Legalism vs Obedience—Dr. C Matthew McMahon

Posted: October 14, 2009 in Church History, doctrine, General Discussion, life, Scripture, spiritual warfare, Theology
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This has been a source of confusion for me. Anytime I bring it up I get different responses so I’m beginning to doubt there is an answer that will satisfy me. Of all the different arguments I’ve heard, I tend to agree with Dr.McMahon’s explaination the most. I thought I’d post it here and maybe start a discussion on the topic of “legalism vs holiness”.  If nothing else I would just like to hear where you stand on the subject, and if it’s a struggle for you as well…………enjoy.

There is a dilemma in the Christian church today which, by no means, will be cleared up easily. It is characterized by people who state things like, “We are a New Testament church,” or “We do not need the Law anymore because we are under grace.” Or, “People who keep the Law are Legalists.” If you have said things like these in the past, this tract is for you. We are going to look at the difference between what it means to be legalistic, and what it means to be obedient. There is a wide gulf between the two. But it seems many people have fallen short of what both of these mean.

There is an argument in the 21sth century church that goes like this: Jesus came to fulfill the Law, thus, we do not need to keep the Law. The idea continues as such: And we do not need to keep the Law because we are under the grace of Christ; we cannot earn salvation for ourselves in any way, so the Old Testament is invalid for rules of life and practice. As a matter of fact, there are many people who would throw out the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus expounds on the Law in that instance. They would place everything which alluded to or stated the Law in any way, out with the garbage. They do not give a satisfactory answer why God, in His providence, allowed the Old Testament to be included in our Bible since it deals with the Law. They are adamant that they do not need it, but cannot give a good answer to “why”. These people feel that observance to the Law, in any way, is an act of Legalism. And they do not want to become the church of Galatia again. So they have flown to grace, and thrown away the Law.

To define Legalism in a Biblical way would be to say “any person who takes the Law and uses it in a way which would merit salvation“. Legalism is an attempt at salvation. Yet, we often hear the term used like this, “Oh, those people are Legalists.” The Puritans were often stereotyped in this way. They were so forceful in bringing forth the meaning of the Law, that they were deemed legalists, and then subtitled puritanical. But if we really understand the definition above, then we find that people who follow the Law of God in a way which does not see it adding to the meritorious work of Jesus Christ and His cross are not Legalists. Legalists, by definition, would be saying that the Law helps us to gain salvation. This was the problem with the Judiaizers. They thought that by keeping the Law, plus believing in the work of Christ, made a person saved. In Galatians 5:3, Paul says, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by Law; you have fallen from grace.” There were some who thought that being circumcised helped in salvation. But Paul says that the moment you add anything to the work of Christ, then you have fallen from grace. Christ’s work alone justifies the ungodly (Gal. 2:16; 3:11-13, 24; 6:13-14). (Sola Christus-Christ alone.) Read the Rest Here.

  1. Phil says:

    I agree with McMahon’s definition of Legalism, but not totally. I believe Legalism is much bigger than McMahon’s definition. Not only does Legalism deal with works unto salvation, but I also belive Legalism deals with judging others with man-made moral codes that are extra-biblical and looses sight of the “spirit” of the law.

    He brings up an interesting idea at the end of the his article, the sabbath. That is something I have struggled with for a while. That would also be an interesting discussiom.

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