One of the most pressing questions in the mission field today is the question of the relationship of Law and Gospel, or rather, Gospel versus Law. This is a real missionary problem in parts of Africa: we need to see it in historical perspective, because the problem has existed in the Christian Church since its inception.
The great battle which Paul fought against Judaic tendencies within early Christianity was part and parcel of a controversy which has continued through the Middle Ages to our own day. So violently did some early Christians react against those who expected pagans to become Jews, and to accept the laws of Judaism before they could be admitted into Christianity, that they discarded the Old Testament and everything that reminded them of Judaism or the Law. Marcion was but one among many. Groups within the church have always tended to convert the Gospel into a new law. This tendency may in some respects point to temperamental differences in individuals, but that does not explain the whole complex phenomenon of legalistic tendencies within the church in certain ages and in certain of its sections.
It is disquieting to read the Christian literature of the second and third centuries, because it soon evidences to what degree the liberty of the Gospel had been forsaken for legalism in all forms. In later centuries legalism at times reached such dimensions that the church shifted the Gospel far into the background. Man had to fulfill the detailed prescriptions of a new law in order to be saved.
The Apostle Paul was well aware of the danger of legalism and in some of his letters condemned it in strong language. On the other hand, he sternly censured those who would compromise with legalism and use the liberty of the Gospel ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more