In the first blog of our Gospel Freedom series, we examined how the Gospel frees us from bondage to the Law of Moses. We saw how the Law, good as it is, could not free us from our slavery to sin. The purpose of the Law was not to make men righteous (it couldn’t) but to lead us to Christ by means of revealing our true nature. In the apostle’s words, the Law was added: “because of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19). In other words, men and women need a way to grasp their inbred slavery to sin, and God gave the Law for that reason.
Today we will discuss how the Gospel frees us from every form of legalism. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States defines legalism as a pejorative descriptor for “the direct or indirect attachment of behaviors, disciplines, and practices to the belief in order to achieve salvation and right standing before God,” emphasizing a need “to perform certain deeds in order to gain salvation” (works) as opposed to the doctrine of justification by faith” (Legalism: Wikipedia). In simple terms, legalism believes that one must perform certain deeds to be right with God.
These deeds can be things other than those things found in the Law. In my earlier days following the Lord, I had what I would describe as a very legalistic prayer life. Since prayer was vital to the Christian life and for success in ministry, I was taught that I should spend a certain number of hours on my knees. If I didn’t pray for a number of hours each day, I carried around a sense of failure and condemnation. On those days when I was able to pray much, I felt that the Father was pleased with me. So my peace with God was not based on the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross but on my perfect prayer performance.
God faithfully delivered me from this legalism as He showed me the things I needed for life and fruitful service God gave freely based on grace. When I felt I had prayed adequately, I expected God would powerfully anoint me, but the reverse was often the case—I felt God was not with me and the meeting was flat. But on those days when I was responsible for preaching but, due to busyness, could not pray as much as I had wanted, I expected little to happen. Yet those meetings were often the most powerful. I soon got the message: while faithfulness to pray was important, the things I needed for ministry could not be earned but were freely given by grace.
How many of Paul’s letters are laid out helps us grasp this. In many of his letters (such as Ephesians), Paul begins the letter with statements about what God did in Christ. In the first three chapters of Ephesians, there is not one imperative but all indicatives (statements of fact). But beginning in chapter four, Paul unfolds a series of admonitions on how they should live in the light of what God has done in Christ. If we divorce these admonitions as many laws one must obey before the blessing can come, we succumb to the dreaded disease of legalism. These moral imperatives are real and must be obeyed, but they must be linked to the indicatives that precede it. For example, Paul uses the word therefore in Ephesians 4:1 to begin his moral imperatives, indicating that what he is saying in this new section is drawn from the section that precedes it. In other words, these imperatives presume the grace of the gospel.
If we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of allowing good things like prayer, Bible study, and sharing the gospel to be viewed as stepping stones to God. That is what I had done with prayer as a younger believer. While prayer and reading scripture are vital to the Christian life, we must remember that it is not prayer and reading the Bible that causes me to abide in Christ, but the fact that I have already been united to Christ that empowers me to pray and read my Bible to bear fruit (see John 15). If we want to stay free from legalism, we must always start with what God has already done in Christ. Then, we will have the power to practice the imperatives which follow without falling into the trap of turning them into so many laws to obey.