27 Apr 2011

Legalistic Grace

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church, Grace, Ministry

For some time now I have been concerned about “our” (perhaps only my own) understanding of the “doctrine” of grace. It is true that we, as a people of God, have sometimes not grasped the depth of grace in our preaching and teaching. Preaching often tended to focus on a handful of subjects (i.e. not passages of Scripture per se but topics): right church, baptism, instrumental music, Spirit dwelling through the word. These lessons tended to emphasize human ability, human works and human perseverance. Along the way, as K.C. Moser opined, Jesus became “the forgotten Man.” Some were even so bold as to say that God in his grace “gave the Plan” so that man could save himself. E. M. Borden’s famous sermon “Jacob’s Ladder” has been reincarnated in many a preacher’s oral discourse.

I grew up in the acrid environment described in the previous paragraph. In many ways things have changed . . . for the better! I rarely hear a sermon (or read an article) that has the same self-righteous grit of some from a previous generation. Many have come to embrace salvation by grace as a DOCTRINAL teaching. Many have fervently embraced grace and with equal zeal, rightly, repudiated legalism. But I have a gnawing anxiety . . . have we simply embraced legalistic grace?

What might “legalistic” grace be? Legalistic grace reduces this to a mere doctrine. Mere legalistic grace sees basically a forensic transaction in which the legal accounts are cleared so we will not go to hell in the afterlife. Legalistic grace is essentially “fire insurance.” It is something we “believe” or “affirm” . . . it is not, however, the essence of life. Legalistic grace is grace held as a “proposition” but has not moved from an intellectual idea to the fabric of being.

Legalistic grace is not biblical grace. Grace in the New Testament is not merely pardon but POWER. What kind of power? What is it for? It is Holy Spirit power. It is power to be set free from the “powers” that enslave us to live and behave an UNredeemed manner.

It disturbs me . . . greatly . . . when I see my beloved brothers and sisters, many who violently repudiate legalism, treat a brother or a sister in ways that scream that they have embraced nothing but legalistic grace. Is it not ironic that we, after several years of preaching grace and teaching grace, can still sling mud with the best of the pagans?

Now this is hardly a new problem. People have always found it easier to embrace a “doctrine” rather than a “life.” Paul writes to a group of Christians in Galatia and tells them “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (5.15). The antidote to living like a pack of unredeemed wolves is the GRACE of the indwelling, empowering, Holy Spirit (5.16-25).

I freely confess that I have, and continue, to struggle with legalistic grace. I want nothing to do with legalism. Yet I continue to reveal my slavery to the stoicheia of this world each time I engage in bloodletting with my brethren. Several NT epistles directly address the matter of simply “getting” along in the church. Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, Romans and Galatians all address this issue of living grace in one way or another. They all call the church away from legalistic grace to a gracious LIFE. In light of the Cross, the very essence of grace, we embrace the way of humility, love and service. This is directed not only to the world but to the church. The “doctrine” of grace means we become, like Jesus, suffering servants for all around.

Grace does not mean no more dialogue about controversial subjects. It does not mean no good brotherly “debate.” What it does mean is that I am so permeated by the Spirit of Holiness that love, joy and peace dominate my discourse. It means that when a brother or sister has a more “conservative” idea . . . or a more “progressive” one . . . we love and season our communication with the grace we have received. Brother and sister “hunting season” is banned in the kingdom of God!

My question is, have we embraced “Legalistic Grace?” Is John 3.16 and Ephesians 2.8 our favorite texts but we behave like the brothers and sisters at Corinth? If the acrid atmosphere remains but the “rhetoric” of grace has returned we have good evidence that we have not embraced Biblical Grace but Legalistic Grace. The wolf pack mentality shows we have fallen for a Doctrine but rejected the Life. Biblical Grace is not mere forgiveness but deliverance from an unloving life.

15 Responses to “Legalistic Grace”

  1. David P Himes Says:

    I’ve become almost overwhelmed by the simple but difficult problem of following Jesus’ “new command” to love one another the way he loved us.

    When Jesus’ example of love becomes our benchmark, I have found that legalism dies and grace abounds.

    Amen, brother

  2. Bron Says:

    Yes, ‘legalistic grace’ IS a contradiction in terms. The minute the legalistic spirit enters, grace disappears. Both cannot be present in the same place. Legalism KILLS all the good stuff, all the fruit of the Spirit–and yes, God’s amazing grace! Thanks for your insights on this timely subject, Bobby. 🙂

  3. Gardner Hall Says:

    I especially like the following quote, “People have always found it easier to embrace a ‘doctrine’ rather than a “life.'”

    I also appreciate the acknowledgment that a grace filled life doesn’t mean avoiding profitable and loving exchanges.

    Unfortunately, “legalism” has become a code word to portray in an ungraceful way almost anyone who has convictions, so much so that I almost hate to use it. I know you aren’t using it that way.

    Thanks again for the thought provoking post.

  4. Coop's Comments Says:


    As you so well phrased it, legalism is an acrid spiritual environment.

    As you continue to think, reflect, and write regarding your thoughts and perceptions regarding both legalism and grace, I think that you may find yourself coming to address concepts that identify (1) the immense reservoir of fear that underlies and feeds a mindset rooted in legalism, and (2) feeding that reservoir of fear is usually a personal sense or concept of God that significantly doubts chesed or agape as really possible – other than in response to obedience.

    In a manner similar to Plato’s description of persons being blinded by the sunlight, after exiting the cave, healing from legalism’s injuries is a maturing process that encompasses both healthy teaching and supportive, personal experiences of love that is felt and perceived in our interpersonal life experiences.

  5. Gregory Alan Tidwell Says:

    Using your definition, the Apostle Paul was guilty of “Legalistic Grace” in his denunciation of the false teachers in Galatia, as was our Savior in denouncing the Pharisees.

  6. kingdomseeking Says:


    I think you’re on to something here. Paul told Titus that the grace of God which has appeared teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness (Tit 2.11-12). What a struggle yet we are works in progress.

    There seems to be too much bloodletting in the blog world between Christians…something which I have too often been a part of. But I am learning that biblical grace means gaining the wisdom to remain silent rather than responding to every dissent aimed at us.

    Thank you for this reminder!

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  7. John Grant Says:

    Who are the modern day Pharisees?
    Why is that so?
    Even in an emergency like we have in Alabama now, to only recognize and help those that are Christians in your opinion and not help others is wrong.
    Look at this as an opportunity to show Gods love and invite those you assist and help to come see what makes you and your bunch so loving as they show.
    To lock the doors of our “Building” which we teach is not the CHURCH AS WE THE MEMBERS ARE THE CHURCH, and not allow any use of displaced persons or any other help unless they are members of the church (body) of Christ is wrong and maybe that’s why our numbers are diminishing so fast. Count the visitors for last year.
    Our example to those around us is not good at all and our goal of bringing and winning them to Christ defeated by our behavior.

  8. Royce Ogle Says:

    Not the labor of my hands
    Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
    Could my zeal no respite know,
    Could my tears forever flow,
    All for sin could not atone;
    Thou must save, and Thou alone.

    Nothing in my hand I bring,
    Simply to the cross I cling;
    Naked, come to Thee for dress;
    Helpless look to Thee for grace;
    Foul, I to the fountain fly;
    Wash me, Savior, or I die.

  9. rkpruitt1 Says:

    Brother, I appreciate your comments. I too have become very cognizant of the growing movement of Phariseeism among my brethren. As a recovering Pharisee, I know the damage that has been done from bringing brethren under the burden of a legalistic christianity devoid of Christ and his grace. While putting emphasis on a faith that required the following of many man-made requirements, I found myself thinking only of the traditions of the church rather than on the practice of Christianity as a focal point of his love and mercy. I am examining ever teaching I have long held to see if indeed it is something from God or from man. It is crucial for us all to practice liberty in those things not of God and to question every traditional teaching in the church in light of the scriptures. I can understand the excitement of such men as Campbell when coming out of denominationalism, because that is exactly where I think I am at this point in my faith. Except the denomination I am coming out of calls itself the Church of Christ.

  10. beowulf2k8 Says:

    When you get right down to it, the grace based salvation view is always more legalistic than the works based salvation view.

    People who believe in works salvation see it like this: If you constantly repent and try to live better, then you are saved.

    People who believe in grace see it like this: You have to win a lottery and be chosen to receive grace or you can’t be saved. You might live a life of constant repentance and try to live the best you can, but you are still going to hell because you didn’t win the grace lottery. So go burn sucka!!!!

    The works based salvation view always involves more happiness and joy in the Holy Ghost.

    Of course legalism is when you mix the two. When you say that you need works to be saved but that you also need grace, well then you have a strange beast in which God is IMPLACABLE. Nothing you do or believe is enough unless it is PERFECT.

  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    That is a most interesting scenario you have proposed there. I reject it as alien to scripture but interesting nonetheless.

    I’m assuming that you at least accept the Scriptures though you call yourself a “Full Pelagian” (Pelagius wasnt a Marcionite that I know of sooooo….) and if you do then much of the NT will conflict with your theology here. I would suggest that the Hebrew Bible will too. Israel was never “justified” on the basis of works.

    But what role would a “savior” play in a system that said we are justified by works? In such a system it is your works that “justify” and logically rule out a “savior.”

    Bobby V

  12. beowulf2k8 Says:

    Marcion is old new. Now check this out since my idea is supposedly “alien” to the Scriptures.

    Romans 2:13 “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.”

    Rom 3:20 “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

    Paul says the doers of the law will be justified only to contradict himself in the next chapter and say they wont. This is part of his political strategery of “becoming all things to all men” and “pleasing all men in all things.” He takes every possible position so that nobody can back him into a corner.

    But which of his contradictory takes on justification has the warrant of the major Old Testament writers? Look at Ezekiel 18 and Job. How do they teach justification? Certainly not by faith.

    The problem with grace is in order to protect the notion that salvation is by “grace alone” one has to create an insane predestination infrastructure to support grace’s solitariness, and in the process one imputes evil and malignancy to God as administrator of a sadistic cosmic lottery. Without doing this, Pelagianism automatically sets in. You cannot avoid some level of justification by works without turning man into mere puppets and God into Satan. The Psalmist sees this and therefore praises God’s MERCY is judging by works.

    Does a justification by works necessarily rule out a savior. Not when the savior’s main role is as teacher and example. And this is he main role Jesus occupies in Matthew. His death in Matthew is seen as making forgiveness possible, but once forgiveness is a possibility, man clearly justifies himself by works, including praying for that forgiveness to be applied. Paul’s theology is clearly a Gnostic development, and his becoming all things to all men declares this, for it is (according to Gnostic exegesis) to the psychics that he says “the doers of the law will be justified” and to the pneumatics that he says “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” In other words, Paul teaches a dual track salvation, salvation by works for psychics and by faith for pneumatics. This is why he says in Romans 3:30 “Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision [the psychics] FROM [ex, but by but from] faith, and uncircumcision [pneumatics] through faith.”

    In any case I don’t agree with Paul’s Gnosticism. Justification is by works for all.

  13. beowulf2k8 Says:

    “Israel was never ‘justified’ on the basis of works.”

    Israel the nation was never justified at all in the spiritual sense of coming before the throne of judgment on the final day. The argument is about the final judgment, not historical judgments. Only those passages that speak of the final meeting out of rewards and punishments matter here. If Abraham was ‘justified’ by faith in some sense, meaning he was justified to receive some carnal reward like a piece of land, what is that to me? His being justified to receive a piece of land and our being justified in the final sense are not analogous. Aside from Paul’s Valentinianism, this is where he messed up big time.

  14. beowulf2k8 Says:

    “But what role would a ‘savior’ play in a system that said we are justified by works?”

    Teacher, prophet, physical deliverer. Moses is a savior type to the Jews for all three. Can there be a savior in a purely spiritual sense? Again: teacher, prophet. And if the concept that God requires a human sacrifice must needs be saved, providing a means of forgiveness that ust subsequently be taken hold of by works after it is provided.

  15. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I certainly do find that some interesting theology you are promoting.

    Paul a gnostic. Well some liberal scholars in the mid 20th century would be happy with that one. However that is basically absurd so I will leave that one be.

    Since I believe that Paul was an apostle and inspired I think he was right.

    As for that the Hebrew Scriptures do not teach that Israel had a relationship with Yahweh on the basis of “doing” but because he decided to have one with them. Exodus comes before Sinai. Calvary comes before Pentecost. Grace comes before faith.

    Bobby V

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