Mar 17, 2015

Legalism

Another challenge Paul encountered in defining the Gospel is the idea of Legalism. This is similar and related to the previous post on the Judaizers who wrongfully held that Christians must become Jewish in order to be favored by God.  Those who followed a path of legalism reduce Christianity to a series of rules.  This system holds that adherence to rules; dos and don’ts, all of which are human constructs, result in salvation.

We must first define different types of law to which Paul is addressing.  There was Jewish Moral Law.  Paul required all Christians to follow this because it was revealed by God and is essential to righteous living.  There were Jewish Civil laws, some of which Paul followed.  These pertained to justice and communal living.  Lastly, there were ceremonial laws which he boldly said Christians were no longer bound.

“Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed. Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.” –Galatians 3:24-25 (NLT)

This quote for Paul’s letter to the Galatians puts to bed the idea that Christians must follow Moasic Law with regard to religious practice and custom.  But Paul is faced with more legalistic Christians.

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross.  Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit, because you believed the message you heard about Christ.  How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?  Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it? (NLT)

This is directly opposed to the Gospel preached by Paul.  He argued in his letters that no human law could help one get into heaven. Human laws were for humans. Heaven is not to be earned by action, but by grace from above.  Faith in Jesus Christ is necessary and the only way to inherit the Kingdom. (There will be more on “faith” later)

Legalism can lead to “labelism”, this being the belief that one is superior to others based on how he or she fulfills the man-made laws. This too is contrary to Paul’s Gospel.
“Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.”  - Ephesians 4:1-3 (NLT)

For Paul, becoming Christian was not about following rules, but experiencing a change in ones’ heart because of the love of and for Jesus.  In his letter to the Ephesians Paul tells us that we are made alive with Christ, given salvation, and raised up with Christ. How does this apply to us today? As adopted children of God, we stand up for Christ, show God’s (not ours) mercy, love and serve others. Are we Christians who follow religious rules or follow Christ? This does not mean we abandon Christian traditions, customs, and practices.  After all, it is Lent and this season is about self-denial.  Paul’s message is that self-denial and rules are followed because of an interior belief and a desire to show love for and accept God’s love.  So the question for us today, is what motivates us to follow religious rules?

Parts in this Series
1. Paul’s Gospel is about Gospeling
2. Euro-Centric Christianity
3. Legalism
4. Lawlessness
5. Paul’s Gospel
6. The New Perspective on Paul is Catholic

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Sources

  • Dunn, James D. G. The Gospel and the Gospels. Durham: University of Durham, 2013.
  • Hensell, Eugene, O. S. B. The New Perspective on St. Paul. n.d. http://www.biblicalcourses.com/workshops/introduction-to-saint-paul/the-new-perspective-on-st-paul/ (accessed March 15, 2015).
  • Longhenry, Ethan. A Study of Denominations. n.d. http://www.astudyofdenominations.com/history/judaizers/#sthash.U5aqE3tS.dpbs (accessed March 13, 2015).
  • Puskas, Charles B., and Mark Reasoner. The Letters of Paul: An Introduction. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1993.
  • Rocca, Francis X. "Pope: Catholic educators must share Gospel with multicultural society." Catholic News Servce/USCCB, February 2014.
  • Russle, Walt. Who Were Paul's Opponents in Galatia? Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1990.
  • "The New Living Translation Bible, Catholic Reference Edition." Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. , 2001.

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