I hear so much today about legalism in the church. I hear it more today than ever and perhaps it is for good reason in some cases. There are simply a great number of churches where it is difficult to find grace because they use discipline as a way to try to earn favor with God. These are the types of churches who look down their noses at anyone who isn’t living up to their standard of Christianity. Because these churches operate under the facade that they have it all together, it is near impossible to find the grace of God in these churches. Even if they do not think they have it all together they believe what they do makes them appear more righteous before God than others.
For example, perhaps a legalist reads his Bible every single day and then thinks less of the Christian who has fallen behind in Bible reading. Or perhaps the legalist finds his rhythm of fasting during the week makes him far superior to anyone who does not. I say this because I want you to know that I do believe legalism is a problem within the church, but I also believe many Christians have become so afraid of becoming legalistic that they have run away from prioritizing spiritual disciplines.
So what is legalism?
Legalism is when people try to earn right standing before God based on their good works. Many Christians have done this at some point in their faith journey and have found they could never be good enough to earn God’s favor. Because of this, many have unintentionally adopted a gospel that suggests they should simply do away with any spiritual disciplines, such as Bible reading, quiet times, giving, tithing, Scripture memorization and so on. In their eyes, because they are justified by grace through faith, spiritual disciplines are things legalists do. Discipline and obedience sound oppressive because they have failed so many times to be disciplined and have felt great shame because of it.
Not FOR grace but FROM grace
For the Christian, at the time of conversion, God imputes to him the righteousness of Christ. This means that all of our sin is forgiven and also that we have obtained the perfect record of Jesus Christ. This is the only way we stand before the Father in perfection. There is absolutely nothing we can do to add to this great salvation that God has graciously given and there was nothing we did to earn it in the first place. Salvation is a gift of God from first to last.
But the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is not the same as the imparting of the righteousness of Christ. In other words, you stand perfect before God because of faith in Jesus, however, that is not the end. God has not only canceled your sin and imputed righteousness to your account, but he also enabled and empowered you to follow him. He is not only your Savior, but he is also your Lord. And whatever your Lord requires of you, he is gracious to empower you to do it. Simply put, he gives both pardon and power.
Because of this, we know we do not work for God’s grace. Grace is not earned, otherwise, it’s not grace. Grace is given freely through the finished work of Jesus Christ. But even though we do not work FOR grace, we still work. We work FROM grace.
What does working FROM grace look like?
So when we read our Bibles, we do it because of grace. We love him and want to know more of his grace through his written word.
When we fast, we do it because of grace. We love him and want to know him more and see fasting as a gracious gift from God that allows us to meet with him in an intimate way. Fasting graciously shows us how much we rely on food or Instagram, or TV to mask our hunger for God and bring false satisfaction to our souls.
When we give, we do it because of grace. We love him because he was gracious to love us and we want others to experience God’s grace through our gifts. We also give sacrificially because we do not rely on money but upon God’s gracious provision. When we give, we are actually able to see his gracious provision which is God’s grace in itself. If we never give then we will believe the lie that we sustain ourselves. When this happens we miss the blessing of seeing God’s grace in our lives.
When we memorize Scripture we do it because of grace. These are the words of the very grace that saved us! Is it not gracious for God to give us a mind to enable us to absorb his word?
When we show someone grace, we do it because we have been shown the ultimate grace of our Good Father who gave us his son Jesus Christ and all of the heavenly riches with him.
But doesn’t discipline still imply a works-based religion?
Working FROM grace does not mean that our devotion to God will not take effort. Therefore, to many, it may seem legalistic. Some people think if you have to exert effort then its automatically legalism. This is simply false. Many times we will have to be disciplined enough to spend time with God, fast, or memorize scripture. But that does not mean it is legalism, it just means your heart is still bent toward sin and you are still in the process of becoming more like Jesus. He’s empowering you by imparting his righteousness upon you each day. He’s breaking the power of canceled sin in your life, but this is not a quick process. Most all of us would prefer watching tv or scrolling facebook to doing any of these things. But God has given us the grace and power we need to overcome our laziness and apathy to turn to him. When we make an effort to spend time with him, he meets us in our Bible reading, fasting, quiet times…etc. and he gives us grace and strength. So we are not working for his approval, but we are working to meet with our Lord and Savior and grow closer to him.
Consider these passages of Scripture:
But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.- Deuteronomy 4:29
I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.- Proverbs 8:17
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.- Jeremiah 29:13
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.- Matthew 7:7
Draw near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.- James 4:8
Does this make God obligated to us?
So as you can see, God promises to meet with those who diligently seek him. This may sound works-based, but it’s gracious of God that we even have the opportunity to draw near to him. He has freed us and empowered us to draw near to him. Without his grace, none of us could seek him or draw near to him at all. Also, just because we seek God does not make him obligated to come near to us. God can do whatever he pleases. But we don’t have to guess what pleases him. I think Scripture makes it clear that it pleases him to come near to those who diligently seek him. In this, we find grace and it also gives us confidence that our diligence is not in vain.
Furthermore, this allows us to realize that our own devotion to God is nothing we can boast in. If we know that it is only by God’s grace we are able to seek him, then we will never look down our noses at others who aren’t in the same spiritual place as we are. We will welcome the lost, the saved who are struggling with sin… and everyone from the legalists who think they have it all together to the (antinomian) one who believes they do not have to follow any of God’s commands because they fear legalism so much.
I pray that God would lead us to devotion to him and show us the depths of his grace as he meets us there. Help us in our unbelief that time with God and devotion to him brings greater satisfaction than anything this world offers.