GOSPEL SEEKS LAW
We must understand that Jesus’ ministry was to a religious people who were led by legalistic religious leaders. The early disciples were established first among the Jews who were the product of these leaders. In order to understand the purpose for which much of the New Testament was written, one must understand the nature of traditional legalistic religion.
We must not misunderstand what Paul is saying concerning legalism in many of his writings. Too often critics accuse Paul of believing that obedience to law was not necessary concerning one’s salvation. In fact, some in Rome believed that because we are saved by grace, we are not obligated to direct our lives by the law of God. Paul rebuked some Roman Christians, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rm 6:1). In other words, if grace saves to the uttermost, then in order to have an abounding grace of God in one’s life, we can live as we please. In doing this, Jude stated that some “turn the grace of our God into licentiousness” (Jd 4). Some felt free to live as they wished because of an erroneous belief that grace would cover all sin. This is the Christian who believes he can get by with all sorts of sin because we are under grace. This is also the Christian who feels he has no obligations because we are supposedly saved by grace alone.
One must not deceive himself into believing he can sow to the flesh and reap the fruit of the Spirit of God (Gl 6:6,7). One must not believe that he or she has no obligations toward his or her brother or sister, for we must “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gl 6:2). One must not believe that he can idly sit by and do nothing, for in Christ our faith must be working through love (Gl 5:6). If one is doing nothing, then it is evident that he has no gratitude for the gospel of Jesus.
We must not misunderstand grace. Grace frees one from salvation by meritorious law-keeping. It does not free one to do his own thing, and thus, live after the flesh. We must always remember that when the Scriptures discuss faith, faith in response to the gospel is assumed. If our faith in the gospel produces no good works, then we are dead (Js 2:17). The truth of the gospel is so axiomatic in the lives of those who live by faith, that obedience is simply assumed.
When one understands salvation by grace, he understands that he is not saved by the traditions of men. He is freed from human religious traditions. For this reason, those who preach the gospel of grace have the greatest message in the world to a religious world that is in the bondage of their own religiosity. In a world that struggles to maintain the religious traditions of the fathers, the freedom of the grace of God comes as a message of deliverance.
When one understands salvation by grace, then the law of God is established in his life by faith. Paul wrote, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Rm 3:31). When one through faith recognizes and trusts in the grace of God, he cries out, “Abba, Father.” He seeks to obey the Father as an obedient child of faith. In gratitude to the Father, therefore, he seeks to obey the Father. His life under grace is thus more abundant than a life of self-sanctifying law-keeping. Paul wrote of his own life,
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me“ (1 Co 15:10).
While a legalistic Jew, Paul was known for being a diligent laborer for God. However, when he discovered the grace of God that was revealed through Jesus, he labored more abundantly. Therefore, when one discovers the gospel of grace, he labors more abundantly for God than when he sought God through meritorious obedience. Legalistic theology puts limits on the obedience of an individual. However, the gospel frees one to spiritually grow without limits. Legalism limits; gospel causes growth.
As we venture into the marvelous letters of the New Testament, we discover the nature of God’s heart of grace that sets men free. Jesus came to set men free. Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32). “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn 8:36). Jesus came to set the captives free (Is 61:1; Ep 4:8,9). The captives are not free from law, but they are free from themselves in reference to meritorious performance of law. They are free from religion through the gospel of Jesus. They are set free in order to obey God rather than man.
In a religious sense, legalism is religious humanism. Secular humanism makes people the center of reference to life. It is believed that the power of existence centers around the ability of the individual to control his own destiny. The secular humanist discards God for the sake of trusting his own egocentric ability to be his own person.
The religious humanist maintains belief in God. In the Galatian and Roman context, the religious humanist believed in the gospel of grace on the cross. However, he also trusted in himself by emphasizing his ability to perform law or do meritorious deeds in order to sanctify himself. The legalist, therefore, becomes the center of reference for his own religion that he has created after his own system of religious self-sanctification.
However, all such beliefs enslave one to himself. The legalist usually does not have a conscience that is free of guilt. If it is free of guilt, it is arrogant, for he assumes that he has performed law sufficiently in order to save himself. Such a one is self-centered. In his or her self-centered religious egotism, dependence on the gospel fades into a distant past as one arrogantly assumes pride in oneself to self-sanctify oneself through the performance of religious rites.
The more we understand the true mentality of legalism, the better we will understand why Holy Spirit was so stern against its invasion into the Galatian and Roman churches. The better we understand Spirit’s argument against legalism, the better we will appreciate the tremendous grace of God in our lives to save us from ourselves.
It is through this grace that we receive the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. It is because of this grace that the Christian can have confidence in his salvation. He can have confidence, not because of meritorious good works, or his ability to keep law perfectly. His confidence is in the grace of the gospel regardless of human imperfections. Therefore, because of His grace toward us at the cross of Christ, we live out thanksgiving to Him for the revelation of the gospel.
(End of series)