B. Legalism is a problem for the unsaved.
One of the distinctives of biblical faith is that salvation is not based on man’s attempts to reach God (religion), but on God’s provision to reach man (redemption). Legalism is a roadblock to the unsaved when they try to earn God’s salvation by works of merit, no matter how religious or sincere their intentions may be. This was the error of many self-righteous Jews in the first century. Paul wrote,
“What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’ Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 9:30-10:4).
The epistle to the Galatians also proves that religious good works can have no role in acquiring salvation and eternal life. We read, “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16). This was a major hurdle for Paul himself, since he was a zealous Pharisee before the risen Christ saved him (Acts 9:1-19).
Paul testified of his conversion that freed him from a vain, legalistic attempt to earn God’s salvation:
“For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:3-10).
This danger of relying on self-righteousness is just as real to ‘Christians’ who attend church and suppose that a head knowledge about Christianity and activity in religious services can make them right with God. Rather, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9). We need to come to God convicted of our sins, repenting of living our own way, and believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Instead of trusting in his/her good works, the sinner needs to trust fully in Christ’s sacrifice that He made on the cross to pay for the penalty for sin. God’s grace in Christ is the only way to escape hell, and receive the gift of eternal life. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the basis for the believer’s assurance of everlasting life in Him. “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30,31).
If you have formed on your own philosophy of God and have been relying on your religious activity, now is the time to come to God on His terms. When you truly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, the miracle of the new birth takes place (John 3:3-16). This new life will give evidence of vital signs such as love and hope with a desire to please the Lord. The discipleship journey involves steps of growth and obedience including water baptism, participation in His church, and a responsibility to help fulfill His Great Commission (Acts 2:38; Matt. 28:18-20; 2 Pet. 1:10; 1 John 2:2). Yet, as we will see in part three, discipleship is a grace-oriented life.
Part 2 of 3
Copyright 2009 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Please credit www.GraceNotebook.com. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.