by Al Maxey

Issue #492 ------- July 6, 2011
Human legalism leads to human self-righteousness. Human
self-righteousness denies the need for the saving, enabling
grace of Christ. Human righteousness embraces the cruelest
of Satan's lies: that a person can be righteous by keeping
the law. If that were true, there would have been no need
for the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ.

Paul David Tripp {b. 1950}
Age of Opportunity (p. 83)

Walk Thou Straight-Footed
A Critical Apostolic Confrontation

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), who was clearly one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the past century, made the following astute observation: "To be risen with Christ means not only that one has a choice and that one may live by a higher law (a law of grace and love), but that one must do so. The first obligation of the Christian is to maintain their freedom from all superstitions, all blind taboos and religious formalities, indeed from all empty forms of legalism." I must admit I'm fearful that far too many of my fellow disciples do not take as seriously as they should their freedom in Christ! Freedoms not cherished are doomed to perish!! Our freedom in Christ should never be taken for granted, for it was blood-bought. The Son of God gave His life that you and I might be forever free, and that freedom is so precious that it is worth fighting for against all those who would limit it in any way or attempt to take it from us. "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" (Gal. 5:1). "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace" (vs. 4). "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (vs. 6).

I am genuinely troubled by the fact that a number of my beloved brethren seem to prefer being law-bound to living in the liberty provided by the Lord. Even more troubling is the fact that several of these brethren, who also happen to be well-respected leaders within the church of our Lord, as well as personal friends of mine, are actively promoting a theology of justification and even salvation by command-keeping. As much as I love these brethren, we must oppose their teaching as a "perversion of the Gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:7), and must warn them in the strongest of terms (as I've been doing, and will continue to do) that their teaching is causing some to "turn to a different gospel -- which is really no gospel at all" (vs. 6-7), and that those who teach such a return to law/command-keeping are accursed [Greek: anathema] (vs. 9).

It had been less than 20 years since our Savior's sacrifice on the cross and the subsequent out-pouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, yet already many in the church were losing sight of their freedom in Christ and were drifting back into bondage to regulations and rituals. A critical point in the growth and development of the Family of God had been reached, and how this theological drift was dealt with would determine the direction the church would take for many centuries to come. This issue was so extremely important that not even close friendships, or family ties, could be allowed to discourage the liberated from confronting the law-bound. A perfect example of this necessary opposition to a deadly digression is seen in Paul's face-to-face confrontation with Peter in the city of Antioch in Syria around the year 48-49 A.D. This is recorded for us in Galatians, the very first book of the NT canon to be written. Indeed, the entire book is really a treatise on the necessity of standing against legalism and standing firmly for our freedom in Christ. For some in-depth background material on this powerful epistle by Paul I would suggest a very careful reading of the following two studies: Reflections #202 -- Epistle to the Galatians: Magna Charta of Christian Liberty and Reflections #215 -- Embracing Another Gospel: Analyzing Apostolic Authorial Intent in the Admonition of Galatians 1:6-9.

A number of years prior to this confrontation with Paul, the apostle Peter had been called by the Lord to take the lead in bringing the Gentiles into the fellowship of the Body of Christ. This was done when he went to Caesarea and shared the Good News with a centurion named Cornelius and his household (Acts 10-11). Peter had been somewhat reluctant to associate with Gentiles, regarding them as unclean, and it required a rather dramatic vision (repeated three times) to break through his prejudice and compel him to comply. This was a very important step forward for the church, and also an important advance personally for Peter. Barriers were beginning to come down, paving the way for far greater diversity within the Body, which would necessitate a greater spirit of love and acceptance by those within it so that unity might be attained in this diversity! Walls of exclusion were no longer acceptable in the Family of God. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). It appeared at that time that Peter understood the Lord's intent, for he said, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right" (Acts 10:34-35).

Unfortunately, Peter would later allow his fear of a rigid, legalistic party within the church to overwhelm his stated convictions, something we find all too frequently even today. There were disciples of Christ in Jerusalem, having come out of Judaism, but still enamored with their customs and traditions, who were convinced that "unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). This theology was greatly plaguing the church at this time, and its influence was spreading. Disciples who were enjoying their freedom in Christ, and who had torn down the walls of exclusion, were now being led back into bondage and were rebuilding those barriers. The One Body was in grave danger of being dismembered. This legalistic party within the early church was vocal and, at times, vicious. They could be quite intimidating, and many succumbed to their whims out of fear. Paul referred to them as "false brothers who have infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves" (Gal. 2:4). For the sake of "the truth of the gospel," Paul stated, "We did not give in to them for even a moment" (vs. 5). Unfortunately, not everyone had that same courage of conviction, and one of those who didn't was Peter. "Because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision party" (Gal. 2:12), he and several other disciples, including Barnabas, were not behaving in a manner consistent with "the truth of the gospel" (vs. 14). Prior to the coming of these legalistic partyists, Peter "used to eat with the Gentiles, but when they arrived he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles" (vs. 12). Such behavior was not in keeping with the very gospel principles and truths he had been previously teaching. Thus, Paul accused them of being "hypocrites" (vs. 13). Actually, the Greek word Paul utilized (which appears only here in the NT writings) is sunupokrinomai, which means "to dissemble, pretend, or feign." This "dissimulation consisted in suppressing their real convictions, and acting as if from a set of convictions different from their real ones" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 436]. Out of fear, Peter and the others hid the truth of the gospel and pretended to embrace the perverted "gospel" of the partyists. In so doing they were not walking in step with the truth of the gospel of Christ Jesus, and were, in fact, doing the gospel great harm, as well as harming those who looked to them for spiritual leadership.

Therefore, as a result of Peter's "vacillating conduct traitorous to truth" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, p. 104], the apostle Paul had no choice but to "oppose him to his face, because he stood condemned" (Gal. 2:11). How it must have grieved Paul to witness the result of this spirit of fearfulness, and to know that the one leading the brethren away from the truth of the gospel was his fellow apostle Peter!! As much as he undoubtedly loved and respected Peter, he could not allow this departure from the Truth to go unchallenged. "Against all such legalism, consequently, we too must wage incessant war, for there is nothing so derogatory to Jesus or destructive of men's souls" [ibid, p. 105]! Peter had "surrendered principle because of pressure" from partyists [ibid, p. 104], and "it is well for us to see clearly how bondage sets in immediately on our abandoning principle and acting on the pressure of our fears" [ibid].

The Greek word that Paul employed in Gal. 2:14, and which is variously rendered in the versions cited above, is orthopodeo, a word that occurs only here in all the Bible, "although it occurs in later Christian writers, who, it is thought, borrowed it from this passage" [ibid, p. 82]. "It literally means 'to walk with straight feet,' thus: 'to walk a straight course.' It speaks of straightforward, unwavering, sincere conduct in contrast to a crooked, wavering, and more or less insincere course, such as that which Paul had said Peter and the other Jews were guilty of. We could say, 'They walked not orthopedically'" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 1, Galatians, p. 74]. Peter was, in essence, denying both our freedom from law and our salvation by grace through faith, which comprise two of the central tenets of the Gospel. Dr. Gerhard Kittel, in his massive Theological Dictionary of the NT, declared that "to walk firmly according to the truth of the Gospel is thus to be obedient to the reality of salvation as accomplished by God in Christ" [vol. 5, p. 451]. When fear of legalistic extremists leads one to forfeit one's freedom in Christ, and then to behave as though one accepted the theology of said legalists, such a one is not "walking a straight course" with the truth of the gospel. On the contrary, they have taken a deadly detour.

Some have tried to excuse Peter's behavior here, or paint him in a better light. Some believe Paul overreacted, having misunderstood Peter's motives (this view was advocated by the Ebionites, and was taught in the Clementine Homilies). Others have suggested that this was another "Peter," rather than Simon Peter the apostle (the position of Clement of Alexandria). Some have even speculated that "the debate was staged in order to dramatize the issue for the edification of the Antiochian Christians" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 447]. In other words, Paul and Peter "arranged the scene beforehand between themselves, and acted it out for the benefit of the Judaisers" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 436]. "This view, though it held its ground for two centuries, was finally put down by the straightforwardness and good sense of St. Augustine" [ibid]. The reality is -- this "was not, it must be noted, a case of Peter's simply making an honest mistake" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 447]. Instead, this "was a most extraordinary act of tergiversation on the part of one of the 'pillars' of the Church" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, p. 96].

Peter's sin here is that "he gradually gave in to pressure exerted by the legalizers, even though he knew what was right. The same Peter who had denied his Lord for fear of a maid-servant now denied Him again for fear of the circumcision party" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 446]. "He was the first to confess Christ and the first to deny Him; the first to own Gentile liberty, the first to disown it" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, p. 97]!! Because of this apostle's "fear of this determined minority of partisans, Peter set an example of withdrawal," rather than having "the moral courage to act according to his convictions" under the harsh scrutiny of the legalists from Jerusalem [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 161-162]. These were "acts of moral timidity and cowardice," by which our "freedom and the truth of the Gospel were endangered" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, The NT, vol. 2, p. 236]. Thus, "What was at stake was the Gospel itself" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 447], "which teaches that justification by legal works and observances is inconsistent with redemption by Christ" [Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, via e-Sword]. Paul had taken a strong stand for "the truth of the gospel," which was, and still is, the "good news that men and women do not become accepted with God because of anything they have done or can do, but solely on the basis of God's grace" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 447]. Performing works of law and complying with the dictates of custom and tradition "have no place in God's plan of salvation" [ibid, p. 446], and Peter had compromised this truth. The good news had thus been reduced to bad news -- that men must strive to be good enough and to do enough to merit their salvation!! It is a return to justification and salvation by command-keeping, and those who promote such a theology are fallen from grace and severed from Christ.

The apostle Paul was absolutely right in confronting Peter face-to-face, and in doing so publicly, for since his actions were public, and were having a negative impact on the disciples, so also must the confrontation be public. Thus, Paul rebuked him "in front of them all" (Gal. 2:14). "Conduct such as Peter's is not inconsequential, neither in his day nor now. So, one is not surprised to read that other Jews, including Barnabas, were led away by his dissimulation. If Peter had been a lesser man or less prominent, the defection might have been far less serious. But this was Peter, the pillar apostle, the companion of the Lord during His earthly ministry! What Peter did moved others. It is obvious that any Christian must give heed to his actions, but the greater the position or responsibility, the more important those actions become" [ibid]. This is why it troubles me so deeply to see several of our Lord's leaders today negatively influencing others in their preaching and teaching of LAW. Legalism is a cancer to the Body of Christ, and those promoting it must be stopped. May God give each of us the courage of conviction to stand for the truth of the Gospel, and to publicly oppose those who do not to their face. By so doing, perhaps the outcome will prove to be just as positive as it was with Paul and Peter, for the latter apostle, years later, would characterize the former apostle as "our beloved brother Paul" (2 Peter 3:15).

Special Appeal to Readers

In last week's issue of my weekly Reflections (Issue #491), the 11th response down in the "Readers' Reflections" section, there appeared a brief letter from "A New Reader in Louisiana," who is the preacher for a small congregation that has moved away from legalism and is striving to live within their newly found freedom in Christ. You might want to quickly go and read that letter and my response, if you don't remember it. This week I received another email from this brother, and, as one might imagine, their resolve to turn away from legalism has proved financially costly, since much of their support was coming from very legalistic congregations (who terminated their support as soon as they found out that they were becoming a grace-centered, Jesus-focused group of disciples, instead of following "the old paths" of rigid regulations and tedious traditions)!! This preacher wrote: "Brother Al, We are a church which is healing from legalism, and aren't sure where to turn in our time of need. You see, we used to be a very legalistic church, and we were being financially supported by other very legalistic Churches of Christ (we are in need of outside support at the present because of our small size). When my wife and I moved here to work with this congregation, there were only 13 members!! Since then our number has grown to 50!! However, since we have left the dark, burdensome path of legalism, we have been disfellowshipped, and marked as "heretics," and have lost $2000 per month in financial support!! We are writing to say, 'Help!!!' Our contacts outside the legalistic fold are limited, and we don't know where to turn. We are not willing to go back into bondage just for money's sake, however!"

Brethren, here is a golden opportunity, for those individuals or congregations in a position to do so, to rally to the side of a brave band of freedom-loving disciples who are struggling to break away from their former slavery to legalism! They have shed the shackles, but they are not sure where to go from here. All they know is: they do not want to go back to slavery! If you can help them, even in a small way, or if you would like to talk with this preacher personally and ask some questions, please write to me and let me know of your interest. I will immediately give you this brother's name, email address, phone number, and the name and location of his congregation (as well as their web site address). Thanks in advance to all who may be moved by the Spirit to come to the aid of these brethren. --- Al Maxey

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Readers' Reflections

From an Author in Maine:

Dear Brother Al, I was just catching up on some reading, including your last couple of Reflections. Thanks so much for the article on the Epiphanies (Issue #490). I would love to hear more of that brother's epiphanies, and also those of other readers of your weekly studies. It is so encouraging to know of those who have gone through -- or are going through -- journeys that are quite similar to my own (and probably to many of your other readers). Also, I would love to have the address of Joe Gladwell, who's the minister at the West Michigan Church of Christ. I would like to offer to send him a copy of my book "Book, Chapter and Paragraph: Restoring Context" (for a review of this book by Royce Ogle, and information on how to order, Click Here) in hopes that it might help open even a small crack in an apparently closed mind. It seems he is characterized by "concrete thinking" -- mixed up and set. Continued blessings to you and your ministries, brother!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Bro. Al, I don't know if you will ever truly know just how much of an influence you have had, and are having, on the spread of the liberating news that exposes legalistic patternism for what it really is!! You and your weekly Reflections articles are referenced many, many times every day all over the Internet! Bro. Al, your Reflections have been a powerful help to me personally in coming out of legalism. I pray to God that your strength continues in this wonderful work!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Al, It is always good to receive and read your Reflections. Always interesting; always instructive; always challenging in one form or another. Thanks for all your hard work. I am finding more and more preachers I knew 30-40 years ago, who were brain-washed like I was, now coming out of that law-keeping, legalistic pattern-binding background, and who are now enjoying the freedom found in God's grace!! I too, like you, have remained in the Church of Christ group because, in my own small way, I hope to make a difference, and to see those who are chained in legalism break those bonds and enter into the freedom found in Christ Jesus. Once those chains are broken, one may then enjoy assurance rather than fearful doubts, joy rather than legalistic somberness, and a personal relationship with Jesus rather than a stoic pit of uncertainty.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Dear Brother Maxey, Thank you for the information concerning the song "America the Beautiful," as well as your comments relative to the condition of America in our time. I have been around since 1934, and I too Thank God for America, and am grateful whenever we have good leaders!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Brother Al, I too have had numerous questions about some of our beliefs. I just don't get it when the legalists say that "we" are the only ones who are going to be saved!! So, how did we get so lucky to be born into a Church of Christ family?! Suppose I had been born to Baptists?!!! At the congregation where I attend, you don't dare do anything different to rock the boat. I lead singing there, and one Sunday I led some songs from my seat before we "officially" started the "worship service." The minute the service was over I was rebuked, and informed that I must lead songs standing up and in front of the congregation. Leading from my seat was unscriptural. Go figure! I get so discouraged with all of this!! I have been a member of the Church of Christ since I was eleven. I am now sixty. It saddens me that it has taken me this long to begin to wonder, "What is wrong with this picture?"!!

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