The Deception and Dishonesty of Legalism

Sermons on the first chapter of Paul’s letter to his friend Titus often present it as a job description for church leadership. It’s not. Instead, Paul is concerned with legalistic teaching and how to correct it with sound doctrine.

Paul begins:

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness … . (Titus 1:1.)

He then tells Titus The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town and proceeds to list important qualities to look for. (Titus 1:5-8.)

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632)

So yes, in one limited sense the chapter includes a job description for church leadership. But Paul’s point is not to create that job description but to make sure that the bad doctrine he ran across on the island is not spreading in the local churches. Paul’s conclusion lays out the main reason for appointing people who “hold firmly to the trustworthy message” is to encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9.)

The primary importance of countering false doctrine is clear from the verses immediately following.

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. … They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. (Titus 1:10-11, 16.)

Paul is once again working against legalism, the battle he’s been fighting his whole ministry as shown by his letters to the Galatians and Ephesians and others. As Paul writes, legalistic teaching is meaningless, deceptive, disruptive and dishonest, while he says legalistic teachers do not know God and are detestable and disobedient.

Not 5 easy steps to godly living

What is Paul’s goal? Teaching the “knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” as he puts it in his opening line.

Not rules that lead to godliness.
Not laws that lead to godliness.
Not guidelines that lead to godliness.

This is one of the reasons to focus on learning more about Jesus than figuring out the right way to live. The more you learn about Jesus, the more you’ll tend to live rightly in God’s kingdom. But if you try to focus on how to live rightly, you’d be spending time on that rather than learning more about Jesus and acquiring knowledge of the truth about him.

After all, it is not knowledge of the rules for right living that makes you godly. It is knowledge of God’s truth that leads you to godliness. This is one of the blessings of Jesus’ gospel of grace, a spiritual truth that leads you to God and godliness. The more you get to know Jesus, the more you become like him.

And that’s the truth.


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7 Responses to The Deception and Dishonesty of Legalism

  1. Pingback: Monday Picks ~ 11-6-2017 | Life on the Bridge

  2. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    Isn’t it amazing that God called a hyper-legalistic Jew to carry the gospel to the Gentiles and fight to ensure that the gospel didn’t get contaminated with a lot of Jewish “extras”? I do NOT mean to imply that only the Jewish people (or Jewish converts to Christianity) had problems with legalism; I think we all do, and always have, because it seems to be human nature to want rules rather than grace. But it does seem to show that God has a sense of humour.

  3. Anu Riley says:

    Paul lived the life of a legalist before becoming a believer, and so had incredible insight into the ineffectiveness of that lifestyle. Replace some of the words from Titus in a more personalized way for Paul, it could read like this:
    “I claimed to know God, but by my actions I denied him. I was detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.”

  4. Pastor_Bob says:

    In a way we need the law, as has been described by the New Testament writers, but for one purpose, to show the completed work in and by Jesus Christ. Seeing that which has finished the work is critical. many benefit from this extra knowledge.

    Sadly, there will always be those who want to make it harder, perhaps one reason is “It’s Too EASY!”
    ((Yes,,,,,,,, and your point is …… ??)

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