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Jesus vs. Legalism 

by Aug 7, 2019

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Matthew 5:17

Doubt is trending. Though a wise man once wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9). It does seem as though apostasy is especially hot right now.

A few years ago I thought I had identified a trend among the young adults in my church community toward deconversion immediately following sexual sin. Something about having sex outside of marriage seemed to open the door to questioning the authority of scripture. In the time since then, several musicians, authors, and even some pastors whose work I follow have publicly renounced their faith. Meanwhile, a plethora of Christian podcasts and books have emerged encouraging the deconstruction of faith, resisting any religious practice or moral standard, while affirming doubt as a requirement for authenticity.

The common theme across many of these stories is one of rejecting Christian legalism. People of a Christian background saturated with legalism inevitably must face the reality of how unreachable perfection is and how difficult it is to keep God’s law. So they reject it entirely as irrational or irrelevant. If you operate in a culture that teaches legalism as gospel, then that rejection of legalism likely includes an utter rejection of Christianity, and possibly even God as a concept.

In the world of theology, there is a word for the extreme opposition of legalism; it is antinomianism. The fact we already have a fancy Greek word for it should tell us it is nothing new. In fact, throughout church history, we see this drastic pendulum swing between strict legalism and the rejection of any religious practice or moral law. Many of Paul’s writings were either correcting those who disregard righteous living, or correcting the legalism of the hyper-religious.

Again, there is nothing new under the sun. In our swinging from one extreme to another, we miss the gospel right there in the middle. The Apostle Paul is clear that our salvation is not contingent on our adherence to the law (Gal 2:16) but our salvation is a gift given to us purely by God’s grace through our faith (Eph 2:8-9). Yet we are still expected to respond, to work out our salvation (Phil 2:12) and participate in holiness (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Many of those who I have seen fall away from the faith seem to lack a true grasp of the utter relief that the gospel is. The law, the Old Testament, all of those regulations, when we read them it should bring us joy because it gives us some perspective of what Christ accomplished for us. We do not have to be perfect, because He was perfect on our behalf. We don’t have to carry the curse of sin, because He became a curse (Gal 3:13).

It is understandable that someone who sees the law as an obligation would be frustrated and exhausted. That they would consider completely abandoning the pursuit. Thomas Cranmer taught that “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies”. We know that the heart desires to sin (Jer 17:9) so we are constantly fighting our will to choose it. When we fail and we face our own sin, it seems easier to justify it by discrediting scripture than to face the shame of our shortcoming. But Jesus gives us a better option. We need not be beaten down by what we have done. Rather, we can come in our sin and shame to the feet of Jesus who has already borne the weight of it on the cross.

Obedience comes as a response. When we grasp what He has given to us, it should be such a relief and so fill us with joy that we would want to please God. As we draw closer to God, He works in us to change our desires toward the things that please Him (Phil 2:13). Obedience starts with knowing and putting our faith in Jesus. Hence, James writes that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). Because a true faith will in turn produce obedience. But if you try to skip knowing Him and just focus on trying to be good, you will fail. A pastor friend of mine once said, “We should not be so focused on trying to look like Jesus that we stop looking at Him.”

Neither legalism nor antinomianism is doing anything for us. It is between the extremes we find the gospel. The relief that we can rest in God’s grace and the conviction to live a life pleasing to Him.