“And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” (Acts 15:1–2, AV)
In 1969, I entered Drexel University. I began a study in mechanical engineering with the hope of earning a Bachelor of Science degree. Yes, I did graduate in 1974 with the degree. Early on in my freshman year, I quickly discovered that this program was going to be no walk in the park. With 21 credit hours and courses like calculus, physics, and chemistry, I had my hands full. In my courses, I learned one thing when taking my exams. If you made an error in your calculations in one part of a test problem, you would not get the correct answer and fail that particular test problem. Since on some of the tests, there were only 5 problems to solve, one slight error would nullify a good grade.
It is the same with the doctrine of salvation. Sound doctrine is vital. It is vital that people clearly understand the doctrine of sovereign grace as it pertains to our salvation. The reason is that if people have a flawed view of salvation, that is if one error is introduced to the purity of what God has done for us, a person may hold to a false hope of eternal life. For this reason, Paul and Barnabas could not stand to see the doctrine of free grace perverted with works.
Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch and men, claiming the authority of the church in Judea, came and taught that believers needed to add circumcision, a work of the flesh, to grace in order to be saved. These false teachers posed such a serious threat to the gospel that Paul and Barnabas traveled back to Jerusalem to convene with the leaders of the church on this matter. The issue was to get an official proclamation of the truth that man is saved by grace alone, apart from any works of righteousness. They were combatting the destructive heresy of legalism.
Legalism comes to us today in some overt and some subtle forms. The subtle forms are just as dangerous as those which are overt. From an overt standpoint, legalism states that to be saved, one must do certain things like being baptized, taking communion, saying certain prayers, cleaning up one’s act, etc.
Covertly, legalism comes in a variety of ways. For instance, some will falsely state salvation requires grace, but to remain saved requires works. Those who believe one could lose their salvation ultimately believe that one must remain in good works to remain saved. This undermines the work of God in saving and keeping one secure in the faith.
Another covert form of legalism is that of a works-based process of sanctification. Those who preach this consider that one is saved by grace but then continues by works rather than the Spirit. Paul vehemently argued against this man-made religion (Galatians 3:3). When people preach or teach a works-based process of sanctification, they will establish external constraints of rules, that focus on cleaning up the outside of the cup, while neglecting the work of the Holy Spirit transforming one from within. With this comes excessive rigidity and judgmental attitudes.
In the subsequent devotion, we will look at several problems with this legalistic heresy. For now, we who understand free grace, must be vigilant to contend for the purity of our message. We cannot allow error in even a small part to enter. God is sovereign and He saves us by His grace alone.