Legalism versus grace.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 March 2019
LEGALISM 'li.gəl.iz.əm noun. Excessive adherence to law or formula.
2. Dependence on law or merit, instead of grace and faith, for righteousness before God and salvation.
[Legalist 'li.gə noun.]

The absence of grace is legalism: Subtract the optimistic attitude, the forgiveness which should immediately follow when we slip up, the trust that God can take care of the details and manage our biggest messes. It’s when people figure yeah, God saves, but he only cares to save those who merit it with our good karma.

Most Christians are aware legalism is the wrong route to God. The evangelists drummed the idea into our heads pretty early: Salvation is through grace and nothing else. We can’t earn salvation; we shouldn’t try. If we try, we’re kinda trying to do an end-run around God and the system he set up, which is for Jesus to take out our sins. And the only reason we’d wanna do an end-run around God is pride, sin, delusion, or some other evil or self-centered motive. Don’t be that way. Embrace his grace.

So we do. Well, most of us do.

’Cause many Christians don’t fully trust God’s grace. It’s a faith deficiency. We might believe God lets us into his kingdom… but we’ll also believe in order to stay in the kingdom, or keep our place or rank in it, we gotta deserve it. So back to karma we go.

Hey, karma’s a hard mindset to give up. It’s deeply ingrained in human culture. Some of us grew up with it, and have been trained to live our lives by it. Because karma is fair: This for that, quid pro quo, equal rights, equal pay for equal work, I scratch your back if you scratch mine, and let the punishment fit the crime. It’s even in the bible: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Ex 21.24 People should get what they deserve.

And that’s why we still find it all over Christendom—with people insisting if we Christians don’t behave ourselves, we might lose our salvation. With Christians who figure in order to get right with God, we gotta do bonus good deeds, or various acts of penance. With churches who demand, in order that we be right with them, that we first do various things for them… things which tend to make them look legalistic and cultlike. Heck, some of ’em are cults.

The ancient Galatians did this too, which is why Paul had to tell ’em to cut it out.

Galatians 3.1-11 KWL
1 Unthinking Galatians. What put a spell on you?
Before your very eyes, Christ Jesus was presented as crucified.
2 I only want to know this from you: Is the Spirit given to you
by working the Law, or by hearing and trusting?
3 This is why you’re unthinking: You started in the Spirit, and now you finish in the flesh.
4 Did you suffer so much for nothing? (Because if you’re right, it’s really for nothing.)
5 So is giving you the Spirit, working power among you
by working the Law, or by hearing and trusting?
6 Like Abraham “trusted God and was deemed righteous by it.” Ge 15.6
7 So understand this: These “children of faith” are like Abraham.
8 The scripture, foreseeing how God justifies gentiles by their faith,
fore-presented the gospel through Abraham—that “all gentiles will be blessed through you.“ Ge 12.3, 18.18, 22.18
9 Hence those who act by faith are blessed with Abraham’s faith.
10 Whoever works the Law is under its curse, for this is written:
“Everyone who doesn‘t persevere in doing all this book of the Law‘s writings, is cursed.” Dt 27.26
11 Clearly no one‘s justified under the Law:
“The righteous will live by faith.” Ha 2.4

The Galatians had been taught before they could become Christians, they first had to become Jews—and follow the Law. The ancient Christians had a whole council about this, and concluded no they don’t. But the alternative “gospel” of meriting our salvation had caught on—because it’s so easy to regress into karma. It’s what we’re used to.

And it’s not how God’s kingdom works. His kingdom runs on grace. Always has. The LORD didn’t save the Hebrews from Egypt because they deserved it; he saved ’em because he made friends with their ancestors. The LORD doesn’t save humanity from sin because we earned it—we so haven’t—but because he loves us regardless. God’s grace runs completely contrary to karmic principles. So much so, it outrages people who value karma.

Which is why they subtly try to slip Christianity back into those karmic principles, where they feel safe and comfortable. But in so doing, they harm and distort Christianity. And since humans are creatures of extremes, of course we take the rules and reciprocity too far, and wind up with legalism.

There is a place for the Law, y’know. Just not in charge.

There are a number of immature Christians who want to get out of being obedient, good, or religious. They’ve figured out the easiest way to do this is to slap the “legalism” label onto any principle, rule, or command they don’t care to follow. Even if Jesus himself hands it down.

Their argument: “I don’t need to do that in order to be saved.” Which is entirely right; salvation comes through Jesus and nothing else. Legalists are entirely wrong to claim these guidelines keep us saved. But this doesn’t mean everyone who follows these guidelines is therefore a legalist.

See, the LORD handed down the Law after he saved the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus instructed his students after they left everything to follow him. The Law, the Prophets, the Proverbs, Jesus and his apostles’ teachings, and everything the Holy Spirit commands us nowadays, are not meant to be salvific; the salvation part is already done. (Unless you haven’t yet turned to Jesus. In which case what’re you waiting for? Turn to Jesus!) You’re not gonna lose your salvation unless you intentionally quit Jesus. But now that we’re saved… what do we do now? Duh; we follow Jesus. But how? By obeying Jesus—and for that, we need the Law, the Prophets, the Proverbs, Jesus and his apostles’ teachings, and everything the Holy Spirit commands us nowadays.

Now if you wanna be a libertine, and call yourself Christian but not follow Jesus whatsoever, by all means: Claim every decree of God is legalism, and be as irreligious as you like. Just realize that you’ve put yourself into this category:

Matthew 7.19-23 KWL
19 “Every tree not growing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.
20 It’s precisely by their fruits that you’ll recognize them.
21 Not everyone who calls me, ‘Master, master!’ will enter the heavenly kingdom.
Just the one who does my heavenly Father’s will.
22 At that time, many will tell me, ‘Master, master! Didn’t we prophesy in your name?
Didn’t we throw out demons in your name? Didn’t we do many powerful things in your name?’
23 And I’ll explain to them, ‘I never knew you.
Get away from me, all you Law-breakers.’ ”

God wants to save everybody, but if you’re gonna resist his instructions, you’re also resisting his grace. Because the only reason he bothers to tell us how to live is because he’s being gracious. He could just let us do our own thing, and let us live out our sucky, miserable lives without any guidance or correction. But he’s offering us a much better way to live. A kind, loving, peaceful, generous, forgiving, fruitful way. You wanna avoid this because you don’t like rules? Then ain’t no other way to put it: You’re being a dick. And dicks don’t inherit God’s kingdom. Ga 5.19-21

The rules are for our benefit. The problem is when legalists forget this, and forget to live by them graciously. God understands we’re gonna break ’em from time to time, and when we stumble, we have Jesus. 1Jn 2.1-2 But humans are not so forgiving, even though Jesus ordered us to be. Humans want to enforce the rules and assign consequences, instead of leaving that to Jesus where it properly belongs—and he hasn’t appointed deputies.

The problem is when legalists nitpick the rules. Not necessarily to follow them better. Oh they’ll claim that’s why. But more often it’s to find ways to get others in trouble. To discover ways in which others aren’t obeying God’s commands, and use that to penalize them, and control them further. (Christians tend to claim this is what the Pharisees did, but in reality the Pharisees were libertines who bent the Law instead of following it. Mk 7.9 You know, exactly like we do.)

Yeah, in the hands of legalists, God’s word is just awful. But so is any tool when it’s given to someone who doesn’t know how to use it. Give a screwdriver to an untrained monkey and it’s not gonna fix anything; it’ll just stab things for fun. Including you, if it doesn’t like you. But God’s word is supposed to light our way, Ps 119.105 and can do exactly that if we use it properly. Not legalistically, but graciously.