Bypassing the Detour of Legalism (Part 3)

C. Legalism is also a problem for Christians.

Man-made rules, apart from divine relationship, turn God’s values upside down! “The story was told some years ago of a pastor who found the roads blocked one Sunday morning and was forced to skate on the river to get to church, which he did. When he arrived, the elders of the church were horrified that their preacher had skated on the Lord’s day. After the service, they held a meeting where the pastor explained that it was either skate to church or not go at all. Finally one elder asked, ‘Did you enjoy it?’ When the preacher answered, ‘No,’ the board decided it was all right! [2]

Paul gave this rebuke to believers who were straying into a ‘Christ plus law’ plan of salvation and sanctification:

“This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the [Holy] Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:2, 3)

How can we recognize the characteristics of Christian legalism? Neil Anderson notes, “We are living under the law when we try harder to do God’s will in our own strength and resources. This makes us go-getters, high achievers, hard chargers, perfectionists, driven people, workaholics, and supermoms who eventually burn up, blow out, or go into full-blown sin and rebellion. Who can live the perfect life? Sooner or later we hit the wall. Fortunately, it is when we come to the end of ourselves that we begin to learn that we are not under law but under grace.”[3]

Then, does living under grace cause passivity? Not at all. Fighting the good fight is still a fight; disciplining ourselves for godliness still requires discipline. Good works are still works, but now there is a crucial difference. Obedience flows from the strength and grace of the indwelling Christ, not our own self-effort (1 Tim. 6:12; 1 Tim. 4:7; Titus 2:14; Gal. 2:20).

Does freedom from the law give a license to sin? Paul answers this misconception in Romans 6:1-16. Likewise, the apostle Peter counseled that believers are “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ…”(1 Pet. 1:2).

Obeying the New Testament’s admonitions (especially in Romans through Revelation which are directly applicable to us in this age of grace) are expected and required for God’s people (2 Cor. 10:5,6). The Lord warns us about those who turn the grace of God into lewdness (Jude 4). So beware of being so enamored with freedom from the law that you swing from legalism to license.

The benefit of living under grace is not to lower our vision for practical holiness. Rather, the incomprehensible love of God inspires us to rise above the letter of ethical stipulations. The heartbeat of love-inspired devotion is epitomized by Paul in a Roman jail: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).

Christian disciplines prescribed in the New Testament can either be done or demanded legalisticaly, or they can be opportunities to aid spiritual growth in grace. What prevents Bible reading (Matt. 4:4), prayer (1 Thess. 5:17), witnessing (Acts 1:9) , church attendance (Heb. 10:24,25), giving (2 Cor. 8,9), fasting (Acts 13:2), and other facets of discipleship from becoming legalistic?

Three reminders can guard us from slipping into legalism as believers who desire to please our Redeemer (2 Cor 5:9).

Reminder # 1) Your good works works cannot gain or keep your right standing with God. The epistle to the Romans states, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus…” “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 8:1; 5:1). Believers under grace live as children of God who are accepted completely in Christ. Fear of judgment has been replaced by loving, reverent gratitude.

Reminder #2. The source of your good works is your union with Christ. Paul’s testimony should be ours: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in [or ‘of’] the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The believer is not trying to live for God, but cooperating with Him (Phil 2:13).

The Lord Jesus is the True Vine; we are the branches. Good works in discipleship are essentially fruit–demonstrations of His life being expressed through us! (John 15:1-8).

Reminder #3. Your good works will always be related to love. Christ declared that the greatest commandment is to love God; the second greatest is to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matt. 22:37-39). Love summarizes all the other moral responsibilities: “…he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8b-10).

D. Conclusion

Freedom from legalism is found by living in grace, by faith in the indwelling Christ as we are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. God’s moral law is now written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33; 2 Pet. 1:4), so cooperating with God is consistent with our new essential nature, our regenerated spirit. The Old Testament economy functioned as a “ministry of the letter” [of the law], of death, and condemnation with a fading glory. However, God’s New Covenant functions as a ministry of the Spirit, of life, and justification with an unfading glory (2 Cor. 3:6-11).

Bible teacher W.H. Griffith Thomas brought out the role of the Holy Spirit in our hearts in this age of grace: “In the deep and grim recesses of our personality the Holy Spirit works His blessed and marvelous way, transfiguring character, uplifting ideals, inspiring hopes, creating joys, and providing perfect satisfaction. And as we continue to maintain and deepen the attitude of faith, the Holy Spirit is enabled to do His work and we are enabled to receive more of His grace. By every act of trust and self-surrender we receive ever larger measures of the life of Christ ‘from glory to glory’ by the Spirit of the Lord.” [4]

So, remember to use the law lawfully. You will avoid legalism and license as you grow in grace, walking in fellowship with God’s Spirit.

Part 3 of 3. For parts 1,2 see

[2] Today in the Word, December, 1989, p. 12.

[3] Neil T. Anderson, Mike and Julia Quarles, One Day at a Time, (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2000), 249.

[4] Quoted in His Victorious Indwelling. ed Nick Harrison (Zondervan), p. 430-431. See 2 Cor. 3:18.

For a thorough, balanced treatment of this topic, see Breaking the Bondage of Legalism: When Trying Harder Isn’t Enough, by Neil T. Anderson, Rich Miller, and Paul Travis.

Copyright 2009 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Please credit Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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