Legalism and Grace

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From Legalism to Grace

Mirrored with permission from Mike Taylor:

10th July 2001

1. Introduction: the importance of grace
2. The curse of legalism
        2.1. Our natural tendency towards legalism
        2.2. Others may lead us into legalism
3. Overcoming legalism
        3.1. Understand what God has done
        3.2. Reject law, embrace grace
        3.3. Live lives that please God

1. Introduction: the importance of grace

This study is exclusively from the book of Galatians, which is essentially a single sustained argument against legalism. Really, you should stop reading this study right now, and go and read Galatians instead :-)

However, if you insist on reading this, let's start by being clear on how important it is that we rightly understand the grace that God has given us:


I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
- Galatians 1:6-9

This is strong language!

Over and over again in the New Testament, Paul is absolutely clear that the gospel is simply grace. Anything else does not merely fall short of the full gospel, it is actually opposed to it. ``The gospel plus x'' is always less that the gospel alone.

This makes it crucial that we fully understand grace, and understand how it can be undermined in our lives by its arch enemy, legalism, which is essentially any attempt to improve on what God has done for us by adding things that we do for him.


So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ``Abba, Father.'' So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.
- Galatians 4:3-7

Look at the total transformation that grace works in us: it makes us sons (that is, children who receive an inheritance) of God. Not merely his servants or even his friends, but his sons and daughters.

2. The curse of legalism

What is legalism? It is any attempt to earn approval from God with our imperfect actions, rather than accepting and being pleased with the approval that he freely offers us because Jesus has earned it for us with his perfect sacrifice. Legalism is always doomed to failure because we are imperfect and the God that we seek to impress is perfect. It robs us of peace and joy.

Arthur Wallace, in The Radical Christian, writes ``Legalism is [...] Satan's most effective means of infiltrating and undermining the work and witness of the church.'' (p155). And Terry Virgo, in Restoration in the Church, writes ``The devil realizes that undermining the very character of the gospel is far more effective than opposing it blatantly because he then reduces it to the level of an irrelevant religion.'' (pp38-39).

This is what had happened to the pharisees in the time of Jesus.

One of the reasons that legalism is particularly dangerous because it can look ``holy''. But its focus is on externals:
Prayer regimes which attempt to impress God.
Bible-reading schedules which load us with guilt.
Praying loudly in an ``NFI elder'' voice.
Worship song selection that majors on our surrender more than on Jesus' sacrifice.
Avoidance of sin through fear of losing God's love.

The last of these is particularly seductive: yes of course it's good to avoid sin. But the biblical motivation to do so is that we are no longer sinners by nature, and that sin goes against the new nature that God has given us. To fear the loss of God's love is destructive, and leads to ``just this side of the line'' behaviour, with a constant desire to cross that line, and a sense that the grass is greener on the other side.

2.1. Our natural tendency towards legalism


Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God - or rather are known by God - how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
- Galatians 4:8-9

Paul writes that the Galatians are ``turning back to those weak and miserable principles''. But you can only go back to what you've previously been in, which in the case of the Galatians (as with us) was not Judaism. Their background was paganism.

The ``weak and miserable principles'' are those that underly every religion, not just Judaism: the attempt to earn God's approval by doing good deeds and avoiding bad ones. This is the fundamental difference that separates Christianity from every other religion: we simply accept God's love while religions try to earn what is freely given. This is truly ``Amazing Grace''.

We too easily grow used to the thinking of the world that surrounds us - in contravention of Paul's exhortation, ``Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.'' (Romans 12:2). There are plenty of non-Christians who actively do not want grace - their attitude is, ``No-one's ever given me anything; everything I have, I earned myself.'' This position is based on an appalling misunderstanding of the relationship between God and man - yet it is so prevalent that elements of it can seep into our own thinking.

Among the reasons that even Christians who know better can slip into this mode of thinking:

Unbelief in God's grace - we need to keep reminding ourselves of Amazing Grace because it's so different from our experience of the world.
The external appearance of holiness is seductive.
We want to look good in front of others.

2.2. Others may lead us into legalism


You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
- Galatians 3:1-3

There is another, more sinister, cause of legalism, which is that even the church itself may teach it, by example if not by doctrine. Even churches which preach grace may subtly enforce extra-biblical standards in areas like how people dress, what entertainment they enjoy, etc. (Not that these areas should be exempt from scrutiny!)

The people who ``bewitched'' the Galatians were probably Jewish Christians who could not bring themselves to believe fully in grace. They may even have sincerely believed that they were acting in the Galatians' best interests. Not so.

3. Overcoming legalism

Here is a simple test to check whether you are prone to a legalistic thinking: ask yourself, ``How does God feel about me today?'' If the answer is anything other than, ``He is passionately in love with me'', then you are falling into the trap of thinking that God's attitude towards us is determined by our performance rather than by his essential loving character. In other words, you're thinking as though God's favour is earned rather than freely given.

Here are three ways to combat this legalistic tendency:

3.1. Understand what God has done

In John 8:32, Jesus says ``You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'' This is why doctrine is so important.


Through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!
- Galatians 2:19-21

Arthur Wallis calls this ``the Death Blow''! 2 Corinthians 5:17 says ``if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!'' Now that is radical. This is not a metaphor! It's the meaning of the over-worked and insufficiently understood phrase ``born again''.

Read Terry Virgo's Restoration in the Church, chapter 4 (Amazing Grace), pp39-40 (from ``In Romans 7 Paul explains'' to ``and not in the oldness of the letter''.) He explains how our freedom from the marriage contract with the law could be broken only by our death - or rather, Jesus' vicarious death for us.

For a more figurative illustration of how deeply God has worked in us, see the story of Eustace's transformation from dragonhood in C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, chapter 7 (How the Adventure Ended), pp94-96 (from ``Well, anyway, I looked up'' to ``I'd turned into a boy again''.)

3.2. Reject law, embrace grace


It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
- Galatians 5:1

``Get rid of that slave woman and her son!'' Like Abraham's Sarah, we must be uncompromisingly brutal in flatly refusing to accept the Ishmael of legalism, who will bully the Isaac of grace if we allow him to.

3.3. Live lives that please God


You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ``Love your neighbor as yourself.'' If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
- Galatians 5:13-15

Romans 6:1-2 says ``What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?'' J. B. Phillips translates this as ``Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? What a ghastly thought!''

But we must understand the fundamental difference in motivation.

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