An evangelical tweet, made today, quotes one Sinclair Ferguson who declares that “When we consider legalism, we are considering the ultimate pastoral problem of all.”
Indeed, for Protestants who still can’t let go of Luther’s stripped-down faith-only doctrine, nothing is worse than obedience required for salvation, which makes it legalism in their eyes, for to them, any doing in relation to salvation is legalism.
This is why Christians who follow the New Testament faithfully have nothing in common with Protestants.
A better line of thinking would point folks to Jesus’ words in Mt 7.21. The emphasis of Scripture is doing the will of God. We will be judged by what we do in this life. That’s a simple statement, easy to understand, and a truth found everywhere in Scripture.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,
so that each one may be paid back
according to what he has done while in the body,
whether good or evil.
2 Corinthians 5.10 NET
- Paul refers to the final judgment, when people will be sent to heaven or to hell. He speaks here of our final, eternal destiny. This is not a temporary, earthly judgment. (Protestants sometimes try to distinguish between an earthly salvation based on deeds, and eternal salvation based on faith. But see Heb 5.9.) By judgment seat Paul means there will be a future time and place of reckoning.
- Each one will be paid back or assigned a destiny. This recompense is made based on earlier choices. We will not change or choose our destiny on that day. It will already have been decided. On this day, we will receive sentencing or reward.
- The payback comes according to what has been done, our deeds, our actions. Eternal judgment is tied not to belief only, but to action. The Greek verb is prasso, which has “to do with acts and accomplishments. It is seldom found in the NT and never relates to a divine activity” (L.O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, 637). Perhaps the verb is used here rather than the noun to emphasize the doing of our human action. When Paul mentions the body, he sees it as the locus of man’s action in this life. (See Rom 9.11.)
- Evangelicals try to play down this truth by saying that in Romans 2, a similar statement is made (quoted from the Old Testament) to establish the condemnation of the Jews. The context there is correct, but it does not diminish the truth of eternal glory for righteous deeds. Here, Jim Sheerer notes that “In context, Paul is speaking primarily of the Christian at the judgment” (NT Commentary, 767). Both sides of the equation are true, “whether good or evil“!
- The mention of good or evil emphasizes that (a) God is the definer, in his person, and the revealer, in Christ, through the Spirit, of what is good or evil, (b) good and evil exist, there is a clear distinction between the two, and man can know the difference between good and evil, and (c) his acts are characterized as one or the other. This is one reason why we need to pick up the Bible, to know between the two, and find power for transformation and strength to reach that day of judgment.
Salvation comes from the grace of God in Christ. It is received by faith. This faith is not only a mental belief or a simple one-time prayer, but includes faithfulness (in Greek, it’s the same word). Doing the will of God is a condition of entry into his eternal kingdom. Simple as that.