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Yikes! Were Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus all Legalists?

Ken Hensley
November 21, 2017 No Comments

In 1980, I was a young seminary student for whom nothing was more exciting than thinking about the truths of the Christian faith.

While I was a firm believer in the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide), because I was even more firmly a believer in the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, I remained wide-open to whatever I could be shown from Scripture alone to be true. And since I had the mindset of a theological snoop, I was continually examining the shapes of ideas and arguments, always on the lookout for patterns of textual evidence in the pages of God’s word.

And then something happened.

A Peculiar Biblical Pattern

One of my professors at Fuller Theological Seminary—extremely bright, had two earned PhD’s, one in Old Testament and another in New Testament—was talking one day about Luther and Melanchthon and justification.

This puzzled look comes over him and he says, “You know, it’s a curious thing. But when you think of it, the Bible is essentially one story after another of men and women and their relationship with God, one illustration after another of how God deals with people. And never in these stories do we find illustrated this idea that people will receive God’s blessing by ‘faith alone.’

“Rather,” he continued, “the pattern we see in Scripture always amounts to God saying, ‘trust me (faith), do what I tell you to do (obedience), and I will bless you.’ The basic pattern is always faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing.

“Think with me,” he continued. “Was Noah saved through the flood by faith or by obedience? Take your pick.”

“And what about Abraham? When Abraham was commanded to leave his home and travel to a land God would show him, did he receive the blessings through faith alone or by his obedience in doing what God instructed him to do? Which was it?”

“What about Moses and the children of Israel? Did they inherit the promised land by faith or by their obedience?”

These were all trick questions. In each of these illustrations, faith was of course at the heart of everything. If Noah had not “trusted” God’s warning about the flood, he would have perished with the rest. But he would have perished with the rest because he would not have built the ark. Noah had to trust God and build the ark in order to be saved.

It was faith, leading to obedience, resulting in God’s blessing.

Same with Abraham. He had to trust God and leave his home and family in order to receive the promises.

Same with Moses and the Israelites. They had to trust God and sacrifice the Passover lamb, and cross the Red Sea, and follow the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, and travel through the wilderness, and take the cities of Canaan one by one — in order to inherit the Land.

The professor went on illustrating this pattern in Scripture. “What about Namaan the Syrian? Didn’t he have to trust the word of Elisha and go and wash in the Jordan in order to be healed? And what about the man born blind whom Jesus instructed to wash in the Pool of Siloam if he wished to be given sight. In order to receive the promised blessing, did he not have to trust Jesus (faith) and go and wash in the pool (obedience)?”

He insisted that this pattern was consistent throughout the Bible, that it was in fact illustrated on virtually every page of the Bible.

It seemed to me that he was correct.

The Reformed Protestant Pattern

Now, what troubled my professor—and what began that day to trouble me, and eventually contribute to my becoming Catholic—was that the pattern we see in the Reformed doctrine of sola fide is entirely different than what he saw in Scripture. In fact, it is the reverse!

According to justification by faith alone:

  1. We believe in Christ (faith)
  2. We are immediately justified by the legal imputation of Christ’s own righteous to our account (blessing)
  3. And then we proceed to live out our faith (obedience) not as a part of what is needed in order to inherit eternal life but out of gratitude to God for having given us eternal life by faith alone.

Well, of course love for God and gratitude for God’s grace in our lives is going to motivate us in our obedience. No debate about that.

However, according to the pattern we saw in Scripture, obedience was always a part of what was required in order to receive God’s promised blessing. The promised blessing didn’t come before the obedience, but after.

Reformed Protestants insist that while this may have been how things worked in the Old Testament, this is no longer the case.

Classic Unbiblical Arguments for Sola Fide

In fact, most Protestants will insist that anyone now who thinks he must obey God “in order” to receive God’s blessing is a legalist. He is caught up in a damning system of works righteousness and gives evidence that he may not, in fact, be a true Christian at all.

Here’s a question I like to ask these Protestant friends:

So, does this mean that Noah and Abraham and Moses and Naaman and the man born blind are all examples of legalism?

I mean, it’s clear that they believed they needed to trust God and do what he told them to do in order to receive his blessing. Are they all legalists? Were they caught up in a “damning system of works righteousness”?

Even more to the heart of the matter: Was God promoting a damning system of works righteousness in the Old Testament? And rewarding those who worked to “earn” his blessing?

Who Gets the Glory?

Another common argument Reformed Protestants will make is to insist that salvation must be received by faith alone in order that God will receive “all the glory.” The reasoning is that if our obedience were required, then salvation would be something we had in part “earned.” The glory for the work of salvation, then, would have to be split between God and us. Then we would have reason to boast forever that we had “saved ourselves.”

In short, the unthinkable implications that follow from believing that our obedience has any part whatsoever in our final salvation demand that salvation be received sola fide!

Again, seems to make sense. But is it biblical?

Here’s the question I like to ask in response to this line of thinking: Are you saying then, that God did not receive “all the glory” for leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land? Are you saying that because Noah had to build the ark in order to be saved from the flood, he’s now in heaven boasting for all eternity about how he “saved” himself?

But that was the Old Testament!

Finally, it is often insisted that the pattern we see in the lives of these people in the Old Testament just doesn’t apply to us. After all, they lived under a “system of works.” We live under a “system of grace.”

Now, this sounds like an argument that might have some weight to it. Except… if this were true, why are these Old Testament saints set forth in the New Testament as examples for Christians to emulate?

I’m thinking in particular of Hebrews 11, where the author scans salvation history and presents his readers with example after example of men and women who put their faith in God and did what God instructed them to do and received his blessing.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous (11:4).

By faith Noah, being warned by God of events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household (11:7).

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out (11:8).

By faith [Moses] left Egypt (11:27).

He presents a stream of Old Testament saints who illustrate the pattern of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing is presented.

And then, instead of quickly clarifying,

“But of course, all these men and women were living under a system of ‘works’ and we are living under a system of ‘grace.’ They were required to obey God in order to receive his blessings and so their example doesn’t really apply to us. As New Testament believers we have a name for this pattern of ‘faith plus obedience equals blessing.’ We call it ‘legalism…’”

Instead of this, what does the author of Hebrews immediately say?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us… looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Jesus is our greatest example. And notice how the author of Hebrews describes what he did. He trusted in the Father and, for the joy set before him, he did exactly what the Father sent him to do. Having persevered to the end in faith, and in the obedience that flows from faith, he received the blessing and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Anyone wish to suggest that Jesus is an example of legalism?

Conclusion

In the end, it’s the Reformed Protestant’s view of what justification is — of what takes place in justification — that makes it impossible for him to accept the biblical pattern of faith leading to obedience resulting in blessing.

He views justification in terms of legal imputation — the legal transfer of Christ’s righteousness to the account of the believer. And because he sees this as something that takes place and is completed the moment one believes, it’s difficult to understand how what takes place after that moment could be a “requirement” for justification. This is why our obedience as Christians must be viewed as the response of gratitude to God for the gift of justification rather than as a condition for it.

So were Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus legalists?

Or is there maybe something wrong with the Reformed Protestant way of looking at faith, works, and justification?


Ken Hensley

Ken is a well-known Catholic speaker and author on staff with CHN. To subscribe to his personal email list and browse his many recorded talks on Catholic apologetics, visit his website at kennethhensley.com