Being Legalistic About Not Being Legalistic
Being Legalistic About Not Being Legalistic
by Lonnie Lane
Freedom in the Lord and His peace is the yardstick by which we must measure what we believe He is saying to us. Even when He asks something hard of us, there is still peace with Him and that’s the bottom line. Yet we may have peace regarding something about which someone else has no peace. As Believers in Yeshua we are at peace with God, “We have peace with God through faith” (Rom 5:1), but we may have our peace disturbed over other issues regarding how we each walk out our faith in God. We don’t all share the same revelations or callings or giftings, which lead us to see things differently. Sometimes these issues can become divisive if we allow them to take precedent over our unity in God. As I have quoted elsewhere, a wise man of God once told me as we were discussing the wars that have been fought over church doctrine, “There is no issue worth taking issue over other than the Lord Himself.”
“I couldn’t agree more that we should flee from whatever would rob us of our freedom in Yeshua.“
When the early English missionaries went to Africa or India, they considered that their converts had to dress like Englishmen in order to be considered really converted to Christianity. As if the first Hebrew disciples or even Yeshua Himself dressed like Englishmen! We may believe that our culture is the culture God prefers because we’re familiar with it. It’s ours. But don’t dare let anything Hebrew or Jewish emerge, even though that is the culture of the Old and New Testaments, or there’s likely to be someone crying, “Legalism!” At least that’s how it has been for, oh, about 1900 years, give or take until recently as God began to resurrect the “one new man” (Eph 2:14-15). The “culture” of Israel was defined by God Himself. It didn’t evolve sociologically. It was pretty much defined by God from Sinai forward. So while every other culture may find their unique expression in the Lord, when anyone gets to looking too Jewish, people get nervous. (Do you think the devil could be behind that because there’s something he fears about Believers getting ahold of something that would threaten him?) There are those who really fear legalism when folks start to talk about observing what is found in the Torah in particular. They fear being put “under the law.” What they are saying is they feel their freedom in Yeshua is being threatened. I couldn’t agree more that we should flee from whatever would rob us of our freedom in Yeshua. But are the fears of legalism about Torah Biblically justifiable as many have thought?
David Stern in the Foreword of his Complete Jewish Bible, as a Greek scholar, points out that Paul’s terms of “works of the law” and “under the law” each used ten times in the New Covenant were meant to convey respectively, “legalistic observance of Torah commands” and “in subjection to the system which results from perverting the Torah into legalism.” In other words, it’s not Torah itself that was to be avoided, but the distortion of it that led to legalistic requirements by men who exceeded what was written by Moses. But because there was no Greek word for legalism, the reader infers that observing Torah is bad and should be avoided. But Yeshua didn’t avoid it. He fulfilled it. That means He lived it out to the “max” in all its fullness. In fact, it is those words (Torah) that He embodied in the statement, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Yeshua Himself, when speaking with the men on the road to Emmaus, spoke extensively with them, and “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures…that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:27, 44). I’m sure it’s not new to any of His followers that He is the fulfillment of all that was written. But what may be new is that He would have us live even today by the SPIRIT OF TORAH which is all about love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might….You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (Deut 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). All the rest of Torah is specifics on those two statements.
I believe that God has begun to restore to His people Torah as Yeshua lived it. And evidently as His disciples lived it out in the first century before too many Gentiles entered the church without understanding of the real value and meaning of Yeshua AS Torah, in love and by grace. The beauty of the “one new man” that is emerging today is that it is God’s doing. He is moving us toward preparation as the Bride of Messiah when she will no longer be spotted with remnants of paganism or humanism, nor will she bare any wrinkles of distorted understanding of God’s holy ways, “that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5: 27). She will be a bride wholly in love with her Bridegroom, with no distractions or compromises, with eyes only for Him. She will be suitable for Him in every way, valuing what He values, thinking as He does, loving what He loves and hating what He hates (sin, discord, lies, dishonor of one another, etc.) She too, then, will be the embodiment of God’s ways and since it was Torah that Yeshua embodied, so will she.
I believe with all my heart that this restoration and preparation of His bride includes the understanding of Yeshua as the full revelation of God’s love that is in the Torah and subsequently in the prophets and other writings. We
“The beauty of the ‘one new man’ that is emerging today is that it is God’s doing.”
can only really begin to grasp that love by seeing how Yeshua lived a totally Torah-compliant life, the same life He wants for us to live “in Him.” Now, some may still fear that this Torah-talk might lead us into legalism. To restate it, Yeshua certainly wasn’t in any kind of legalism, was He? Legalism comes out of fear of not being accepted or acceptable. There was surely none of that in Yeshua who knew who He was! Nor does it appear His first disciples were in any legalism, because they were assured of who they were “in Him.” We who are truly His have an adventure ahead of us, because before He returns we too will have that full assurance of who we are “in Him,” all of us. It’s a Kingdom thing.
We are aware that God is restoring the Jewish roots of our faith today. But what He’s really restoring is the primacy of the Kingdom of God. Somehow the message of the Kingdom of God became greatly distorted in religio-politics early on and even after the Reformation, the Kingdom message as Yeshua preached it was still only background material and we remained the focus, not God. A French scholar by the name of Alfred Loisy once said, “What Jesus preached was the Kingdom of God, what happened was the church.” The Kingdom is “of God” and we are included by His grace; the church appears to be more about us and what He can do for us. I wonder, on the whole, do we ask Him for more than we thank Him for?
Israel as a nation under God was a type and shadow of the Kingdom. It was to be a nation of priests who would live holy lives before God with an awareness of His goodness toward them, His provision, and His protection. It was to be based on a love relationship between Israel and God: “You shall love the Lord your God!” There is so much more in Torah than just ‘law.’ It is through Israel the world would know He even existed. The Book of Genesis tells the story of humankind so the world could know that God was the Creator of all there is, and so the world could understand the concept of sin and how the world became corrupt and the reason for suffering. It unfolds the unparalleled story of God’s interactions with man, of how He knows the hearts and minds of all men, and how God works in families and societies, that there are standards of godliness and consequences of not following His ways and blessings for doing so. Through Israel the world would know that God makes prophetic promises and that He keeps them because He is all knowing, all powerful, and absolutely faithful to His Word.
Through the revelation that God gave through Moses, Israel and ultimately the world, could understand how to live with one another in ways that are just and good and that promote the well-being of the community and all persons within it, to the exclusion of no one. Over and over God tells Israel, “Be careful to listen to all these words which I command you, so that it may be well with you and your sons after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God that it will go well with you” (Deut 12:28). He told Joshua, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Josh 1:8). These weren’t some arbitrary legalistic requirements. They were given by God for our wellbeing. They are of divine wisdom. The Hebrew for “have success” is also “act wisely.” Wisdom is inherent in Torah. If you spend time in it, you will be wiser than if you didn’t for you will understand how God thinks. Did you know that the body of laws that exist in the Western world, most specifically in America and England, are based on those same laws? To the extent that we depart from them, godly wisdom departs from us. Have you noticed that?
Every Kingdom has a culture. We are cultural beings. God created us to be that way. One day when every Believer who ever lived is assembled together before Him “every tongue and nation” will be represented. However, what God is restoring to the true church, is not the social or rabbinic culture of the Jews but the culture of His Torah, of the values, ethics and paradigms of LOVE that Yeshua said summed up as being all that Torah is. There has long been a lack of truth, of integrity, of uncompromised purity, and a reverence (fear) for the holiness of God in the church that was there among the first Believers and certainly in Yeshua. If you think that’s too strong a statement, ask yourself if you’re living out the Book of Acts in your life or in your church. History attests to the connection between the disregard for the Old Covenant and the impotence of the church to reflect the true Kingdom of God which should include signs, wonders, healings and miracles as well as holiness, respect and love, even for their enemies, and a consistent increase in the number of Believers. Is that our experience today? Hardly. The disregard for the Bible has now led to relegating even the New Covenant to a place where it is no longer regarded as sacred in our schools, our government or our society on the whole. Our morals reflect it. It is cause for mourning.
As a New Testament Believer I believe everything within the New Covenant is for today. But I also believe that our New Testament faith is informed by what God revealed of Himself and of His ways in the Old Covenant. Notice I said informs not dictates. There is a difference. The same day I got an email from someone extolling the goodness of God in how He is revealing Himself through the Sabbath and the Feasts which they are now observing through what they’ve learned through this ministry, I received another email from a gentleman who was impassioned enough to want to address certain concerns he has. His views are not in line with mine in numerous respects. We have, it appears, differing understanding about how Torah fits in with Christian beliefs. With respect to our brother’s concerns, and expecting that some of you might have similar questions, here are two of his questions and my responses. His are in italics; the parenthesis in his questions are mine for clarity.
“My dream is to see us on the same page here on earth that Psalm 133 sees us all on some day. (“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!”) Which was how the Lord prayed in John 17:21 (that we would be one.) So I know it is the cry of His heart as well. But this cannot happen as long as one of us insists that our unity must be based on religious law, whether Jewish or Christian. We are all righteous in Messiah now through faith and it is in Him and in Him alone that our unity can be found — apart from the law. So I do hope you will find the time to explain your position, especially if I have misunderstood it.”
I expect that what I said above makes it clear that I am not advocating or even hinting at any “religious law.” Far from it. And certainly unity in the Body is the cry of my own heart. It surprises me that what I’ve said might be interpreted as “insisting” that our unity or fellowship is based on anything that says, “have to” or “must.” Yes, of course, our unity is only found in Him. My encouragement for allowing Torah to inform our faith and walk with the Lord is not meant as any basis for inclusion in the Kingdom. But it is, as I see it, wisdom as to how to walk in unity. Torah’s prescriptions for community were what the first disciples were living out by the Spirit. It wasn’t new that they shared and that no one lacked. That’s Torah! Only now they could live it out in the power of Spirit. That’s what I’m advocating. Contrary to it being any “law” that divides, I see the courtesy, deference, respect and honor that Torah defines for family and other relationships, including within each tribe (Body) as that which could only enhance our unity, not detract from it.
That the “middle wall” was torn down means that Jews and Gentiles may both have fellowship with God and each other, but it does not mean that Torah is now obsolete. Being New Covenant Believers doesn’t change the standard of God’s requirements for values, morality or ethics. The Ten Commandments weren’t revoked when Yeshua died and rose again. There’s no release in the New Covenant that frees us from avoiding idolatry, or allows us now to use God’s name inappropriately, or that allows for disrespect to parents (“Children, obey your parents” ), or allows for murder (beginning with anger or being offended), or adultery, stealing or coveting (lusting after what others have or are). Nor is God now saying it’s okay to give false evidence against your neighbor which surely would bring disunity. Paul said, “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9). Paul obviously saw these laws as valid under the New Covenant. Torah fosters love and caring for one another. Not only is it not an instrument for alienation or disunity, it advocates for reconciliation and restoration at any turn toward disturbances in relationships.
Torah can provide to us who live by grace, pictures of what a life of godly love looks like. I dare say, the societal difficulties we are having in America today are largely due to a departure from the justice and the ethical and moral
“Torah can provide to us who live by grace, pictures of what a life of godly love looks like.“
standards that are defined in Torah. We have played fast and loose with them, which would never have been tolerated a generation or more ago. We have slidden away from the fear of God and our Judeo-Christian foundation. Maybe it’s more like pole-vaulted. What are valued today and protected, are not the Biblical precepts that were once defended but now what is increasingly protected is what God calls abominations and sin. What is now “politically correct” just may propagate dire eternal consequences. These are not just cultural issues. These are Kingdom issues! Our departure from the Ten Commandments (first) has plummeted us into moral confusion. Why when so many people call themselves “born again” according to statistics today is our country in such moral decay? Is something missing in our born-again belief system?
Let’s move on to our brother’s next question: “I’m sure you would not call yourself a legalist or a Judaizer (whether the term appears in the Bible or not) but it seems to me you are definitely encouraging Gentile believers to get into Old Covenant religious performance. That is Sabbath keeping, kosher cooking, etc. I’m not sure what all is on your list. And encouraging us not to worry about looking or feeling odd because we are now practicing our cultural heritage. That we should consider it part of our separation from the world.”
Having mentioned being “politically correct,” is it possible that based on what I have shared above could it be that the church has its own “evangelically correct” position that says that Torah is taboo and it leads to legalism? Have we built a set of precepts to protect us against such perceived legalism? Is it then possible to be legalistic about not being legalistic?
“Religious performance,” be it Old Covenant or New, is far from what I am ever advocating. Our separation from the world is never about performance but by the Spirit. I can keep an outward compliance with some “law” but if my heart isn’t really in it, then I’m one of those about whom Yeshua said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me” (Isaiah 29:13; Matt 15:8; Mark 7:6). Yeshua was quite firm about such matters: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). Paul also called some men “white washed walls,” (the “www” of His day) for similar reasons (Acts 23:3). No, I am definitely NOT “encouraging Gentile believers to get into Old Covenant religious performance,” to quote our brother’s words.
As for being “separated from the world,” Yeshua said we are not to be “of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17:14) but what He wants is not for us to be separated from the world but from worldliness. Otherwise, how would we be a light to those in darkness? But perhaps that’s a separate issue. What is to the point is that practicing any “cultural heritage” does not bring about “our separation from the world” or from worldliness.
Being separate from the world is first of all a hidden issue, one that is between me and God, in the depths of my soul. If I’m encouraging anything, it is an inner hidden union with Yeshua first and foremost. Only
“It is one’s heart that matters to God, not what is performed, professed or pretended.“
then can we be truly in unity, by His grace and through knowing His love intimately and personally. Certainly no “kosher cooking” can accomplish that! If you read through more than a few of my articles, you would know that I believe that Yeshua accomplished all that God required for righteousness and by our faith in His atoning work, we are made righteous in His sight. There is no “religious performance” that will ever account for anything to commend us to God. In fact, I’m fully in agreement with Paul when he says that to attempt to keep Torah removes us from faith and therefore, makes us “under obligation to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:3). We either believe Yeshua satisfied all of God’s requirements for righteousness or we’re in unbelief. There is no middle ground and therefore there is no “performance” that can bridge that gap. It is one’s heart that matters to God, not what is performed, professed or pretended.
I see all this as a matter of motive. If I observe something in Torah in order to gain God’s acceptance or approval, or the acceptance of those whose approval I might seek, it’s works (as opposed to faith in God) and useless. My faith would be in my performance, not in the Lord’s doing. By the same token, if I would seek to encourage others to “perform” in order to gain acceptance, it’s likewise useless and wholly un-Yeshua-like. But if I am moved to observe something in Torah out of a heart of love for God and to honor Him because He said it in the first place, then to me, it’s worship! Not everyone will agree with me, but neither am I making their agreement the basis of our unity or fellowship in the Lord. He alone is the basis of our fellowship and unity! And if I can impart to others the gift of the jealousy for His honor and a passion for His (whole) truth which He has blessed me with for His purposes, then for that too, I worship Him.
Perhaps the power and glory in “one new man,” considering that the devil seeks to divide and conquer, is that despite our differences, we refuse to allow any walls to be rebuilt but accept one another in love through Yeshua who loves us all equally and has made us one in Him. Maybe that’s what we need to be one about, being one in Yeshua despite our differences.
Reprint of this article is permitted as long as you use the following; Use by permission by Messianic Vision, www.sidroth.org, 2009.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.