Why Grace Works and Legalism Doesn’t

A British naturalist who collected animals for zoos, Gerald Durrell, tells how he captured a number of African birds and small mammals. He kept them in cages for several weeks. At one point, due to political turmoil, he could not export the animals to Britain and was forced to free them.

He opened their cages to release them. To his surprise, some refused to leave. They had become comfortable there, nourished and sheltered from predators. He resorted to gently prodding them out with a stick. The moment he stopped, they went back in their cage.

Durrell was obliged to destroy their cages to prevent the animals from staying. They had lost their taste for freedom.

So it is with some Christians. They prefer the secure confines of rules, only to miss out on a world of adventure.

Every man harbors a Pharisee in his heart, observed the radio preacher. Remnants of corruption remain as long as we live, and often generate legalism.

Legalism is the assumption we get righteousness by following rules.

Like the Galatians, some suppose we are justified by faith but sanctified by law. Paul protests,

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Galatians 3:30

The other day I wanted something. I thought to myself, I’ve been good lately. God will probably give me what I ask. A moment later, I realized I had fallen into a psychological trap. Legalism assumes God rewards me for my own righteousness. You old Pharisee!, I thought. You teach grace and then assume God might bless you on the grounds of your own goodness.

Why do we relapse into such snares?

A subtle drive for self-validation remains. Our old nature is ego-centered. This feeds right into legalism. Man feels the urge to supplement Gods law. We develop new rules apart from those God gave. Urging others to comply lends an illusion of authenticity.

The legalism misses the point: Self is the problem.

Attempting righteousness by rules only strengthens our autonomy. This in turn leads to further sin.

Are rules bad?

No. However, rules can never produce righteousness. The Ten Commandments are valid to this day.

  • We sin by breaking them
  • Nevertheless, they are powerless to make us righteous.

Legalism does not put the brakes on our carnal nature.

The proof is in the way legalists treat free people.

Grace succeeds in our sanctifying growth because it is based on a relationship with Christ. He is not only sufficient but also indispensable.

  • He is not a supplement to our righteousness.
  • He is our righteousness

Some fear freedom in grace may lead to a disregard of the divine law. The opposite is true. We find ourselves following Christ more closely, who is always in accord with the divine law.

Here’s the biblical pattern:

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. Titus 2:11

  • First, grace brings salvation. We do not bring it to ourselves. What then? Does grace say, I started you on the right path. The rest is up to you.?

It teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, verse 12

  • Once grace brings salvation, it remains to teaches us godly living. Any who imply that grace equals freedom to sin, are calling licentiousness by the wrong name.
  • When we grow in grace, we become more free and less libertine.
  • Grace allows us to relish in our acceptance with God, as opposed to the legalistic mere possibility of a future acceptance.

Legalists suppose they have divine authority

The legalist is convinced he is standing firmly on the authority of the divine law. Instead, he has one foot on the law and the other on the remnants of his own corrupt nature. This is slippery ground. Neither foot is planted on the imputed righteousness of Christ. The sins of pride, self-righteousness and judgmentalism have a foothold.

Laws always produce more laws, not more righteousness.

They multiply like germs in a petri dish. This is why Jewish Rabbis, not content with Old Testament law, wrote the Talmud, a set of volumes expanding the law to the size of an encyclopedia.

Legalists imagine they are mature

Freedom is an ambiguous concept, tricky to define. Where does freedom end and license begin? Laws are concrete while principles are ethereal. Children require rules due to their undeveloped faculties. As they mature, they understand the principles.

Paul alluded to this,

Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. Galatians 3:24, 25

We can remain children led by a tutor if we choose. Or we may be free, mature adults acting on principle.

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. Romans 14:1

The legalist is a spiritual weakling. Like a straw man propped up by sticks, so the legalist props himself up by petty rules. Though he thinks he is strong, he is going nowhere.

Rules are like scaffolding for building a wall. Once the wall is built and can stand on its own, the scaffolding is no longer needed.

Legalists assume strictness is holy

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules:”Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Colossians 2:20

Religious strictness usually makes things worse. Paul had been a strict Pharisee, so he knew the legalist mindset. Being more strict equals more sin. Why? Because the power of sin is the law. It is the crutch on which the carnal nature depends in order to work at full capacity.

God’s risk

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. Galatians 5:13

Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 1 Peter 2:16

Free from what? From rule-based righteousness. Humanly speaking, God takes the risk that we might abuse our freedom to indulge the flesh. If this were not so, these warnings would not be in scripture. The warnings are proof of how just free we are.

Should we fear we might abuse grace? That’s like a doctor saying, I’m giving you a prescription but be careful because it might make you forget you are sick. This is precisely what the prescription is intended to do.

A friend said, If you are not enjoying your freedom, then you need to talk to the Lord because you have a problem.

If the Pharisee in our hearts has his way, he will bind us and that is no fun. Worse, he will use us to bind others.

As long as we are in the flesh, we will be at war with him. Do not let him win.