Are you entangled in the web of “legalism” or do you walk freely in the “grace” of God which is in Christ Jesus? The word legalism means: a strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code. Certain aspects of that definition sound logical for a Christian. As Christians we certainly believe the words in the Bible are literal. We definitely believe the scripture teaches morality. And we also believe that compared to the corrupt, immoral, and sinful world the word of God is indeed strict. I recently read another explanation for the word legalism in the book titled, “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” written by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen. “Legalism teaches people to gain a sense of spiritual acceptance based on their performance, instead of accepting it as a gift on the basis of Christ.”
Teaching strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code is not Biblical for the New Testament believer. That is legalism. Legalism focuses on performance. Legalism focuses on plans and programs that promise favorable results. Legalism occurs in a Christian’s life today from the failure to rightly divide and believe the word of truth. As a follower of Jesus Christ we cannot appease, please, or satisfy God by keeping the law or by behaving a certain way. We must understand and accept the fact that Jesus Christ is our righteousness and has completely satisfied the just demands of God toward sin once and for all (Hebrews 10). It is finished! In Christ Jesus you are free from the yoke of bondage wrought by the law and there is nothing for you to do but rest in the completed work of Jesus Christ.
Under grace you are free from the law. Do not misunderstand what I’m saying. It is a very shallow theology for anyone to believe that once you have become a Christian you can live a life of sin with no consequences. God still hates sin, but we must understand that there is absolutely “no condemnation” because Jesus Christ has completely destroyed the works of the devil once and for all. We are now free in Christ to do what is right. Our new life in Christ has given us a new power and a new desire to do what is right.
Does that mean that God’s law which was given to the nation of Israel does not apply to us? Should we ignore His commandments because we are now under grace? If you choose to obey certain laws of God that’s fine, but it does not make you more spiritual or place you in a better standing with God. For example, if you choose to apply certain dietary laws recorded in the Old Testament that’s your choice. You have the freedom to do so. But if you choose to have a diet of medium-rare steak, shrimp, and pork chops and some chocolate cake for dessert that is also permitted. You may indeed be judged by the legalistic Christian but you are not setting yourself up for the judgment and wrath of God.
The only time we should avoid eating meat is when it becomes offensive to a “weaker” brother. “For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him” (Romans 14:2-3). Notice the weaker brother is the one who avoids meat and sticks to herbs. I’ve known individuals who had an “air of spiritual superiority” because they keep God’s dietary laws. You are not more spiritual because you are a strict vegetarian. And be careful with the attitude that you will live a “healthier” and “longer” life because you abstain from meats. Avoid dumping your “personal standard” on others.
The Book of Galatians
Legalism was the core issue with the Church at Galatia. The book of Galatians addresses the law and its inferiority compared to the amazing, immeasurable, and abundant grace that is ours in Christ Jesus. Consider the following passages:
“But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9).
That is strong language. Those who do not preach the gospel, how that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day, who do not proclaim that Christ alone is the propitiation for our sins, who do not proclaim He is the only one who brings complete forgiveness, who do not teach we are justified by faith in Him alone, who teach something in addition to Christ is required in order to prove, maintain, and mature their spiritual life, are legalistic.
“And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage:” (Galatians 2:4).
Notice the false brethren who introduced the law were said to have brought the believers into bondage. The genuine Christian life is not a combination of Jesus Christ plus obedience to certain laws or commandments. The genuine Christian life is a life committed to Jesus Christ which in turn will spontaneously bring forth good fruit. When we are connected to the True Vine, Jesus Christ, we will yield fruit. Genuine faith produces genuine works.
Years ago while lying in bed I glanced upward and observed some decorations on our canopy. Beautiful clusters of grapes hung from green leafy branches that wrapped around the rails. The words “you can do nothing” from John 15:5 continued to echo in my mind. That is when it first occurred to me. I observed that the branch was simply abiding in the vine. There was no toiling or striving to bring forth fruit. The branch was not ambitious, regimented, or even talented. It too was helpless, yet it flourished in the vine. The branch was alive and productive; yet resting.
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified
” (Galatians 2:16).
Do you know that in Christ you are justified? We are declared righteous. You protest, “I’m not righteous. I still sin .” Yes, so do I. That’s the miracle of grace through Christ. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The righteousness of God is perfectly righteous and it’s yours in Christ.
“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Galatians 2:21).
It’s not in your doing or performing. The abundant life is in your being and your new identity in Christ. “Free from the law, oh happy condition, Jesus hath bled and there is remission.”
“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-3).
“Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Galatians 3:21-22).
Don’t be fooled and bewitched by the legalist. Faith is the victory. Jesus has paid it all. Love Him. Serve Him. Follow Him. Why would you return to the weak and beggarly elements of attempting to please God by strict conformity and obedience to rules, laws, statutes, and commandments?
“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:24-28).
What is the purpose of the law? To bring us to Christ in order that His law may be written on the table of our heart! “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrews 10:16-17).
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).