Layers of legalism

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach
Joseph and Tammy Tkach

In the novella, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who proclaimed his disdain for Christmas and all it represents by exclaiming, Bah humbug!

The word humbug is interesting. It’s an archaic word with 18th century origins that refers to deceptive or false talk or behavior. When used of a person, it means that the person is a fraud or a hypocrite. Thus in crying bah humbug, Scrooge was saying that anyone who sees Christmas as a time of joy, peace, hope and love is a fraud. In his warped mind, Christmas is a lie—a clever ruse by which people get out of work and receive undeserved gifts or bonuses. Bah humbug!

Beware the disease of humbug


In the essay, “The Prevalence of Humbug,” Cornell Professor Max Black notes that “humbug has the peculiar property of being always committed by others, never by oneself.” He then gives the example of a woman who, though healthy and prosperous, complains to Anton Pavlovich that, “Everything is so grey: people, the sea, even the flowers seem to me grey…. and I have no desires… my soul is in pain… it is like a disease.”

In reply, Pavlovich says her unjustified humbug attitude truly “is a disease; in Latin it is called morbus fradulentous.” It seems that the ones who loudly proclaim bah humbug, have succumbed to this “fraudulant disease” themselves.

I suppose the reason the word humbug recently came to mind is that the Advent-Christmas season is just around the corner and that reminds me of the multiple Ebenezer Scrooges I’ve encountered over the years—people who have convinced themselves that everything about Christmas is fraudulent.

I’ve also encountered multiple Scrooges who exclaim bah humbug to the idea that Christianity is about living fully under the grace of God. Sadly, their humbug attitude toward grace is a defining characteristic of many Christian cults. Their viewpoint concerning salvation and the Christian life (sanctification) is known as “works-righteousness,” which they live out by extracting from the Bible various systems of rules and regulations for achieving salvation and spiritual growth. In a word, works-righteousness is legalism, which has two primary layers of deception that we must seek to avoid. Let me explain.

1. The deception that salvation is secured by works

The first layer of legalism is the deception that our works somehow contribute to our salvation. Legalism is grounded in the false premise that Jesus is not sufficient—therefore salvation requires that our works supplement those of Jesus. A legalist might say, “If I do my part, God will do his.” The reason people succumb to this legalistic premise is that it appeals to fallen human nature, which likes to think that we have some sort of capacity to earn, or qualify for, salvation. Fallen nature wants to be able to say, “Look what I’ve contributed!” Life in general provides evidence that supports this false view—as we acquire more information and skill, we get a better job, earn more money and achieve a better status. There is “no free lunch,” and we get ahead due to our own effort. It’s no wonder people project this way of the world onto God and his salvation. But doing so is a tragic mistake that distills down to the false premise that Jesus’ atoning work is somehow deficient or inadequate.

Our fallen human nature pridefully insists that we surely must have something that God needs from us to complete our salvation. But Scripture says just the opposite. In his letter to Christians in Colossae, the apostle Paul proclaimed that “In Christ you have been brought to fullness” (Col. 2:9-10). When Paul pleaded with God to remove the “thorn” in his flesh, God’s replied: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). The author of Hebrews adds that “By one sacrifice [Christ, our high priest] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14). The gospel truth is that when it comes to our salvation, Jesus is all-sufficient. We aren’t given salvation as a reward for our works. It is the work of Jesus, not our own efforts, that makes us holy. Our works in service and obedience to God are a thankful response to all that God, in Christ and by the Spirit, has done on our behalf to qualify us for salvation. We cannot qualify ourselves!

2. The deception that salvation is maintained by works

The second layer of legalism is the deception that our works somehow maintain our salvation. This is as much a humbug as the first layer, yet it is seductively deceptive in that it contains a seed of truth. It begins by rightly acknowledging that we all fall far short of God’s perfection. But then the lie creeps in as we think that this separation can somehow be resolved through our own efforts—through a righteousness grounded in our own works. This legalistic deception thus acknowledges that salvation is a gift, but then it embraces the lie that the gift must be maintained by our works.

If you think about it, it’s not possible that our works would somehow maintain our salvation since we know we cannot and do not behave perfectly once we commit ourselves to following Jesus. This is not to say, of course, that our response to God is to throw proper morality out the window and live recklessly. As Paul says, “God forbid!” (Rom. 6:2, KJV). The apostle Peter tells us that once we have tasted God’s goodness, we will continue to grow in our salvation (1 Pet. 2:1-3). That growth has to do with our relationship with our Triune God—Father, Son and Spirit. This is a gift of grace that flows from his love toward us, and the trust we have in his lordship.

Our transformation into the likeness of Christ is a gift we receive by and through the faithfulness of Jesus who, by the Spirit, lives and works within us (Gal. 2:20, KJV). Our salvation, deepening trust, and living communion with God come to us as God’s freely-given gifts. As we live into that communion, we receive upgrades as we learn to trust and obey God—as our faith continues to grow.

Sadly, in the history of Christianity there have always been some who distort the truth of God’s gospel of grace with add-ons that seem like genuine pathways to growth. In reality, these add-ons are legalisms—means employed to try to obtain and then maintain God’s good graces.

Let there be no confusion, brothers and sisters: God has sent Jesus to save us because, from start to finish, we cannot save ourselves!

Giving thanks that there is no humbug with God,
Joseph Tkach

PS: Because several members of our Weekly Update production team will be out of the office next week, the next issue of Update will be published on November 1. See you then!

4 thoughts on “Layers of legalism”

  1. At last, the clearest statement of truth on this subject of salvation that I have been privileged to read. Thank you, Joseph Teach for your commitment to the truth.

  2. This is sound and needed teaching. Too often well-meaning Christians have adopted and swallowed the poison of “works righteousness” in one or more of its various forms and expressions. Claiming to “see,” all too many have, in fact, become blinded. Claiming to believe in grace, many end up preaching legalism. It is so easy to fall into that trap. We must all take heed, lest we fall.

  3. Joe thank you so much for this important, relevant and timely teaching.
    When I encounter the ‘bah humbug’ attitude, it will certainly bring your wise words to mind.

  4. Hello Joe: It’s really humbling to know that God loved me, us, that much, he willing allowed himself to be crucified,died, rose again from the grave,seated at the right hand of the Father to make my, our,salvation sure by grace not works.One time I stood myself at the foot of the cross while Jesus was hanging there,marred beyond recognition as a human being,Ps.22:17 says,”All of my bones are on display” Now tell Jesus He didn’t do enough to save me,or all of us and You lied when you said” Jn.19:30 ‘It is finished’Check Ep.2:10. for the good works prepared in advance for us to do.

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