Legalism in Light of the Gospel

December 12, 2011

In light of the gospel, let me especially demolish the myth that legalism is a blunder that’s associated only with our initial salvation—with our positional justification in God’s eyes. Most believers realize we could never earn such salvation; we’ve come to accept that no one can work his way into God’s kingdom… .

But when it comes to our sanctification, suddenly we become legalists. In the matter of maturing in Christlikeness—and in continuing to please God and find favor with God and acceptance with God—we suppose it’s all about what we have to accomplish ourselves and all the rules and standards and values we need to adhere to. We seem to inherently assume that our performance is what will finally determine whether our relationship with God is good or bad: so much good behavior from us generates so much affection from God, or so much bad behavior from us generates so much anger from God.

We get the Christian life all backwards. It subtly becomes all about us and what we do (which leads to slavery) instead of being all about Jesus and what he’s done (which leads to freedom). We may not articulate all this theologically, but it sure comes out in the way we live.

By their behavior, legalists essentially are saying this: “I live the Christian life by the rules—rules that I establish for myself as well as those I expect others to abide by.” They develop specific requirements of behavior beyond what the Bible teaches, and they make observance of those requirements the means by which they judge the acceptability of others in the church.

We’ve all become pretty adept at establishing these rules and standards that we find personally achievable. Legalism therefore provides us with a way to avoid acknowledging our deficiencies and our inabilities. That’s enough right there to make it attractive to us. But it’s also appealing to us in how it puffs us up, giving us the illusion … that we can do it—we can generate our own meaning, our own purpose, our own security, and all our other inmost needs. It’s what Michael Horton pinpoints as “the default setting of the human heart: the religion of self-salvation.”

It’s all so attractive because it’s all about us. Legalism feeds our natural pride. While abiding by our self-established standards and rules, we think pretty highly of ourselves …. And what’s especially fine about being in charge of our situation (though we wouldn’t admit it) is that it’s a way to avoid Jesus.

~ Tullian Tchividjian, from Jesus + Nothing = Everything

3 Responses to “Legalism in Light of the Gospel”

  1. David Says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the book Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

    What you said above makes all kinds of sense Dennis and I couldn’t agree more.

    There’s always a but you know….! Don’t you think we as true belivers and followers of Jesus that we have not only the mandate but the responsibilty to do whatevery we can to further God’s Kingdom and use our talents, however God has equiped us, to bring Glory to God. Of course….

    Trying to accomplish that and in so doing lose our very lives in the Gospel. It’s in the discovery and trying along the way that we just may fine out what dieing to self is about.

    Does it become legalistic to do so ? Is the discovery part of the problem or are we too scared that we may become legalistic in the process ? I suppose that if we give up our lives and count that as glory thats one thing, but in the process of following, we find we are to do away with the comfort our culture allows, and sacrifice for the cause of Christ, then thats far from legalisism don’t you think ?

    Does what I’m trying to say make sense ?

  2. Dennis Griffith Says:

    First, just to clarify, the entire post above is written by Tullian. I didn’t even add an editorial or a preface to this one.

    OK. Now for your question: Yes, we are mandated to advance the Kingdom. But more than that we are called to have a relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ. Now that may seem like a no brainer, but I know many people who get so wrapped up in the advancement of the Kingdom that God becomes the secondary focus; and the gospel becomes merely the tool and message that get’s peddled because it is what has to be accepted to become a Christian.

    I think many genuine Christians functionally forget and/or assume the gospel. Their attention is more on the mandate, and what they will do for God than on what God has done for us – and what he must continually do for us. I suppose the motive for this may seem noble, but in reality it is often an attempt to “earn” or “maintain” God’s favor. The attitude is like: “Won’t God be please with me if….” When the reality is that God is not impresses by our efforts, and is already pleased with his children. In fact, to try to please him by our efforts, rather than primarily by our affection for him, is probably offensive to God – it says we think what he did through Jesus was nice and important, but not enough.

    Jesus’ instruction to Peter is very enlightening. Jesus wanted to wash Peter’s feet, Peter said “No way”, understanding Jesus’ greatness and worthiness to be served. But Jesus says that he did not come to be served but to serve, and that if we will insist on serving him and not allow him to serve us then we can have no part of him.

    How does this relate to advancing the Kingdom? Well, we need to be served by Jesus, and constantly accept his service to us, before we think about serving others. When the primary focus of our lives is about how we serve him and not how he is serving us then I suspect we may be struggling with legalistic tendencies.

    Legalism is not simply making up rules God did not get around to making, nor is it merely taking the Law seriously. Legalism is relating to the Law in a wrong way, and relating to God on the basis of anything we do rather than relating to him solely on the basis of what Jesus has already done for us and is doing for us right now.

  3. David Says:

    Understand. I wonder if we run the risk by doing or striving and working hard and sacrifice our very lives that we are somehow being in danger of being legalistic !

    I would rather be linked up with those who understand Gal 2:20 and people like James or countless Missionaries who struggle with little fruit than anyone who is concerned their efforts may appear or might be out of legalistic ambition.

    I think we may have far too many in the Church who I call comsumers that talk of Gods Grace and are critical of those who may be a bit legalistic but are involved in real ministry to others. Those that talk and do nothing and are so intrenched in our culture that at least outwardly you can’t tell the Christian from the non-Christian.

    I say I would rather hang with those who might be a bit legalistic than those who talk and are comfortable in their pew each Sunday.

    On the other hand your comments about motive are clear. But I think we can please God when we are in Love with Him. We always desire to please the one we Love do we not ? Certanily not to gain approval but to be aware of Him and His Love for us and Loving Him back. Part of that includes keeping His commandments as even Jesus Himself said “if you Love me keep my commandments.”


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