Just Announced: Philippians Sermon Series

Summary: Reasons why legalism must be resisted.

A Study of the Book of Acts

Sermon # 22

"Legalism Rears Its Ugly Head"

Acts 15:1-23

Tonight I want to speak to you on the very touchy subject of legalism. I thought, Oh well I spoke on money this morning I might as well make a day of it and speak on legalism tonight.

"One of the most serious problems facing the orthodox Christian church today is the problem of legalism. One of the most serious problems facing the church in Paul’s day was the problem of legalism. In every day it is the same. Legalism wrenches the joy of the Lord from the Christian believer, and with the joy of the Lord goes his power for vital worship and vibrant service. Nothing is left but cramped, somber, dull, and listless profession. The truth is betrayed, and the glorious name of the Lord becomes a synonym for a gloomy kill-joy. The Christian under the law is a miserable parody of the real thing." [S. Lewis Johnson, "The Paralysis of Legalism" as quoted by Charles Swindoll. The Grace Awakening. Dallas: Word Pub., 1990) pp. 76-77]

What is Legalism? Legalism is the human attempt to gain salvation or prove our spirituality by outward conformity to a list of religious does and don¡¦ts. The sad truth is that legalism is often disguised as spirituality, obedience or maturity. It is not wrong to have personal standards and convictions in your life, it is wrong to judge another Christian¡¦s spirituality or maturity by your convictions.


"And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ¡§Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

The specific issue of circumcision has long since passed away as a concern to us; but the principle behind it is very, very present with us today. The enemy has simply changed the issues. He has substituted some different issues on the same old divisive platform. Substitute baptism, or separation issues, or speaking in tongues, or the necessity of good works for circumcision and you bring the problem right up to date. What were these legalists actually doing and why was it so dangerous? They said, "Unless you are circumcised¡you cannot be saved." They were attempting to mix law and grace. To add anything whether it is baptism or good works or whatever it may be as a requirement for salvation is to diminish grace.

Paul puts it very clearly in his letter to the church at Galatia (3:1-3). The J. B. Philips translation renders it this way, "O you dear idiots of Galatia, who saw Jesus Christ the crucified so plainly, who has been casting a spell over you? I shall ask you one simple question: Did you receive the Spirit of God by trying to keep the Law by believing the message of the Gospel? Surely you can¡¦t be so idiotic as to think that a man begins his spiritual life in the Spirit and then completes it by reverting to outward observances."

The problems that confronted the church at Antioch seem easier to understand if we keep several things in mind. First, all of these men who came down from Jerusalem were evidently sincere. I don’t know that they came down trying to make trouble; they were deeply committed to their conviction that unless a Gentile first became a Jew by circumcision then, he had no right to call himself a Christian.

Secondly, no doubt these men had scriptures to back up what they believed. Their position even seemed to be supported by the church at Jerusalem. It is no wonder that Luke says that "they stirred up,no small dissension and dispute" (v. 2).


"Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. (3) So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. (4) And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them."

When the dispute could not be settled within this local body they decided to appeal to the church at Jerusalem. It is a reasonable suggestion for several reasons. First it was where the apostles would be found, or at least some of them. Secondly, it was the church it would seems that the Judaizers had come from and since the Judaizers seem to have given the impression that they spoke for the apostles and the church at Jerusalem, who would have been better to confirm their teachings or to confront their error?

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