I find I am never lacking for questions on any given day. It is the answers to those questions that I find myself lacking – leaving me searching for, wondering about; pondering the possibilities that would satisfactorily put to rest each and every query. So it was no surprise that there were plenty of questions to discuss as my friends and I worked our way through a Bible study guide consisting of numerous questions but no answers. It is left up to us to seek out the answers.
The value in the question is in where it leads us. This particular evening the question that intrigued me was this. “How does legalism threaten the message of the gospel?” Contained within this question are the questions of “what is legalism?” and “what is the message of the gospel?” Defining terms is always crucial to any valid discussion.
Legalism is adherence to the law, which raises the question – “what laws?” or “whose laws?” A nation’s laws? a government’s laws? a particular church denomination’s laws? man’s laws? God’s laws? Who gets to make the laws anyway?
We get a good idea of God’s laws from Exodus 20:1-17, containing the ten commandments. However, these laws received quite the clarification or update when Jesus came and explained things to the listening crowds in Matthew 5. He said that hating your brother is the same as murder in God’s eyes. It is not enough to keep the outward appearance of the law with God, because He knows our hearts and whether or not we are keeping the law with our hearts as well. (let me give you a hint – we are not able to keep the law with our hearts at all)
We are given the two most important commandments in Matthew 22:37-40, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I can’t even do the first one for a full hour, let alone a full day! I am not capable of keeping the law, not part of it, not any of it. But if I could, would that be enough?
Legalism points me to the Law, gives me rules to follow, gives me a checklist and puts me in charge of my own destiny. That’s the lie of legalism. I turn to the law instead of Jesus because I mistakenly believe I do not need a Savior. I can save myself by following the rules, by keeping the law.
My hope then resides in the law and not in Jesus. The lie of the law is that we can make ourselves acceptable to a holy God who says, “therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:45) But the message of the gospel is the truth of our situation before a Holy God – I don’t have the capability to make myself righteous in God’s sight, no matter how much I want to, I can’t fix myself or my situation before God.
I can’t fix my broken relationship with my Creator. I am powerless to help myself. Someone has to do this for me – but who? Who is there who has the power, the position to accomplish the impossible? (this question has an answer) namely, Jesus Christ, whose name is above all names.
“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8)
If only keeping the law could save me, make me holy, make me right with God – but the lie of legalism is that the law has this power when it has no power, that the law can save me, when in fact, it can’t. Laws can’t change people’s hearts, only God, the maker of our hearts, can change them.
The message of the gospel is grace, God’s infinite grace towards us, whom He created in His own image. “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’s grace does for us what the law is unable to do for us. The law shows us our sin, but it does not provide the remedy for our sin. The law shows me my brokenness but offers me no solution, no way to repair my brokenness. The law offers me no way to repair my broken relationship with God, my Creator.
The law shows me how far I am from God but does not show me a way to bridge that gap. And it is a very big gap! It is a gap with a bottomless chasm, that separates me from a righteous, loving and holy Creator.
I have nothing with which I can bridge this gap. But God does. He has His own limitless supply of grace, mercy, forgiveness, redemption and restoration. It is God’s grace that fills the chasm, it is God’s grace that builds the bridge back to relationship with Him, my Heavenly Father. It is God’s grace that makes a way for me where there was no way. And that way, that bridge built by God’s grace, is covered with the shed blood of Jesus Christ. That was the price God paid to redeem me for His own.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13)
So, our original question – “How does legalism threaten the message of the gospel?” The message of legalism is the law, the lie of legalism is that the law can save us from our sinfulness and make us righteous before a holy God.
The message of the gospel is grace – God’s infinite grace to man – grace through faith in Jesus alone and nothing else, such as faith in the law or faith in our ability to keep the law. Legalism threatens to replace the message of the gospel by substituting the law for God’s grace, thus attempting to eliminate our need for a Savior and put us in control of our destiny. (which is a deception because God is ultimately sovereign over everything and everyone)
The lie of legalism is that I am capable of keeping the law and that if I could keep it, that would make me right with God. The law has no more power to save me, to change me, to transform me, to make me right with God than I have power to keep the law. I am as powerless to obey or keep the law as the law is powerless to forgive my sin, to change my heart, to save my soul.
Legalism purports to put man in control by making us think we can simply follow rules, even create rules of our own, as many church denominations often do and that this will allow us a relationship with our Heavenly Father.
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Romans 3:20)
But man is not in control. We did not create the universe, nor do we control it. The message of the gospel is God’s sovereignty (control), from start to finish, from creation to eternity.
“I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” (Isaiah 46:10)
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)
sincerely, Grace Day