Many of us still live under the spell that says we get saved by faith, but then will grow by self-stirred effort.
Legalism will always contain a rich dose of truth, but it will miss something far richer and more helpful.
Here are a few of the great misses of legalism:
God did not offer us pardon on condition of ongoing obedience to His law. God offered us life as the bride of Christ, the children of God, the friends of God, and as members of the body of Christ.
We enter into the Sonship of Christ and so desire to obey as He does, not to fulfill an obligation, nor to merit the Father’s love, but rather as the natural response of a loving heart.
In the Gospel we are offered that transformation of heart, that union by the Spirit, and that freedom to enjoy pleasing Him. Legalism pushes God into the distance and throttles the life out of our obedience.
Paul was so strong in his critique of believers who were drawn away from Christ and toward the flesh-driven pursuit of maturity via law-keeping.
Two thousand years on and many of us still live under the spell that says we get saved by faith, but then will grow by self-stirred effort.
Galatians is not just a critique of this law-based approach to living for God, it is also a glorious presentation of the opposite, of life lived in response to Him who loved me and gave Himself for me, the promised One who gives the promised Spirit so that we can be sons rather than slaves.
The Bible puts God’s grace up front as the initiator, but my legalism turns that around.
Now God is seen to be reticently gracious. He is hesitatingly good. He must be conditioned into being kind by my initiative through a self-stirred obedience.
God becomes the responder to us mini-gods who twist His arm by our self-starting acts of obedience.
When my life reflects an inner passion to gaze at the Law, or myself, or others, then I am living the lie that God himself, as revealed in Christ through the Spirit is not worthy of my loving gaze.
If I were to apply legalistic descriptors to a marriage, we would find it very strange. In a marriage we make a great effort for the sake of the other, but we don’t dwell on that effort. We do it gladly because we love the person.
A marriage defined by my obsession with my own effort is weird. It is also weird in union with Christ.
John Piper wrote that “the essence of legalism is when faith is not the engine of obedience.”
Peter Mead is mentor at Cor Deo and author of several books. This article first appeared on his blog Biblical Preaching.
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