The Perils of Legality


by Harry Foster

(First published in “A Witness and A Testimony” magazine, Vol. 20-3, May-June 1942)

Acts 27:9-26,44.
We take this experience of Paul’s not merely for its own sake, but as an illustration of the supremely important truth of the difference between a legalistic attitude and a standing in grace. Out of terrors which might strike despair into the stoutest heart comes the ringing cry of the man who knows the grace of God,

“Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer; for I believe God.”

All the exhortations of the Word are calling us to “go on,” but it is of extreme importance that we go on in grace, for once we are found on legal grounds there is an end to all progress. If the law reigned, neither Paul, nor the centurion, nor the master, nor the owner, could have any future at all. All hope of salvation would then be taken away. Since the grace of God reigns, however, they were able to be of good cheer, and to go on in hope.

Man’s Tendency Towards Legalism

There are few matters of graver importance than that of legality. Right through the Old Testament we are confronted with the oft-recurring tendency of the human heart to choose its own ground, which is legal, instead of accepting God’s ground, which is that of grace. Legality is a fault, not of the ungodly, but of those who have an earnest zeal for God. In the New Testament the same phenomenon reappears among the people of God. Like the Galatians they are ever prone to build again the edifice which at their conversion they had destroyed. Having been found on the ground of free grace, they are so quickly moving away from it; having begun in faith, they seek to be made perfect by works.

This tendency did not end with the New Testament. The multitude of sects and heresies in modern Christendom appals us. It would take a lifetime to discover the particular fallacy of each one, but here is a simple test which will almost invariably expose their untruth; in some point they make salvation to depend upon works and not upon grace. Not only does the great Roman Catholic system stand foursquare on grounds of legality, but every departure from Divine truth tends to move on to the same legal basis, for legality is very dear to the natural man. For this reason every new sect has its rules and prohibitions, its regulations as to what must be done and what is prohibited; not so much with reference to moral laws as to provide a basis of enjoying the Divine favour.

But the principle of salvation “by works of law” goes even deeper than this. Even among truly Evangelical Christians it is only too apt to creep in. If we track down the source of clashes, strained relationships, criticisms, schisms and pride, we shall generally find it in a failure in respect of the grace of God. In other words, legality has again asserted itself, even in the House of God. As it was with the Jews and the Judaisers, so with the Church of today; men are overtaken by a legalistic spirit even in their very zeal for God.

Some Features of Legality

Without attempting any precise definition of legality, may I indicate a few of its characteristics?

Legalists are always occupied with externalities. They attach the greatest importance to the niceties of orthodox practice and language as things in themselves. By them the simple practices of the New Testament are made into a ritual. The spirit of a thing is lost sight of in an exaggerated devotion to the thing, whereas to God nothing has value apart from the spiritual truth it is meant to express.

Moreover the legalistic mind is always obsessed with deciding what is right and what is wrong. That, after all, is what the law is for! Far be it from us to encourage any laxity in the matter of what is morally right or morally wrong. If, however, we make ourselves judges or arbitrators; if we let our relationship with other believers be governed by our own interpretation of what is right and wrong; if, indeed, being right, we insist upon our own rights, we have been overtaken by legality. There is no possibility of spiritual progress if it is made to depend on blamelessness, either in ourselves or in others.

There is an outstanding case of this in the parable of the two debtors. The one, you. may remember, was pardoned a large debt which he owed to his ‘master. But he immediately seized upon a fellow-servant, who owed him a trifling sum, and demanded prompt and full payment. He was punished as a wicked servant. So far as the matter of the hundred pence was concerned he was right, and his debtor was blameworthy. He had the law on his side: nevertheless his master condemned him. He was right; and yet he was grievously wrong. Having become an object of grace he sinned gravely in refusing to show grace to another. How many bitter words and cruel deeds among the Lord’s people are due to a legalistic insistence on what is “Scriptural”! An unforgiving spirit is but one aspect of legality. A proneness to be always judging the rights and wrongs of everything can manifest itself in countless ways, until it becomes an attitude of mind, a basis of life, and an obsession.

Then again legality is always profuse in argument. Reasoning is the business of the Law Courts. The emotions of the heart have little place there, but logic and ability to argue are essential. The pharisaical mind can dispute every matter and prove its own correctness, even from the Scriptures. It delights in controversy. It is so argumentative that it can never conceive of the possibility of its being wrong. It even dares to dispute with the Lord.

Legality is independent in a wrong way; it has forsaken the yoke of Christ to come under a yoke of bondage to law. The Galatians were told that if they sought to live by “works of law” they were “severed from Christ,” having “fallen away from grace.” Such a state does not necessarily involve gross evil living. It rather means that those concerned have departed from that utter dependence upon Christ which is essential to standing in Divine grace, and have become self-sufficient.

The legalist imagines he knows just how and why God works, as though Divine activity could be reduced to mere formulae. He will probe into every circumstance where the Lord’s blessing seems to be lacking, seeking the cause in some supposed breach of spiritual rules. Now while it is true that spiritual principles do obtain in all God’s working, we can never confine Him to our understanding of His laws. Grace always goes beyond such limits, and surprises those who live by it. The legalist, however, is never surprised, for he imagines that he knows the explanation and the cause of all that takes place.

We refrain from enlarging on these features in order to stress our main point, which is the paralysing effect of legality on spiritual life.

Legality Hinders Love

“Sirs, be of good cheer!” Only a heart full of the grace of Christ could have enabled the apostle to speak such words to such men at such a time. If Paul’s attitude to his fellow-travellers had been at all legalistic he would never have addressed them thus. He had told the centurion what would happen, but his warning was despised and his advice unheeded. Quite clearly the leaders were wholly to blame for the sad predicament of the whole ship’s company: Paul was right, and they were altogether in the wrong. However, he did not allow his behaviour towards them to be governed by this fact. The legalist would have said that Paul deserved to be saved, and the others deserved to be lost. Paul was no legalist, so he made great claims upon the grace of God, and the Lord gave him all that sailed with him.

Happily, indeed, for Paul that he was no legalist, for perhaps he deserved as badly as any of them! What was he doing in that ship? Why had he persisted in going up to Jerusalem? And why had he become involved in Judaistic practices there? The centurion had foolishly taken his own course, instead of listening to the voice of the Lord. A careful reading of Acts 21 makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that the apostle himself had done the very same thing. His protest, “Ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have… gained this harm and loss” may well have been an echo of the Lord’s reproof to his own heart. What then? Has failure, even disobedience, alienated him from God’s love? The legalist says “Yes.” The Scriptures say “No,” for in spite of everything the gracious Lord stood by him, and said, “Be of good .cheer, Paul.”

Legally, the centurion and his fellows had forfeited all rights to Paul’s love, even as the apostle might be thought to have forfeited all claims upon the love of God. Only grace can maintain love. Nothing so paralyses our sense of God’s love, and nothing so hinders love to others as a legalistic frame of mind about the rights and wrongs of conduct. Away in Corinth and Rome there were Christians quarrelling and standing aloof from one another over unimportant matters of judgment, allowing barriers to arise between them over foolish trivialities. Why? Because instead of receiving one another as Christ received them – in grace – they were criticising one another’s judgment and understanding of the truth. There is always division and a breakdown of brotherly love when relationships are brought on to a legal basis.

The Lord may have so dealt with us that we cannot do certain things which other servants of God practice. Let us not, indeed, compromise, or sacrifice our revelation of God’s will, but at the same time we must not despise these others, nor have a separateness of spirit towards them. Spiritual progress is always attended by this temptation to judge others. Those who approximate most closely to God’s will are most conscious of faultiness. If, however, progress is to be genuine it must be in the love of God, and the subtle tendency to become legal-minded must be resisted and overcome.

Legality Hinders Faith

Faith can only triumph where grace reigns. Surely if the law governed there would be no future for such men who had rejected God’s warning, and steered their own course. There would be no place for faith. Paul might justly have said, “All hope and expectations are gone. It is useless to trust or pray. We shall sink here as we deserve, for we have disobeyed the Lord.” He might have, but he did not. Instead, having impressed upon them how wrong and foolish they had been, he exhorted them to be of good cheer; for grace, thank God, is greater than all our folly and sin. Faith, then, can be strong. Paul is bold to believe that all will be saved according to the Lord’s promise.

Faith is impossible without grace. If God’s blessing is made to follow logically upon our observance of rules of procedure, any failure on our part suspends all further expectation from Him. How can faith persist and triumph, when God’s way has been missed, if there is no confidence in the abounding grace of the Lord? The Devil will invariably point out our faults and failures, sometimes bringing back to remembrance mistakes of years ago, in order to challenge and wither our faith. It is important for us to recognise our faults, and to learn from our mistakes, but we must not let them be the ruling factor. Grace reigns! Doubtless Paul profited from his mistakes. Certainly the centurion learned his lesson. But that was not all. They might still have been dejected and hopeless men, but for the Lord’s appearance in grace, bidding them rejoice and have faith. We too may feel dejected about ourselves or about others, and give ourselves to grieving over failure, spiritual dullness and unworthiness; but rather let us be of good cheer, and believe God!

Legality Hinders the Divine Purpose

So far we have spoken only of the human side, but there is a Divine aspect to the matter. Paul’s arrival at Rome was not merely for his own blessing; it represented a goal of God’s purpose. He had been chosen as an instrument for the fulfilment of God’s will, but had that depended upon a relationship based legally upon rights and wrongs, that will was doomed to failure from the start. After Paul’s doubtful conduct in going up to Jerusalem, and his still more doubtful behaviour there, the Lord twice appeared to His servant, encouraging him with the assurance that, though the way might be strange, the end was sure: “Thou must stand before Caesar.” What is true of this event in the apostle’s life is also true in the great end of all Divine purpose. The grace of God provides for the realisation of God’s full intention for His people, in spite of their unworthiness. Therein lies the supreme importance of abiding in grace. Satan knows that, while the people of God are found on the ground of legality, there is an arrest of the Divine purpose. If, then, he finds a zeal for God among them, he will seek to nullify it by introducing legality among them, thus causing them to set up barriers as to what must be and what must not; to regard the things of God from the viewpoint of earthly order and procedure, or to concentrate on the weaknesses or faultiness of one another. If he succeeds in this there is no good cheer, and there is no going on unto the fulness of Christ.

A glorious goal is set before the people of God. Legally they have neither the right nor the ability to attain it; but grace beckons them on, and cries triumphantly above the noise of the storm, “Sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even so as it hath been spoken unto me.” The full promise of God shall find fulfilment in a people who maintain their life in the realm where grace reigns.

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