Liberty versus Legalism

“Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty with which Christ has made us free.” (Gal. 5:1a)

One of the questions most often asked of those of us who hold the grace position is, “As a Christian, can I live as I please?” The answer is, “You have the freedom to try!” To understand the freedom that we have in Jesus Christ is to have a deep understanding of and appreciation for the grace of God. As a child of the living God, we are free forever from the guilt and penalty of sin (Rom. 8:1). But this freedom does not mean that God is finished with His work in our lives. Receiving the free gift of life in Christ is just the beginning.  God then begins the process of conforming us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29-30). But this conforming process continues to be God’s work of grace in us.

“Being confident of this very thing, that he who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6)

What is the Christian life? The Christian life is developing a close, intimate, personal, private relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. God in His grace motivates us to develop this relationship, not with laws and penalties, but by love and trust.

“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God and if children, then heirs-heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ-if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may be glorified together.” (Rom. 8:14-17)

The One who lives within us, loves us, and releases us to love Him in return. Responding to this kind of love and trust with obedience and service should become as natural as breathing. We please Him by obedience because we can do nothing less.

It is much like the difference between a dog raised in the country and one brought up in the city. The country dog, never having been penned up, doesn’t know what it is like to be restricted.  But he doesn’t run off! The city dog, on the other hand, which has been penned all of his life, one day finds his gate opened, and off he goes. He may return or he may not. If the country dog, raised free, were penned up for a short while and then released, he might run off temporarily. But before the sun went down, there he would be, sitting on the front porch-not because he was forced to- but because he knew to whom he belonged.

The believer in Jesus Christ is God’s forever child. Fellowship with the Lord means simply to become at home with Him.  This was Paul’s prayer for the believers at Ephesus.

“So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19)

Those who do not understand grace living make this accusation. “If you preach grace alone, then it will lead to loose and careless living.” This is not at all what grace teaches us. Our godly lifestyle is not to be lived because any law demands it, but because grace teaches it.

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.” (Titus 2:11-12)

Once we have experienced the grace of God by trusting Jesus Christ as our Savior we are not to go back under a set of legal standards to live our lives before God.

“And be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (Gal. 5:1b)

The yoke of bondage is legalism.  Legalism is the opposite of living the Christian life in the liberty that we receive in Jesus Christ. Having launched out into this personal relationship with Christ, we are not to slip back into religious rituals or rules in order to attempt to please God.

Paul abhorred one sin more than any other in the believer’s life-the sin of legalism. In his day Christians were falling back under the spiritually bankrupt religious influence of Judaism. Judaism consisted of meetings in elaborate buildings draped in beautiful cloth with furniture trimmed in gold.  It also involved religious ceremonies with ornate costumes, eloquent reading of the Old Testament law, religious commentary on the law (preaching), singing, impressive public prayers, breathtaking sacrificial ceremonies with the smell of the burning altar, and religious festivals such as Passover, Unleavened Bread, First fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles. All of this activity became a substitute for an intimate relationship with Christ.

Those who were coming to faith in Jesus Christ were raised in this religious climate. Although the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ marked an end to all of these rituals, the flesh of the new believers wanted to get back into this religious climate. But Paul taught them to go on with Christ.

Legalism today is the attempt to live the Christian life based on a system of man-made rules and regulations. The motivation for keeping these rules becomes self-righteousness, or glorifying self through religious ritualism. In the South, religious tradition is as much a part of life as farming, quilting, hunting, fishing, and cornbread.

“Church” is a tradition in the Bible Belt. Rather than being the means used by the Holy Spirit to make disciples of Jesus Christ, having “church” often becomes the end in itself. Heard in thousands of homes every Sunday morning is the question, “Hey, you goin’ to church today?” Church is where we hear preaching and at times are inspired, convicted and even converted. It is where we see our children grow up, get baptized, and marry. It is where we meet friends and family, eat great food and talk about life. What church we attend or what religious denomination we belong to, for the most part, depends on our upbringing. We prefer church with a nice building with a steeple, organized meetings, Sunday School classes, a choir (organ and piano), visitation programs, deacons, elders, bishops, an offertory, and some reverence for the Bible.

These are all good things and can all be used to communicate the living word of God.  But it is the word of God that produces a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ. These “good things,” can also become a substitute for a taking in the word of God. The believer can unknowingly begin to worship these activities rather than worshipping the Savior. We can begin to worship our worship. Traditions become a part of our lives and are passed down generation after generation. There is “comfort zone” with them, a sense that this is the Christian life.

A person who is living in legalism will change his behavior pattern to conform to a set of moral standards, thinking that he is pleasing God. The feeling is, “If I go to church regularly, sing in the choir, give my money, and don’t drink, smoke, chew, or dance, then I’m okay.” The Bible tells us that there is an “appearance of wisdom” in feeling this way.

“Therefore, if you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world, why, as though you were living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations, ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using-according to the commandments and doctrines of men?” (Col. 2:20-22)

Paul drove his point home when he said,

“These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:23)

These self-denials make us feel good about ourselves spiritually and not good about those who do not cooperate.

“For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” (2 Cor. 10:12)

Living a legalistic lifestyle produces pride, and pride is the result of the flesh. Works performed or temptations denied can be a product of self-reformation.  A person whose life is built on a faulty foundation of human traditionalism and personal convictions and not upon the word of God will seldom come to understand what it really means to walk in the Spirit of the living God. This lifestyle becomes so ingrained in him and so much a part of him that he becomes blind to what it really means to live the Christian life. Legalism becomes a subtle substitute for a pure, simple relationship with the all-knowing, all-powerful, unchangeable God. This, my friend, is why Paul feared legalism so.