Let me confess up front that I am a rules guy. All of my life I have tried to be responsible and obedient. I was a compliant child at home and at school. I was always bothered by others who seemed to pay no attention to the rules. In many ways, that is still true. I can become very judgmental of others who seem to disregard the rules.
God began to do a work in me when I went to college. He began to challenge my legalism. For the first time in my life, I encountered people who were genuinely committed to Christ, yet applied their faith in ways different from mine. They were much freer and less bound by rules. For the first time, I began to struggle with what it means to live by faith under grace.
Our small group is studying Romans. At the heart of Romans is the debate between Grace and the Law. The audience that Paul was writing to were staunch legalists. They believed in the Law and sought to conform to it. As new Christians, they were struggling with how the Law and God’s Grace worked together. They saw their standing before God as dependent upon their conformity to the Law. Paul forcefully argued that our righteousness before God comes by faith in God and not by adherence to the Law. Paul saw the Law as the means of awakening us to our sin, but the Law is powerless to free us from our sin.
My personal struggle has been complicated by my daily devotions. I have committed to reading the Bible through in a year. The reading guide that I am using currently has me reading Leviticus. The whole of Leviticus is an outline of God’s laws for the people of Israel. This is clean and this is unclean. This is acceptable and this is unacceptable. I understand the overarching reason for the Law; to set Israel apart as the unique people of God, holy to Him. But, as I read Leviticus, I am struck by the black and white nature of the Law. There seems to be little or no grace. The penalties for breaking the law are severe, and at times seemingly excessive.
As severe as the Old Testament law seems, it does offer a clear, black and white boundary about what is right and what is wrong. Here in lies the allure of legalism. In our increasingly secular world, which works very hard to blur the lines of right and wrong, or to eliminate them altogether, it is enticing to embrace a clear set of rules. Legalism seems to eliminate the ambiguity.
Most people, if not all, deep down, have a love/hate relationship with rules. We all want maximum freedom for ourselves and clear boundaries for others. We desire to blur the lines of right and wrong when they are applied to us personally. We are willing to do this for others in theory. But in practice, we apply our sense of right and wrong to others, and are offended when they violate our standard.
Now let’s mix in the concept of grace. By definition, grace is receiving something that I do not deserve. Grace is not an obligation, it is a gift. The Bible tells us that our salvation in Christ is an act of grace from God. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) God has extended his grace to us through Jesus Christ. When we accept this amazing gift, through faith, we enter into a right relationship with God for all of eternity. Then something incongruous happens; we slip back into legalism. This is the very thing Paul was combating in Romans.
Here is how it works. We accept the free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus. Then we live our lives trying to earn it, by keeping a set of rules. We judge other people’s walk with Christ based on our particular set of rules, just as the Pharisees did to Jesus. We say that we live by grace, but actually we live by law. Why? Because it is a whole lot easier.
The demands of grace are hard. It requires us to be humble and generous. We must deal graciously with others who see things differently than we do. Grace demands that we leave some things in the realm of gray; matters of conscience. It means that we give our time, energy and resources to God freely, not expecting anything in return. Grace makes it clear that in no way is God obligated to us, yet in His great love, He showers us freely with his blessings. When we fully embrace grace, we are truly free to love God and our fellow man without strings attached.
Legalism, on the other hand, is easy. Legalism sets clear, black and white boundaries. It gives us a spiritual checklist, by which we can measure our progress. Legalism allows us to hold others accountable and to hold God accountable. Legalism gives us the right to judge other people’s actions. Legalism allows us to demand that God act toward us in prescribed ways. But, legalism is a trap. It robs us of our freedom in Christ and fills us with uncertainty and disappointment. It leads to arrogance, bitterness, anger and discontent.
Bottom line, legalism feeds into our desire to be in control; to be our own master. Legalism offers black and white answers. Legalism fosters an attitude of elitism. Grace requires letting go of control, and trusting in the goodness and power of God through Christ Jesus. Grace does not negate right and wrong, but it responds to right and wrong with compassion. Grace fosters an attitude of humility. Legalism is easy, but it leads to death. Grace is hard, but it leads to life.
Lest you think that legalism is limited to religious people, there are just as many secular legalists as religious; maybe more.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.