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 that revolves around this modern sin-of-sins 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 the other as God’s law becomes ever more hated in the culture and ever more shunned within church congregations, as well as their leaders, under the misguided notion that they are 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. You can halfway expect that any suggestion that God has a law will be met with charges of legalism. But it’s not legalism. God has determined what is right and wrong, so we don’t get to now change that under the guise of liberty. Also, appealing to God’s law to determine right from wrong, and legalism, are two different things.
So first, let’s start with my first premise on this subject by pointing to a fundamental doctrine on 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 that he must do, to be saved. But the Bible doesn’t teach this sort of thing no more than it teaches that we can 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.”
To help us think through this, let us ponder one of those thought-provoking questions: Why should God let us into heaven? In our answer, we can’t use the word I, not even once; because to use the word I means that we did something. And if we did something, even a tiny thing, then we have reason to boast before our fellow man and God. If the evangelist knocks on your and your neighbor’s door, for example, and presents the Gospel to both of you, and you understand it and repent while your neighbor rejects the same message, what is the difference between the two of you? Were you smarter than him? Wiser? More open-minded? More righteous? More reasonable? If so, you have a reason to boast. But scripture is clear that no man has a 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 your salvation. Again, not possible, but if it were possible, you would have reason to boast. It’s 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’s 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.
Here, however, is where many miss it. Just because our obedience to the law does not save us, that does not mean we are free to not be obedient to the law. 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, which simply means doing what’s right in your own eyes. Keep in mind also that any righteousness we attain comes from the indwelling Spirit of Christ, which is a free gift from God. It’s 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 earn God’s love through obeying His law. In fact, you need to be grateful that your salvation is not dependent on your obedience in any way. But the desire to be good is not thwarted by our failures, nor do our failures change the fact that living righteously is a good thing, and is pleasing to our Father in Heaven.
I love you and I am praying that you will continue to fix your eyes on Jesus. I pray that you will not be fooled by the nonsense and confusion, and that you would love God’s law and endeavor to keep His commands. I pray that you would see your salvation has His work, not yours. I pray that you would place the lighter yoke on your shoulders, and enjoy God forever.