Legalism, God’s Law, And Confusion
I do so desire that confusion not plague your lives in Christ. And one thing that seems to have wrought a fair amount of confusion in this current age is a misunderstanding of legalism. The confusion revolving around legalism is twofold and involves both an increasingly doctrine-adverse Church and a culture that is becoming thoroughly intolerant of moral absolutes. Each seems to feed off the other as God’s law becomes ever increasingly hated in the culture and shunned within church congregations and among their leaders under the guise of avoiding legalism. And while legalism is a bad thing, the definition of it is being turned on its head with the effect of more and more people in and out of the Church living according to what is right in their own eyes. To point to God’s Word and suggest that God has a law designed to restrain evil is now met with charges of legalism. But it’s not legalism. God has already determined what is right and wrong, so we don’t get to now change that. Also, appealing to God’s law to determine right from wrong, and legalism are two different things.
So first let us start with my first premise by pointing to a fundamental doctrine. Good doctrine, by the way, helps us to steer clear of error and confusion so it’s always a good starting point when confronting confusion. So, in order to work through reconciling “God’s law” with “God’s grace” let us start with the doctrine of “God’s sovereignty” which teaches that there is absolutely nothing that man can do to save himself. Legalism, on the other hand says that there is not only something that man can do, but there is something he must do, to be saved. But the Bible does not teach that no more than it teaches that grace is a licence to abandon God’s law. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty teaches that our salvation is totally God’s doing. Paul gave us the reason for this. It was so that “no man may boast”.
So to help us think through this let us ponder a little question. “Why should God let you into heaven when you die”? The answer to that question cannot use the word “I”, not even once, because to use the word “I” means that I did something. And if I did something, even a tiny little itty bitty thing, then I have reason to boast before my fellow man and before God. And God will not have that. If the evangelist knocks on your door, for example, and presents the Gospel to you, and you understand it and repent, and after he leaves your house he goes to your neighbor’s house and presents him with the same message, and he rejects it, what is the difference between you and your neighbor? Were you smarter than him? Wiser? More open-minded? If so, you have a reason to boast. But scripture is clear that no man has reason to boast. This truth is our starting point for everything. Our salvation is a work of God, begun while we were still living in rebellion.
Secondly, it only stands to reason that if there was anything at all, no matter how small, that you could do to receive the Gospel, then there is also something that you could do to lose the Gospel. Again, not possible. It is by God’s will that you are saved, and not by your own will, not even a molecule-sized piece of it. So if there is nothing you could have done to gain your salvation, then there is no law that you could break once you’re saved to lose your salvation. So three things to consider here: 1) To earn your salvation through your own works is legalism. 2) To keep your salvation through obeying God’s law is also legalism. 3) God’s law still exists.
Even though we know that no righteousness on our part can earn us salvation, it’s still a good thing to desire to live righteously, and the Bible teaches as much. And to desire to live righteously requires a desire to know what righteousness is. That knowledge comes from God’s law, without which righteousness would become subjective and worldly. It would simply mean doing what is right in our own eyes. We are experiencing that all around in this age. Keep in mind also that any righteousness we attain comes from the indwelling Spirit of Christ, which is a free gift from God. It is not you, but Christ in you. We can thank God for that, and indeed thankfulness and praise is the only appropriate response.
You need to make peace with the fact that you will never keep the law. It can no more be done than being the perfect child, or the perfect father. But the desire to be good children, or good parents, is not thwarted by our failures, nor does it change the fact that we are children and parents.
For now I love you and I am praying that you will continue to fix your eyes on Jesus, casting off every sin that entangles you, and running with perseverance the race before you.