Have you ever heard someone blurt that out after they were told either that they would benefit from the stoppage of a particular habit or that they could see growth through the taking up of more discipline? Or maybe you’ve said (or thought) that yourself in that kind of discussion. It is a word that can often “shoot from the hip” during the topic of Christian duty and devotion.
Legalism, or the attempt to make obedience to the law the means of receiving love and favor from God, is a serious problem. We all are natural-born legalists who thrive on the false notion that we could possibly do something in the realms of salvation and acceptance with God. In fact, most folks will find it offensive if they are told that their works mean nothing to God, and that based on works alone, we would all deserve his eternal wrath in Hell. We all struggle with this. Every day. Even before our feet hit the floor in the morning, we can be assured that there will be many temptations to think more highly of ourselves through legalism.
Legalism is a grace-killer. It will suck the life out of our gospel-living and will create self-absorbed, self-pitiful and self-righteous people, for starters. The New Testament directs our hearts to be free in Jesus Christ from this awful reality. Therefore, we ought to be concerned about living with obedience as our esteem-boost. I am all for taking every measure that the gospel gives us to remain free from the slavery of law-keeping and the defeatism that it creates in our condemnation. The gospel declares wicked men free and clear. The gospel says “grace!” and men are given new hearts that beat with love, devotion and new desires to obey Christ.
Now, when the threat of legalism is applied wrongly to Christian obedience and holiness, things get messy. If we shoot from the hip with “legalism!” whenever obedience and devotion are discussed, I’m afraid we’ve allowed some nasty old flies into the ointment.
Grace causes the born-again heart to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel. Grace renews the desires of the believer to take up his Master’s path, habits and holy living. Prayer, Scripture reading, fasting, tithing, evangelism, diverting your eyes (better yet, changing channel to C-SPAN) when Beyoncé prances around the Superbowl half-time show – all these things (and so much more) will come from grace.
Grace results in a human who delights in doing what our Lord commands. Grace is not the absence of obedience, as the person who rashly blurts out “legalism!” might be prone to believe. The lack of discipline and devotion do not show the absence of legalism – they rather show the presence of legalism’s immature and uncontrolled younger brother, “license”. License kills gospel-living too. And license loves to further its progress by throwing the term “legalism!” like a grenade into Christian obedience. License labors to show Christian freedom as the highest virtue, particularly when it results in greater fleshly comfort and pleasure for the believer.
We should know better than to say that Jesus came to make much of us, our delights and our standards for what life and holiness ought to be. Jesus is Lord! Doesn’t that put freedom into perspective? Our freedom is to know him and make much of him! If we put our freedom towards selfish gain, it is not the absence of legalism, it is pure, unabashed and ugly license. If you don’t believe me, then believe Peter:
For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. (1 Peter 2:15-16)
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)