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Summary: Philippians - Manual of Joy Beware of Legalism

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Philippians - Manual of Joy

Beware of Legalism

3:1-8

David Taylor

Legalism is deadly and it is dangerous. It brings about spiritual bondage and frustration in the Christian life, it hampers the inner transformation of heart; and it robs us of joy and intimacy with Christ. It is a tool of the devil to trap people in spiritual death and cause followers of Christ to live in unbelief. The human heart is prone to legalism.

Legalism is the tendency to regard as divine law things, which God has neither required nor forbidden in Scripture and the corresponding tendency to look with suspicion on others for their failure or refusal to conform to these things. Legalism in all its forms revolves around salvation and/or sanctification. That is why Paul uses such strong language here and especially in Galatians (see for instance, 1:6-10). It is also why Paul writes, ‘it is no trouble for me to write the same things and is safe for you.’

1. The Dangers of Legalism (1-2; 5-6)

Paul writes ‘look out for the dogs, look out for the evil doers, and look out for those who mutilate the flesh.’ Judaizers thought that being a follower of Christ was faith plus ‘works of the law.’ The word 'dogs' is a derogatory term because they were scavengers and preyed on weaker animals. They are evildoers because by adding works of the law to faith, they nullify the gospel of grace (Gal. 1:6-9). Last, he calls them mutilators of the flesh, a sarcastic reference to circumcision. In their attempt to get people to observe the ceremonial and ritualistic aspects of Jewish law they mutilate grace and the gospel. Paul is so harsh because to add anything to faith in Christ for salvation destroys the nature of salvation by grace alone and faith alone. To adhere to such requirements nullifies grace (Acts 15:1, Gal 5:2-4; 10-12). The root mentality in legalism is putting confidence in the flesh, which means my goodness or my ability to contribute to a right standing before God. Putting confidence in the flesh means I am good enough or can do something that inclines God toward me. This was Paul’s own mentality before Christ (v. 5-6). Christian faith is not primarily defined by rules but a relationship with God.

What are some common forms of legalism? Paul lists several in verses five and six: Putting confidence in ritual observance. Paul says he had confidence in circumcision. For us it may be going to church, to a particular event, a quiet time, or even pressuring others to do what we do. Putting confidence in ones heritage. Paul was of the people of Israel, a Hebrew of Hebrews. Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time thought they were saved just because they were of Jewish ascent. For us it may be confidence in being raised in a Christian home or a particular denomination. Putting confidence in spiritual discipline. Paul says as to the law, a Pharisee. He followed regular times of prayer, fasting, and tithing as a means of acceptance by God. The same holds true for us today, all the disciplines of the Christian life do not earn Gods favor. Putting confidence in religious activism. Paul was zealous; killing Christians thinking his activism earned him favor before God. So too with us if we believe that our activism, being involved in good things, telling others about Jesus, or involvement in ministry gains favor with God. Last, putting confidence in a comparative piety. Paul at one time saw himself blameless compared to other people. As he compared himself to others, he stood above the rest. Legalists have the tendency to compare themselves with others and think they are better or more righteous than others. Paul was so opposed to legalism because he gave his life to that way of living before he encountered Christ and looking back, he now sees that it is bankrupt. Christ shattered all his confidence in the flesh. The root of all forms of legalism, whether it revolves around salvation or sanctification is unbelief.


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