Legalism or Grace? (Part 11)

Discipleship Series
by Rayola Kelley

For the last couple of months I have dealt with the concept of intent. The example used to bring home the point of duty or intent was the wrong emphasis that some people put on certain issues such as the Sabbath. However, if godly love is missing at any point, any act of devotion or service will become a legalistic duty that is often used as the standard to harshly judge the Christianity of others. This is why the Apostle Paul admonished Christians not to come under the yoke of the bondage of legalism.

When you consider the struggle that the new members of the pilgrim Church had, concerning what role the Law was to play in their lives, you wonder how that struggle continues to remain alive when we, as believers, have been brought under a new covenant. Our responsibilities have been clearly outlined in Scripture. For example, in Acts 15 when the leaders of the new Church were posed with the question of Gentile believers being circumcised to keep the Law of Moses, Peter admitted that their fathers were unable to bear the yoke of the Law. Therefore, it was not right to put such a yoke on the Gentiles. Therefore, this judgment was passed down by James, the elder at the Church of Jerusalem: “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, who from among the Gentiles are turned to God; but what we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols (idolatry) and from fornication (moral deviation), and from things strangled (unholy participation), and from blood(life is in the blood and established the new covenant ordained by God)” (Acts 15:19-20).(Parentheses added.) Note, the commandments towards God, along with proper conduct (towards the world and others), and a right attitude towards the significance of the blood are brought out, but there is no mention for the Gentiles to keep such ordinances of the Law such as the Sabbath.

The Apostle Paul was adamant that believers would not be brought under the bondage of the yoke of the Law that was too great for the people of Israel to bear (Galatians 5:1). The reason the Law was too great is that no one could keep it. People would fail to maintain some aspect of it, whether it was the intent of the Law or the actual rules of it. Keep in mind, that even in our courts, if the wrong intent can be proven, the person is considered guilty of breaking the Law, whether he or she has physically committed a crime.

We see this in the case of the Pharisees. Although outwardly they kept the Sabbath, inwardly they were defying the living God with an indifferent heart and profane worship. Even though they advocated that people keep the Law, they were simply making converts to their self-righteous way of doing, and not to the God of Israel. Clearly, the intent was missing from these people’s lives. Regardless of how religious and ritualistic they were, God could see their hearts. For this reason, Jesus called these people hypocrites and said of them that they were nothing more than white tombs that held nothing but lifeless bones (religion and works). Ultimately, they would receive a greater damnation for their self-serving emphasis regarding the Law (Matthew 15:8-9; 23:14, 27-28).

The Apostle Paul explained in Romans 7 that being under the Law can be compared to being married to an overbearing partner. No matter what you do or how hard you try, you cannot please such a partner who constantly reminds you, or rides you, about your inability to please their rigid standards. The fact that you cannot please such a harsh companion will bring you to an utter state of despair and hopelessness. After all, you are burdened down with the perfection and demands of this mate as long as you live.

The Law was not given so people could somehow please God; rather, the Law was given to reveal that we have indeed transgressed it, making us guilty of breaking the whole Law of God (Romans 3:20; James 2:8-10). To break a Law of God identifies us as one who has sinned against God or offended Him. We all know that we have sinned or transgressed the Law of God, bringing us under a death sentence (Romans 3:23; 6:23). This is why the Apostle Paul stated that the righteousness of God, which was apart from the Law, was manifested in His Son and would be imputed to those who believed (Romans 3:21-22).

The Apostle Paul talked about how the Law addressed sins along with its sentence of death, but he clearly pointed out it could not save a person. In other words, the Law had no ability to pardon, remit or take away sins. However, God in His loving faithfulness would not leave man in such a state. He would provide an advocate who would actually take our place by satisfying the judgment of death passed upon all men. This meant that Jesus would have to die in our place to suffice the righteous, holy demands of the Law.

When people think of Jesus as their advocate, they think of Him as a defense attorney, but this is a limited perception. Jesus in His righteousness could never defend us in our sin because we stand guilty and deserving of death. The only thing Jesus could do was become our advocate. Instead of simply pleading or interceding on our behalf, He actually took our place on the cross. Since He took our place on the cross, He serves as our defense or place of justification in the courts of heaven. The Apostle John put it in this way:  “And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

The question we must ask is what about the people who lived before Christ paid the price of redemption for us? If keeping the Law could not take away their sins, or justify them in their fallen state, how did they please God? There is only one way anyone could ever please God. It is clearly outlined in Scripture.

Before Moses and the Law, there was a man named Abraham. Before the covenant of the Law was the Abrahamic covenant. This perpetual agreement clearly pointed to the blessings that God wanted to bring forth through the promises that He made to this great patriarch, specifically that all nations would be blessed through this man (Galatians 3:15-18). In addition, I might add that before the institution of such practices as the Sabbath, Abraham had shown us the way we could please God.

Clearly, this man Abraham was never subject to the Law; therefore, he never kept any established practice. Yet, God not only counted him as being righteous, but He considered him His friend. Many of the practices of the Law served as shadows that pointed to something that was more excellent or superior to the covenant of the Law (Colossians 2:14-17). Since the Law with all of its precepts, ordinances and judgments did not identify Abraham to Jehovah God, what did establish this man in his relationship with God? Most of us know the answer to this question. It was faith.

Hebrews 11:6 states: “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” The Bible is clear as to what truly pleases God. In fact, we are told that what is not of faith is sin(Romans 14:23). In fact, what is not of faith translates into omitting that which is right. James therefore, reiterates that to those who know to do good, but fail to do so, it is sin (James 4:17).The writer of Hebrews also states that the children of Israel could not enter into rest (Promised Land) because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:19) 

The Apostle Paul dealt with the issue of the Law and faith in his epistles to the Romansand the Galatians. The apostle made this statement in Romans 4:13-14: “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of none effect.”

Once again, we are reminded that the Law was not made for the righteous, but for the lawless, disobedient, ungodly, profane sinner (1 Timothy 1:9). It could not sanctify or justify. It was void of promises because it could only work wrath upon the offenders. It could not deliver a person from its judgments that clearly deemed all flesh as being under a death sentence(Romans 3:19-20). Under the Law, man had no hope of deliverance and experiencing God’s promises.

It is for this reason God counted the faith of those who truly believed Him as righteousness (Romans 4:2-3, 20-22). Romans 1:17 tells us that God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith to those who walk by such confidence. Note, God counts or imputes righteousness to His people at the point of sincere faith. As a result, man is justified, sanctified, and able to inherit the promises of God through his faith (Acts 26:18; Romans 3:28; Hebrews 6:12). 

What is sincere faith? Simply put it is unfeigned confidence and trust in the character of God. It chooses to believe His Word as being truth. It clings to His faithful character when tested by fires, and waits patiently for His deliverance. Its natural response is that of obedience towards what it knows to be true and right before God.

Since God can count or reckon faith as righteousness to those who believe, He can also show such people favor at the point of their faith. This is why we are told that faith serves as an access for God’s grace to operate. Most people think God’s grace allows them access to do as they please. However, such a concept is erroneous. Grace can only operate where sin once abounded. As the apostle declared, God’s favor can only reign through righteousness. Moreover, righteousness, which is considered a gift, can only be imputed to people when faith is in operation. This is why we have been saved by God’s grace through faith (Romans 5:1-2, 20-21; Ephesians 2:8-9).

This brings us back to the issue of the Law. We know that we have a responsibility to God and others, but such obligation brings us to love and not obedience to the Law. We are told that we must fulfill (not simply obey) the Law. In other words, we must fulfill the complete intent of the Law towards God and others (Romans 13:8-10). The intent of the Law involves honoring or preferring the well-being of others to our own self-serving agendas.

Sadly, there are Christians that are bringing themselves once again under the yoke of the Law (Galatians 5:1). Whether it is keeping the Sabbath or some other ordinance of the Law, they see themselves as obeying God. However, they are not pleasing God; rather, they are frustrating His work of grace. The reason for this is that keeping the Law is not a matter of faith, but of legalism that often translates into self-righteousness (Galatians 2:21; 3:12).

Faith is not walking according to what we can do in our religious life, but walking according to the character and word of the unseen God. If you consider that one of the principle doctrines of Christ is faith towards God, you can begin to understand the implications of putting some type of hope in the Law as far as pleasing God or making ourselves acceptable (Hebrews 6:1-2). Clearly, showing such confidence or emphasis on the Law has nothing to do with having faith towards God. It is all about outward works that might impress others, but is void of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:1-14).

Hence, enters the contrast between legalism and grace. You cannot be under the Law of God and know His grace. You cannot depend on the Law to make you acceptable before God, while claiming faith at the same time. In addition, you cannot have a mixture of trying to keep certain ordinances of the Law while trying to lay claim to grace. The Law does not require faith, only obedience, and faith cannot please the unfeeling Law, but God will honor unfeigned faith by counting it as righteousness and using it as a means to show His favor.

The Law is holy, but it also proves to be unyielding to our plight, while faith allows God to show us a more excellent way of grace through His covenant. The excellent way of grace is what ensures us of the salvation that was freely offered by God through His Son, Jesus Christ.

The question is what side of the fence are you on? Have you brought yourself under the Law so you do not have to trust God with the matters of your life, or have you brought yourself under His grace by way of having child-like faith towards the one true God of heaven?