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The New Legalism

Concerning the slippery slope of some Christians wanting to embrace legalistic "Torah Observance" as a supposed step of spiritual maturity.

2 Cor 3:10 (NIV) For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.

Heb 7:18-19 (Phi) Quite plainly, then, there is a definite cancellation of the previous commandment because of its ineffectiveness and uselessness--the Law was incapable of bringing anyone to real maturity--followed by the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach our God.

The excuse for fawning over Judaic ceremonial legalism usually goes something like, "we have to get back to the Torah..." or "there is no harm in..." or "if done correctly..." But to indulge in such may well be a rejection of the incarnation which we will explore in a moment.

To start with, there is the moral law which should not be confused with the cermonial / regulatory law. The difference between these two different types of law is a major theme of the New Testament.

Heb 9:1,10 (NKJ) ...The first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary... fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.

Heb 9:1,10 (Phi) Now the first agreement had certain rules for the service of God... The ceremonies are concerned with food and drink, various washings and rules for bodily conduct, and were only intended to be valid until the time when Christ should establish the truth.

Heb 9:1,10 (NAS) ...The first covenant had regulations... which is a symbol for the present time...

Heb 8:7,13, 9:1,10, 10:1 (NIV) For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another... By calling this covenant "new", he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary... external regulations applying until the time of the new order.... The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves.

Scripture, then, speaks of "the law" as having two components which are fairly clear cut:
  • There is the shadow law, and there is the moral law.
  • The shadow law deals with "regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary" which pointed to Messiah. Since the reality that cast the old covenant shadows has been revealed by God, the shadow law is "fulfilled" completely and is thus rendered "obsolete".

    The moral law tells us not to kill, lie, commit adultery, etc. I do not think any sensible person would suggest that we are "free" to violate these moral laws in the new covenant or in modern society.

    So what we are talking about in the "New Legalism" is the shadow law. It could also be called the symbolic law, or the typological law, or the ceremonial law, or the old covenant law, or the regulation-for-worship law, or the religious law. But for our purposes let us use the term shadow law. Col 2:17, Heb 10:1, Heb 8:5)

    Since the reality that the shadow law was pointing towards has been revealed (Mat 13:17, Eph 3:5, Heb 11:40), a focus on the religious aspects of the old covenant is a symptom of either severe daftness or a deviant love for the "old wine" (Luke 5:39) that will not be repented of.

    For example, if you came to visit me at my house one day... and I jump onto the concrete and begin to hug your shadow saying "I love you so much. You, O meaningful concrete, are that which leads me to my dear friend," either I am extremely daft, or I like concrete better than you.

    Col 2:16-17 (NAS) Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

    The shadow law has to do with the feasts, the sabbath, the sacrificial systems, the priesthood, the temple, the rituals, the observances, and the like. This is dispatched with, in its fulfillment in Yeshua.

    Gal 4:9-11 (NAS) But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.

    On the other hand, we have the moral law. Does being of the "new wine" of grace mean that "do not bear false witness" no longer applies? "Thou shalt not kill?" Obviously not. In fact, there are more of these kind of statements--and all of them more severe--in the New Testament than the Old. "You have heard it said that... but I say..." and "If a man asks you to... then..." So in this, the "law of love" (Rom 13:8-10, Gal 5:14, James 2:8) is the more demanding. This is the whole point; it is impossible... short of the miracle of new birth and Holy Spirit resurrection life.

    The Law has a purpose, a ministry, and a glory. Its purpose is to make sin clear. Its ministry is to condemn us (a valid enough ministry). This condemnation has a certain glory (detailed in 2 Corinthians 3). There is a bible study posted on "Glory" that goes into this in some depth at: http://www.acts17-11.com/glory.html

    Gal 3:24-25 (KJV) ... The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

    I was not ashamed to be in sixth grade when I was a child; but to be in sixth grade when I'm 36 is a shame indeed. Or, worse still, to want to go back and sit with the sixth graders as an adult. There is something perverted about it, no?

    Hebrews 1:1 (NIV) In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.

    Given this lavish revelation, shall we turn to shadows and insult God's grace? Shall we hug the concrete, or God's Son? Shall we spurn the costly and perfect revelation of Christ to embrace the dim shadows of the old covenant, after receiving of Him?
    Gal 4:9-11 (NKJ) But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.

    If Torah obedience is--as some are now suggesting--the "next spiritual step", then why was the opportunity so forcefully repudiated in the Spirit-infused inception of the Church?

    Acts 15:10-30 (NIV) [Simon Peter:] "Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we [Jews] nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they [Gentiles] are." The whole assembly became silent as they listened... [James:] "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them..." Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church... [now termed "the Jerusalem council"] sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you... It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things...

    We, with the Jerusalem council, can say a forceful "No!" as well. We can live in the simplicity of a new and better covenant; which by Christ-in-us makes it possible to exceed the moral law (such as abstaining from sexual immorality), and to which the Jerusalem council thought it only useful to conscript shadow activities that would be considered wrong (a stumbling block, see 1 Cor 8:4-13,10:19-32) even by Pagans. To all else besides what we would "do well to avoid", we should forcefully resist just as the Jerusalem council did, saying: "No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved..." For if we know Jesus, we know better and should not be entertaining "hanker after the Law" temptations or passions. The Apostle Peter considered such a "yoke" of bondage, and so ought we if we perceive spiritual reality clearly.

    A Jewish friend of ours once said: "With all this Messianic stuff, the Gentiles are now discovering just how dead 'things Jewish' really are." (After the spell wears off, of course. <smiles>) If such shadows have led us to Christ when our necks were paralyzed in a downward position, then praise God for casting them. But after we have found Christ, shall we curse ourselves by deliberately groveling in the shadows of the old covenant religious law?

    Gal 4:21 (NIV) Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?

    Gal 3:13 (NIV) Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us...

    The issue, then, is not whether we are "under the law"; of course we are not. But neither are we "above the law". The issue is of which "way" we are being saved, of which covenant we are--or wish to be. This is a critically important question now, just as it was in the New Testament.

    Why does the Bible draw such stark lines about not hankering to be "under the Law"? Why all the strident verses and warnings concerning the Law? Is focusing on the Law a rite of passage in spiritual maturity, or a renunciation of grace? Is shadow Torah observance "growing in Messiah," or rather spitting in His face? For all our modern of ambivalence about this, why the stern Biblical admonitions and Scriptural diatribes concerning just this subject?

    What temptations are here being addressed by all these words of scripture? Do we consider ourselves immune to these temptations?

    Imagine that you were in the first century, and an imposing "Christian rabbi" came along and suggested that any follower of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ought be properly circumcised. Remember now, you do not have Paul's writing yet. The Torah man tells you that all followers of God should have God's ETERNAL sign on them. Some in the fellowship get uncomfortable with this, pointing out that we have received a new, better covenant. But these people have little Biblical leg to stand on, and the Judaizers have commentaries galore and rabbi after rabbi on their side. Those who resist this "spiritual next step" offer something they call the gospel; which to detractors seems a bit vague and hard to pin down exactly. Against this, the rabbis point to how much God has emphasized obedience to circumcision in the Torah. Why, it would be scandalous to assert that God has changed his mind just because Jesus died and rose again. In the controversy, the Judaizers claim not to be in disagreement with the gospel, they are just saying that if you are truly saved then you will follow God in fulfilling this aspect of His old covenant shadow law. "We should not forget our Jewish roots in the faith", these Judaizers explain. But still, for all this persuasion, people with discernment in the group are uncomfortable. There is a tension in the air and the battle lines are being drawn. Now if you had been there, whose side would you have found more persuasive? The circumcisers have all this scripture on their side versus the opposition, which has a spiritual sense and a spiritualized, fulfilled view of these shadow matters of the Torah.

    Really now: What would you do? And remember, no epistles on this specific Torah peddling yet. Who would you believe? Does it really matter?

    And why not be safe and go ahead and submit to these zealous Torah men? Perhaps they are blurring the distinctions between the two covenants a bit. But what could it hurt, to play it safe?

    Then you receive a letter from a very terse guy named Paul who speaks very boldly on this point that seemed to be so "disputable" before...

    Gal 5:1-4,7-10,12 (NIV) It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace... You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be... As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

    Now what? Now what will you do? Believe this man, with his "talk at" attitude and over-clear discernment (doesn't even give the opposition proper respect for all their scholarship; rather unsporting of him, don't you think?) saying such bold new things without referring to ANY direct Torah authority... He seems to trust that those who have the Spirit will know what he is saying is true, and so makes the case directly to that confidence.

    But now, here is the point. How is circumcision different from the rest of the religious shadow law? For all of these sorts of things are of the same kind, are they not? They are a symbolic shadows of spiritual realities that we now have in Christ. The only thing unique in this context about circumcision is that it just happened to be the "Torah du jour" emphasis and controversy back then, and Paul deals with it in no uncertain terms.

    Col 2:17 (NIV) These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

    But I suppose the "Torah du jour" of today is different, somehow. Yes, in fact, it is. It has less of a leg--or history--to stand on than the circumcision controversy in the first century had. Thus, it is a greater sin for us to fall into such error now than even the Judaizers of old, since we have the benefit of having such legalistic temptations clearly warned against and soundly renounced in the record of New Testament scripture.

    To draw out this challenge further... on what basis, before hearing from Paul (who you might have been inclined to reject... as he was not canonized yet) could you have--would you have--resisted the Judaizers of the first century? Show me the chapter and verse in the Tenakh? Rather, these things are discerned by those who have apprehended the gospel and will not let go of it (1 Jn 2:20-28). Against such there "is no law" (Gal 5:23b).

    2 Cor 3:6-12 (NIV) He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant--not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold.

    To be sure, those who are truly born again will produce fruit "in keeping with repentance" as grace works obedience and righteousness into us (Luke 6:46). To be flippant about this is license rather than legalism. (For more on the relationship between grace, the Law, and obedience, see the Bible Study series on Grace at http://www.acts17-11.com/grace.html.)

    As well, certain people might feel led from time to time to observe certain portions of the shadow law due to a sense of personal leading of the Holy Spirit, and we are enjoined not to judge others in these matters (Rom 14:5-10). But, the issue we are here dealing with falls outside individual obedience or private spiritual discipline; for when a person tries to conscript others into the shadow law... they have crossed the line. If it is "Christ plus anything (fill in the blanks)", then the Gospel has been corrupted; and woe to the man through whom such teaching comes. For it is one thing to be personally empowered or persuaded by God to some spiritual discipline in the freedom that we have in Christ; but it is quite another thing to try to influence others to do the same. Even worse, to offer such a legalistic emphasis as "the next step" in spiritual progress is perilous business indeed.

    The title of "the new legalism" is meant to be ironic. There is no "new legalism". There is only the old. Whether legalism fronts itself with circumcision or sabbaths or food (Mark 7:14-19, 1Tim 4:1-6, Col 2:20-21) or whatever... it is the same old leaven. Beware. It is a real temptation and a real danger.

    We need to stop here and reflect upon these things, to understand why Scripture takes this subject so seriously. What is it really that we have put our faith in? Do we know the Lord as we ought, if we find ourselves so easily tempted to embrace the shadows of the obsolete religious law? How then should we live before the Lord, and also in regards to our influence and interaction with His other children? Let us take this up with the Holy Spirit in private, beyond this moment, so that we will have the mind of Christ in this matter. For we should not be entertaining ideas which are a rejection of the fullness of the revelation of Jesus. Instead, let us behold the magnificence of the Gospel of peace afresh, so that we will not be beguiled by such stark errors in the future. Let us seek the Lord to show us what Paul saw, and why he said what he did... with such stridency.

    As a final point of clarification, not all Messianics are guilty of "the new legalism". Many in the Messianic movement are keen on nothing more than providing an environment of freedom, which is our awesome inheritance in Messiah. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the pendulum swing (from the license found so prevalent elsewhere) temptation towards legalism among Messianics is a "real and present danger". Some have crossed the line, and are no longer really "Messianic" in that they have chosen to exalt the religious shadows over the revelation of Messiah Yeshua, thus rejecting the reality of the incarnation. It is among such groups that we find the principle promulgators of this "back to the Torah" judaizing among us. But let us be clear that while much of the new legalism is coming from aberrant Messianics, not all Messianics are guilty, and we must be careful to not allow "guilt by association" to drift into our perceptions. Let us not besmirch the whole due to the falling away of a few, even if we must forcefully warn against the errors of that few.

    Gal 2:4-5 (NIV) This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.

    Heb 9:1,10 (Phi) Now the first agreement had certain rules... The ceremonies are concerned with food and drink, various washings and rules for bodily conduct, and were only intended to be valid until the time when Christ should establish the truth.

    Gal 4:4-6 (Phi) When the proper time came God sent his son... that he might redeem those who were under the authority of the Law and lead us into becoming, by adoption, true sons of God. It is because you really are his sons that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts.

    Gal 5:18 (NIV) If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.


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