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The Heart of Legalism

Updated on June 30, 2018
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I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

Conformity to Human Standards

I love the story told by Richard Foster of an influential businessman who had heard of the reputation of a certain man called Hans the tailor. This businessman wanted to look his best and brag about having something made by Hans, so when he visited the city in which the renowned tailor had his shop, he went to get a suit fitted.

A few days later the young man returned to pick up his suit. But when he got it the man noticed that one sleeve was twisted one way and the other sleeve another. Also, one shoulder bulged and another caved in.

After much pushing and twisting, the businessman finally got into the suit. He then took the bus home and on the trip met another passenger. The passenger, seeing his odd appearance, asked the man if Hans had made the suit. After the businessman said yes, his new friend then said: "Indeed Hans is truly a genius since only he could make a suit to fit such a deformed man as you!"

We may find this story amusing, but isn't that what many churches and individual Christians do with people? They get this idea of what Christianity should look like and then they shove their people into the most horrible configurations and make them fit into their molds, even if Scripture doesn't say anything about looking this way. That, in a nutshell, is at the heart of legalism and the Bible speaks out adamantly against it.

The Apostle Paul, who had to deal with legalists in his day, told the Christians at Colosse:

"Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence" (Colossians 2:20-23).

I.Defining Legalism

Simply put, legalism is a system of beliefs or rituals that people believe must be adhered to in order to obtain or retain favor with the God of the universe. For those who don't know Christ, legalism is adding anything to salvation besides accepting the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross by grace through faith in him in order to allow you to have a relationship with God.

For the believer, it is having to do certain deeds or refrain from certain deeds in order to be thought a "good" or "holy" Christian. It is saying that, although you are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, sanctification is a matter of submitting to certain rules and regulations or religious standards. So a person's progress in spirituality is judged by how rigidly they adhere to laws that are imposed.

Not that following these things are always bad in and of themselves. For instance, some think that a good Christian doesn't smoke or drink. Smoking has been proven hazardous to your health and your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. But there were several godly men who smoked before the Surgeon General told us this such as C.H. Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, and Johnathan Edwards. These were great men of God who did wonderful things for the Lord. They were used mightily by him. Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating smoking. I am simply pointing out that this can be made into an issue that separates a believer in Christ from a fellow believer.

And of course, drinking can lead to alcoholism and the misuse of it has lead to all sorts of sins. However, there is nothing in Scripture that forbids the use of alcohol in moderation. Rather excessive use is forbidden and getting drunk or allowing yourself to be brought under the control of alcohol rather than the Holy Spirit is a sin (Ephesians 5:18).

Legalism comes in many different forms. For instance, some churches have a certain dress code for their parishioners. Men may have to wear suits and ties and women may have to wear dresses. That was especially true several years ago.

Some say you should never go to movies, dance, or listen to certain forms of music. In a few churches, you cannot use musical instruments for the worship service because you have to make melody in your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19). I have even heard of a church that said that mothers should only breastfeed and not ever use a formula for their infants.

The trouble with legalism is that it deals with the outward appearance. Salvation by God's grace deals with the heart. The Bible says that if any man is in Christ he is a new creature (II Corinthians 5:17). It is the Lord who changes the Christian and gives them new desires. A changed heart leads to a changed life. And change usually happens over time as the person matures in Christ. It isn't something that can be manufactured by adhering to certain rules and regulations.

The Pharisees in Jesus' day were great at obeying the rules. And they thought that they had a special relationship with God because of it. But this is what Jesus said of them:

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity. In the same way, you appear to be righteous on the outside, but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matthew 23:27,28).

A One Minute Lesson on Legalism

II. Defining the Christian Life

The Bible teaches that salvation and the Christian life are, from start to finish, a work of God. "Paul says:

"For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).

Our new life in Christ is a result of God's grace or unmerited favor received by faith and there is nothing we can do to win or deserve God's love (Ephesians 2:8,9). Indeed, the Lord loved us when we were sinners and when we were his enemies (Romans 5:8-10).

Paul even goes so far as to say that we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and God predestined us to be his children (Ephesians 1:1-4). It is hard to do anything to merit God's favor when we didn't exist yet!

Even when the Bible tells us to work out our own salvation it makes it clear that it is a supernatural work being done through us:

In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul writes:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his purpose."

Nothing that we could ever do could make God love us more. And nothing that we could ever do could make him love us less. Legalism is diametrically opposed to grace because it says that man can do something to be in a right standing before a holy God.

The Bible teaches that Christ became sin for us even though he knew no sin so that we could receive his righteousness (II Corinthians 5:19-21). Any favor that we have or ever will have is not because of our own merit but because of the righteousness that we acquired by placing our faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who bore our sins on the cross (I Peter 2:24).

Also, anything that we do that is pleasing to God is because of the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit of God that dwells in us. That is why it is called the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22,23. And Jesus said in John 15:5 that:

"I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."

The Christian life is not you doing things to please God. It is God working to bring about his glory through us. Those who please the Lord are those who are already in a right standing before him, not those seeking to try to be in or remain in a right standing with God.


III. Legalism Changes the Gospel

One of Paul's harshest and most angry letters was written to the Galatian Christians. In the city of Galatia, there were some people, who have since become known as the Judaizers, who were trying to teach the believers there a form of legalism. They taught that in order to be saved a person had not only to accept Christ as their Savior, they also had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Here is what Paul had to say about this:

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:6-9).

We could easily paraphrase the words "let him be accursed" as "let him be devoted to eternal destruction in hell." Paul had no room for either adding to or taking away from the Gospel that the Lord had delivered to him. But that is what happens anytime legalism is involved. It puts the emphasis on man and not God. It brings glory to the individual and not to the Lord. Legalism takes the one time death of Jesus Christ on the cross and says that it just isn't enough when Scripture plainly teaches that it is enough (Hebrews 10:14). It changes the Gospel of Grace and makes it into a gospel of works (Titus 3:5).

The truth is that good works are a part of the Gospel in that they are a result of it and not the cause. A living fruit tree produces fruit and a living Christian produces good works. If God's life is in you, then your life will demonstrate that fact. Paul tells us that we are saved by grace through faith in Ephesians 2:8,9. But in 2:10 he goes on to say:

"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

As stated earlier, legalism's motive for doing anything is to gain the favor or retain the favor of Almighty God. Christianity says that the Christian already has favor with God and that we serve him out of gratitude for that fact. It is such a freeing notion to know for sure that our relationship with God is as a Father and his child and nothing that we can do will change that fact (I John 3:1; I John 5:13). He may correct us as any good father may do, but will never forsake us (Hebrews 12:7; I Corinthians 11:31,32).

Conclusion

There is a poem that I am told comes from John Bunyan. It goes like this:

"Run, Run the law commands,

But gives me neither feet nor hands.

Better news the gospel brings.

It bids me fly and gives me wings!"

The Christian life is not hard, it is impossible to live under our own power. It must be lived by the power of God who abides in us through the Holy Spirit. We are his temple and we bring glory to the Lord by allowing him to control us and work through our lives (I Corinthians 6:19,20).

We loosen legalism's grip on our lives as we stop thinking that the Christian life is all about our working to make God satisfied with us and start realizing that, if we are a Christian, he already is satisfied with us. When the Lord sees us, he views us through the righteousness of Christ and we are as righteous as he. Not because of what we have done or can do but because of what he has already done. Of course, we can grieve him as any father is grieved by a rebellious child (Ephesians 4:30). However, we can never lose a relationship with him (I John 5:11-13).

Let us thank God for his amazing grace and praise him for all that he has accomplished to make our salvation possible! And may we thank him that there is nothing that needs to to be added to it. We are complete in Christ. May we all rest in the fact that God has done it all! What a mighty God we serve!!

© 2018 Jeff Shirley

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    • GodTalk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Shirley 

      3 months ago from Kentwood, Michigan

      Amen!! Take care.

    • speaklove profile image

      Heather Johnson 

      3 months ago from California

      I agree, Jeff. His scriptures don’t prove his points and he doesn’t even realize his beliefs go against all the scriptures I posted. I guess you can’t turn a wolf into a sheep. And if he is indeed a sheep, God will change his heart in due time. God bless.

    • GodTalk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Shirley 

      3 months ago from Kentwood, Michigan

      Thanks for the support Bill. It seems there are a number of people on Hubpages who want to argue their unscriptural doctrines and tell everyone else that they are wrong. They do it, I believe, to get others to visit their sites and get a larger audience. Thanks again for reading and for your confirmation that what I have said is on the right track with Scripture. Agreeing with God's Word is what I care about. He is the one that counts. God bless!

    • GodTalk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Shirley 

      3 months ago from Kentwood, Michigan

      Heather: It is quite all right to interact with Charlie but you will find that it won't do you any good. I have come across people like Charlie on Hubpages in the past and the only reason they are on is to argue their anti-Scriptural bias with whoever will argue with them. Even if God in Heaven came down and told them they were wrong, they won't listen. The only thing that you can do is pray that they will come to a knowledge of the truth and allow God to handle them. But thanks for trying. I know that Charlie will go on and on but you may soon find a good amount of the "discussion" deleted as I don't want false teaching propagated on my Hub page. Thanks and God bless.

    • GodTalk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Shirley 

      3 months ago from Kentwood, Michigan

      Charlie: I am allowing all this "discussion" because I don't want to keep Heather from interacting with you if she so chooses but you are going on and on and spouting scriptures which don't seem to prove your points whatsoever. And this is only an open forum if I so choose it to be. I don't usually allow someone to go on and on with such unscriptural ideas and I won't allow it much longer because I will not have you use the forum that has been given to me to give out what appears to be unscriptural nonsense. If you want to share your ideas, then Hubpages is the forum. But to use another Hub other than your own will not get you a hearing. At least from me.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 

      3 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth in between the oceans

      wm- charlie is coming from scripture and what it declares to those seeking truth and understanding and following the Lord Jesus Christ who is the delegated authority of God in this age. this final age of man is controlled by Jesus who possesses all the authority of God during this age only. He is the only way to God in this age. He did away with the church system of apostate man at the cross but other apostate man have replayed their copy cat false church system. Jesus delegated His real disciples as the living stones that ARE His church. Not men and their church system. God hates division and declares there will be no division in HIS CHURCH, but the false church system of man proudly flaunts their many DIVISIONS in His face, that is rebellion against God. The new testament declares that the only source of all truth is the Holy Spirit of God. It also says that Jesus is the only shepherd and that those that profess to be of Him (pastors) are liars and thieve because they are hirelings, He is the one that died for us and He is the only one that can give us eternal life.

      There are so many scriptures that say DO NOT BE DECEIVED, but people do not give them much attention because they explain who and how the deceivers will approach them.

      Jesus is clear that all who will be His disciples (the only way to inherit eternal life)must do ALL HE requires of them.

      There is no other way to eternal life in the kingdom of God. Which by the way is not in heaven. scripture says it is on the new earth and God joins all His sons there to live together forever.

      You may disagree but scripture is clear the deceivers we are warned against are those of the church system of man who bring a false jesus and a false holy spirit as scripture clearly shows

    • speaklove profile image

      Heather Johnson 

      3 months ago from California

      Charlie, you say...

      “give us the opportunity to regain the eternal life that Adam forfeited by disobeying God. I have several detailed articles on why Jesus had to die.

      Most churches do not teach about this and most people believe the false teaching that Jesus came to pay for your sin but Jesus said he came to bring us Life.”

      So you’re saying, we must regain eternal life and that it is false teaching that Jesus came to pay for our sins?

      What do you make of these verses then?

      “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

      ‭‭John‬ ‭1:29‬ ‭

      “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

      ‭‭John‬ ‭3:16‬ ‭

      “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

      ‭‭II Corinthians‬ ‭5:21‬ ‭

      “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness— by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

      ‭‭I Peter‬ ‭2:21-25‬ ‭

      “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”

      ‭‭Romans‬ ‭5:8-11‬ ‭

      “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

      ‭‭Romans‬ ‭5:12-21‬

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 

      3 months ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      As always, Jeff - another great article! I'm not sure where Charlie is coming from, but I know exactly where you're coming from. Kepp it coming.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 

      3 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth in between the oceans

      heather- yes it is ok to answer others , it is an open comments board.

      What It is referring to is the fact that man was born with eternal life. in Genesis God told man,Adam if he ate of the forbidden tree he would die. God never wanted man to die but once he did then God had a plan to restore those that would do what He required so they could once again have eternal life. Because man was programmed to live forever, when Adam was reprogrammed to die. Because Adam was the first man and the father of all man that meant all man are programmed to die now. that is why all man now must die. Jesus came for one purpose, to give us the opportunity to regain the eternal life that Adam forfeited by disobeying God. I have several detailed articles on why Jesus had to die.

      Most churches do not teach about this and most people believe the false teaching that Jesus came to pay for your sin but Jesus said he came to bring us Life. Here are His words

      John 10:7-18

      7 Then Jesus said to them again, "Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.

      11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12 But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13 The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15 As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16 And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.

      17 "Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father."

      This should answer your question, if not let me know

    • speaklove profile image

      Heather Johnson 

      3 months ago from California

      Hi Charlie, something you said in your comment stood out to me.

      Part of your comment: “I really have a big problem with this article when I look at it against the WORDS OF JESUS CHRIST, the Lord of the age to whom we must pledge allegiance, obey fully and then endure to the end in order to regain our destiny that Adam forfeited by his disobedience, which is eternal life with God and all His sons.”

      You said we must obey fully and endure to the end to regain our destiny of eternal life. What exactly do you mean by “we must regain our destiny?”

      Jeff, I hope it’s okay that I am replying to another’s comment on your article, if not, please let me know.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 

      3 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth in between the oceans

      While I agree legalism is not of God, but what these men that you use to make your point and apparently you do not understand what legalism is.

      The only correct way to explain legalism is by using only scripture in context and properly translated.

      Any real disciple of Christ, the only way to become a son of God in ths age, knows this article is based on the ideas of carnal man and what the churches of man call legalism is disagreeing with them and their doctrine of apostate man. Disciples of Christ DO NOT FOLLOW MAN, they follow the Holy Spirit of God which makes them of one Spirit with God and Christ.

      I really have a big problem with this article when I look at it against the WORDS OF JESUS CHRIST, the Lord of the age to whom we must pledge allegiance, obey fully and then endure to the end in order to regain our destiny that Adam forfeited by his disobedience, which is eternal life with God and all His sons.

      It looks to me like you are calling me a legalist which is absolutely not true. As a real disciple of Christ, I know through Him is the only way to enter the eternal kingdom. I do not find in scripture any way I can accept the doctrines of men you used to make your point.

      Your definition of legalism is not scriptural, it is the definition according to the apostate church system of man, but is scripturaly incorrect and a lie.

      Your definition “Simply put, legalism is a system of beliefs or rituals that people believe must be adhered to in order to obtain or retain favor with the God of the universe. For those who don't know Christ, legalism is adding anything to salvation besides accepting the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross by grace through faith in him in order to allow you to have a relationship with God.”

      Legalism is adding anything to or taking anything from what Jesus Christ the Lord of this age has said he requires and replacing it with the ideas of carnal man. Or twisting scripture to make it appear to be of God both of whichwhich your definition does.

      Here is what Jesus Christ, the only delegated possessor of all the authority of God in this age until He returns it to God at the judgment.

      He says we, the individual disciples of Christ, the living stones that are the church of Jesus Christ in. this age are to GO and make disciples of Christ. And we are to Baptize them in water and in the Holy Spirit of God, which makes Him and us of one SPIRIT with God. Then we are to teach them ALL things Jesus commanded us to do. Which of course includes following the indwelling Holy Spirit as it leads us. The actual word translated as commanded means much more, it means all he taugh, commanded and set the example for.

      Matt 28:18-20

      18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore* and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

      1 Peter 2:21 1 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us,* leaving us* an example, that you should follow His steps:

      So the word of Christ negates your claim of what legalism is.

      You also say “For the believer, it is having to do certain deeds or refrain from certain deeds in order to be thought a "good" or "holy" Christian. It is saying that, although you are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, sanctification is a matter of submitting to certain rules and regulations or religious standards. So a person's progress in spirituality is judged by how rigidly they adhere to laws that are imposed.”

      Which also is contrary to scripture (the words of Christ). And also can not be reconciled with these scriptures.

      Matt 7:15-16 15 "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits.

      Matt 7:20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

      Then you go on to say this “And of course, drinking can lead to alcoholism anddulterers, nor homosexuals,* nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor the misuse of it has lead to all sorts of sins. However, there is nothing in Scripture that forbids the use of alcohol in moderation. Rather excessive use is forbidden and getting drunk or allowing yourself to be brought under the control of alcohol rather than the Holy Spirit is a sin (Ephesians 5:18).

      But here is what scripture says about those that allow themselves to come under the control of alcohol. ( drunkards) to you apparently this is legalism?

      1 Cor 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals,* nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 1

      There is much more error but this is more than enough to show that scriptural legalism and the legalism of aposte pastors and their churches are not what God calls legalism.

      You do give some valid examples such as clothing styles, hair etc but the lies of the churchmen doctrines negate anything else you have to say here

    • GodTalk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Shirley 

      3 months ago from Kentwood, Michigan

      Thanks Jackie. I value your opinion.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      3 months ago from The Beautiful South

      I feel very sorry for the people who think they can earn their way to Heaven or that they are not bad so why would they go to hell. Seems the devil works overtime to blind so many to grace.

      On the alcohol and cigarettes I too believe they can be very bad for us just like overeating or overindulging in anything. All things in moderation and the scripture says it all in that it is not what goes in the mouth that defiles it, but what comes out.

      Great study.

    • GodTalk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Shirley 

      3 months ago from Kentwood, Michigan

      Thanks for the encouragement. It is my prayer as well that God will bring illumination to those under the heavy load of legalism! God bless you!!

    • speaklove profile image

      Heather Johnson 

      3 months ago from California

      I loved this article! It really spoke to me. There is a lot of legalism out there and sometimes there’s even twisting of The Word to support said legalism. It can be disheartening to new believers and cause them to give up following Christ. God bless you for speaking truth out into the world. I pray that the souls who need to hear it, stumble upon this article and the Spirit illuminates the truth in their hearts.

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