Believers Part 3: Legalism

Categories: Fundamentals of Christianity,Loving God,Sermon on the Mount

Our grammar lesson today will be looking into the word legalism.

I want to briefly intro our lesson today with the topic of grace. Legalism and grace can look very similar and on account of this the subject of God’s grace has become one of the most undermined subjects in the church. For the majority of believers this is not done through a deliberate attempt to go against God but is rather due to a lack of understanding that which they have access to as those who are seated with Christ. Their words may not say they are allowed to live entrenched in deliberate acts of sin but many times their actions speak differently.

It is not what you can do for God but who you are to Him that makes you unique in His eyes. This fundamental approach to Christianity is something that all of us should understand. God first loved us. Long before you were a twinkle in your mothers eye, God loved you. It is an eternal love that cannot be earned or improved upon. The works of righteousness should be an external expression of how much we have been touched by, and understand the depths of, this love. The snare of a legalistic lifestyle lies in the heart posture when we operate in the opposite spirit of this and seek to have a relationship with God based on merit instead of free love. The diversity between the two expressions mean the difference between a life that seeks to do works because they want to feel God’s approval and the life that labors in response to having already received God’s love and approval. The former is legalism while the latter is a grace filled life.

I believe the best way to discern as to whether legalism is at work within us is by seeing if we believe our commitment to God produces His commitment back to us. If we see this at work within ourselves then it is overcome as we gain insight and revelation into God’s affections for us. Works are a necessity but we do not do them to receive a reply from God but because He has already given us the greatest reply a Father could give – He sent His Son. So our life is not meant to be one that seeks a response from God but rather lives in response to what we have been freely given by God. We are to stand strong in grace and not yield to either legalism or licentiousness.

Now the outward appearance of legalistic works and grace-empowered disciplines can appear the same. The attitude of the heart is what distinguishes them. One operating in legalism engages in disciplines to earn God’s favor and to motivate God to love them. One operating in grace engages in spiritual disciplines out of confidence and gratitude that God has already freely given them His love and favor. Those who are aware they are walking in legalism in different areas of their life must move on from legalism to grace empowered discipline. This does not mean you first enter into a season of spiritual passivity by putting obedience to what God has called you to on hold. For instance, if the Lord reveals you have been legalistic as you have sought Him in prayer, then the correct response is to not stop praying but rather begin changing the reason you pray. We are called to give ourselves to spiritual disciplines to show our gratefulness for His love, of which we want to experience more. By doing these we position our heart to receive the most from God in the shortest amount of time. This is not earning it but rather agreeing with His affections and plans for your life.

The power of grace is that it gives us confidence that God enjoys us and will bless us. We are to live confident in God’s grace when we have a good or bad week. A struggle for many is the fear that after being born again by grace they can lose God’s favor because of a bad week. What they do not see is that to earn God’s favor in a good week would require 100% obedience 100% of the time. Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). James said, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (Jas. 2:10).

Our best week is not good enough to earn God’s favor. Our best obedience is tainted with imperfect love, impure motives and unperceived pride. We can believe God for His blessing in the midst of the worst of weeks and we do not need to bargain with God after we repent and claim Jesus’ righteousness. Relating to God based on how well we have lived in the last week is one of the most fundamental expressions of legalism. God does not like us more if we are disciplined in prayer and are consistently reading His Word.

This is the power of us having a correct understanding of grace and embracing it’s abilities. Grace changes our heart by giving us confidence that God enjoys us. Even after we sin, and do something we know is wrong, we can repent and immediately be right back where we were before the stumble. I tell you, we cannot work through the unsettled issues in our life without confidence that God is smiling upon us. Guilt says that our actions are wrong. Shame says our whole personhood is wrong. Guilt can be good, while shame is always a negative thing. Grace combats shame by training us to embrace the full affection God has for us even in the midst of a guilty conscience because of sin we have committed. This is all done while grace attempts to strengthen our will to walk out and experience the first commandment…. but more on that in Part 4. Amen.

Author: Brandon Hammonds

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