It’s futile to try and earn God’s favor
Life is like a journey. The Bible says that Christians are people who follow the road that leads to eternal life, which is much narrower than the broad road that leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14). As a road has boundaries for safe travel, Christians do not thrive outside God’s boundaries for living. Two ways of going off the road or out of bounds are to either add to or take away from what God has revealed to us in the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). Legalism involves adding to the Bible and liberalism taking away from it. These are mindsets that come from the sinful nature; not from the Bible or the divine nature.
Law And Liberty
The law given to the Jews in Old Testament times, found in Exodus 20-31, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is summarised in the ten commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). It showed people their sinfulness, since to break one command meant being guilty of breaking all of it (Rom. 3:20; 7:7; Jas. 2:10). As everyone has broken the law, they are under the curse of death (Ro. 6:23; Gal. 3:10). Jesus came to pay this penalty for humanity and in this way He fulfilled the requirements of the law (Mt. 5:17). As their penalty has been paid, Christians are no longer under the law; they have been released from the law (Rom. 6:14 7:6; Gal. 3:13, 24-25). As this is a free gift from God, His acceptance doesn’t depend on our character or conduct.
Believers are to live by faith, not the law (Gal. 3:11-12). This new way of the Spirit brings liberty and freedom and is motivated by love, not fear (Rom. 7:7; 2 Cor. 3:17). Our speech and conduct are to be judged by the “law that gives freedom” (Jas 2:12TNIV), which has taken the place of the ancient law. In regard to things not expressly commanded or forbidden, Christian liberty must be granted, allowing for the exercise of individual judgement and Christian conscience before God (1 Cor. 10:29-31). This must be limited by considerations of love and care not to stumble those with a sensitive conscience (1 Cor. 8:9).
Legalism is an attitude regarding our approach to God. It imposes law on the believer’s conscience so that it comes between them and God. It also includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.
Legalism exalts “law” above “grace” and replaces “faith” with “works”. The word does not occur in New Testament Greek, but “righteousness in the law” is translated as “righteousness based on the law” (Phil. 3:6). It began when Eve added “you must not touch it” to God’s instruction (Gen. 2:17; 3:3).
The Pharisees were religious leaders amongst the Jews. They wore distinguished clothes to be easily recognised. Their objective was to live in strict accordance with the Old Testament law and the tradition of interpretation they had established and to train other Jews to live this way.
They pledged to obey all the facets of the traditions to the minutest detail, were proud of their traditions and law and felt superior to other nations and people such as the Samaritans (Jn. 4:9). They were usually recognised as examples to follow and were honoured. But God had a much higher standard: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). Their religious ceremonies, without inner faith, were not acceptable to God.
Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites because they put traditions above the word of God (Mt. 15:3, 6-7). Their teachings were human rules that were not from God (Mt. 5:9). Instead Christ taught that purity came from the mind, not from external behaviour (Mt. 15:17-20).
The Pharisees actually relaxed the divine standards. For example, the Corban regulation enabled people to ignore the fifth commandment (Mk. 15:4-6). In one sense their extra laws made it easier to obey the Old Testament law; they took into account the weakness of human nature. The rich young man believed that he had kept all the commandments (Mt. 19:20). As the Pharisees believed they could keep the law, they defined them to enable this!
By following their traditions they were in danger of concluding that they pleased God. For example, Paul was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers and faultless in following the law (Gal 1:14; Phil. 3:5-6). This could give a false sense of spiritual security. The need to depend on God’s mercy was diminished: they “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Lk. 18:9).
The Pharisees were obsessed with following man-made rules and Jesus criticised them strongly for their religious practices (Mt. 23). Jesus said they were hypocrites who oppressed the people and were concerned about appearances and recognition but lacked sincerity and were greedy and self-indulgent. They were meticulous with minor matters but neglected the major matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
When they felt their position and customs were threatened, the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders persecuted Christ and the early church. They bitterly opposed Jesus and His teachings. Because the early church was largely comprised of Jews, legalism arose within their congregations. We will now look at some instances of legalism in the early church.
Before Peter visited Cornelius when the gospel went to the Gentiles, his attitudes had to be retrained. God caused him to see a vision of a large sheet that came down from heaven containing animals and birds, many of which were impure and unclean under the Jewish food regulations. When he was told to kill and eat them, Peter refused because he always followed these regulations. Then he was told “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). This happened three times to teach him that the Jewish laws no longer applied and that Gentiles were going to receive the Holy Spirit without needing to become Israelites.
When Peter broke the Jewish law of not associating with Gentiles he said “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28) and “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). He knew that the Jewish law no longer applied and all nationalities were to be accepted in the church because God had accepted them (Rom. 15:7).
When Peter was criticized for socialising with Gentiles he described what happened and they were satisfied (Acts 11:1-18). However, some Jewish believers insisted male circumcision was essential for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5). This was a common example of legalism in the early church; being salvation by good works. Paul opposed such legalism and said, “we did not give in to them for a moment” (Gal. 2:5). After Paul and Barnabas spoke up against this and Peter and James agreed with them, the church decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-31).
Paul taught that Christians should not be required to follow Jewish regulations, which had been fulfilled by Christ (Col. 2:16-17). To enforce such regulations on others involves deception (Col. 2:8). Christians shouldn’t submit to the rules of human tradition like “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” as “These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:8, 20-23). Strict religious rules and regulations do not have power over the sinful nature. Although they may appear good externally, such rules do not address sinful attitudes. In fact they lead to pride.
The Circumcision Group
Jews who insisted that male circumcision was essential for salvation and that the Old Testament law had to be followed to please God were referred to as “the circumcision group” (Gal. 2:12; Ti. 1:10). In Crete they were “rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception”. Paul said that they “must be silenced” because of their false teaching. Furthermore, the congregation should be rebuked sharply to “pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth” (Ti. 1:11, 13). Paul opposed legalism because it was destroying the message of justification by faith. Salvation was by God’s grace alone, through the death of Christ and not involving any human works.
“Quarrels about the law” in Paul’s day such as disputes over clean and unclean foods, Sabbath regulations and observance of holy days, were “unprofitable and useless” (Rom. 14; Ti. 3:9). They diverted believers from a balanced life.
As the churches in Galatia were turning to the “different gospel” of legalism, Paul said that the false teachers of this message would be under God’s curse (Gal. 1:6-9). Even the apostle Peter and Barnabas were influenced by the circumcision group to stop socialising with Gentiles. Paul confronted Peter publicly for this hypocritical behavior: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Gal. 2:14). He emphasised that believers are justified by faith in Christ alone and not by observing the law.
They were observing special days and months and seasons and years (Gal. 4:10). Paul said that they were enslaved to Jewish regulations (Gal. 4:1-3). Such legalism was wrong because believers were now children of God and not slaves under the law, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Gal. 5:18).
Paul described the perils of legalism in Galatians 5:1-12. It is like going backwards to living in Old Testament times and under slavery that is intolerable to bear (Acts 15:10). Instead of Christ being the only means of salvation, it involved a system of salvation by good works. However, if a person attempts to please God by being circumcised, then they should keep the whole law. Those who were trying to be saved by keeping the law were rejecting that Christ was the only Savior. The believer receives righteousness through the Spirit, whereas the legalist hopes in vain to earn righteousness. Circumcision doesn’t make a believer any better and uncircumcision doesn’t make them any worse, it is irrelevant as far as God is concerned. Legalism is disobeying the truth of Scripture. The belief that circumcision and law-keeping should be added to faith in Christ does not come from God but from Satan. Legalism spreads through a congregation like yeast spreads through dough (Mt. 16:6). False legalistic teachers will be judged by God. The message of Christ’s finished work on the cross is offensive to legalists because it implies that people are incapable of doing anything to merit salvation. Paul wished that the legalists would be cut off from the congregations in Galatia.
Paul called legalists: dogs, evildoers and mutilators of the flesh (Phil. 3:2). Dogs were unclean animals and the term was used by Jews to describe Gentiles. Here Paul was using it for legalistic false teachers. It may also imply their aggression and destructive impact and the fact that legalism leads to criticism and quarrelling (Gal. 5:15).
Legalism is a mindset regarding our approach to God that comes from the sinful nature and adds to the Bible. It places rules and regulations between us and God and puts law above grace and works above faith and includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone. It is selfish and imposes rigid control on others. Legalism is dangerous because it involves sinful thinking and sinful behaviour.
The risk of legalism is greatest for believers with a weak or strict conscience who tend to impose it on others. Any congregation that has existed for some time tends to become legalistic as its customs and traditions get set and confused with scriptural truths. For example, there is usually resistance to changes of a method or practice as some confuse this with liberalism.
Christians can avoid legalism by recognizing the freedoms inherent in God’s word. Both Christ and Paul identified legalism as a serious sin that can destroy a congregation. This was true for the early church and is also true today. In the next article in this series we will look at how to recognise and respond to legalism.
Written, December 2007
As a fish lives in water, we live in the environment of our culture. We are all influenced by the world we live in: it shapes and influences our thinking. We all live in a community and society that has a characteristic culture and beliefs. None of us is isolated from this world. How we live at home, at work and at church is influenced by our current culture and human tradition, which is derived from the culture of previous eras. These cultures and worldviews can have both positive and negative aspects.
The word “postmodern” can be used in two ways. Firstly, to describe an era, the present period of time, which is characterised by: consumerism, many options and choices, globalisation, Google, Facebook, SMS, GPS, constant change, and superficial lives that lack depth, where the most common goal is to enjoy yourself.
Secondly, “postmodern” describes an attitude or mindset (which is a way of looking at things, a paradigm or a worldview). In this article we are mainly looking at the second meaning: “postmodernism”, which is the prevailing mindset of our society. It is largely a state of mind. As the word implies “postmodernism” has now largely replaced “modernism”, which was the previous mindset. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism.
I was brought up when modernism was the prevailing mindset. In the modern era, faith was placed in human reasoning to discover truth. This was an ordered view of the world where truth was objective and able to be discovered. It was the age of reason; reason largely replaced Christian faith. It was optimistic for the future: science and technology would lead to unlimited progress toward a better life because it was thought that people were basically good.
Because everything was explained by science, religious faith was viewed as being made up of outdated myths and superstition. The idea of evolution replaced the need for God. The supernatural, the spiritual world and miracles were dismissed as they were inconsistent with science, which rejected the possibility of the supernatural. So, it was thought that religion would wither.
However, modernism was a false god, because according to the Christian mindset our thinking should be God-centred, not based on reasoning that rejects God’s existence. Truth can only be discovered by basing our reasoning on God’s revelation in the Bible. Also, the human mind is flawed by sin and so it is a poor foundation for our reasoning (Gen. 8:21; Rom. 3:23). In fact, without a personal relationship with the living God, people are in a hopeless situation.
As with all worldviews, except the biblical one, modernism would ultimately disappoint. People became disenchanted with reason and science, as neither was able to deliver on their promises to solve all human problems and reshape society into utopia. Instead, there were wars, weapons of mass destruction and poverty. Consequently, the ideas behind modernism were thought to be dangerous and the modernist optimistic view of human nature was discredited. The response was postmodernism.
Today our culture is changing and postmodern ideas are driving the change. Let’s look at some of the ideas and values that people say are behind our postmodern world.
Truth and Morals
People also began to think that modernism was a failure because it oppressed the disadvantaged. For example, colonial powers erased non-western cultures. Instead postmodernists thought that all cultures are valid and they dismissed the foundations of modernism, including reason and progress. This means that they assumed that truth and morals were relative; there is no big story about history and no answers to the big questions of life; and experiences and feelings are important. We will now look at each of these in turn.
Relative truth and morality
What can you see in this image: a duck or a rabbit? This illustrates that different people can see things differently.
According to postmodernism, truth is subjective; relativeto one’s viewpoint; and relational, being perceived through the beliefs, values, and practices of the community. Consequently, truth can vary from person to person or society to society. So the Christian message (like all worldviews) is seen as being true only for those who accept it. As each person makes their own truths, these can be made up of inconsistent parts. Such truth is not objective; absolute; universal or fixed.
According to postmodernism there are no absolute mortal truths and morality is always relative. People rely on their own ideas of what is right or wrong, true or false. They make up their own mind.
No big stories
Postmodernists say they don’t believe any big story about history and reject the idea of absolute truth for the big questions of life such as how we should live, and moral, social and political claims. The reason given is to stop the oppression of minorities (who they think were oppressed by the dominant culture of modernism) such as the holocaust in Germany and mass murder in Russia, China and Cambodia. They believe that all big stories have winners and losers. That is why they support affirmative action for the marginalised such as women (feminism), homosexuals, racial minorities, and environmental protection (Modernism is blamed for the destruction of the environment). This is where the idea of being “politically correct” comes from.
Experiences and feelings
Because they believe that truth is relative, postmodernists do what they feel like doing. Instead of asking “Is it right or true”, the question is “does it make me feel good? Does it solve my problems?”. It’s self-centred and pragmatic.
Experience and feelings are more important for postmodernists than truth; they follow their feelings. Experience becomes more important than reason and images than words. Consequently, they use music, images, films, stories, plays and poems to communicate as they think people can be influenced more through their emotions.
But postmodernism is a false god because according to the Christian mindset:
- Although some truth is relative, a significant amount of truth and knowledge are absolute. For example, morals do not change, because human nature does not change.
- God has established moral absolutes to protect us. People will be hurt and oppressed if we ignore these. The great evils of colonial exploitation, the Holocaust, and totalitarian government would have been prevented if some moral absolutes were in place. Jesus said: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Moral rules are a way of expressing love, even if it’s sometimes tough love. A loving attitude is essential when dealing with moral absolutes.
- It is dangerous when feelings are more important than consistency with God’s revelation. For example, a Christian may use it to justify having a sexual relationship outside marriage.
- A value system that teaches that truth is unavailable or oppressive, is ungodly. Instead follow and proclaim the message of truth that God gives in Scripture, which is called “the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). If we know the truth it will set us free from being enslaved to such false worldviews (Jn. 8:31-32).
- Jesus is the source of all truth: He was “the way, the truth and the life” and “full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14, 17; 14:6).
Tolerance and Pluralism
If truth and morals are always relative, then the next step is pluralism and a new definition of tolerance.
Because truth and morals are seen as relative and not absolute, every culture, religion and diverse group on the planet can claim that their truths are just as valid as anyone else’s. In this sense, everyone’s beliefs, values, lifestyles, and truth claims are equal. In other words, all beliefs are equal, all values are equal, all lifestyles are equal and all truth is equal. This has led to the concept of “tolerance”.
According to the dictionary, “tolerate” means “to allow something to be practised or done without prohibition or interference”. For the postmodernist “tolerance” now means that all values, beliefs, lifestyles and claims to truth are equally valid. This is compromise, not tolerance. So not only does everyone have an equal right to their beliefs, but all beliefs are equal. By tolerance, the postmodern is asking us to give up on our faith, and tolerance replaces truth.
Pluralism is a word with multiple meanings, ranging from recognising diversity to accepting the beliefs of others. For the postmodernist, it is a diversity of beliefs and values. If truth is plural, and all beliefs are equally valid, without the boundaries of reason and moral assessment, this leads to a plurality of values and a viewpoint that all religions are equally valid and equally true. Consequently multiple, competing and contradictory truths are embraced.
Religious pluralism assumes that one religion is not the only source of values, truths, and supreme deity. It therefore must recognize that at least “some” truth must exist in other belief systems. So although there is no absolute religion, it leads to all religions being equivalent and to New Age beliefs.
Such postmodernism is a false god because according to the Christian mindset:
- There is one true God who is a personal trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is different to the gods of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus and other religious. “Salvation is found in no one else” but Christ (Acts 4:12).
- God has revealed Himself and His will. The result is that we can know truth even though it is not exhaustive. There is a big picture – we do have an idea of where history is going, and we do have a basis for moral judgment.
Interpreting the Bible
For a postmodern, the meaning of a text lies ultimately in the hands of its reader. No one interpretation is viewed as being superior to another as a person’s worldview influences their interpretation and they are encouraged to come up with original ideas. This means that as each person can have their own interpretation, they make their own truth and they can leave out inconvenient doctrines and moral commands. Just like in the supermarket, they can pick and choose what suits them. Also, in the name of liberation, text can be rejected because it is deemed to be patriarchal, or homophobic or has a political or ideological bias. It is then replaced by an interpretation that affirms the oppressed.
This is dangerous, because according to the Christian mindset:
- The Bible is God’s word, not a guideline that we can interpret anyway we want to (2 Tim. 3:16). There are no controls to limit the meaning of the postmodernist’s interpretation.
- The original meaning of the text can be lost and replaced with ideas that are inconsistent with the original meaning.
- We need to be careful because a new interpretation can be supported by a person saying they were led by the Spirit.
- This stops the Bible speaking to us.
We are to be missionaries bringing the gospel to the world around us. How did Paul do this? Firstly, when he was in Athens, Paul was distressed to see that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16-23). So he reasoned with the religious in the synagogue and with the rest in the marketplace. He engaged the philosophies of the day. This led to him speaking at the meeting of the Areopagus, which was the city council. He began by talking about an altar in the city that was dedicated to an unknown god.
Secondly, Paul identified with those he spoke to (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Paul, recognised and adapted to the culture and worldview, except where it violated Scripture. He made himself “a slave to everyone” and respected their conscience to help communicate the gospel so people would be more likely to receive the message. As Peter said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Effective evangelism requires discerning the spirit of the age. We need to be relevant. If we’re going to connect with people and represent the good news, we’re going to have to wrestle with their assumptions and worldview. Learning about postmodernism helps evangelise in a postmodern culture. The pluralistic postmodernist is open to all interpretations, including Christianity (although they may say: it’s all right for you, but not for me). The most important factor to postmoderns when deciding what is true is not reason, but experience. Consequently, they are less likely to be influenced by what they only read or only hear. Instead they need to see and feel Christian behaviour in action so their emotions are engaged.
This means that we should make sure that people experience real Christian love and hospitality and community while they are hearing the truth about Christ. Truth demonstrated has enormous impact. Demonstrating the difference Christianity makes in a person’s life may be the best way to catch the interest of the postmodernist to whom experience and feelings are important. The fluid, ever-changing environment of postmodernity offers little support or shelter in the face of overwhelming change and almost unlimited choice. In these circumstances, people look for safe and welcoming places where they can find a sense of togetherness and safety. Let’s model Christianity that meets this need.
Modernism gave us a sense of God’s order in the universe, and elevated our ability to think and reason toward truth. It indicated what humanity can achieve, but dismissed the dark side of human nature. But, human reason alone is a false god to base our life on.
Postmodernism, on the other hand supports the marginalised and brings a sense of our finite limitations. But it tends to create an inability to have assurance about anything for certain. Also, personal experiences, feelings, interpretations and opinions are false gods to base our life on.
Modernism and postmodernism are two different mindsets. Those of us who are older will have a more modernist mindset and those of us who are younger will have a more postmodern mindset. So we view things differently. If we realise this, it should help us to communicate better with each other both inside the church and in evangelism.
Written, December 2010
See the other article in this series:
– What is post-modernism and how should Christians respond to it?