It appears that, more than ever before, we desperately need to answer the question, “What does Modern Judaizing look like?” The Judaizers were, of course, those false brethren who secretly came into the newly found church to spy out the freedom that Christians had in Christ. We don’t have people creeping into our churches insisting that we need Christ plus circumcision to be saved. We laugh at even the idea that such nonsense could happen in our Reformed churches. So, can we simply wipe our brows with a sigh of relief and go forward knowing that we are not susceptible to such perversion of the Gospel? Are we only to see in the doctrine of Mormons and the JW’s a false Gospel and another Jesus? How are we to apply the teaching of Galatians to our own lives? Is it to be found in certain ecclesiastical settings in which doctrinal distinctions are taken seriously by men who profess to believe them (as some haveÂ suggested here and here)? How are we to understand in a careful manner a modern application of the problem of the Judaizers?
The book of Galatians is one of the most important, and yet, most difficult, books in the Bible. The glorious doctrine of justification by faith alone is expounded and defended throughout, on acc0unt of the legalism of the Judaizers aimed at the Gospel that Paul preached. One of the difficulties that the interpreter of Scripture is faced with is making a modern day application that is consistent with historical uniqueness of the Judaizing heresy. Paul, at the beginning of this book, explains to the church that if anyone comes preaching a different Jesus, or another Gospel, they should be accursed to the deepest part of Hell. It was not simply about being cut off from the covenant community (i.e. the social and ecclesiastical dimensions of justification) that Paul saw under attack, it was the soteriological dimension that was at stake–the question of how a man or woman was accepted as righteous by God.Â Paul had strenuously maintained that it was all based on the Person and finished work of Christ. It was not anything done in us or by us that caused our acceptance with God. Christ was made a curse for us, so that the blessing of Abraham (i.e. justification and the reception of the Spirit) might be ours by faith alone in Christ Jesus. The insistance that one needed to be circumcised in addition to trusting in Christ was to intimate that Christ did not provided a full and free salvation apart from anything we do. Paul ties the whole thing together at the end of Galatians when he explained that the Judaizers were seeking to avaoid persecution for the cross of Christ, and were wanting to boast in the flesh (human accomplishments). Very basically, it appears that the basic error of the Judaizers was not adding circumcision to the New Covenant people of Christ–it was in adding anything the finished work of Jesus for salvation.
J. Gresham Machen, in his Notes on Galatians, drew out, so very nicely, a careful application of the principle argument of Galatians to the church today when he wrote:
The particular form of merit which they induced men to seek was the mertit of keeping the Law of Moses, particularly the cermonial law. At first sight, that fact might seem to destroy the usefulness of the epistle for the present day; for we of today are in no danger in desiring to keep Jewish fasts and feasts. But a little consideration will show that that is not at all the case. The really essential thing about the Judaizers’ contention was not found in those particular “works of the law” that they urged upon the Galatians as being one of the grounds of salvation, but in the fact that the urged any works at all. The really serious error into which they fell was not that they carried the ceremonial law over into the new dispensation, whither God did not intend it to be carried, but that they preached a religion of human merit as over against a religion of divine grace.
So the error of the Judaizers is a very modern error indeed, as well as a very ancient error. It is found in the modern church wherever men seek salvation by “surrender” instead of by faith, or by their own character instead of by the imputed righteousness of Christ, or by “making Christ master in the life” instead of by trusting in His redeeming blood. In particular, it is found wherever men say that “the real essentials” of Christianity are love, justice, mercy, and other virtues, as contrasted with the great doctrines of God’s word. These are all just different ways of exalting the merit of man over against the cross of Christ; they are all of them attacks upon the very heart and core of the Christian religion. And, against all of them the mighty polemic of this epistle to the Galatians is turned. 1
1. Skilton, John H. ed. Machen’s Notes on Galatians (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publications, 1977) p. 10
Very helpful, Nick. This point was often not defended loudly enough in the recent debates between those defending the biblical doctrine of justification and the recent innovators. I think it was in Moo’s Romans that I read this same point several years ago, if I remember correctly, in his “Excursus on the Law.” Up to that point I had been wondering how to hold that ancient (Israel’s old/new covenant) dilemma together with the dilemma the Reformers (and we moderns) faced.
Calvin’s explanation of the Galatian heresy and its modern application is very good too. He explains that the problem was not with the OT ceremonies per se. The problem was with giving them religious significance after the first coming, in this case the highest soteriological significance (i.e. a condition for salvation). To do so is to, in effect, erect a new law, a requirement that God has not prescribed, a law that Christ did not obey or satisfy, thus undermining the basis for our justification (i.e. Jesus’ obedience and satisfaction of GOD’s law).
I have not read that part of Moo’s commentary but will do so at your recommendation. Thanks for pointing it out!
Jay, I find Calvin to be right on when it comes to the more difficult portions of Romans and Galatians. We definitely need to spend more time reading these two books and Calvin’s exposition of them.
It seems to be so helpful to grasp the undercurrent (or maybe not so ‘under’) of the flesh versus the Spirit. When that basic distinction is grasped and the tragic flaw of man is seen – his proud self-exaltation and resolve to deal with the sin & death problem on his own terms – then one can see the continuity between the Galatian heresy, the Colossian heresy, the Corinthian heresies, and modern day heresies.
Great post. Thanks!
Nick, so then would this apply to those who deny “definite atonement” afterall? It seems, happily, you’d now want to say so.
“It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
Paul also says that a law has been added to the law.
Thanks for the posting. i am dealing with a subtle issue in our church with some folks who distinguish between truth and grace. this is helpful. And yes I never seen truth and grace being used in a comparative way. Have you ever heard of that before? Also Moo’s book is great. Also Edmund Clowney’s works are great as well. he has several that touch upon this.
This heresy is now creeping back into the Church. A Christian couple I know have now seemed to have come under a Jewish-Messianic teaching that you need to do all of the Jewish ritual to complete your sanctification. When I talk to them, it feels like there is a wall. I’m praying for the Church on this one.
“We don’t have people creeping into our churches insisting that we need Christ plus circumcision to be saved.”
Ah, but we do. Christian housemates of mine have become caught up in “messianic fellowship” which teaches them to observe the dietary laws, celebrate “Shabbat” on Saturdays, and all the Jewish feast days are days they must refrain from work. (They are women, so excused from the rite of circumcision.) Jesus came to fulfill the law, they tell me, but not to abolish it. Those of us who have been made aware are obligated to observe the law.
Modern-day Judaizers do exist…I live with them.
How are your friends? Have they come back to truth? I also was lead astray by this back in 2011-2012 time frame until GOD used a sister in Christ to bring me back to the gospel. Once I came back to truth I was tormented though by the enemy because of the error I fell into and how I shared what I thought was truth with others. I’m praising God though that He is continuing to help me grow in the truth that I am His and that He’s faithful to complete the work that He started in me.
There is an amazing site to go to that may help your friends or others in the future. It’s called Joyfully Growing in Grace. I became friends with the author of the site and God is using JGIG to help many who have fallen into the snare of legalism. It is extremely thorough and 100% Christ centered.
Blessings to you! Here’s the link:
I apologize— Correct link:
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I just came across this blog when looking for writings on modern ‘Judaizers’. I, myself am Messianic, being Jewish and a Christian. I’m at a loss with our Christian, Gentile brethren who’ve gone to these vain things.( I work with Chosen People Ministries (worship in a local church and embrace my identity to an extent) and we desire to see Jewish people come to faith in our Messiah, Jesus Christ. The problem lately is we are grouped with the Hebrew Roots movement and I find myself trying to form an apologetic while speaking to Pastors! Makes me upset so I thought I’d vent 🙂
Now on a practical level, Jews who’ve always celebrated the feasts should not be made to stop. I think when Machen wrote his commentary not many Jews kept their identity and just assimilated into the church for practical reasons. I used to attend a church in Brooklyn, NY where the Pastor is both Jewish and Reformed. They observe Passover every year, but as a remembrance, not as a matter of law.
The Feasts of Leviticus show God’s redemptive plan in such a progressive way, I can’t see any reason not to celebrate them in the context of their fulfillment in Christ. Not that Christians MUST observe the feasts, but the context of observance is everything! This is our tool for evangelism and what we hope to share with the churches in our ministry. I’m not a great debater and I hope what I said makes sense. Please know that I lean more toward a reformed mindset and understand how this movement toward ‘Rabbinic’ customs and theology can seem so diabolical. However, for the sheep who get caught up in it, God is indeed sovereign. Who can deny it? Bless His name.
Hello Rebecca, I thought that Chosen People Ministries was different than gentile messianic groups and messianic Judaism–false teaching and spiritual superiority. However a speaker came to our church (Baptist) and several of his statements concerned me:
“The Feasts of Israel–We need them today”
“I recommend you go to Israel. Your geography will affect your theology” (What? The geography of the Pharisees didn’t affect their theology for the better).
“Go to Israel with us. Its better than a tour with Christians. We’ll give you a Jewish perspective on the land” (Beg to differ, but a Jewish perspective from the last 2000 years is a darkened perspective — as Jesus said, “they are blind guides. Leave them”. Also a well-studied Christian will give an AMAZING tour of Israel.
“You need to buy the Complete Jewish Bible. Because the bible was written by Jews for Jews so you will get a better translation” (Beg to differ but a person’s ethnic DNA won’t make him a better or worse bible translater. His scholarship and faithfulness to the biblical texts will).
“Jesus was CELEBRATING Sukkot in John 7.” (Beg to differ: Jesus was dodging His killers amongst the crowd at the temple. When He called out, He did that in peril of His own life. This is sacrificial ministry and if He was fully human, His heart may have been racing, but as always, He chose the path of doing what was on Father’s list for Him). There was more, but I’ll stop there.
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Anyone who makes the Gospel frustrate, by requiring or favoring the old jewish feasts, laws, and ceremonies is judaizing.
Many in the dispensationalist/messianic movement claim there is to be a new dispensation in the millennium with a “new covenant” for Israel that basically denies the church.
I would have everyone read Don K. Preston’s short book: The New Covenant: Fulfilled or Future? to understand the growing problem of modern judaizing.
I am a Westminster Grad and EPC pastor who enjoys your writings immensely. However, I am about to preach on Colossians 2:16-23 and researching modern legalisms, both you and Tim Keller made a sharp distinction between faith and surrender. Are they not one in the same?
I feel like if this distinction is pressed too far you end up with those whose lives look no different than a pagan, with no spiritual fruit, who show thus that Jesus is in fact NOT Lord of their lives, possibly assured that they are somehow in right standing with God. Please respond if you can: “carnal Christianity” is rampant in many churches who encourage people to “ask Jesus into their hearts”.
Anthony, faith has different aspects to it. In justification it is passive. In sanctification, it is active. Justifying faith, as the Westminster Confession of Faith notes, is principally a “receiving and resting” on Christ alone as he is offered to us in the Gospel. In our Christian living, faith works together with love in our walking obediently before God.
Anthony again. I am certainly against Finney-influenced emotionally charged decisionism, but sometimes in Reformed circles I get the idea that it is always wrong to call those who might be unconverted to faith (a faith that is a surrender of one’s own lordship of their life and making Christ LORD).