THE MOVE AWAY FROM LEGALISM

Originally written 1997, this is the 2008 re-edited version.

From the Legalism of the Cults and Sects to the Grace of Christ...

Have you been influenced by Armstrongism, The Worldwide Church of God, The Philadelphia Church of God, The Living Church of God, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventism or the Mormons?

Here is a Bible 'Help' for those moving away from the influence of the sects and cults.

TWO COMMENTS ON THIS ARTICLE:

"..Thank you for your wonderful service of clarifying the Scriptures for all those who have been deceived by cults and false teachers. For my own part, I must especially thank you for your article, 'The Move Away From Legalism.' If only everybody in the cults would just take the trouble to read this article, and to read it without prejudice......" H.L. (2003).

"I know a lot of sincere but mixed-up people who really should read this article....they could benefit from your research and experience. Thank you..." G.R. (2009).

J UST what is an Adventist-type cult or sect? It is one of those groups which developed mainly (but not entirely) in the United States of the 19th century, and which sought to change the previously accepted focus of the Christian message. Established Christianity has always focused on the cross of Christ as the pivot, or fulcrum of all Christian theology, but Adventism, in its several forms, sought to change this focus away from the cross and towards later extra-biblical revelations as received by "latter-day prophets" - mainly in the 19th century. Even those within these groups are usually prepared to admit that Jesus becomes far less important within their theologies and biblical law much more prominent. We give some examples a little later. Experience shows that it can be very difficult for one saturated with this particular mind-set to make a change to more orthodox Christianity. To people from these groups, the Adventist worldview is far more exciting and exhilarating than that which is preached in more mainstream Christian churches. In fact - and lamentably - this is often correct because of the woeful influence of liberal theology upon too many of these churches. But Christianity can recover its often lost dynamic by returning to the bone-fide gospel - as taught in the New Testament - we speak of good, established, conservative evangelical theology.

But how does one make the transition from a legalistic sect to normative Christianity?


William Miller in 1841.

First of all, it is necessary to deal with the concept of legalism itself. The legalistic adventist sects, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christadelphians, and the old-style Worldwide Church of God may vary in actual doctrine, but only in peripheral areas; truthfully, they have massive areas in common. This is because they all derived from an approach established in the 19th century United States by William Miller. Of course, Miller himself drew upon earlier approaches including Jewish apocalypticism, and the work of men such as Joachim of Ffiore and Thomas Muntzer, but it would have been much harder for this new approach to have taken off in the 'Old World,' because these influences were so discredited there. European theology had been much dominated by people like Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm and, later on, Luther and Calvin; these men were indeed theological heavyweights and, generally speaking, they had been extremely solid in their biblical exegesis and interpretation. Such men sought - often accompanied by many hours of prayer - to carefully uncover the meanings of the biblical texts, whilst being very careful to avoid the practise of eisegesis (that is, reading things into the texts - or imposing one's own ideas upon the texts!) Of course, there exist some differences between such theologians but, mainly, only in comparatively peripheral areas; if one looks to the broad areas of their agreement there one will discover what may be termed, established and authentic Christian theology.

One cannot stress enough the desire of the early Americans to be free of religious control (having often suffered in the Old World because of its excesses). This led to a powerful sense of independence, with a resultant desire to re-discover Christian community and experience. Of course, much good came from this, but this also led to an atmosphere in which more idiosyncratic beliefs were tolerated, in a way in which they would never have been in the Old World. Some of the theological dangers deepened following The Revolutionary War. Nancy Pearcey has written very perceptively of this exciting time in American history, highlighting its strengths - but also the 'downside,'
'For many Americans, the meaning of the Revolution was not just that they had eliminated a king but that they had started a new world from scratch. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," Thomas Paine exulted. "A situation similar to the present has not happened since the days of Noah until now."' ('Total Truth,' Nancy Pearcey, Crossway Books, 2008 paperback edition, p 279).
Pearcey further notes:
'...the cavalier rejection of the past stripped the church of the rich resources of centuries' worth of theological reflection, Scriptural meditation, and spiritual experience. It inculcated an attitude that there was nothing to be gained from grappling with the thought of the great minds of the past - Augustine and Tertullian, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin. It was an approach doomed, almost by definition, to anti-intellectualism and theological shallowness." (p 281).

Into this fertile ground stepped people like William Miller.

When William Miller set out to re-focus Christianity away from the previously accepted focus on Christ's atoning work upon the cross and toward a new focus on the soon to be expected Second Coming with the accompanying stress on Bible prophecy, and especially the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation, he was drawing on strands which were in no way new - of themselves - but had not previously been able to prosper because of the accessability of a more biblically-grounded theology, and the respect and influence which it had enjoyed. The New World, however, was determined to be 'open' religiously and this certainly came to assist the new and exciting adventist worldview, providing an atmosphere in which it could flourish.
All the adventist-type cults and sects - as an American phenomenon - can be traced back to the ground-work of Miller surprisingly easily, and Anthony Hoekema is one of several writers who have done so. It really matters not whether we speak of Ellen G. White, Hiram Edson, Joseph Bates or Charles Taze Russell (who founded the Watchtower Society - later to be called 'Jehovah's Witnesses' in 1896) - the influences are very clear! Miller's Millerites later gave specific birth to Seventh Day Adventism. The founder of the (so-called) Worldwide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong, was also very much of this theological lineage in all of his influences, and whereas the present-day WCG now officially rejects Armstrongism, a long list of cults have come along which wholeheartedly embrace Armstrong's teachings in their full extremity including the Philadelphia Church of God, the Living Church of God, Church of the Great God, and numerous others.

Miller's approach proved to be so popular that by 1844, F.S. Mead calculates,"...there were between 50,000 and 100,000 Adventists in North America." (A Handbook of Denominations in the United States, F.S. Mead, p20).
While one may question the higher of these two figures, there is little doubt that the adventist movement - in its varying hues - proved to be very popular. This is largely because an exciting, intriguing and mysterious conspirational approach was adopted - don't folks always love a good mystery thriller?

William Miller, of course, has become quite famous for his date-setting for the time of Christ's return to this earth. When his first date (1843-1844) failed, he appeared to lose some heart, but his followers were undeterred and continued on their adventuristic path unabashed. For the most part, the calculations were based on juggling texts found in the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation. It is sometimes forgotten what a drastic affect these failed dates had on Miller's supporters; several walked away from believing in the Scriptures at all, others became committed to mental asylums and at least one is on record for taking his own life!
Adventism, however, never gave up Miller's approach of re-focusing their followers away from Christ's atonement upon the cross, to this new focus on prophecy, legalistic requirement and to all the pet theories of the founders of the particular groups. But an essential part of the approach always involved Adventism's supposed recognition of a plot in which all previous pre-Adventist Christians were really not Christians at all but were Satanic subverters! (Conveniently ignoring the countless testimonies of pre-adventist Christian lives of faith, including huge numbers of men and women who laid down their lives rather than renounce the name of Christ!)

It is known that William Miller had very little deep knowledge of the Bible, neither had he been a long-term practising Christian. He had never studied any of the original Bible languages, neither is he on record as having checked his evolving religious schema with any reputable commentaries - indeed it is known that he was only assisted by Cruden's Concordance in all of his work. Miller was 'new in the faith' and something of an outsider, yet this man eventually led thousands away from more regular and typical baptist doctrine.

All of the founding adventists followed a 'Me-only' approach in which they believed that God was revealing new truth - only to them! In short, their approach has been notable for this sublime sense of self-sufficiency. In this sense it has been easy for them, since all of these groups have taken an authoritarian approach in which the leaders are simply not challenged! This means that some of their leaders have never felt the need to defend their beliefs against more time-honoured theological perceptions. Again, we must understand that most such groups paint a picture (very much part of the adventistic approach), that they alone hold all religious truth, and that any who might challenge them are the tool of Satan!

William Miller and 'The Great Disappointment.'

In the 19th century United States one William Miller came up with some extreme and very specific interpretations of Bible prophecy which Miller insisted were "sure to come to pass." After carefully - and selectively - studying verses in the books of Daniel and Revelation, Miller predicted the very return of Christ for the Hebrew year running from March 21st, 1843, to March 21st, 1844. In so doing, Miller became the founder of a whole series of cults and sects who would come along and closely base their approach on his. Miller built up in excess of fifty thousand loyal supporters most of whom were in no doubt that Miller was genuinely a prophet sent from God to prepare His 'true elect' for the Second Coming. They started to sell up their farms and homesteads around 1842, believing Christ's return was only months away. Of course, Christ did not return in 1843-44 and this period became known in modern Christian history as 'The Great Disappointment' and a disappointment it certainly was, for thousands walked away from the Christian faith altogether, some became commited to mental asylums and at least one of Miller's supporters took his own life!
The followers of Miller later developed into the Seventh Day Adventists after Miller himself had passed from the scene. What seems surprising, however, is that his followers continued to set dates for an anticipated Parousia on several further occasions.

But Miller and the 'Millerites' were not the last; others have followed this approach with later dates being foolishly set for the Parousia (Christ's Second Coming), by several other groups including the early 'Jehovah's Witnesses' with their proposed date of 1914. Today most have at least learned not to set dates, yet Miller's unwise overall approach of putting all one's prophetic eggs into one basket (Prophetic Particularism) can still be found all over the place. I am deeply saddened that some of my brothers and sisters in Christ just do not learn. Make no mistake: the unwise use and application of Bible prophecy can lead to the shipwrecking of one's faith! (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Over the years, I have met many "prophecy specialists," - its always as though the pure message of the gospel is not exciting enough for them, they just love intrigues, conspiracies and plots; they feel that they have found those things in the Bible, and quickly fallen prey to the conspirational approach to the books of Daniel and Revelation, even though those books were understood by the first Christians in quite a different manner. Yet why do I get the feeling that if these people had not found 'conspiracies' within the Bible, they would have gone looking elsewhere for them?
And why do these people refuse to put Christ as their central focus?
Robin A. Brace.

The success of Adventism is based on the failure of many people to correctly understand the doctrine of Justification (in other words, how we are 'justified', or, 'made right with God'). It has been considered absolutely pivotal to Protestant Christianity that one should understand that Justification is by Faith Alone - this is for the very simple reason that this is exactly what the New Testament teaches! If one should doubt that, a thorough study of the heavily doctrinal books of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Hebrews should quickly dispel all doubts! We can never earn salvation - or even God's favour - by any amount of 'good works' on our part and we are wholly reliant on God's Grace. This was well understood by such early theologians as Augustine, bishop of Hippo, but, lamentably, the medieval church gradually departed from this position, descending into the 'works/righteousness' approach of ritualistic sacramentalism. This lost dynamic was fully recovered however at the time of the Protestant Reformation; now grace was restored to the position which it occupies in the writings of Paul. But unfortunately no adventist-type sect/cult can wholly go along with this Pauline position. Why? Because if one is finally justified, or, 'made right with God' by means of the message of the gospel (as traditionally presented), then why the need for Adventism with its myriad of additional teachings? The teaching within these various groups is usually that while Christ indeed died for sinners, it is not enough just to believe that, one also has to.... (and here the legalism is introduced which ultimately makes the New Testament doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone of no effect!) So we arrive back at the place of believing that we somehow have to work in order to earn God's merit (something which the New Testament rejects). The more accurate New Testament position is that upon conviction of the Holy Spirit and true repentance, works will indeed flow from us but they will not be ours but, rather, Christ's works! They will be evidence of our calling and election; in this truer New Testament understanding, we never earn anything!

Before I consider more closely what the Bible has to say about this important matter of Justification, let me point out a very quick way of seeing through adventism's flaws:

1. The apostle Paul wrote Galatians primarily to counteract the influence of judaizers who were teaching that accepting Christ's sacrifice - of itself - was insufficient to save; they believed that there also existed a requirement to hold on to facets of Old Covenant law and practise. In hotly rejecting their claims, Paul produces some of his strongest language, even saying,
"As we said before, so now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you have received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1: 9).
Again, no serious student of the Bible doubts what Paul is referring to here because it is plain, even in the English (more so in the Greek) - the problems were being caused by judaizing teachers who did indeed accept Christ, but felt that that sacrifice was ultimately insufficient to save, without the practising of Old Covenant law (Paul uses 'circumcision' as a term which goes beyond the ritual itself to an attitude of feeling the need to continue to perform the law). Cults and Sects may allow themselves the luxury of just quoting odd verses in the Bible to back up their points and agendas, but all serious Bible students would insist on looking at books like Galatians and understanding them within their own context, whilst being careful not to impose their own views.

2. While the background to Galatians is residual legalism from a Jewish stance, the background to Paul's epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians is somewhat different; now the problem appears to be early-Gnosticism, or proto-Gnosticism. This was a very early Church heresy. Among the beliefs which these people pushed were that Jesus had not truly been flesh and blood, or that He had been only part of the time, they also believed that they themselves had access to a 'higher knowledge' which the average believer lacked and that this 'higher knowledge' was necessary for salvation. Moreover, they taught that God could only be approached through intermediary angels - and these angels too had to be worshipped! If space permitted, one could find links to modern cults here too, but we need to press on. Paul clearly refers to these people here,
"Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind." (Colossians 2: 18).
So we observe that Paul stands every ready to confront and defeat all ideas which taught that Christ is, somehow, insufficient to save. Justification - and its means - was challenged by all of these factions which strayed from sound doctrine. Paul is always adamant that Christ and the gospel - as delivered - were sufficient!

So let us now clear up this matter of Justification - with an open Bible!
Can Christians ever be really clear about this doctrine? The answer is, YES! It is necessarily made abundantly clear because its correct understanding is fundamental to perceiving the truth of the gospel. We may note in passing that the New Testament itself defines the substance of the gospel on several occasions - this is important to note because some of these groups pervert the meaning of the word 'gospel', whilst others avoid it. But the following verses define what is involved in that word 'gospel' : Acts 16: 30-31; Romans 4: 24-25; Romans 10: 9-10; 1 Corinthians 2: 1-2; 1 Corinthians 15: 1-4 - we may also look at Paul's defence before King Agrippa in Acts 26: 1-23 (reaching its climax in verse 23). The message is; the Christ has now come and has been sacrificed upon the cross, taking the sins of the world upon Himself, and He rose from the dead three days later - REPENT OF YOUR SINS AND BELIEVE ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST!

The Old Covenant, of course, had pointed to law as the best path (for that time) toward justification. The complete system of law, delivered from Mount Sinai, is the heart of the Old, Mosaic, Covenant (incidentally, it is one complete legal system; the Old Testament does not allow us to break it down into bits such as 'the ceremonial law' and so on). But as time wore on we see that none, yes, not even Moses and Aaron - and certainly not people like David - were able to fully keep this law, and we start to find indicators that a better system of righteousness was yet to come. See the beautiful prophecy of Jeremiah 31: 31, for instance.

The New Covenant soon makes it clear that law-keeping could never save anyone! That just goes beyond its purpose; it was simply as a 'child trainer' in order to lead us to Christ - see Galatians 3:23-25. The law showed us clearly and unmistakeably how sinful we are and how much we all fall short! More than that it could never do. Rather, now the law has shown us how sinful we are, we see the need of a Saviour to rescue us from an impossible position. The 'rescuer' or Saviour is Jesus Christ! Being fully Man and fully God, He lived a life of infinitely greater value than every other human life, or even all such lives put together! The sacrifice of this life could pay for the sins of all who would personally apply that sacrifice - in full faith - to themselves. Moreover, this would be achieved without 'finding a loophole in the law' - God is a righteous, consistent God who will not compromise with His character. In this way, God's law still stands; it remains true that 'The wages of sin is death' - as it says in Romans. The world, in general, still stands condemned under God's law. No 'jot or tittle' passes from the law in that sense, although - as the New Testament makes clear - today Christians keep 'the Law of Christ' - not Old Covenant law; this is not a point-by-point codefied law, but is fully revealed by the Spirit alone; many of the principles of the Ten Commandments are certainly contained therein, but the law of Christ goes above and beyond those commandments and this law is a law of freedom and is very different to Old Covenant law. Either this is so, or both Jesus (in His 'Sermon on the Mount'), and Paul (in his numerous statements on justification, faith and law) were wrong! So today the Christian stands covered by the grace of Christ and does not need to fear the penalty of the law.

The adventist-type groups have not really understood what happened upon the cross. One could say that this is not entirely surprising since they give so little attention to it! An exchange occurred; Christ took upon His shoulders the sins of all those who would come to Him, appropriating Him in faith (which is why the Father had to momentarily turn His back, for the Father cannot live with sin). As already stated, He had to be fully Man and fully God for this to be efficaceous, ruling out the Arianism of 'Jehovah's Winesses' in which Christ is not God, just the highest creation of God.
The second part of this exchange is that the very righteousness of God is imputed to repentant sinners who accept Christ. So, Christ takes upon Himself the sins of all those who faithfully come to Him, and these people take upon themselves the righteousness of God - in both cases the exchange is forensic , or judicial (as in a court of law), a matter of attributing guilt and responsibility! Christ did not internally 'infuse' sin in His last moments upon the cross, neither is it possible for us to 'infuse' the very holiness of God! But it is imputed to us, we thus become justified - according to your Bible and mine, it could not have happened any other way! It is all a matter of the grace of God. A truly repentant man or woman will have been brought to this position by the drawing of the Holy Spirit and the sanctification process commences (we become more and more like Christ). This is a long road of course and we must here avoid the flawed teaching of Perfectionism (very popular among the cults); we do not attain perfection in this life and the gifts which we are granted and the fruits which we will produce will vary from Christian to Christian. We always remain wholly reliant upon God and covered by His Grace.
Herbert W. Armstrong who founded the (so-called) 'Worldwide Church of God' in 1933, was a typical 'perfectionist' in his teaching with his continual stress on his followers need to develop 'holy, righteous character' - yet the doctrine of grace was almost totally ignored by Armstrong; he continually 'hammered away' about the law but never mentioned grace, thereby confirming the immaturity of his understanding and his almost complete failure to understand the New Testament (the writer of this article is qualified to judge, being a one-time member of Armstrong's so-called 'Worldwide Church of God').

Christians are now granted a freedom in Christ which was not available to those under the law; we are now to be a people of the Spirit - not of the letter. 2 Corinthians 3:3-6.

It will thus be appreciated that a correct understanding of Justification is intrinsic to the gospel - that is, how God has arranged to justify - or redeem - His people is what the gospel is all about! And yet Justification is the Christian doctrine which is always targetted and perverted by the cults and sects; effectively, they say, 'Yes Jesus is fine but He is not enough' - in this they place a clear separation between their teachings and the teachings of the New Testament!
If one should carefully follow through the progressive revelation of the Bible, it will be noted that everything which happened in the Old Testament only pre-figured, or looked foward to, Christ; animal sacrifices could never really take away sin, but certainly taught the Israelites the burden of sin, and the need for a supreme sacrifice in order to fully 'wipe the slate clean.' As the Lamb of God, Christ fulfilled that. Even if one should strain to the sinews in trying to keep the Mount Sinai legal package, one would be bound to fall short - Paul is quite clear about this (as an ex-Pharisee!) This is because Adam's sins have, in any case, been imputed to all of us - without Christ we are dead in our sins!

It does not matter one iota that many today would say that this is not very 'politically correct' theology - it is the spiritual state of this world nevertheless! Only the efficacy of the sacrifice of the second Adam can retrieve us from what would otherwise be an irrecoverable situation.

The moment that any cult/sect founder comes up with their own version of the 'gospel' (normally requiring adherence to the import of their own writings and conceptions and often including influence from various biblical conspiracy theories, maybe including pyramidology - all usually lumped together with a flawed approach to prophecy and a genuinely inadequate understanding of the Scriptures), the plot is lost!! Why? Because Paul clearly demonstrates that the gospel does not need 'supporting' with anything! The moment that one adds to it, it ceases to be the gospel!! God always intended the gospel to be quite a simple message for a very obvious reason - see 1 Corinthians 1: 17- 2: 13. When extra 'baggage' is hauled on board, it is no longer the gospel! It is a tragedy not only that these people have never understood this but - still worse - that they have influenced so many by their errors.

Let me re-iterate:
Paul has demonstrated that the gospel does not need the 'support' of extra philosophies (Ephesians and Colossians), nor the 'support' of entire or partial adherence to the Old Covenant (Romans and Galatians); believers in Christ were not to attempt to put 'New wine into old wineskins' (Luke 5: 36-39).

As far as this legalistic - or judaizing - tendency goes, we can clearly see from the Bible that the Old Covenant is now a thing of the past - it is obsolete! (Hebrews 8: 13). Paul likens it to Hagar while he likens the New Covenant to Sarah - and what is his suggestion? Lets read it,
"...Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman...we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free. STAND FAST THEREFORE IN THE LIBERTY WHEREWITH CHRIST HAS MADE US FREE, AND BE NOT ENTANGLED AGAIN WITH A YOKE OF BONDAGE." (Galatians 4: 30- 5:1 - my emphasis).
There is now no condemnation for those genuinely in Christ Jesus - Romans 8: 1-2, for the penalty of our sins has been paid in full and we are now no longer under the law but under grace.
As Paul is at pains to explain in Romans, a new way (in a sense) of achieving the righteousness of God, free of legalism, is revealed in Christ, giving the Jew - with their knowledge of the law - no advantage. It is received through faith (but faith never becomes another 'work' - it is freely given by God to His people!) See Romans 10: 4-13.
Robin A.Brace, 1997, updated 2001, 2008.

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The reader may like to read our Testimony of how we became Christians from within the theological confusion of Armstrongism!
The Testimony is HERE

We have an exhaustive Countercult page Here.

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HOW FIRST DAY SABBATARIANISM ENTERED THE CHURCH
(How a new and unbiblical sabbath legalism entered the church)

RECOVERING FROM ARMSTRONGISM

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