Legalism and New Believers

Consider the following:

A new person visits your church on Sunday. This person, a sinner and separated from God, accepts the free gift of grace offered through Jesus Christ. Immediately, this person who had been struggling through life has now found an unspeakable joy. The Holy Spirit comforts him and guides him as he gloriously shares his faith with his unsaved friends. However, “some people” in the church don’t approve of his style of dress. You hear them say, “Doesn’t he know that you are supposed to ‘put on your best’ for God on Sundays?” Some disapprove of his friends, “Now, he’s bringing those people to our church.” And others disapprove of his lifestyle, “I can’t believe that he says he’s a Christian yet drives up in his car while smoking a cigarette.” Eventually, this new believer hears those comments and feels hurt as he is forced to reconcile how people who just a short time earlier had rejoiced in his salvation are now complaining about his fellowship. Confused and deeply hurt, this new believer leaves the church that had become his family.

Does this sound familiar? I know it does to me. Too many times, I have seen legalism forced down upon new believers, only to cause them to fall away from fellowship in the local church. In most cases, the accusers have simply forgotten that we, the church, are brought together by grace, not by adherence to the law.

Such an occurrence is not a new one. Rather, the first church in Jerusalem dealt with the exact same problem. “Some people” wanted to impose additional, legalistic requirements on new Gentile believers entering the church. In Acts 15, Luke describes how a council convened at Jerusalem to discuss what should be required of new believers. Ultimately, it was through Peter’s testimony and James’ exhortation that led the council to remove many of the legalistic requirements sought by “some believers.” (Although the council did agree that there were a few behaviors that believers should avoid out of their devotion to Christ.) Peter said, “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:8-11 ESV)

As people come to Christ, let us encourage them in faith and help them to grow in the grace of the Lord Jesus. While we do want to admonish believers to reject sin, we should avoid the pitfall of legalism. In seeking to disciple new believers, we should seek to avoid placing requirements upon their lives that are not grounded in Scriptural truth. While we seek to “walk in the light as he is in the light,” we must remember that it is not our actions that ultimately save us – For it by grace that we have been saved through faith.

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