To some, “legalism” is nearly a four-letter word. We don’t like rigid rules and regulations. We chafe at being told what to do. 

And when we read the gospels, we see the Pharisees as the bad guys, the narrow-minded legalists who argue incessantly with Jesus about things like ritual purity and working on the Sabbath. Jesus, in turn, regularly accuses them of hypocrisy. You’re so picky and punctilious about external righteousness — but inside, you’re a mess.

Score one for the freedom fighters, right?

Not so fast.

Cover to cover, the Bible witnesses to both the righteousness of God’s law and our inability to keep it. Jesus didn’t come to set aside the law, but to fulfill its every last requirement (Matt 5:17). If the Pharisees stood condemned, it was not for their love of God’s law (see Psalm 119) but for the self-serving and unloving ways they pursued their legalistic brand of righteousness.

Then too, there were Pharisees or even members of the Sanhedrin who came to follow Jesus: Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Saul of Tarsus. It was possible, in other words, to love the law and love Jesus.

It’s worth remembering this as we come to Acts 15 and the story of the Jerusalem council, lest we see the controversy as being motivated solely by jealousy, ethnic prejudice, or narrow legalism. All of these may be true to some degree, but they are not the whole truth.

Luke tells us that certain unnamed people came to the church in Antioch from Judea, trying to convince the Gentile converts that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1, NRSV). Later, in Jerusalem, some of the believers, who were Pharisees, raised a similar objection: “It is necessary for them (i.e., Gentile converts) to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses” (vs. 5).

The people in this latter group of objectors, remember, are believers, raising what was probably a matter of conscience. With a little imagination, we can empathize with their plight.

A devout Jew who acknowledged Jesus as Messiah did not thereby suddenly believe that (1) he was a “Christian” and not a Jew, (2) the law of Moses had been set aside, or (3) Gentiles could be saved just by believing. Indeed, there were already requirements set for any Gentile who wanted become a Jew — and these included circumcision, which had always been a central mark of membership in the people of God. (It should also be said that many Gentiles would have objected to circumcision on religious/philosophical grounds, not just because the procedure would have been…um, painful.)

Thus, it would have been difficult for them to wrap their minds around becoming one family of believers under God with uncircumcised Gentiles. Aren’t we, as Jews, supposed to remain pure, in order to demonstrate our allegiance to God? Isn’t obedience to the law an intrinsic part of that? Aren’t these Gentiles coming from pagan contexts with detestable practices? What kind of chaos would we be inviting if they weren’t required to obey the law, especially if we set aside circumcision, the most fundamental requirement of all? 

Imagine some of these objectors finding out about the struggles Paul would later have with Gentile believers like those in Corinth: their sexual immorality, their refusal to stop going to pagan temples, and so on. Can you hear it? I told you so

That said, it’s one thing for the believing Pharisees in Jerusalem to say that Gentiles should keep the law of Moses; it’s another for some faction of the church to tell the converts in Antioch that they can’t be saved without following the law. That’s taking things too far. It’s no wonder that “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2) — a polite way of describing (in Greek) what may have been a shouting match.

If what I said in the previous post was correct, then Peter was in Antioch when this happened, and the legalists were seen as representing the Jerusalem church and James (Gal 2:11-12). Peter had been freely eating with the Gentile converts until that pressure group arrived. He caved and withdrew from fellowship with the Antiochenes.

In response, Paul popped a theological cork, probably because he, the zealous Pharisee turned zealous apostle of grace, saw the issues more clearly than anyone. Salvation must be by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by any act of legalistic righteousness — not even circumcision. 

I suspect that Americans, with our love of individual liberty, may have an allergic reaction to any hint of legalism and are too quick to denounce the Pharisees.

True, their emphasis on obedience to the law could be distorted in arrogant ways. True, their legalistic tendencies made it harder to grasp a gospel of radical grace.

But we can also err in the opposite direction: we may celebrate grace and freedom in a way that fails to grasp the importance of a righteous life, of living as people who have the law written on our hearts (Rom 2:15).

So let’s not be too hasty with judgments of legalism. Instead, let’s celebrate grace as those who know with all honesty and humility how much and how constantly we need it.