III.A.6.c The Legalist “Gospel”

Part III  –  Application to Pentecostal Theology

Subpart A  –  The Pentecostal Renewal

Article 6 – The Pentecostal Second-Work as Nicolaitan Error


i.    The Detested Doctrine of the Nicolaitans 

ii.   Doctrine as of Contrasting-Character to the Teaching of Balaam

iii.  Contrastive-Aspect of Gospel-Apostasy

iv.  Legalistic-Gospel as Opposite-Error

 (THIRD section of SEVEN-part Article)


Section (c) –  The Legalist “Gospel

 i.  The Detested Doctrine of the Nicolaitans 

Christ addresses the angel of the church at Pergamos in regards to a doctrine that was allowed to operate there:

So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.              Rev 2:15

While the statement; “which thing I hate” is excluded from the modern translations,[1] it nonetheless appears within the modern translations in their translation of a similar reference in the letter to Ephesus, which reads:

Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.                                                                                                  Rev 2:6

As the “teaching of the Nicolaitans” is a teaching that is expressly-“hated” by Christ, it stands of immense concern to understand what this teaching is!  Much uncertainty attends the meaning of this verse.  Explanations have been offered based upon extra-Biblical-references to various historical-figures with the name of Nicholas.  However use of references extrinsic to scripture for the interpretation of scripture is a most-unsound method of expository.

What was this “doctrine of the Nicolaitans”?  We understand this to be a doctrine which the Lord denounces, even declaring that he “hates”, and yet there is an apparent lack of assisting-scripture on the issue!  Although early church writers have addressed the term, and have attempted to offer possibilities on what this doctrine might have entailed – we find nothing convincing in the way of explanation.[2]

The Greek-word that is translated “doctrine” (KJV) and “teaching” (NASV) is; did-akh-ay’,[3] meaning “doctrine”.  The first use of the word is:

Matt 7:28  . . . when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at His doctrine:

This is also the word used in:

Heb 13:9  Be not carried about with divers & strange doctrines.

ii.   Doctrine as of Contrasting-Character to the Teaching of Balaam

One possible-indication of what this doctrine involved may be found in the fact that the “doctrine of Balaam” is presented alongside so as to infer a contrastive-relationship.  Recall the Lord’s previous statement to Pergamos:

“. . thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balaak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.”                                                             Rev. 2:14

Therefore there seems a contextual-implication that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans bears a contrastive-relationship to “the teaching of Balaam”.  Obviously and logically, the two doctrines are not the same.  However, given the two are presented together, an understanding of Balaam’s error might indicate what is represented in the Nicolaitan-error.

There is a prophecy in Micah that exhorts the Lord’s people into an understanding of the transgression of Balaam, the prophet that sought to curse Israel for money.  We read in that prophecy:

My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab counseled & what Balaam son of Beor answered him, & from Shittim to Gilgal, in order that you might know the righteous acts of the Lord.                                                       Mic. 6:5

We are exhorted to “remember”.  Rarely in prophecy do we hear such a clear and explicit exhortation to go back and carefully read Scripture!  Isaiah’s prophecy exhorts us to consider Abraham and Sarah.[4]  Malachi’s prophecy invokes the relationship between Jacob and Esau.[5]  But nowhere do we have such a strong and urgent exhortation to review an Old Testament historical account than we see here in Micah’s prophecy!  The Lord’s tone is urgent; “O My people remember now”, as if this were a matter of the utmost urgency as regards our spiritual understanding!

While a thorough study of Balaam would extend beyond the scope of this article, we understand Balaam to have carried out a treacherous-act against Israel by using his gift as a prophet in hostility to God’s purposes.  His heart was misled by the prospect of wealth and honor which led him to trade upon Christ and to counsel the enemies of God to lure Israel into sin in order to remove them from the divine-favor.

Then Balaam arose & departed & returned to his place, & Balak also went his way.  While Israel remained at Shittim,  the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab.  For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, & the people ate & bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, & the Lord was angry against Israel.                                           Num. 24:25-25:2

The Midianite-women were used to tempt Israel into sin and licentious-conduct.  Moses informs us that Balaam was the source of this wicked counsel:

& Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women?  Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam,   to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.”   Num. 31:15-16

Balaam’s teaching resulted in Israel falling into sin and out-from-under the divine favor and protection of God.

iii.    Contrastive-Aspect of Gospel-Apostasy

There are scriptural-allusions to error having two avenues of departure from truth, ie. to the right and to the left, e.g.

Turn not to the right hand nor to the left; remove thy foot from evil.          Prov. 4:27

And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, “This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.      Is. 30:21

Recall as well that the writings of the apostles warn of two characteristic and reciprocal errors that lead men away from the simple truth of the Gospel, these being:

1) the subversion of Law, and

2) the subversion of Grace.

In the former, principles of grace are emphasized at the expense of the moral-law, serving to defeat the work and testimony of God.  In the latter, the Law is emphasized at the expense of  grace to likewise subvert the work of God.

–  Subversion of Law

 For example, in expounding on the doctrine of justification by faith, Paul writes:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?      Rom 6:1

In so saying, Paul cautions that the doctrine of justification-by-faith is by no means to be construed as any toleration for sin.  To suggest that we may sin because we are no longer under Law is anathema to the Gospel of Christ!  Paul writes:

What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.                          Rom 6:15

John’s first-epistle clarifies that the purpose of grace is, in fact, to destroy the commission of sin, not to justify the continuance therein!

Whosoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.  And you know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.  Whosoever abides in him sinneth not: whosoever sins has not seen him, neither known Him.     I John 3:4-6

The entire epistle of Jude is written on the subject of . . .

. . . ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.              Jude 1:4

 Therefore we have clear apostolic-teaching that the subversion of the principle of Law constitutes a chief form of Gospel-apostasy.

 –  Subversion of Grace

On the other hand, there is a reciprocal-error against which we are warned in the apostolic writings; ie. that of subverting the grace of God through our own efforts at keeping the Law.  This is because it is through faith that God performs His great work of redemption through the processes of His Holy Spirit’s work within us.  Paul’s letter to the Galatians deals primarily with this issue:

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.                  Gal 2:21

 The letter to the Galatians is an impassioned plea that the Galatians simply believe in the Person and work of Jesus Christ for their redemption rather to trust in circumcision.  He writes . . .

Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. Gal 5:4

The Galatians were stumbling from a place of trusting in Christ alone.  They were opting for alternative-means of justification:

You observe days, & months, & times, & years.  I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain. Gal 4:10-11

–  Neither Does the Moral-Law Justify

While most of orthodoxy would agree that we are not justified by keeping the Judaic-ordinances of the Law, what we might not understand is that neither does the observance of even the moral Law  justify!  Paul makes this clear in his epistle to Titus when he writes:

Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, & renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior.         Tit 3:5-6

As a way of insight into the harm does by the teaching of Balaam, let us consider what might characterize a Christian assembly wherein Balaam’s teaching was entertained? (ie. as pressing the doctrine of grace so as to subvert principles of Law)?  We might expect:

  1. a false-conception of “grace” dispensing with the consequences of sin.
  2. presumption concerning status in Christ and the true Spirit’s presence,
  3. presumption of protection from deception,

iv.  Legalist-“Gospel” as Opposite-Apostasy to that of Christian-Licentiousness

David prophesies:

Blessed is that man that maketh the Lord his trust, and respecteth not the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies.                          Ps 40:4

Balaam’s teaching resulted in licentious behavior, which caused God’s people to fall out of the divine-favor.  This is the principle expressed by Paul when he writes:

What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.                           Rom 6:15

Therefore Balaam’s teaching constituted the subversion of Law through wresting the doctrine of Grace. As a doctrine pernicious to the Christian Church, this teaching presumed upon Christian liberty – corrupting the church through conformity to the world’s spirit.

What would be the opposite error”? A teaching that denies or undermines the grace of God to pardon transgression and to receive sinners – a teaching that fosters a legalistic-spirit that discounts the forgiveness of sin and the mercy of God.  This is the teaching that thwarts the work of Calvary for the sinner!  This is the way of a contrived-holiness, leading to a legalistic spirit.

It is not surprising that the Pergamos-letter identifies this spirit as particularly “hated” of Christ.  Recall that it was this spirit that constituted the main antagonist of Christ during the days of His incarnation.  This way was personified in the Pharisees, who faithlessly distorted the true spirit of the Law by their legalistic understanding of its requirements.  The religiously-moral were continually denounced by Christ as antithetical to the Person and purposes of God?

This error constitutes the opposite-form of stumbling for the believer in Christ – especially for the very devout believer, which is why Christ particularly hates the legalistic pursuit of His kingdom.  The emphasis upon legal-means renders the work of the cross to non-effect and hinders and quenches the work of the Spirit of Grace in the church.  Question: What might characterize a Christian assembly wherein a legalistic (ie. “Pharisaical”) gospel was maintained?  We might expect:

–  a legalistic approach to righteousness that relies upon outward things and rigid codes of conduct.

–  teaching against sin that lacks the substance of grace and forgiveness

–  placing of rules and yokes on believers not placed by Christ (ie. of man’s making)

–  little allowance for mistakes or room for growth in grace due to judgmental reactions to the faults and stumblings of its members

And this is the key one! . . . .

–  Presumption concerning the work of the Holy Spirit as a vindication of the efforts of flesh!

As to the legalists, their doctrine has the appearance of correctness and the semblance of Christian holiness, yet it is counterfeit.   Paul writes:

These are matters which have, to be sure the appearance of wisdom, in self-made religion and self-abasement, and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.  Col. 2:23

Both teachings (that of Balaam and that of the Legalist) represent an abuse of the grace of God as neither one brings good faith to God’s covenant consistent with our water-baptism.  Balaam transgresses against Grace through disregard for the moral Law of God.  The Legalist transgresses against Grace by little-valuation and trust in God’s sacrifice for sin as His provision for the man.  They treat the Law as if it (in itself) was the Gospel.  God is compassionate and longsuffering toward the iniquity and infirmities of His people, and the abuse of that mercy is not within the realm of spirituality.  Both forms of error serve only to harden the heart against the true grace to be realized in Christ and constitute faithlessness in religion.  For in so doing, we are seeking our own way of salvation – striving against the truth of the cross.

Legalistic-error often seems perfectly “holy” to the world, even as the world is repelled by it.  However, reliance upon human notions of righteousness is barren, godless, and eventually will end in pride, resentment, and violence against things that are truly holy.  Instead of coming to terms with our wretchedness before God, we prop up a false image of what pleases God and we seek His kingdom via the flesh.  Thus, the witness is false.

Charles Finney states the legalist-error as follows:

Neither an Arminian nor a Calvinist would formally direct the inquirer to the law as the ground for justification.  But nearly the whole church would give directions that would amount to the same thing.  Their answer would be a legal and not a gospel answer.  For whatever answer is given to this question that does not distinctly recognize faith as the foundation of all virtue in sinners is legal.  Unless the inquirer is made to understand that this is the first grand fundamental duty, without the performance of which all virtue, all giving up of sin, all acceptable obedience is impossible, he is mis-directed. [6]

When we are religiously-minded and impotent of faith, we will rather direct men into futile means of salvation.  Certainly faith is the foundation, because therein are we justified.  Not only is it the foundation, but it is the building as well:

“This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.”   John 6:29

While these Gospel-subversions seem to be miles-apart from one another, really, they are the same thing.  They both represent the carnal man resisting the Spirit’s work in bringing the atonement to the heart of the believer, and keeping the believer saturated with the love of God unto his sanctification.  Were we to pull the veneer from the legalist we would find the same depraved-conscience beneath.

If Christ “hates” a certain teaching or practice, then there should be some allusion in prophecy to this object of God’s particular-abhorrence.  We seem to find this allusion at the end of Isaiah’s prophecy.[7]  Christ abhors the religiously-proud:

Who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!”  These are smoke in My nostrils, a fire that burns all the day.                     Is. 65:5

[1] The most notable distinction between the translations is whether or not they include the trailing-statement; “which thing I hate”.  The statement is included in the; KJV, IV, & YLT.   However, the statement is excluded from the; NASV, NIV, Wycliffe, &  ESV

[2] That even early church historians were not comprehensible of the meaning of “Nicolaitanism” seems evident from the writings of Eusebius (260-339 A.D.) who attempts to explain it by offering an account from a book written by Clement of Alexandria, which in turn offers an obscure anecdote wherein Nicolaus of Antioch ( Acts 6:5) is suggested to have offered his wife to anyone in the church after he was accused of jealousy by the apostles.  This unlikely anecdote is then followed by the incoherent deduction that by this exhibition of disdain for things of “the flesh”, a cult of promiscuity arose.

[3] G1322  didachē  did-akh-ay’  From G1321; instruction (the act or the matter): – doctrine, hath been taught.

[4] Isaiah 51:2

[5] Malachi 1:2-3

[6] Principles of Sanctification, Charles Finney, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN55438 © 1986, page 140.

[7] See commentary on Isaiah 65:5 Who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!”


About Lamp-Stand

I was converted to the faith of Jesus Christ in 1982 at which time I received water baptism and Spirit baptism. In the Spring of 2008 I was led of the Spirit through a process of repentance upon which I had an encounter with Christ that worked a profound change upon my inner being. I became aware that I had been forgiven a great debt of sin. I soon felt the Lord's direction that I close my office that my energies not be divided from the study of doctrine.
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