The Ancient Faith

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Jerry Dickinson

If someone refers to you as a legalist they are not giving you a compliment. To most people the term legalist denotes a person who excessively emphasizes the letter of the law. The legalist holds that the scriptures are to be literally interpreted and scrupulously adhered to if a man is to please God. To most people this s an improper view of the scriptures. The Lord is little concerned about literal interpretations and specific details. As long as you have the proper spirit and make an overall attempt to follow the Bible you will be all right.

Having said all the above, I now want to admit to “being a legalist. I am not a legalist in the sense that I believe a person can be saved by merely keeping the letter of the law. No, indeed! It is Jesus who saves! Only by the grace of God as revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ can we obtain salvation. But, dear reader, I do believe that salvation and a right-standing with God can only be achieved if we strictly and scrupulously obey the commandments of the Lord. I admit it – I am a legalist.

Is not a legalist one who believes in following the legal and lawful requirements of the Lord? Can we please the Lord illegally? Can I win a crown of life without running the spiritual race lawfully? Listen to Paul in I1 Timothy 2:5. “And if a man also strive for masteries, yet he is not crowned, except he strive lawfully.” No one, avers Paul, is crowned the winner of an athletic event except he strives and works for that crown legally, i.e., according to the rules. So it is in striving for a crown of life in heaven. We will only be crowned up there if we strive and work in harmony with God’s law down here.

In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus tell about some who will argue at the judgment that they did many wonderful works in the name of Jesus, only to hear Jesus reply, “Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity.” The word “iniquity” here is translated from the Greek word “anomia” Which literally means “to disregard the law”. What sin had these people in Matthew 7 committed? They had worked hard for the Lord. Where did they miss the mark? Their iniquity, dear reader, was in ignoring God’s Word. It is a dangerous and precarious thing to try to serve the Lord illegally. It is folly to think you can please God, and at the same time disregard and ignore His commands.

Jesus said, “Not everyone that saith unto me Lord, Lord shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21 ) Was Jesus a legalist because he used the word “doeth”? Can we be too strict in “doing” the will of God? Can a person ignore what the Bible says about baptism for the remission of sins or observing the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day and still somehow please the Lord?

It is more than a little interesting that those who stand for a “thus saith the Lord” in all religious matters, and earnestly contend for the faith precisely as it has been transmitted to us through the written word have always been deprecated by name calling. A generation ago we were called Campbellites. More recently some have labeled us Pharisees, but today the pejorative tern1 “legalist” is most often used to excite prejudice and fear in those who would investigate the churches of Christ. No one wants to be called a legalist! Nevertheless, if we are being called legalists because we believe and preach (as Jesus declared) that only those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven, then so be it. If I am a legalist because I teach people to be strict in obeying God’s word I am in good company. Paul must have been a legalist too because he told brethren to “keep the ordinances, as I have delivered them to you (I Corinthians 11:2), walk according to the “commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus” (I Thessalonians 4: 1,2), and “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do” (Philippians 4:9). If using words like keep, walk, and do make a person a legalist then Paul was a legalist, and I may as well admit that I am too.

I admit it – I am a legalist. If a legalist is someone who believes in a literal and strict interpretation of the scriptures then I am one. If a legalist maintains that people must carefully and even scrupulously follow the scriptures then I am indeed one of them. I see no reason to deny it. After all, it is precisely what Jesus taught. And, if Jesus was a legalist, then I want to be one too!

(OPA February 1995)

 Recommended articles:

Introducing the Church of Christ – Ronny Wade

God’s Sevenfold Unity – Jerry Cutter

Repentance – J. W. McGarvey


The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”