Shouldn’t We Be Harsh on Legalism?

By Fred Pruitt

My dear brother,

Of course you don’t have to pay me any attention. I know you know this but I want you to know I know it, too!  When I might point out something to you, from my perspective you are perfectly free to take it or ignore it. Inside yourself where the Lord and you are one is where you find your final answers for yourself, so I am only along as a helper from time to time. You help me as much as I help you, anyway!

Now, you did ask me a direct question when I encouraged you to approach the question of the “evil” of legalism with compassion. In your question you pointed out that Paul had been harsh with the legalists, and you point-blank asked me why? I sensed you were asking me in so many words, “If Paul was harsh on the legalists, shouldn’t we be as well?”

So if you don’t mind I’ll explore that a little bit with you.

First of all, honesty would demand that I say at bottom I can’t really say with certainty “why” Paul reacted the way that he did toward what people these days call the Judaizers. I think it is safe to say, again without certainty but perhaps as an educated “guess,” that Paul was laying the foundation for the Church that would come after him and would exist until the final consummation of all things. As a foundation layer, whose mission is different from ours, he had to make solid certain things as the basis for the fledgling Christian movement which would evolve later into what we have today and has existed for 20 centuries.

At that critical time, it was absolutely vital that he “defeat” those who would simply have the message of Christ watered down into an extension of Judaism, making it really no more than a Jewish sect. The Church was moving out of Judaism and into the Graeco-Roman world of that era. The “circumcision party” from Jerusalem, who apparently followed Paul around and tried to thwart him at every turn, simply wanted to make it a matter of turning everyone into law-keeping Gentiles converted into Jews through first of all circumcision (ouch!), and then obligatory obedience to the Law of Moses through its rites, ceremonies and separated priesthood who stood between the people and God. We can see a glitch right there, especially in the last part, for as we have learned, we are to be a kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood, and Christ Himself is now our only High Priest, there having been a change in the priesthood from Levi to Judah, as Hebrews points out, so that we might all have direct access into God. Paul has even pointed out in other places how we are in Christ “seated in the heavenlies” at God’s right hand ourselves, and need no more mediating priesthood to stand between us and God.

So much more was at stake than just “obeying or not obeying written laws” or some such, as so many of the grace folks seem to think. It is far more than that. One can actually be a Spirit led person and obey all sorts of laws and rules. We do it every day in the natural things of life, and there is nothing inherently wrong or evil in that, even in our spiritual life. We are free to have a “discipline,” though we are truly free when we know we need no “discipline” except the Spirit’s life in us, but it may very well by His leading involve routine or habit or certain things we do, such as church services, etc.

Many “old testament saints” lived by the law, but they lived it according to the Spirit, whether consciously or unconsciously. Joseph, Jesus’ supposed father, was a law-keeping man as well as Mary his mother, but Joseph was also called in scripture a “just man,” who, when he thought Mary had committed fornication, did not act to keep the law by putting her to public scorn and probable stoning, but “was minded to put her away privately.” Jesus Himself was a good law-abiding Jew, and when He did in His ministry break the law, He didn’t do it just to break the law, but to bring out the greater true meaning of the Law, that “the sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and, “Go ye and learn what this meaneth — I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” He performed healings so often on the Sabbath to point out that our work is out of the sabbath rest within us.

So living by certain regulations or commandments or not is not really the issue. Because as we have all known and said over and over, it ISN”T ABOUT THE DOING! When we say that, especially in our grace/union infancy, many of us think that means now that we know union or grace, we DON’T do, but that is not the case. I call that the “we don’t have to _____” stage. Or the “Now we are free to _____” stage. Such as, “Now we don’t have to go to church — we don’t have to pray, read our Bibles, etc.” Or “now we can say bad words, now we can drink, now we can watch whatever we want on TV.” And people for a time rejoice in the “we don’t have to” or the “now we can” stage of life. But we move past that because that is not the true freedom of the Spirit we are aiming for.

The issue for Paul that he HAD to establish and keep pure was the issue of living in the Spirit, and not according to the flesh. Legalism isn’t wrong because it involves obeying codes or following guidelines; it is wrong because it establishes self-righteousness instead of the righteousness of God.

So let’s skip to our time now. We are faced with something different from what Paul faced. One of the things that people do with scripture, even in Paul’s day, is that they think they are doing the right things if they emulate the behaviors of the Bible characters. Imitate Jesus’ actions or imitate Paul’s actions. Of course we know the story of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts, who attempted to cast out a demon, “in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches.” And we know their result — the demon attacked them and sent them running!

Why? We could probably cite a host of reasons. The most obvious is they didn’t have the “stuff” Paul had, i.e. the power of the Holy Spirit for one thing, the authority of Christ for another, and maybe just as important, the unction or leading of the Spirit in that precise moment to do it. Another thing that is obvious is that it wasn’t THEIR Jesus by whom they were casting out the demon, but the “Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Want to act like Paul, and do the works of Paul? Many would raise their hands and say yes. I meet them all the time. Everybody would love to perform miracles! John and James basically asked the same of Jesus in asking to sit at his right and left hand, and He said to them, “Are you able to take the baptism I am baptized with?”

Jesus wasn’t speaking to them of the baptism of the Holy Spirit with power from on high that would come on the day of Pentecost — but the baptism of the Cross! And He was also talking further, part of the Cross, was to do what He did inwardly, how He emptied Himself of His Divinity — or in our case our aspirations or false consciousness of self-divinity — and submit as did Paul to suffer the loss of all things, including reputation, goods, properties, friendships, family — everything we have and are to the altar to be burned into nothingness! Not so many raise their hands at that. What glory to preach to thousands, what excitement to speak and have demons flee, what electricity would flow if our hands could touch and cause the lame to walk and the blind to see — but not so glorious to be cast away in a shipwreck, or be stoned or lashed with a cat-o-nine-tails, or to be thought of as filth or the offscouring of the world. Yet that is the reward of the faithful servant of Christ in this life! Who is willing for that?

If we would be harsh with anyone, let us be sure we have the juice to do it. Let us be sure it is by the Spirit we are moved. So Paul had his reasons and his unction from the Spirit for his severity to the circumcision party, but let us understand not only his acts but also where he was coming from, what motivated him and why he was doing it. And let us also be sure of the recipients of our ire as well.

Most of those these days who are preaching a partial legalistic message are not doing it out of self-glory or false pretenses as were those brethren Paul attacked in his day. Most are preaching it out of ignorance but in that ignorance walking in faith. In fact, most of those who we call “legalists” these days, would bristle at being called legalistic. They are not aware they are legalists – which is one of the main differences between those Judaizers from the past, and the legalists of the present. Those former “legalists” in Paul’s day, would say with pride they were legalists. They went around promoting obedience to the law. However, in our time, many churches and groups are like the Galatians, having received the Spirit in faith, and thereafter trying to mature by self-effort. And God imputes no iniquity for that, since it is often a necessary part of our coming to right consciousness  —  i.e., Christ formed in us. In the beginning of my walk, like almost everyone else, I thought I had to order my life correctly, and believing it was of God to do so. Yet I know I knew the Lord in grace even then, living by faith, though I was attempting to obtain God’s favor by my own efforts. The Spirit disabused me of that notion in the fullness of time.

So let us know the difference. There is a time to be gentle and a time to be harsh, and let us know the difference. The message is not what makes the difference but what makes the difference is the person walking in or preaching the message of ignorant partial legalism. Many of the past spiritual giants who we revere from previous days were somewhat legalistic, but even in their partial legalism were led of the Spirit and walked in faith  — many did great exploits. In these cases we can see how God honors faith much more than knowledge. Many over the centuries have known the hidden truth of Gal 2:20 and have walked in it according to the light they were given — which is all any of us are responsible for — but most didn’t know the full freedom and deliverance from the law that we know. One from the past century that comes to mind in the moment is A. B. Simpson. If you read his stuff “Christ in you” and Gal 2:20 are the central driving truths — but he still puts it on “you” to perform it or make it happen. He didn’t catch this last little bit that God has graciously shown us in this generation through Norman and others — the “lie of independent self” which is the final rock-bottom core of the lie. And that is something THE SPIRIT has done, and other generations were not made responsible for it. “To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin.”

So it seems to me that I am mainly called to gentleness, as Paul told Timothy in 2 Tim 2:24, to persuade, to lead and not browbeat, to uplift rather than be critical, to point out truth more than error. Oh, there are times for the other, and there will be times we must let the wrath (of God) burst into flames in us. If God does it, so be it. But in general, we seek the gentle light of the Spirit, that bathes people in warmth and love.

Let Paul be Paul. And  I’ll be Fred, and you be you. I trust the Lord in all.

Much love always,


PS — What is somewhat funny about this, is that in the past I have been one of the “harshest” of our crowd. Back in the 80s you wouldn’t have wanted to get one of “Fred’s letters.” I was fierce! I would cut you down in an instant! My partner and I joked that God was sending us around to “take names and kick butts.” John Bunting and I were enemies in those days. We almost had a fistfight at a conference in California, because I was so “harsh.” (Actually, I wouldn’t have hit John — can you imagine? But I had driven him to the point that he was ready to haul off and slug me! Thank God the Spirit stayed John’s hand, or I might not be here today!) So, I know what I am talking about. The Lord took me off to be by myself for a few years and broke me good. A wild bronco for the Lord I was — now I trust a seasoned steed to bear Him in whatever gait he needs and directs, a walk, a canter, a trot, or a full-bore life or death gallop toward a coming enemy!

9 thoughts on “Shouldn’t We Be Harsh on Legalism?

  1. Brother–thanks for the loving post. Would you expand a bit more on this part, please?

    “To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin.” Were you referencing the saints of old who didn’t know the good fact that the Spirit had already gotten rid of the independent self?

    That basic

    • Yes, Paul, that’s it. I am meaning many from recent past generations, as well probably as many who are living today. In my immature days I talked about receiving Christ by faith, but was wholly engrossed myself in walking by self-effort, though I had NO CLUE that was what I was doing. The Lord was still with me, talking to me, energizing me, far beyond my knowledge or level of understanding — which is pretty much all the time. On things such as these, we only become responsible when the Spirit reveals it. Until then, we continue in our ignorance and there is no imputation of sin.

  2. Thanks Fred! I think i have been waiting to read this all along! especially when you state this…

    “…I call that the “we don’t have to _____” stage. Or the “Now we are free to _____” stage. Such as, “Now we don’t have to go to church — we don’t have to pray, read our Bibles, etc.” Or “now we can say bad words, now we can drink, now we can watch whatever we want on TV.” And people for a time rejoice in the “we don’t have to” or the “now we can” stage of life. But we move past that because that is not the true freedom of the Spirit we are aiming for…”

    That paragraph right there has put a lot of things into perspective. i believe that is what God has called us to, or is calling us into, to move past that stage into the true freedom of the Holy Spirit. Free in prayer and worship and just being.


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