The Legalism Confusion

Now that we know something about the nature of legalism, we need to ask an important question. If spiritual legalism is so confining and guilt-producing, why are so many Christians falling into this trap?

In many cases, the answer is that believers are confused about this fundamental truth: “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).

A lot of Christians would say, “Come on, Tony, I know that. That’s one of the most basic principles of the Christian life. I’m not confused about that.”

But I have to wonder how many believers really understand grace. If they did, they would realize they are free to follow Christ. But freedom scares some folk, like the freed slaves who wanted to stay with their slave masters because slavery was all they had ever known.

God wants us to understand that we are completely free from the Law. Not free to live any way we want, but free from trying to save ourselves by measuring up to God’s perfect standard.

In Romans 7:1–4, Paul used the death of a spouse to illustrate our freedom from the Law. A woman whose husband has died is free to remarry. The Law was our old “husband,” but that relationship is dead, and we are in a new union with Christ. “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead” (v. 4). A Christian who is trying to please God by legalism while joined to Christ in grace is living an absurdity.

It’s like the woman who went on a trip to Europe after her husband died and she had gone through a period of grieving. On the trip she met a wonderful man. They fell in love, got married, and came back to the United States to live in her house.
But when the happy newlyweds arrived home, the man’s jaw dropped. Propped up on the living room sofa was the corpse of the woman’s first husband. She quickly explained, “I love you, but you must understand; I lived with this man for so long that I can’t really function without him. I need to keep him nearby.”

The woman’s new husband let her know in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t about to live with a dead man in the house. She would have to choose between her deceased husband and her new love.

I told you this was an absurdity! But this is what we do spiritually when we try to live by the Law after Christ has forgiven and received us by grace. Let’s bury that corpse and move on, because mixing law and grace will never work.

If many believers are confused about the true relationship between law and grace, some are also confused about the nature and the role of God’s Law.

The first thing we need to restate and reinforce is that the problem is not in the Law itself. The Law of God is good—but if it can’t save us, what is its purpose? Paul gave its purpose in Galatians 3:24. “The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”

The apostle also explained with a personal example in Romans 7:7–11. Paul’s problem was coveting. He didn’t feel the sinfulness of coveting until the Law told him, “You shall not covet.” But he also discovered that law gave him no power to obey God. He found himself coveting worse than ever.

In other words, the Law doesn’t exist to make us better but to show us how helpless we are so that we will run to Christ. The Law is the speed-limit sign on the highway. It can’t force you to slow down, but it gives the police officer the authority to write you a ticket when you fail to meet the standard.

The Law also arouses sin (see Romans 7:8). By arousing the sinful nature we had before we came to Christ, the Law showed us how much we needed Christ. But the Law serves the same function for us now that we know Christ. Our old nature may be dead in Christ, but our new nature is still encased in a sin-ravaged body called the flesh. And our flesh still wants to rebel against God.

The Law is the mirror that shows us how bad we look without Christ. But a mirror doesn’t comb our hair or brush our teeth. The Law reveals God’s good and perfect standard and shows us how messed up we are, but the Law can’t fix what it reveals.

Tony Evans

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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