Threats To Christian Freedom: Legalism, Part 4

October 2, 2011 Pastor: John Fonville Series: Galatians

Scripture: Galatians 5:2–5:12

Threats To Christian Freedom: Legalism

Part 4


Text: Galatians 5:2-12




A.       Theological Legalism


Theological legalism refers to trusting in any form of works righteousness for one’s standing before God.




B.       Functional Legalism


Functional legalism is when through unbelief the believer reverts back into a fleshly, slave mentality and relies on false sources of righteousness to gain a sense of acceptance and favor with God.


“The main scope of the Gospel is, to exclude all self-confidence, and stain the pride of man, to bring in self-denial, and exalt the glory of Christ; to extol His righteousness, by which He has magnified the law, and made it honourable; to exhibit such a way of salvation to sinners, as shall most advance the honour of all the divine perfections which shine most brightly in the face and person of Jesus Christ; and to bring men to such a true and lively faith of the free grace and mercy of God in Christ, as will be the only solid root and spring of true peace, heart-holiness, and practical godliness…” (Ralph Erskine in Gospel Truth, John Brown of Whitburn, pp. 77-78).


“...even the ethical life must begin by recognizing that the foundation of God’s dealings with men is grace through faith rather than legalism. ‘Do you wish to lead a holy life?’ Paul seems to be asking. ‘Then begin with the principles of faith and shun legalism.’ Holiness will never come as the result of someone insisting on adherence to either man-made or even God-made regulations” (James Boice, Galatians, p. 487).


“It is not easy to get the law killed; something of a legal disposition remains even in the believer while he is in this world: many a stroke does self and self-righteousness get, but still it revives again. If he were wholly dead to the law, he would be wholly dead to sin; but so far as the law lives, so far sin lives.

They that think they know the Gospel well enough bewray [reveal-J.F.] their ignorance; no man can be too evangelical, it will take all his life-time to get a legal temper [disposition-J.F.] destroyed.

Though the believer be delivered wholly from the law, in its commanding and condemning power and authority, or its rightful power that it hath over all that are under it: yet he is not delivered wholly from its usurped power, which takes place many times upon him, while here, through remaining unbelief” (Ralph Esrkine, “Law-Death, Gospel-Life” p. 27).




You render Christ useless in your daily life when:


1.       You complain more for lack of holiness than for lack of Christ.


“They differ in their complaints. The legalist will complain more for want of holiness than for want of Christ; seeing he hath taken up with self-righteousness, it is his all, it is his happiness, it is his husband, it is his God. But the language of the evangelical Christian, who is dead to the law, is, O for Christ! O for a day of power! O to be wrapt up in the covenant of grace! to get an omnipotent power, determining me to comply with the gospel-offer” (Ralph Erskine, quoted in Gospel-Truth, pp. 292-293).


2.       You live under false condemnation.


3.       You live in continual doubt and anxiety in regard to God’s Fatherly favor.


“...When first even the least drop of faith is instilled in our minds, we begin to contemplate God’s face, peaceful and calm and gracious toward us"" (John Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.19).


“We ought to feel sure that we stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through the good services of Christ. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God, so sure ought we to be that we also please God, because Christ is in us. And although we daily offend God by our sins, yet as often as we sin, God's mercy bends over us. Therefore sin cannot get us to doubt the grace of God. Our certainty is of Christ, that mighty Hero who overcame the Law, sin, death, and all evils. So long as He sits at the right hand of God to intercede for us, we have nothing to fear from the anger of God.” Martin Luther  


4. You receive more comfort in your works rather than the perfect imputed righteousness of Christ.


“The legalist finds comfort in law-works…In the prospect of trouble, who comforts him? Even this, that he hath done many good duties. He wraps himself in a garment of his own weaving. Upon challenges of conscience, what comforts him, and gives him peace? He even covers himself with the same robe. In the prospect of judgment, what comforts him, and gives him peace? Why, he hopes God will be merciful to him, because he hath had a good profession, and said many good prayers, and done many good duties…The only thing that gives a believer peace and ease in these cases, is the law-abiding righteousness of Christ, under which he desires to shrowd himself. He flees to the blood of Jesus Christ, saying, O I am undone, unless my soul be wrapt up in the mantle of Christ’s perfect righteousness; upon this righteousness of Jesus, I venture my soul” (Ralph Erskine quoted in Gospel Truth, pp. 292-293).


5.       You fail to deal properly with personal temptation.


a. Remember that the devil is your accuser, the father of lies (Jn. 8:44) and the enemy of Christian freedom.


“You are troubling me with the memory of past sins; in addition, you are telling me that I have not done anything good. This does not concern me. For if I either trusted in my performance of good works or lost my trust because I failed to perform them, in either case Christ would be of no avail to me. Therefore, whether you base your objections to me on my sins or on my good works, I do not care; for I put both of them out of sight and depend only on the freedom for which Christ has set me free. Therefore, I shall not render Him useless to me, which is what would happen if I either presumed that I shall attain grace and eternal life because of my good works or despaired of my salvation on account of my sins” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 27, p. 11).


b.       Distinguish Christ as completely as possible from all works—good or bad.


“…learn to distinguish Christ as completely as possible from all works, whether good or evil; from all laws, whether divine or human; and from all distressed consciences. For Christ does not pertain to any of these. He does indeed pertain to sad consciences, not to trouble them even more but to raise them up again and to comfort them when they have been troubled” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 27, p. 11).


c. Do not mistake the accuser and condemner for the Comforter and Savior.


“…if Christ appears in the guise of a wrathful judge or lawgiver who demands an accounting of how we have spent our lives, we should know for certain this is not really Christ but the devil. For Scripture portrays Christ as our Propitiator, Mediator, and Comforter. This is what He always is and remains; He cannot be untrue to His very nature. Therefore, when the devil assumes the guise of Christ and argues with us this way: ‘At the urging of My Word you were obliged to do this, and you failed to do so; and you were obliged to avoid that, and you failed to do so. Therefore you should know that I shall exact punishment from you,’ this should not bother us at all; but we should immediately think: ‘Christ does not speak this way to despairing consciences. He does not add affliction to those who are afflicted. ‘A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not quench’ (Isa. 42:3). To those who are rough He speaks roughly, but those who are in terror He invites most sweetly: ‘Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden’ (Matt. 11:28); ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Matt. 9:13); ‘Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven’ (Matt. 9:2); ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33); ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10).’ Therefore we should be on our guard, lest the amazing skill and infinite wiles of Satan deceive us into mistaking the accuser and condemner for the Comforter and Savior, and thus losing the true Christ behind the mask of the false Christ, that is, of the devil, and making Him of no advantage to us” (Ibid, pp. 11-12).


© John Fonville

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