There is more than one path to apostasy.

We have talked about the danger of continuing to sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth (Hebrews 10:26), the danger of refusing to help make disciples (Hebrews 6:1ff), and the danger of turning back from obeying God (Hebrews 10:38-39).

There is, however, another danger – one that cleverly disguises itself as exceptional righteousness.

The Pharisees and experts in religious law dogged Jesus at every turn. They laid traps for him, posing loaded questions designed to trick him into saying something they could use to discredit him. Jesus condemned them for crushing people beneath their religious demands. (Luke 11:46)

The spirit of the Pharisees and religious lawyers did not die out in Jesus’ day. Ultimate victory over the sin of legalism was won on the cross and at the tomb, but people continued to be oppressed by empty religions – and one of them masquerades as Christianity.

The Apostle Paul was dogged by Christian pharisees and religious lawyers – an austere sect that taught followers of Jesus had to keep the Jewish law in order to obtain righteousness. Paul described them as servants of Satan who disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. (2 Corinthians 11:15) He warned the believers at Philippi about the “dogs,” enemies of the cross who vaunted themselves as examples of spiritual maturity. (Philippians 3)

But the problem seemed most severe in the churches of Galatia, where some of the believers had been persuaded they could achieve righteousness by living up to the standard set by the lawyers.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians graphically warns about the danger of looking for righteousness anywhere but in the grace of God. Accepting the legalists’ demands would be rejecting the freedom Christ died to obtain for them and allowing themselves to be pressed back into the slavery that oppressed them before they were born again. (Galatians 5:1)

Join the legalists, he warned, and “Christ will be of no benefit to you … You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:2b,4 NAS)

Today’s Christian pharisees and religious lawyers don’t hold up the Law of Moses as the standard. Some require sinless living, but their numbers don’t grow because members eventually are discouraged by the fact that “we all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2 NAS)

The most insidious legalism presents itself as a defender of orthodox doctrine. After all, the Church has always had to oppose false teachers who threatened to corrupt the Faith. What could be more honorable than identifying heresy to protect the faithful? As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “A little bit of yeast makes the whole batch of dough rise.” (1 Corinthians 5:6 TEV)

When Jesus used the metaphor of yeast, he was warning people about the legalistic teachings of the Pharisees. (Matthew 16:6) And while Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about yeast related to immoral living, he used exactly the same words to warn the Galatians about the danger of legalism. (Galatians 5:9)

It’s a subtle deception indeed that sneaks yeast into the dough while warning about the danger of yeast.

Authentic faith in Jesus is a life of freedom from the impossible demands of legalism. Genuine believers know it is all about grace; hyper-orthodox Christians have fallen from grace. Genuine believers know the Law is fulfilled in the commandment to love our neighbor. (Galatians 5:14) Legalists, on the other hand, “bite and devour one another” (v.15), and their lives are characterized by “hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, [and] the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group.” (v.20 NLT)

Legalism is an enemy of the cross because it adds human requirements to God’s grace, in this case demanding that people conform to the legalist’s own standard of acceptable doctrine.

Yes, correct doctrine matters. False teaching should not be ignored. One reason God gave us Scripture is to teach us what is true. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) We ought to be diligent in our efforts to accurately handle the Word of Truth so we will not be ashamed before God. (2 Timothy 2:15)

The Bible, however, doesn’t set a detailed doctrinal requirement for being justified and found righteous before God. Scripture tells us that if we confess “Jesus is Lord” and believe in our hearts God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

Paul’s first letter to Timothy aptly describes these legalistic false teachers:

“Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, fighting, slander, and evil suspicions. These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they don’t tell the truth.” (1 Timothy 6:4b-5a NLT)

“They don’t tell the truth” – that strikes to the heart of the legalists’ apostasy. In an October 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill described the deceitful Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Today’s legalistic false teachers are a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy inside a slander. They use half-truth, misrepresentation, innuendo, name-calling, fear of conspiracy, and guilt by association to mislead trusting souls and make them twice as fit for hell as they are. (Matthew 23:15)

The next time a legalist tells you another prominent Christian leader has been found guilty of inferior and substandard doctrine, remember that today, just as in Jeremiah’s time, “the arrogant one will stumble and fall with no one to raise him up.” (Jeremiah 50:32 NAS)

Next installment

Chapter 15
The ditch of disbelief

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