The Hope of Legalism

Neal Griffin

The Galatians were born again of (made free in) the Spirit yet they wished to be in bondage to law. They sought to be justified by law-keeping. They were legalists. Paul says that they were "fallen from grace. Christ had become of no effect to any who would be justified by law. How, then, are we justified?

Ephesians 2:8f: You have been saved by God's gracious love through faith. Salvation does not come from you; it is God's gift. It does not come from human effort. If that were true, man could brag about earning it. We are what God made. In Christ Jesus we have been created for doing good deeds. God prepared these good deeds long ago so that we could live by them."

Jesus said, "He that loveth me keeps my commandments." It is love of Jesus that generates good works. It is not to obligate God to save us that we do good works. It is our faith working in us. It is the same faith that saves us today that saved Abraham over four hundred years before the law. God never intended that man would be saved by anything other than His grace and man's faith. And while it is true that a faith that saves is a faith that demonstrates itself in obedience, this does not mean that Christians must exhaust themselves in rigid (letter of the law) law keeping. It does not even give a hint that man's salvation is based on his law keeping or on anything else originating in man except his faith.

Life in the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. People who have these qualities are not under law (Gal. 5:18). We will be made right with God through the Spirit. How? By faith (Gal. 5:6)! This is the kind of faith that works through love and not through perfect law keeping.

In their seeking justification through law, Paul said that they were hurting each other and tearing each other apart, being in danger of completely destroying one another (Gal. 5:15). Does this sound familiar? Could it be that we, the Lord's people, are so intent upon perfect law keeping that we cannot see the forest for the trees? Paul listed some fifteen sins in this same setting which I believe he attributes to their seeking justification through law keeping. See Gal. 5:19-21. In this chapter we see a powerful comparison between life in the Spirit and life through perfect law keeping.

What has been the result of looking at the scriptures through legalists lenses? One of the great tragedies of our age is that the established hierarchy in the churches has determined that the "church must be purged of any and all understandings or ideas that deviate from the truth as they perceive it. Assemblies axe torn apart. Life-long friendships are ended. Families are strife-torn. Lies are told. Back-biting is rampant. Evil alliances are formed. Lines of fellowship are drawn and Satan rejoices.

Where is mercy under a legal law system? There is none. The law makes no provision for violators. All are condemned. Where is joy under law? There is none. There is a law, however, a perfect law, a law of liberty that accompanies salvation. In Gal. 6:2 we read, "Help carry each other's burdens. In this way, you truly satisfy the 'law" of Christ." Another example is found in Gal. 5:14: "The entire law is made complete in this one command: 'Love other people the same way you love yourself '." This passage is a quotation from Leviticus 19:18. How does this all compare with the typical church of Christ approach to the scriptures? The reason that there is no joy in a legalistic law system is that law brings awareness of sin guilt, and legalism puts us in the awkward position of trying to obey the letter of the law when we are under a law of liberty. Is it any wonder that there is so little joy to be observed in today's churches of Christ?

Now, is there a practical application from all of this? I think so. If we are generous to the poor; if we care for our dependents; if we assemble every time the "church" doors open; if we abstain from sin; if we sing and pray, admonish one another, and eat the Lord's supper; if we sacrifice our bodies; if we do all of these things, but do them in response to an attitude of wishing to find Justification in law keeping, we have already fallen from grace and Christ has become of no effect for us.

Brethren, we must continually examine our motives for doing the deeds that we do. Let us pray that we are motivated by pure hearts. Let us pray that we don't become as the noisy gongs or the ringing of cymbals. Let us love one another and so fulfill the commandment that was from the beginning.