour =? Bread

    No, flour alone never produces bread.

    Grace alone means a lack of faith. But Hebrews 11:6 says that with out faith we can not please God.

    5. Grace is not the Old Law

    Grace is a contrast to the Old Testament in many of Paul’s letters as well as the letter of Hebrews. Romans 6:14; Hebrews 10:4

    Old Testament + Faith =? Saved
    Not Flour + Water =? Bread

    6. We know that Grace is NOT salvation because grace brings (is the cause of) salvation (Titus 2:11). The cause (salvation) is not the effect (salvation), too. That is not logical.

    Note that in Ephesians 2:8 that Grace is the gift of God in this passage. “It” is a pronoun referring back to a noun, specifically the subject of the previous phrase which is the word “Grace”. The
    word “saved” is a verb so the gift of God is not “saved” (which doesn’t make sense gramatically) but “saved” is a result of God’s gift (grace) and man’s (obedient) faith. The noun form of the word “saved”, “salvation” is not in Ephesians 2:8. Salvation is never spoken of in scripture anywhere as a gift. Salvation is simply a state of being that results from God’s gift and man’s obedient faith.

    In my next post I’ll explore some of the attributes of Grace as found in scripture.

    In Truth and Love,

    Ernie


  20. A look at the properties of Grace according to Scripture:

    1. Grace saves us: (Eph. 2:8), justifies us: (Romans 3:24; Titus 3:7) [Note: saves = justifies. They are two words that describe the same event.]

    2. Grace can be continued in: (Acts 13:43)

    3. Grace can be given (1 Cor. 1:4)

    4. Grace can be received (2 Cor. 6:1)

    5. Grace can be followed like a plan (1 Cor. 3:10)

    6. Grace can be fallen from: (Gal. 5:4)

    7. Grace can make us free from sin: (Eph 2:5)

    8. Grace can be given for the purpose of preaching: (Eph. 3:8)

    9. Grace can be ministered unto hearers: (Eph. 4:29)

    10. Grace teaches us: (Titus 2:11-12)

    11. Grace can be sung: (Col. 3:16)

    12. Grace can be in our hearts: (Col. 3:16)

    13. Grace is the opponent of sin: (Romans 5:21)

    14. Grace is in Christ: (1 Tim. 1:14)

    15. Grace calls us: (2 Tim. 1:9)

    16. Grace was prophecied: (1 Peter 1:10)

    17. Grace is brought by revelation: (1 Peter 1:13)

    18. Grace calls men to Christ (Gal. 1:15)

    Using these properties of Grace, is it possible to define what God’s Saving Grace actually is? I believe so.

    In Truth and Love,

    Ernie


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