The issue of legalism came up in a conversation this past week so I thought I would take a stab at trying to clarify the nature of legalism. I believe there are many different views about legalism and how we perceive it. Let me identify several issues:
- Legalism – essentially where a person is to be focused on obeying the Law. It is especially used of the belief or practice that says we earn God’s favor by obeying the law, rather than just by grace.
- Antinomianism – the view that the believer should not follow the moral laws of the Old Testament. This is because we are saved by grace. It says grace excuses us from the need for discipline or holy living. If we follow the law we reject grace. It is grace that saves and sanctifies us
- Law – rules, commandments, order to be obeyed. (a) Most broadly it is the whole set of rules God has given to help people know and love him and live with other people. (b) The first of five books of the Old Testament, the Torah is called the “law”. (c) The Mosaic Law is the O.T. Law of Moses, the old covenant.
What complicates this more is how some of the New Testament writers address the Law. Paul might appear to contradict himself when he says:
“So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good… For we know that the Law is spiritual…” (Romans 7:12,14a)
On the other hand he makes it clear earlier in Romans 3:27-28 that we are not saved by Law:
“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Rom 3:27-28)
So the Law is good, spiritual and holy. This is because God is the ultimate source of Law and the Law not only reflects His holiness and righteousness but helps us see where we have missed God’s standard of what is good, spiritual and holy. The point is that the Law helps us see our sin but has no power to have victory over it.
But does this mean that we should not obey any moral law from the Old Testament? Even more pertinent is the question: should we be obeying commands from the New Testament?
Here are a couple of ideas:
- One of the keys is what or who is the final authority in our life? John 1:17 tells us: “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth realized through Jesus Christ.” The key here is that the point of authority has moved from the responsibility of keeping the Law to relationship with Christ. In other words, living out our Christian life is to be grounded in our relationship with Christ and motivated by our love for Him. When our point of authority is the Law then we think of duty, responsibility, and obligation to keep the rules, keeping us in God’s favor and only then is He happy with us, so to speak.
- One of the problems with this is how we are wired. Some of you, by nature, respond better to rules and regulations because, for you, it keeps everything black and white. No fuzzy gray areas; you do what you are told and the expectations are really clear. It is easier to follow the rules because you don’t have to think about what to do, you just do what is asked. For others you hate other people’s rules and regulations so you tend to make your own rules. Your rebellion against someone else’s rules is grounded in the idea that you are going to choose your own direction in life and laws are made for those who can’t function in society but not to handcuff you.
Be careful with this. Neither personality bent means that one is good and the other is better. Nor does it mean that those who hate rules automatically operate by grace much better than the “rule keepers”. The problem is these individuals are often negatively motivated by a need to be in control and not become “victims or slaves” of someone else’s idea of how they are to live properly. They often cannot operate under someone else’s authority and tend to be individual mavericks that want to call their own shots in life.
So where does that leave us?
- First, grace means undeserved favor. That is a problem in our context because it is easy for us to think we are entitled to everything. But God’s grace is unmerited favor; we do not deserve His generosity, we are not entitled to it, we do not deserve and will never be good enough on our own to earn His blessings. God lavishes His generosity upon our life because of our relationship with Christ not because we are upstanding citizens who are doing our best to keep the laws of the land and have a concern to help others. With the Law, the only thing that you need to be motivated by is the expectation of Law. This is what we ought to do, it is our duty, this is being a good citizen – the focus is on keeping the law and in some measure relationship is secondary.
- Second, legalism is best understood in the context of salvation, not sanctification. The problem in the New Testament was that you had to do certain religious traditions and practices like circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and other “duties” to be right with God. Here is where I will encourage you to read Colossians 2:20-4:4. This passage contrasts the essential differences between legalism (2:20-23) and grace (3:1-4).
- Thirdly, living under grace has far superior expectations than the standard of Law. The mistake that many people make is that if we are under grace there cannot be any commands, orders, expectations, or obligations in the way we live our Christian life. The error is that we think we can decide based on grace (which usually ends up being how we feel) to do or not do something for Christ. I will explain this next week.
Sincerely in His grace,