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Legalism and the Dangers of a Distorted Gospel

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A Distorted Gospel?

Jesus often confronted the hypocrisy and legalism prevalent in His day. On one occasion, speaking against the Jewish scribes and Pharisees, He said, “They preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:3–4). Professing to know God, their extrabiblical demands revealed that they were in fact far from Him.

Our Lord has compassion on the men and women burdened by religious legalism, inviting them to find rest in His grace (Matt. 11:28–30). True religion, He taught, isn’t externalism; it’s a matter of inward renewal by God’s Spirit in God’s people. 

Two millennia later, this pattern of legalism, or adding certain requirements to the Gospel, has not gone away. Writing to a first-century pastor, Paul spoke with certainty concerning the inevitable fall of some who once professed Christ. These individuals would “depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1), forbidding what God permits and requiring what God does not.  In a word, they would commit apostasy. And so it is that the exhortation Paul offers in 1 Timothy 4:1–5 continues to help Christians today—for every generation must contend for the simple Gospel of grace over and against those who wish to distort it.

True religion isn’t externalism; it’s a matter of inward renewal by God’s Spirit in God’s people.

The Spirit’s Warning

Paul begins by reminding his readers of the fact of spiritual apostasy: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1). Paul refers here to the Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity. And because the Spirit is God, He speaks with both authority and certainty concerning the coming apostasy.

Importantly, the Spirit’s speaking is in the present tense: “The Spirit expressly says…” His warning in the first century applies no less today. As the old hymn states, “What more can He say than to you He hath said?”1 We can’t read a verse like 1 Timothy 4:1 and brush it aside, thinking, “That’s a warning for old days or later times, not for today.” No, having said it, He says it still. The authority by which God’s Spirit speaks is a constantly present authority.

We would do well to recognize that the threat of apostasy is always personal. The author of Hebrews puts it forcefully: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (3:12).

Legalism is forbidding what God permits and requiring what God does not.

The drift toward apostasy is often subtle for those who eventually prove their professions of faith to be false. It begins with a disinterest in the things of Scripture or a cooling of our affections for the Lord. It’s possible for men and women to sing hymns, hear preaching, and partake in the Lord’s Supper, all with an unbelieving heart. For such people, their Christian experience is nothing but a painstaking, external ritualism. That was the case for some in Timothy’s congregation: having departed from the faith, they went on to embrace a ritualistic, Gospel-less religion.

The Teachers’ Character

The apostle describes the character of those who departed from the faith in verse 2. While the ultimate source of this distorted message is “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (v. 1), it takes root in a church through people: those who profess religious truths and claim Christ with an unbelieving heart. We must be on our guard, because these professors won’t infiltrate our assemblies with horns and pitchforks. They’ll creep in unnoticed, aiming to deceive (Jude 4; Matt. 24:24). It’s a scary thought, were it not for the fact that our times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15), and He has said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).

Paul reserves scathing condemnation for these false teachers. He calls them insincere “liars whose consciences are seared” (v. 2). Like the religious leaders whom Jesus rebuked in Matthew 23, these people were marked by hypocrisy. They said one thing and did another. Filled with hypocrisy, their consciences then grew calloused. They lost all moral sensitivity (Eph. 4:19). Some translations even suggest that these teachers’ consciences were not just seared but actually stamped, as with a hot iron. That is, they had been branded—stamped with the seal of Satan himself.

Compounding the deception, some men and women who fit the characteristics described in verse 2 may in fact be kind people—easy to get along with and likable. Indeed, many of Satan’s agents come as wolves in sheep’s clothing and veiled as angels of light  (Matt. 7:15; 2 Cor. 11:14). But when it comes to matters in which the very Gospel is at stake, it’s not ultimately about a person’s niceness. If we are to guard against Gospel distortions, it comes down to one question: Are those who instruct us doing so according to biblical truth or manmade lies and inventions? We must hold fast to the former and refute the latter (Titus 1:9 ).

If the character of these false teachers’ lives was marked by religious hypocrisy, then the content of their message bore the marks of legalism. They were prepared to invent extrabiblical restrictions, forbidding marriage and certain foods (1 Tim. 4:3). What underpinned this thinking is the same for every form of legalism, even today: the idea that by abstaining from outward things, one might obtain a higher spiritual status.

Satan’s agents come as wolves in sheep’s clothing and veiled as angels of light.

It’s no wonder that many view Christianity as burdensome. They haven’t truly experienced God’s grace, subscribing rather to various kinds of external devotion. Until we come to acknowledge that we’re sinners, asking God to come and fill us with His Spirit and incline our hearts toward obedience, we will never know true Christian grace. We’ll remain burdened under extrabiblical externalities, restless until we heed Christ’s call to find rest in Him.

The Christians’ Remedy

It’s one thing to detect a distorted Gospel—but how should we respond when we do? The New Testament answers are rich and varied, calling for the wise application of biblical truth to each instance (e.g., Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5:13; Titus 3:10–11 ). In the matter facing Timothy’s church fellowship, Paul offers the following principle:

God created [marriage and food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim. 4:3–5)

The apostle’s logic makes sense. If unbelieving men and women can enjoy marriage and food—things God created—how much more should God’s children be able to enjoy these things! In other words, when we live in the enjoyment of what God has provided in creation for us, in the times and manners that He has ordained, then we may enjoy it in full. That’s what Paul means when he speaks of these things being “made holy” by our prayers. When viewed through the lens of Scripture and with a prayerful disposition, we see creation in its proper perspective. Only then can we enjoy what God has given as unto the Lord.

For those who wish to distort the Gospel through legalistic regulations and restrictions, we can boldly respond with Paul that God created food, marriage, possessions, and entertainment for our good and His glory. We say no not to God’s good gifts but to those who try to undermine their right use and higher purpose: to turn us in gratitude toward the Giver Himself.

It’s a tremendous thing to know liberty in Christ, being freed from legalism’s tyranny. Praise be to God that He provides this newfound freedom for us! Therefore, of all people, we Christians ought to be those who can show others the beauty, wonder, and enjoyment of life in God’s world.  

This article was adapted from the sermon “The Approaching Apostasy” by Alistair Begg.

“How Firm a Foundation” (1787). ↩︎

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