January 21, 2012

Pride, Despair, or Rebellion: The 3 Outcomes of Legalism

What do we do with commands in the New Testament since we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone? Take Ephesians chapters 4 & 5 for example. They are chock full of commands and rules. If someone were to just pick up the Bible and flip to these two chapters and begin reading at chapter four, the Christian faith would sound very dogmatic and legalistic. Unfortunately that’s what a lot of teachers and pastors do. They assume everyone understands the gospel. I believe this is a grave mistake because 1) you should never assume everyone understands the gospel and 2) you can never hear the gospel enough! Works based religion is our human default mode.

Our tendency is to completely overlook Paul’s first words of chapter 4: “I Therefore.” Meaning that he expects theses things to happen because of what he has laid out for us in the first three chapters. Paul spends the first three chapters of his letter reminding us of who Christ is and what He has done on our behalf and the blessings we have because of His sacrifice. In fact, Paul’s first command doesn’t show up until Eph. 4:1! He literally spends half the letter displaying the glory of Christ and the beauty of His gospel! We’ve got to understand the first three chapters (indicatives) before we move on to 4 and 5 (imperatives).

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” – (Ephesians 1:3-14 ESV)

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” – (Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV)

Christianity is not about what you do, it’s about what Christ has done for you (1 Cor. 15:1-4)! You don’t get saved by the gospel and then move on to the “deeper things” of the faith. That’s the whole reason Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. We are to grow IN the gospel, growing in the love and knowledge of God in Christ.

Yes, the New Testament has commands for believers to follow. But, if separated from the gospel, you run in to major problems. There are a few ditches we need to avoid when talking about commands in the New Testament, or Old Testament for that matter.

Three ditches to avoid:


Law without the gospel will cause people to see the bad news that they will never measure up or be good enough for God, without seeing the good news that Christ has done this for them. They think that they’ll never be good enough for God, so they walk away from Jesus and the church. You see, the law did what it was meant to do – crush us and reveal our need for a Savior (Rom. 7:13). But, if no Savior is preached, people end up feeling hopeless or run off in to the next ditch.


Some will run to the law for confirmation that they are a good person and living a life on the outside that is pleasing to God. They believe that their obedience either saves them or keeps them saved, whether they say it or not. They usually obey the letter of the law while neglecting the spirit of the law. The prideful live a life in constant comparison with their fellow humans, allowing people to be their standard instead of God’s revealed will for their lives in His Word (Mt. 23:25-26). They prove they do not truly comprehend the gospel. The gospel says if they are truly saved, they used to be the very people they think they are better than and their salvation had nothing to do with their “goodness” (Eph. 2:1-5).


This is just a big word that means no law. This is more popular in our culture today than it ever has been, especially in the church. You hear it every day, but you don’t realize it becasue, on the surface, it sounds spiritual. It usually goes something like this: “We don’t need a bunch of rules and laws in the church. If we would just simply love God and love others, people would see our kindness and be led to repentance.” There are several things wrong with this approach, but we’ll walk through three of them.

First, YOUR kindness alone will not lead someone to repentance. Neither will your adherence to the law for that matter. God has ordained the preaching (telling/sharing) of the good news of Christ to be the means by which the Holy Spirit will awaken and save people (Rom. 10:14-15). Also it is in the gospel that people see the kindness of God (not you) that leads them to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

Next, the “love God, love others” bit. There are two things I see wrong with this statement when used in this context.

  1. “Love God. Love others” is a summary of the Law! When Jesus siad that (Mt. 22:34-39), He was not giving us an “out” from obeying the rest of the law. He was summing it up. Those are the two tables of the Law.
    • Commandments 1 – 4: Love God (Ex. 20:3-11).
    • Commandments 5 – 10: Love others (Ex. 20:12-17).
  2. This new “law of love” is an even heavier burden than the rules they are trying to run from. Which is more difficult: That I love my nighbor perfectly as the Bible says I should – sacrificing my wants and desires in order to help him, putting his needs before my own, and using my time, money, and energy to make sure I’m loving Him rightly… Or, not sleeping with his wife? Again, which is more difficult: That I love God fully, whole-heartedly, perfectly devoting myself to Him, worshipping Him at all times… Or, don’t get drunk? The point being, people who say this don’t want rules, yet place a heavier burden on themselves and others. The mantra then becomes, “It’s okay if you didn’t do it all right today, you can just try harder tomorrow.” Jesus showed us that the spirit of the law or the law of love is much deeper than mere outward obedience and much heavier than we could bear (Mt. 5:19-48). Though this is what we strive for as believers, we do so knowing that even our best efforst on our best days are tainted by our inherent sinfulness. This law of love Christ obeyed and fulfilled to the fullest (Mt. 5:17). This is the righteousness we receive as a gift when we trust in His work on our behalf.

Lastly, the third thing wrong with this popular antinomianism position is the most obvious one to see. There ARE commands and requirements in the New Testament!

We are to lovingly submit to Christ’s loving leadership just as He commands wives to lovingly submit to their husband’s loving leadership later on in the letter (Eph. 5:22-23). Paul isn’t just giving us a bunch of do’s and don’ts – he is showing us how we are to grow up in Christ, in our faith. We are not to remain children in our faith, tossed about by every wind and wave of false doctrine. Old, selfish, sinful habits have to be trained out of us (sanctification).

Once you have spent time digging through the first part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and understand why he wrote that part first and you begin to comprehend God’s overwhelming love for His children, then you are ready to get to the imperatives of chapters 4 & 5 and walk in a manner worthy of your calling in Christ Jesus.

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