“Performance-oriented Legalism”

by Steven Chan

One bible student recently asked: “to what extent is the church of Christ advocating legalism as the constant edification and reminder of the Word of needing to stay righteous and pure can be perceived as ‘religiously pursuing adherence to the Word / Law’ – apparently condemned by Paul when in his epistle to the churches at Galatia, he dealt with “a legalistic Judaism seeking to impose the demands of the law upon people who had by faith embraced grace in Christ. This legalism was intended to pull those followers of Christ back into a performance –oriented approach to pleasing God.”

Let’s consider what the Bible says concerning the above concern.

  1. In his epistle to the churches at Galatia, the apostle Paul dealt with those who sought to preach another gospel other than that which had been taught earlier by the apostles (Gal 1:6-8), specifically those who taught justification by the works of the law (of Moses) instead of justification by faith in Christ (Gal 2:16). The church at Antioch was similarly troubled by “certain men (who) came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”(Acts 15:1). After discussing what the Bible taught about the promise made by God to Abraham, and the role of the law of Moses, and the coming of Jesus Christ to redeem the world, the apostle Paul concluded thus in Gal 3:24-28:

Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

Note the following:-

  1. Paul stated that we are no longer under the tutor, i.e. specifically, the law of Moses;
  2. We are now sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus;
  3. We became sons of God when we were baptized into Christ, thereby putting on Christ.
  4. Paul clearly and unequivocally stated that baptism into Christ is integral to justification by faith (Gal 3:27). The word “for” at the beginning of verse 27 explained the preceding statement of how we became sons of God (Gal 3:26).
  5. Today, those who alleged that baptism is “performance-oriented legalism” accuse Paul of teaching error because he explained that baptism is the process by which one becomes a child of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
  6. In his epistle to the church at Rome, Paul taught the same thing about the significance of being baptized into Christ in Rom 6:3-5: ”Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”
  7. To those who still insisted on keeping the law of Moses and be circumcised in order to be saved, Paul wrote thus in Gal 5:2-4:

“Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”

What law was Paul referring to? The law which was the tutor to bring us to Christ, and which required circumcision. He was not referring to the terms of salvation as stated by our Lord Jesus Christ in Mark 16:16: “

He who believes and is baptized will be saved” According to Rom 3:27-28, this is referred to as “the law of faith’. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”

Paul was referring to justification by the law of Moses; he was not discussing the law of faith (Rom 3:27) or the law of Christ (Gal 6:2).

  1. In Gal 5:18-21, the apostle Paul declared that although one is no longer under the law (of Moses), one should not continue to indulge in the “works of the flesh” – and if anyone continues to “practise such things, then such a one will not inherit the kingdom of God”:

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Would the desire and effort to keep oneself from the works of the flesh so that one may inherit the kingdom of God, constitute “legalism of a performance –oriented approach to pleasing God” allegedly condemned by Paul? That would not make any sense. One had to refrain from the works of the flesh.

Paul was not advocating the absence of any law for he referred to the “law of faith” in Rom 3:27. Rather, he was specifically addressing the issue of those who taught that one must keep the law of Moses in order to be saved. His point was that the law of Moses had been done away on the cross (Eph 2:14-15; Col 2:13-17). So we are no longer under (that) law. We are freed from that law but we are now married to Christ (Rom 7:1-6) and are now obliged to obey Him (Rom 6:15-18)

3.In Gal 5:22-23, Paul wrote that there is no law against the fruit of the Spirit:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”

Paul did not say that there was no law whatsoever that Christians are obligated to keep, or that Christians no longer have any obligation to keep any law, even the law of Christ: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”(Gal 6:2). Paul merely stated that there is no law against the fruit of the Spirit; not that there is no law whatsoever!! A new commandment I give unto you (John 13:34-35).

  1. The Bible says that one must live in such a way so as to please God.

Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. 11 Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor 5:9-11) ‘

So we must make every effort to adhere to the Word of God (2 John 9-11; John 14:15; I John 5:3) so that we may please Him because we will all be judged according to what we have done (Ecc. 12:13-14; Rom 14:12; Rev 20:12-15) and Jesus will judge us by His words (John 12:48). According to Jesus: “”Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matt 7:21)

  1. We need to obey Jesus in order to be saved (Heb 5:8).

Jesus died to redeem us from our sins by shedding His blood on the cross and thereby brought into effect the new covenant (Matt 26:28; Heb 9:14-15; 10:4-14; I Pet 1:19). Under the terms of the new covenant, Jesus offers salvation by grace through faith in Him (Eph 2:8-9), to anyone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God and is baptized for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38) and who remains faithful to Him unto death (Rev 2:10; 2 Tim 4:7-8).

Being faithful to Him requires one to do His will. Jesus asked rhetorically in Luke 6:46: “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” The Bible asks in James 2:14-15: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” It answers in James 2:17-18, 26: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Obedience to Jesus is necessary for salvation as stated in Heb 5:9: “And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him”.

If obedience to the gospel/word of Jesus Christ is deemed as “performance-oriented approach to pleasing God”, then there is no scriptural objection to one’s performance of obedience to the gospel and to Christ so as to accept by faith the free gift of salvation offered by His grace and thereby pleasing Him.

The regular reminder and exhortation to adhere to the Word of God is the expression of our desire to “walk by faith” as required by God (2 Cor 5:7; Rom 1:17; Phil 3:9) as “faith cometh by hearing the word of God” (Rom 10:17). One is to be a “doer of the Word and not be a hearer only” (James 1:22). Paul did not condemn strict obedience to God’s Word. That was not the legalism that he was condemning. For Paul charged that the Word of God be preached at all times in 2 Tim 4:1-5:

“I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.”

The Bible warns in 2 John 9: “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.” Regardless of how one may feel about it, the Bible requires that one has to abide in the doctrine or teaching of Christ, in order to have fellowship with the Father and the Son.

By keeping His word and walking in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with God, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sins:

“If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”(1 John 1:6-10)

The Bible has spoken clearly on the above matter:

”But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast”(Eph 2:4-9).

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14).

God’s grace requires us to live soberly, righteously and godly and we can only do that by knowing His Word, and obeying His Word (Matt 4:4): “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him–the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.”(John 12:48; Matt 17:5).

At the end of the day, our salvation is by God’s grace as none of us is perfect or sinless. God’s grace requires us to live by faith in Him, trusting Him, and doing/obeying His will to the best of our ability (not continuing in sin), relying always on His shed blood for the remission of our sins.