Legalism: strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. In theology it is the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works and the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
Carnality: that which is characterized by the flesh or the body, its passions and appetites, sensual: carnal pleasures, not spiritual, merely human, temporal, worldly; a man of secular, rather carnal, leanings.
Apostasy: an abandonment, desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, cause, etc.
From “Blessing or Curse – You Can Choose” by Derek Prince
In Jeremiah 17:5 God pronounces His curse on another kind of sin, which is at work in many sections of the Church:
“Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord.”
In this context – as in many other passages of Scripture – the word ‘flesh’ does not denote the physical body. Rather, it denotes the nature each of us has received by inheritance from our common ancestor, Adam. Adam did not beget any children until he himself had transgressed God’s commandment. The essential motivation of his transgression was not so much the desire to do evil as the desire to be independent of God.
The desire is at work in every one of Adam’s descendants. It is the distinctive mark of the ‘flesh’. In the field of religion, it seeks to perform righteous acts without depending on the supernatural grace of God. No matter how good its intentions, the final product will always be an ‘Ishmael’, not an ‘Isaac’.
The adjective that Scripture applies regularly to the flesh is ‘corrupt’. Although it can produce much that is designed to impress the mind and the senses, it is all tainted by corruption. The outcome of all of its efforts is described in Hebrews 6:1 as ‘dead works’, from which God requires us to repent.
The kind of person described in Jeremiah 17:5 is not a stranger to God’s grace. This is indicated by the closing phrase: ‘whose heart departs from the Lord’. If he had never known the Lord, he could not be said to ‘depart’ from Him. A person of this kind has experienced God’s supernatural grace and power, but then turns back to relying on his own natural ability. His conduct reveals that he has more confidence in what he can do for himself than in what god can do for him. He has, in fact, ‘snubbed’ God. It is this attitude that calls forth God’s curse.
The next verse describes the outworking of the curse that such a person brings upon himself:
“For he shall be like a shrub in the desert,
And shall not see when good comes,
But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness,
In a salt land which is not inhabited.”
What a vivid picture of a person under God’s curse! He finds himself living in ‘parched places’ and ‘a salt land’. All that surrounds him is barren and dreary. Refreshing may come to others all around him, but in some mysterious way it always passes him by. He is doomed to barrenness and frustration.
The curse of Jeremiah 17:5-6 is at work in the lives of many individuals, but it also applies to a much wider area. It is one real but invisible cause of the barrenness and ineffectiveness of many sections of the contemporary Christian Church. Almost every movement of any significance in Christendom can trace its origin to a powerful, supernatural work of God’s grace and God’s spirit. It is to this, above all else, that they owe the impact they have made on history.
Yet, today, many – perhaps most – of these movements no longer place much emphasis on the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. They have turned back to relying on the best that they can accomplish by their own efforts. They are ‘trusting in man’ – that is, in themselves – and ‘making flesh their strength’. Surely, but imperceptibly, ‘their heart has departed from the Lord’. They have, perhaps, achieved religious and intellectual ‘respectability, ‘but in so doing they have forfeited God’s favour. In its place, they have brought upon themselves the dark shadow of the curse pronounced in Jeremiah 17:5.
To put human ability in the place of divine grace is to exalt the carnal above the spiritual. The effect will be manifested in many different areas. For example:
Intellectual education above character building
Program above the leading of the Holy Spirit
Theology will be exalted above revelation
Eloquence above supernatural power
Reasoning above the walk of faith
Psychology above discernment
Laws above love
All these errors are different manifestations of one great, basic error: putting man in a place that God has reserved solely for the Lord Jesus Christ.
This was the kind of situation Paul sought to deal with in the churches of Galatia. In Galatians 3:1‑10 he traces the problem from its source to its culmination.
In verse 1 Paul identifies the source as a deceiving satanic influence that he calls ‘witchcraft’:
“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Gal 3:1-2)
An alternative version renders Paul’s question, “Who has put you under a spell?”
This satanic influence had obscured the only source of God’s all-sufficient grace: Jesus Christ crucified. Cut off in this way from God’s grace, His people inevitably turn back to the only alternative: a system of religious laws. This leads to Paul’s next question in verse 2:
“Did you receive the spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
The word normally used to describe this is legalism. Since this word is often used in a an imprecise way, however, it is important to define it more exactly.
Legalism may be defined in two related ways. First, it is the attempt to achieve righteousness with God by observing a set of rules.
In Romans 3:20 Paul has ruled this out with absolute finality:
“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
The word ‘the’ in front of ‘law’ is put in by the translator. What Paul actually says is:
“By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
The word ‘the’ in front of ‘law’ is put in by the translator. What Paul actually says is:
“By the deeds of law no flesh will be justified.”
The primary reference is to the Law of Moses, but the statement applies no less to any other set of religious rules. Law can show us that we are sinners, but it does not have the power to change us.
Alternatively, legalism could be defined as the attempt to impose any extra condition for achieving righteousness beyond what God Himself has laid down. God’s requirement is stated in Romans 4:24-25:
“It [righteousness] shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offences, and was raised because of our justification [in order that we may be reckoned righteous by God].”
This is God’s simple but all-sufficient requirement to attain righteousness: that we trust ourselves to Him, believing that He did two things on our behalf. First, He delivered Jesus to death for our sins. Second, He raised Jesus from the dead that we might be reckoned righteous. God asks no more than this, and no one has ever been authorised to add anything to God’s requirements.
After that, once we have received righteousness in this way by faith, the righteous acts that are appropriate will flow out of our faith. But if we add any extra requirement for attaining righteousness, God will not meet us on that basis, and the righteous acts will not follow. We will never be able to go beyond the best that we can achieve by our own fleshly efforts.
This explains Paul’s next question in Galatians 3:3:
“Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”
The normal term for this is carnality – that is, relying on our own fleshly nature. Further on, Paul lists at least fifteen ‘works of flesh:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
Not one of them is good or acceptable to God, because the flesh is not capable of producing anything that God will accept. In Romans 8:8 Paul sums this up: “So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God”.
Finally, in Galatians 3:10, Paul states the culmination of this descending process: a curse. “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse.”
Thus, by the logic of the Holy spirit, Paul analyses the problem of the Galatian churches, which is also the problem of many contemporary churches. It stems from a deceiving, satanic influence that infiltrates the church and diverts the attention of God’s people from the only source of His grace: Jesus Christ crucified. Paul categorises this influence as witchcraft or a spell.
Cut off in this way from the source of grace, Christians inevitably degenerate into carnality and legalism. The final outcome of this downward drift is a curse. It has already been pointed out – in Chapter 6 – that spells and curses are the main tools of witchcraft.
In this way, the truth of Jeremiah 17:5-6 is carried over into the New Testament, and finds its expression in Galatians 3:1-10. “Trusting in the works of the law [legalism]” and “making flesh our strength [carnality]” culminate in a curse. As a result, God’s people find themselves living in ‘parched places’ and ‘a salt land’.
Carnality can take many forms. Often these are obvious and unappealing to people with a religious outlook. Some typical examples would be: sexual uncleanness or immorality; vulgar language; over-indulgence in food or drink; driving personal ambition; uncontrolled anger or other evil passions. What makes legalism especially dangerous is that it appeals to earnest, dedicated men and women who would not easily be entrapped by these more obvious sins of the flesh. Yet in its final consequences, legalism is just as deadly as other, less ‘respectable’ sins. It is Satan’s favourite tool to divert Christians who could otherwise become a serious threat to his kingdom.
For me personally, the analysis of the Galatian problem is no mere exercise in abstract theology. On the contrary, it is very real, and also painful. In 1970, in Fort Lauderdale, I found myself sovereignly and supernaturally ‘joined’ to a small group of ministers from various backgrounds. None of us had anticipated what happened to us, and one of us understood what God had in mind for us. Doubtless, if we had continued to rely on the Holy Spirit who had initiated our relationship, He would have gradually unfolded His purpose to us, but that was not the path we followed.
All too soon, and without our discerning what was happening, the various features of the Galatians 5 ‘syndrome’ began to manifest themselves. Our decisions and actions were no longer initiated by the Holy Spirit, but were based on an elaborate system of rules and concepts that had been devised. We continued to acknowledge the Holy spirit, but in the way that guests in a restaurant might acknowledge a waiter. If we felt we needed something, we would summon Him briefly. But for the most part we relied on methods and plans of our own devising.
Looking back, I realise now that the work the Holy Spirit had initiated among us posed a serious threat to Satan. He resorted, consequently, to the tactics that had been so successful in Galatia, and in countless other situations throughout subsequent Church history. There were two decisive steps. First, he displaced the cross from the centre of our lives and ministries. Second, he displaced Jesus as ‘Head over all things’ in our practices and relationships. By an inevitable process, we degenerated into the normal type of religious organisation, operating on the plane of our natural reason and ability.
Paradoxically, one main cause of our problems was the very fact that we had a supernatural beginning. Like the Galatians, we had ‘begun in the Spirit’. From that beginning, there was no easy or painless route by which we could simply become just another religious organisation, functioning on the natural plane and taking our place alongside countless similar groups throughout Christendom. As Paul pointed out to the Galatians, that which has been initiated by the Holy Spirit can never be brought to completion by human flesh.
It was not long before we were confronted by the outworking of the curse we had thus brought on ourselves. Its manifestations were characteristic of other similar developments throughout church history. Personal relationships were ruptured; congregations were split and shattered; promising ministries were cut short or else diverted from God’s purpose; once-enthusiastic Christians were blighted by frustration and disillusionment. Many abandoned their faith. If we had been obliged to give a name to it all, we would have had to call it “Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed’”. (1 Samuel 4:21)
The produce of all religious activity that is not initiated and directed by the Holy spirit is summed up, in Hebrews 6:1, by the phrase dead works. For this, the remedy is stated in the same verse: repentance. This was made real to personally. I could not blame others. I had to accept responsibility for what I had been involved in. More than anything else, I realised that I had grieved and slighted the Holy Spirit.
I saw that I had to confess my sins to God and trust Him for forgiveness and restoration. This was a personal decision that only I could make. I could not make it on behalf of others, but if I could find a path that led to restoration, then those who saw their need could follow the same path. In 1983 I responded and made the break.
In His mercy, God showed me, step by step, the path I was seeking. I discovered that there is a way to pass out from under the curse and enter once more into the blessing. If I had not made this discovery, this book would never have been written. For those who may find themselves in a similar situation, I offer a full explanation of the steps they need to take in Section 3: “From Curse to Blessing”.
In Galatians 1:6-9 Paul exposes another way a curse may come upon the people of God: apostasy.
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace in Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
The kind of person here described is one who represents himself as a minister of Christ, but perverts the central truth of the Gospel. Paul declares that such a person brings a curse upon himself. The Greek word ‘accursed’ is anathema. It denotes something that provokes God’s wrath and is subject to His irrevocable condemnation and rejection.
The Gospel contains a central core of revealed truth that has been accepted and upheld by the general church throughout all generations. It may be summed up as follows:
Jesus Christ is the divine, eternal Son of god, who became a member of the human race by virgin birth. He led a sinless life, died on the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of humanity, was buried and rose again in bodily form from the grave on the third day. He ascended into heaven, whence he will return to earth in person, to judge the living and the dead.
Everyone who repents of sin and trusts in the sacrifice of Jesus receives forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.
It is important to emphasise that the gospel centres in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 Paul sums up its message in three historical facts: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures… He was buried…. He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.”
The first authority that Paul cites in support of these facts is “the Scriptures” – at that time meaning the Scriptures of the Old Testament. As further confirmation of the resurrection, Paul goes on to list various eyewitnesses who saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. Their testimony is secondary, however, to that of the Old Testament scriptures.
In two successive statements, Paul then stresses that faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is essential to salvation:
And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is also in vain… And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 1 Corinthians 15:14-17
In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul warns that at the close of this age there will be widespread apostasy from the Christian faith. There are strong reasons for believing that we are now in the predicted period of apostasy. In some major Christian denominations, many recognised leaders have publicly renounced faith in the Scriptures and – in particular – in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Probably they do not realise that their declaration of unbelief is in itself a fulfillment of the scriptures they are rejecting!
One fact, however, they cannot change. Unless they repent, those who in this way pervert the Gospel, bring upon themselves the wrath and the curse of God.