Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “traditions

Strong and weak spiritual foundations

Storm 2 400pxHeavy rain, strong winds and high tides battered the eastern coast of Australia recently. Sections of some seaside homes in Sydney were washed into the ocean during huge swell. And floods caused extensive damage in Tasmania.

This reminds me of the story that Jesus told about two builders (Mt. 7:24-27; Lk. 6:47-49). The wise one built their house on a strong rock foundation, while the foolish one built their house on a weak sandy foundation. When a storm came, the house on the strong foundation wasn’t damaged, but the one on the weak foundation collapsed and was destroyed.

This blogpost looks and our spiritual foundations and how these can be strong or weak.

Types of spiritual foundations

An awareness of the spiritual aspect of life can help us get through tough times. This can give us a different perspective on life and help us see the big picture. But what sort of foundation is our spirituality based on? Obviously, strong robust and reliable foundations are better that weak fragile and unreliable foundations. As a building’s foundations affect the building, so our spiritual foundations affect our spiritual life and thereby our physical life.

In many ways our spirituality and our interpretation of doctrine and theology is based on what we believe is the source or foundation of our spiritual authority. This authority or foundation depends on our assumption about God’s revelation to humanity. There are two main viewpoints or paradigms. The first is that God has revealed Himself only in the Christian Bible. And the second is that God continues to reveal Himself by means outside the Bible.

The Bible also says that God is revealed in a general sense in His physical creation (Rom. 1:20) and in the human conscience (Rom. 2:15). But these types of general revelation aren’t addressed in this post.

Only Biblical revelation

The first main viewpoint about how God reveals himself to us is based on the historical record in the Bible, which was written between 1430 BC and AD 95. There are two main sections in the Bible. The Old Testament is God’s revelation before the birth of Christ, when the Israelites were God’s people. It was written by prophets who received the message from God “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:20-21NIV). The New Testament is God’s revelation in the first century AD. It has two subsections: the gospels describe the final years of the old Jewish covenant, while the remainder describes the early church, when Christians were God’s people. The Bible teaches that together the Old and New Testaments provide all we need to know about God and His interaction with humanity.

Although the Bible wasn’t written to us, it contains information and principles that are still relevant today. When we apply a Bible passage to our lives we need to discern who it was written to, the era being described and the universal principle being taught. In particular, we need to be careful interpreting and applying passages written about the Jewish era because we live in the Christian era, not the Jewish one. We will now look at some Bible passages that support this viewpoint.

In the context of persecution of Christians and dealing with false teachers, Paul told Timothy, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). So the words of the Bible are the words of God Himself. Also, the Bible is both necessary and sufficient to show us the way of salvation and to equip us for Christian living. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, not via any of the teachings given below under “Continual revelation”. The gospel of Jesus Christ described in the New Testament is the only strong spiritual foundation (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20).

In the context of disunity within a local church, Paul quoted the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written” (2 Cor. 4:6). He wanted the believers in Corinth to evaluate everything and everyone by the Scriptures. He didn’t want them to put other teachers or other teachings above Scripture. Their authority was to be Scripture and nothing else or no-one else.

Canon complete

The last commandment in the Bible is a warning, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll” (Rev. 22:18-19). There are similar warnings in the Old Testament (Dt. 4:2; Prov. 30:5-6). As the subjects of the book of Revelation are woven throughout the Bible, this passage condemns any tampering with Scripture. Since the book of Revelation was completed, no new written or verbal prophecy has ever been universally recognized by Christians as divine truth from God. The Scriptures are final and complete.

Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things” and “guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 14:26; 16:13). We have this truth recorded by the apostles and their associates in the New Testament. Today the Holy Spirit can use Scripture to guide us into all the truth. Paul told the Ephesians “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27), which was “revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” and written down in Scripture (Eph. 3:4-5).

Jude said that the Christian faith documented by the apostles was “once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3). This means it’s complete and not subject to change. So the Bible is a closed system of truth, with no new revelation being given through inspired prophets or apostles. It’s God’s complete revelation, containing all the spiritual truth that God wants us to know. Through it, God has revealed everything He wants us to know about spiritual matters. And nothing has been lost from God’s revelation.

go-kart-tragedy 2 400pxIn April 2010, a 26-year-old woman was driving a go-kart at Port Stephens, when part of her clothing became entangled in the drive axle of her vehicle, strangling her and resulting in her death. The operator was fined $32,000 with costs of $18,000 for failing to comply with two Australian Standards for amusement rides and devices. The standard says go-kart riders were required to “not wear loose fitting clothing that could become entangled in any part of the kart” and the moving parts of the go-kart must be covered. Failing to follow this safety standard was physically dangerous. Likewise, failing to follow the Bible is spiritually dangerous because the Bible is God’s spiritual standard for us.

Continual revelation

The second main viewpoint is that God continues to reveal Himself by means outside the Bible. These extra-biblical revelations may include religious teachings, religious books, traditions, or ongoing revelation via dreams, visions or prophecies.

In this case it is assumed that Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to “guide you into all the truth” implies that new truth will continue to be revealed after the Bible was complete (Jn. 16:13). However, this promise was written to people who attended a Jewish synagogue, so it wasn’t written directly to us today (Jn. 16:2). Instead the new truth was revealed after the day of Pentecost and written in the New Testament for us to learn about today.

Other religious teachings

Some religious teachings aren’t consistent with the teachings of the Bible. For example, the teachings: that salvation is by grace plus works, that salvation can be obtained after death, that Jesus isn’t God, that God isn’t a trinity, that baptism is necessary for salvation, that infants should be baptized, that hell isn’t eternal punishment, that Sabbath worship is for the churches today, that Revelation 6-22 is not about the future, that God has finished with Israel and the church has replaced Israel, that Mary was sinless, that the Pope is infallible, that prophets are infallible, and that God decides who will be saved and who will be condemned.

Because they differ from what the Bible teaches, these beliefs should be rejected. To accept such teachings as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. In the previous section we saw that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to these other religious teachings, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all religious teachings should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Other religious books

Religious books like the Book of Mormon, the Muslim Koran, the Hindu Shruti, the Buddhist Tripitaka, “Science and health with key to the Scriptures” of Christian Science, Education in the New Age, and the Scientology Handbook, claim to be the word of God. And the evolutionary ideas of Darwin’s “On the Origin of species” are used to promote atheism. But these books always contradict the Bible in some way. For example, the Koran teaches that Jesus was just another prophet, whereas the Bible teaches that He was the divine Son of God -– the way, the truth and the life. Only one of these can be right. They can’t both be right! If you try to combine the two, then you must disregard some of the teachings of the Bible. So to accept another religious book as a spiritual authority or foundation, means giving it more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to the other religious books, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

None of these sacred books can meet even one of the standards on which the canon of the Bible was established. For example, their authors don’t satisfy the biblical definition of a prophet or an apostle or have a direct link to such a person (like Mark, Luke and James).

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all religious books should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Other human traditions

After the Jewish religious leaders asked “why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders” … Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Mt. 15:1-6). So Jesus placed Scripture above tradition. In this case, a tradition had been developed to avoid supporting aged parents.

Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8). Here he writes against religious teachings that aren’t based on the Bible. These human speculations become traditions when they are adopted as customs.

To accept such traditions as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to other traditions, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all traditions should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Extra-biblical visions

Paul warns those in Colossae: “a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind” (Col. 2:18-19). They loved talking on and on about their spiritual experiences (which probably included visions of angels), but in reality these were only coming out of their own mind. Dreams and visions are subjective experiences. In those days, the Gnostics entered into ecstatic experiences which had no basis in biblical revelation. Since the canon of Scripture (the list of books that belong in the Bible) has closed, there is no further need for more revelation from God.

In contrast to the written word of God, spiritual experiences and feelings are also subjective and can’t be verified. And when interpreting Scripture, we need to ensure our experiences and biases don’t distort the process. Instead, we should test our experience against the Bible.

To accept dreams, visions and spiritual experiences as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to dreams, visions and experiences, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all dreams, visions, and experiences should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Extra-biblical prophecies

The Bible says that prophecy is a direct message from God (Dt. 18:18). In the chapter on love, Paul wrote “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease … For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (1 Cor. 13:8-10). The Corinthians had been occupied with spiritual gifts like prophecy but Paul says love is more important because it lasts longer than prophecy.

So, before the completion of the New Testament, God gave messages to the church by prophecies, but sometime after that the prophecies would cease and disappear. When is that time? The Bible says it’s “when completeness comes”. There are two main views about this.
– When there is perfection, which occurs when we go to heaven.
– Or when the New Testament was complete, which was about 40 years after Paul wrote this letter.

The second view is the best explanation. Two situations are being compared in this passage, the “partial” and the “complete”; the “now” and the “then” (v.9-10, 12). The gift of prophecy in the New Testament church was God’s partial revelation before His full revelation was available when the Bible was completed. Paul gives two illustrations of this (v.11-12). The first compares childhood to adulthood (or immaturity to maturity). The second compares seeing something in a dim mirror to seeing it in a clear mirror (or limited sight to full sight, or indistinct to distinct). Then he says, “now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (v.12). As the “know in part” was individual prophecies, the “know fully” was the complete collection of prophecies. So at a future time this knowledge changes from being partial to being complete. The complete revelation in the New Testament gives us all we need to know from a divine viewpoint.

Then he says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (v.13). So, after prophecy has “ceased”, faith hope and love “remain”. They last longer than prophecy. How long? Faith and hope last in our lifetime; that is until we get to heaven, which means when we die or when Christ returns at the rapture. That’s when our faith will be replaced by sight and our hope will be realized (Rom. 8:24; Heb. 11:1). But love is the greatest because it goes on for eternity when we will be with God, who is love.

Why is this a better explanation than saying that prophecy continues until the rapture? First, it’s obvious that all physical activities such as spiritual gifts finish when we die. That’s a no-brainer! So if this was the meaning, why mention it all? Second, the text implies that prophecy ceases before faith and hope. They don’t cease at the same time. Third, it’s consistent with the canon of the Bible being complete. Because new revelations (or prophecies) would be adding to what’s in the Bible. Fourth, the context is revelation from God, not fellowship with God. Fifth, “complete” (or “whole”) is a better match for “partial” (they are both quantitative words), whereas “perfect” (or “unblemished”) doesn’t match “partial” (one is quantitative and the other is qualitative). Sixth, the Greek word translated “complete” (teleios Strongs #5046) is also used in James 1:25 to describe Scripture.

So the spiritual gift of prophecy was temporary for when the apostles were writing the New Testament. During this period divine guidance was provided through gifts such as prophecy. Each prophecy provided only a part of the complete revelation given in the New Testament. For example, Paul didn’t have the writings of John. In the Bible, the Old Testament is called a “prophetic message” and the New Testament “prophetic writings” (Rom. 16:26; 2 Pet. 1:19-20).

Going back to the builders mentioned at the beginning of this message. The wise builder is like those who obey Scripture, while the foolish builder is like those who disobey Scripture (Mt. 7:24, 26). In the same passage, Jesus also said that true and false prophets are distinguished by their fruit, where good fruit symbolizes those who obey Scripture and bad fruit symbolizes those who disobey Scripture (Mt. 7:15-20). So Jesus taught the Jews to use Scripture to test prophecies. Likewise, we should use Scripture to test prophecies.

As the Scriptures are final and complete, there is no need for new prophecy (direct revelation from God) today. The revelation God has given in Scripture is totally adequate to instruct us in the things of God now. As Scripture is complete, any teaching or revelation that’s not consistent with the Bible is not God-given. There’s no ongoing new revelation.

To accept new prophecies as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to these prophecies, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all prophecies should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Lessons for us

In the age of the internet and the credit card, we are warned about financial scams. Recently one of our credit cards was cancelled because of a rouge transaction of $970. But what about spiritual scams? Are we spiritually intelligent to distinguish the true from the false? Or are we gullible? Do we reject error?

We have seen that the only strong, robust and reliable spiritual foundation is the Christian Bible. Do we base our spiritual life on Scripture? Do we trust objective Scripture more than we trust our subjective feelings? This is the only spiritual foundation that can help us survive the storms of life. It’s important because our view of Scripture can affect our eternal destiny.

Other spiritual foundations which rely on religious teachings, religious books, traditions, dreams, visions, experiences or modern prophecies and are inconsistent with Scripture are weak, fragile and unreliable. Are we confused with all the foundations available in the spiritual supermarket? Do we test everything against Scripture? Do we only accept what is consistent with the Bible? Or in the spirit of tolerance (which is the spirit of our age), do we accept these weak foundations and risk our lives collapsing in the storms of life?

Let’s take the safe option of a strong spiritual foundation (Eph. 2:20).

Written, June 2016


Recognizing and responding to legalism

Destroying a barrier to Christian unity

Legalism involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone and insisting on certain behavior in order to please God. Both Christ and Paul identified legalism as a serious sin that can destroy a congregation. In this article we look at how to recognize and respond to legalism. Several signs may be associated with legalism. If many of these are recognizable in the behavior of a person or a congregation, then it is likely that the sin of legalism is present.

Overemphasis on Customs and Traditions

As believers endeavor to act godly, our behavior as individuals or congregations should involve expressing Scriptural principles in the circumstances we face. Legalists develop systems of rules and regulations based on human commands and teachings; they emphasize the human circumstances and neglect the Scriptural principles. They demand strict adherence to traditions and view these as being important, while neglecting major aspects of the Christian faith. This is adding to the Bible as traditional customs and practices are viewed as being equivalent to scriptural principles. Legalism places standards of conduct upon Christians that do not exist in Scripture.

For example, the apostle Peter and the missionary Barnabas were influenced by legalists to follow the Jewish custom of not eating with Gentiles (Gal. 2: 11-14). Also, some teach that baptism, confirmation, church membership or good deeds are necessary for salvation or that Christians need to keep certain Old Testament laws, such as the Sabbath, in order to please God. Furthermore, some think that Sunday is a “holy day” or a replacement of the Jewish Sabbath, but this has no Scriptural support. According to Paul, legalists are enslaved by their customs and traditions (Gal. 4:9; 5:1).

Many legalistic believers make the error of demanding unqualified adherence to their Biblical interpretations and traditions. For example, there are those who feel that to be spiritual one must avoid tobacco, alcoholic beverages, dancing and movies, etc. The truth is that avoiding these things is no guarantee of spirituality.

Overemphasis on external things

Legalism is an external religion. It emphases externals more than internals and people learn that appearance is more important than what they are on the inside and one’s life becomes a performance for those who may be watching. Legalists want to impress others, whereas we should be serving God (Gal. 6:12). The Pharisees thought they were honoring God by following the Old Testament law, but Jesus said they were hypocrites as the inner motives and desires of the mind were more important than external behavior (Mt. 15:1-20).

Criticize and Judge Others

The Pharisees looked down on others that didn’t satisfy their expectations. They added extra rules about the Sabbath to those in the Old Testament (Mt. 12:1-2; Lk. 13:14; Jn. 7:21-24). They even criticized Jesus Christ, the only one without any sin in their life! They made false accusations and were aggressive (Mt. 27:59-68; Mk. 3:22). This led to them judging Him to be a criminal and having Him executed because He claimed to be the Son of God (Mk. 8:31; Jn. 19:7).

Legalists criticize believers that are not like them. This criticism often concerns a disagreement about matters that are not mentioned in the Bible or that are mentioned very little in Scripture. It makes people feel guilty when they shouldn’t feel that way. This leads to the situation where emotions are to be controlled and personal opinions must always be carefully evaluated before being expressed for fear of being criticized or punished.

Although they may appear to be strong, according to Paul legalists are weak (Rom. 14:1; 15:1). They have a weak conscience with respect to debatable matters.

Control Others

A legalist teaches or implies that their rules and regulations are “biblical” and others must adhere to them in order to be “godly”. They take a leadership role and expect others to comply with their viewpoint. Self imposed rules are fine, but putting them on others is legalism.

Legalism is about control; it destroys our freedom in Christ. It demands obedience and involves force: Paul said that Peter was forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs (Gal. 2:14). Legalists make life difficult by putting onerous oppressive requirements on others and forcing them to follow their customs slavishly. Conformity is demanded with the reason given that it is essential in order to please God. They use Christianity as a tool to control people, forgetting that Scripture teaches unity, not uniformity.

This leads to fear amongst those coming under the influence of legalism. For example, Peter “was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (Gal. 2:12). This pattern is like that experienced in domestic abuse where the perpetrator controls the victim and the latter is fearful. In this case the legalist is the perpetrator and those being influenced are victims.

Favoritism and Isolation

The Jews thought that God was only the God of the Jews (Rom 3:29) and they brought this attitude into the early church. Likewise, legalists often separate from others based on nationality or customs, instead of recognizing that the Bible teaches equality amongst believers in the kingdom of God (Gal. 3:28). Instead of accepting one another (Rom. 15:7) there is prejudice, bias and bigotry.

Legalism encourages isolationism. The Pharisees wouldn’t eat with tax collectors and those they considered to be sinners (Mk. 2:16). Legalists separate and withdraw from those who do not conform to their views. They don’t want their followers to know that other Christians love God as much as they do and generally respect the bible as much as they do. For example, Diotrephes refused to welcome other believers and excommunicated those who disagreed with him (3 Jn. 9-10).

Sectarian Spirit

Although having little interest in true evangelism, legalists work zealously to convert others to their point of view. They tend to split over non essential matters and only fellowship with those who agree on doctrinal details, rather than those who show their Christian faith in love for other believers.

Be aware of unwritten creeds and of thinking that we merit God’s favor because we are in a particular denomination or Christian group.

Pride

Although we are all susceptible to pride, legalists have an attitude of superiority over other Christians. The Pharisees wanted to be considered important and sought honor and recognition. They had a self-righteous attitude and looked down on others (Lk. 18:11-12). Diotrephes was probably a legalist as he loved to be first (3 Jn. 1:9). A legalist thinks they are accepted by God because they keep certain rules and regulations, whereas they think that those who don’t live like them can’t please God.

Hypocrisy

Although we are all susceptible to hypocrisy, legalists tend to impose strict standards on others but fail to practice these themselves. The Pharisees appeared to be righteous, but were full of wickedness. Jesus called them hypocrites because they prayed in order to be seen by others and they were always trying to trap Him (Mt. 6:5; Mk. 12:15).

A Lack Of Joy

Because of the critical attitude of legalists and the ensuring conflict that accompanies them, legalism is associated with a lack of joy. This is heightened when things don’t turn out as they expect. For example, the elder brother was angry and refused to attend the party when his father celebrated the return of the lost son (Lk. 15:28-30).

Sins such as legalism are faced in every generation. The risk of legalism comes from within the church: it is a major reason for differences and conflict between Christians. Legalism is a barrier to Christian unity.

We should recognize that we are all legalistic at times. For example, we may judge someone’s spirituality by the version of Bible they read, the clothes they wear, the way they wear their hair or anything that doesn’t fit within our boundaries of acceptability. Some proactive and reactive responses to legalism are given below.

Proactive Responses To Legalism

Because legalism was dangerous, Jesus warned the disciples to be on their guard against it and Paul warned believers to watch out for it (Mt. 16:6; Phil. 3:2). This means that we need to teach each other about the dangers of legalism and know how to recognize it.

As believers we should remind ourselves of scriptural truths that can protect us from legalism. Our salvation is by faith in Christ and not by any works on our behalf. God’s love and mercy to us is unconditional. Under the new covenant we have access to God through Christ because of His redeeming work. Because of this we are liberated from the law and legalism.

The old covenant was a legal document with many commandments and regulations, whereas the New Testament is comprised of incidents in the life of the early church. Teach that the laws of the old covenant have been replaced by God’s new covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-11). This means that laws such as the Sabbath were transitory and looked ahead to the coming of Christ and so do not apply to believers today who look back to Christ (Col. 2:17). Emphasize that a Christian should not be condemned “by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). Rules and regulations about these are legalism. Note that nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament to train believers, but there is no requirement to keep the Sabbath or any other day. Instead, believers are to follow the teachings and example of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21).

We should be careful to speak where the bible speaks and be silent where the bible is silent. In particular, don’t equate customs and traditions with biblical truth. Customs and traditions are necessary, but they can change. Remember most Christian activity is practicing a scriptural principle. How we do it depends on our customs and traditions. If we treat the methods and customs as though they are Scriptural principles we “go beyond what is written” in the Bible (1 Cor. 4:6).

Don’t force your personal views on others and don’t criticize others on “disputable matters”, which are things that are not excluded by the bible or inconsistent with it (Rom. 14&15; 1 Cor 8; 1 Cor 10:23-33.).  God is the judge of these things, not us. He knows our motives. We are not to look down on other believers because they have a different opinion on these topics, but accept each other as Christ has (Rom. 15:7). The things that legalists are concerned about are unimportant (Gal 5:6). Don’t waste time on minor and debatable aspects of Christian life such as practices and methods of implementing scriptural principles, or majoring on one truth at the expense of others. This applies to those who teach that baptism, confirmation or church membership are necessary for salvation or that Christians need to keep certain Old testament laws, such as the Sabbath, or promote certain ways to praise and please God. Of course, while we need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over disputable matters, we cannot accept heresy.

It’s also good to check our motives for doing things so as to detect instances of pride and hypocrisy. Don’t allow others to set your personal convictions and stop trying to please others; instead seek to please the Lord.

Reactive Responses To Legalism

Paul urged believers to avoid legalism, which means not being involved in the kind of behavior listed above (Tit. 3:9-11). Don’t discuss with legalists matters that are not fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as this can lead to quarrels (Rom. 14:1). Instead, accept one another as true believers and respect one another (Rom. 14:3).

Beware of supercritical people so as not to be influenced by their critical attitudes. Don’t get hooked trying to win them over because this can almost never be done. Don’t allow them to provoke you to anger or to influence your view of yourself. Avoid trying to gain their approval as you will feel controlled.

However, when legalism is affecting other believers, Paul said that it should be opposed (Gal. 2:11; Tit. 1:10, 11). This may involve gently showing someone that they are acting in an ungodly manner (Gal. 6:1-2). In more serious cases it may require confronting and warning the person that this behavior cannot be tolerated within the congregation. Unfortunately, legalists usually don’t realize that their behavior is sinful: Jesus said that the Pharisees were blind (Mt. 23: 16-26). If they do realize the sinful behavior, then there is a possibility of confession and repentance. But if there is no improvement in the situation, this could lead to excommunication from the congregation, which is like an operation to remove a cancerous growth.

Let’s continue to promote the gospel of God’s grace to humanity, not the false gospel of works (Gal. 1:6-9). Let’s also live as those who have been liberated from the law and legalism.

Written, December 2007

Also see:
The sin of legalism
The sin of liberalism


Practicing Scriptural Principles

Why is the Bible, a book written thousands of years ago, still relevant today? Because it contains universal principles that apply to everyone regardless of circumstances. God actually caused the writers of the Bible to address all the essential issues needed by us to live on this planet.

So how do we apply the principles in the Bible, originally expressed in a society foreign to ours, to our circumstances today? Fortunately, God has not left us alone. The Holy Spirit has been with believers since our Lord’s ascension (Jn. 14:16; Acts 1:8), and provides all the guidance we need through the Word (Jn. 16:13). As a result, we have God’s wisdom, “the mind of Christ,” revealed to us by His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6-16 NIV). This is just as true for today’s situations as it was for events that occurred thousands of years ago.

Faith And Action
James 2:14-26 shows the relationship between what we believe (our faith) and what we do (our actions). Our faith is shown by what we do, so faith that does not result in appropriate action is dead (Jas. 2:17-18). As scriptural principles are the foundation of our faith, they should be expressed in our actions. Otherwise our faith is not based on the Scriptures and we are acting as if the Bible is no longer relevant today. God is interested in what we do and how we do it. For example, we are urged to “speak … the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

Wineskins And Clothes
An incident recorded in the Gospels helps to show the relationship between what we believe (scriptural principles), what we do (practices) and the present circumstances. In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because his disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for this and explained it further with a parable of the wineskins (Lk. 5:36-38).

Jesus said that “no one pours new wine into old wineskins,” but “new wine must be poured into new wineskins.” The wineskins contained the wine and protected it from the environment. Without an effective container, the wine would be spilled out and the wineskin would be useless. The application of this illustration was that the “wine” of the gospel of Jesus Christ could not be contained and expressed by the practices (or “wineskins”) of Judaism. New practices were required in order to preserve the Christian faith: “Put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17).

From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Similarly, our practices are between the principles we follow and the circumstances we face. The practices are a result of the application of divine principles to human circumstances.

In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. We should also address changes that occur in our environment (or circumstances).

It is interesting that Christ used wineskins and clothes in his story. These are items that wear out and eventually must be replaced. Likewise, our practices will need replacing from time to time as no society or culture is stagnant. Of course, for us it is a case of the circumstances changing rather than the principles, or it could be due to a new understanding or application of the principles. This means that our practices must be based on scriptural principles and relate to the present circumstances we face.

Traditions And Circumstances
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences and present circumstances. An example of inappropriate behavior is given in Mark 7:1-9. Here Jesus calls the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on ceremonial washing than on God’s commands. Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions” (v.9). So their practices were dominated by traditions, which were contrary to scriptural principles. Similarly in Luke 6:1-11, Christ opposed their regulations of what was allowable on the Sabbath day. In both of the above situations the religious leaders were treating a tradition as though it were a scriptural truth.

A good example of how behavior can be influenced by circumstances is Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). While waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive he “walked around and looked carefully at” their “objects of worship” (v. 23). This gave him an insight regarding these people which he was able to use when he spoke to them. Paul was like the men of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chr. 12:32). Note that it was essential to understand the times (or situation) in order to know what should be done.

Likewise, Christ recognized the needs of the people – “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36) – and responded to their needs and was willing to be their Shepherd (Jn. 10:14).

A Framework For Action
Christians are called to be active representatives of Christ today (2 Cor. 5:20). It is helpful to visualize the relationship between what we believe and do, as shown in the diagram. This shows that when scriptural principles are put into practice, the way they are expressed is influenced by both past practices (which are now traditions) and the present circumstances. Circumstances change in families, communities and nations, because life is a dynamic process. Practices which were once appropriate may become obsolete, but if we persist in their use an opportunity is lost to demonstrate the principles in present circumstances.

The principles are important because they provide divine guidance and purpose. We need to distinguish between scriptural principles (which are fixed) and our practices of them which can change according to present, local circumstances.

In order to discern biblical principles and apply them, consideration is required of the culture, way of life and language at the following periods of time: Bible times (to interpret the Bible); previous generations of family, church, community and nation (to understand our traditions); and the present (to understand current circumstances). This will help to distinguish the relevant principles and the most suitable practices to meet the circumstances we face.

Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). After Paul wrote, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” he noted, “and whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:16-17). Following the example of Christ, our traditions should always be evaluated by scriptural truths and current circumstances, replacing those traditions that are no longer appropriate with more relevant practices.

Like wineskins and clothes, our Christian practices only exist to serve a purpose. They are human expressions of divine principles within a given historical, social and cultural context. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.

So, when evaluating our practices we need to consider each of the following, under the Spirit’s guidance: scriptural principles, present circumstances, and past practices or traditions. In a sense, the Scriptures only live and survive as we believers apply them to all the circumstances of life – otherwise we are living as though the Bible is merely a history book that is not relevant today.

Published: June 1999

See application to the local church:
The local church in a changing world