Legalism Is too Small a Problem for the Gospel


So here’s my question.  Monday and Tuesday were a long winded attempt to ramp up to this.  Believe me, it’s going somewhere.  So here’s my question.  Is it a problem that many of us have founded our faith in the false notion that Christianity was birthed from a legalistic Judaism?

The answer, like the answer to most questions, is Yes.  And No.

First, the No.  The basic truth is that no one could reasonably live up to a standard that would put her on equal footing with her Creator.  That’s absolutely true.  Moreover, it is completely true that our sin, which kept us apart from our God, had to be dealt with.  It was getting to be a real problem.  So it’s fine to use some brand of legalism as a backdrop against which to highlight the brilliance of the Gospel.  The Gospel does address that.

But the Gospel is big enough to tackle much bigger problems.

Now, the Yes.  Promoting a legalistic interpretation of 1st century Judaism as the nature of the Israelites’ covenant with God skews the actual story of God’s work among His people, especially God’s work through Jesus.

The story, as Scot McKnight has so eloquently shown, has always been about the Creator working to reestablish humanity’s proper role as vice-regents on the earth.  We were always meant to govern the earth in cooperation with the Creator.  Although our position had long been abdicated by our sin, God elected Abraham and his descendants as a people through whom the Lord would restore that mandate, through whom the entire human race would be redeemed.

All of this is accomplished in the person of Jesus, who at the same time acted as the true Israel and the true human.  Jesus was what we were all supposed to be from the beginning–a human in perfect relationship with the Father, doing as the Father was doing, alongside Him.  As Stephen Neill has said, in Jesus the world exclaims, “At last we have seen a man” [1].

That is the Gospel.  It is not the war against legalism, man’s own best efforts.  Though certainly the Gospel defeats those well.  The Gospel is the completion of God’s agenda with Israel, in particular, and humanity, at large.  The Gospel is the inauguration of a new reality the Lord had been working to implement from the beginning.

More Yes.  Presenting the Gospel as God’s gracious act to save you from your own ill fated attempts to attain right standing with Him limits the scope of the Gospel to you and God.  Such an approach minimizes the Gospel.

For too long, we’ve whittled the Gospel down to a verbal assent to a set of propositions about whether Jesus died, whether he was raised from the dead, whether this was done on my behalf to eradicate my sins because I was incapable of attaining to God beforehand.  While all this is true, it’s just enough to get a person in the door (Again, see Scot McKnight).

Once in that door, the new believer often wonders at all the new rules there are to follow.  Don’t drink.  Don’t smoke.  Don’t sleep around.  Start giving.  Start reading your Bible.  Start praying.  Having just stepped out of world in which we told the unbeliever he could not do enough to reach God, we welcome them into a Gospel of grace … and tell them to get busy with a new set of things to do.  It’s confused more than a few.

But if the Gospel is chiefly about the restoration of humankind, the restoration of the entire created world, then we’ve got a different story to tell and a different community into which to welcome new believers.  No longer do we shout, “You’re all going to hell!  Get out while you can!”  Now we shout, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified but has been raised again, this Jesus God has made Lord over the entire creation!”  (See Acts 2:36.)  Now the one true man is in a place from which the whole world can be made right, including its businesses, governments, environments, schools, hospitals, and everything else.  A big solution for a big problem.

And, oh by the way, every human being now has access to the Creator, such that they too may hear from Him and govern in partnership with Him.

1. Neill, Stephen.  What Is Man?  London: Lutterworth, 1968.  p. 37.


One thought on “Legalism Is too Small a Problem for the Gospel

  1. I didn’t have a problem with legalism until I was Christian. I was an amoralist. It was was to offer of purpose that drew me.

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