Thoughts on Legalism vs. Grace

Christ vs Law for Sanctification Growing in Grace

Do we realize that we’re struggling with a legalistic view?  Here’s a test: If you believe that you will or won’t be blessed by God, or close to God because of something you’re doing or not doing, you’ve stumbled into legalism.

It’s important that we understand the different kinds of legalism, which are very subtle.  Often the problem is that legalism is presented as grace, so we may be taking in a legalistic teaching, without realizing it.  Eventually we find ourselves dry, worn out and dealing with condemnation. We may wear ourselves out seeking spiritual “methods” to deal with our condition but eventually we need to investigate the source of the problem – our view of God – our theology, and the teaching that informs it.

It is important to realize that all of us are legalists by nature.  It is our ‘default’ response to God.  However, our innate legalism can either be strengthened or dissipated by the kind of teaching we allow ourselves to hear.  The kinds of books we read and the kinds of teachers we listen to play a big part in our theology.

Do we realize that we’re struggling with a legalistic view?  Here’s a test: If you believe that you will or won’t be blessed by God, or close to God because of something you’re doing or not doing, you’ve stumbled into legalism.  Legalism always wants God to respond to something in me, or to something I do.  A Legalist believes God is mainly responding to him on the basis of what he does  Legalism is ultimately centered in the self. A legalist views his relationship with God  in terms of personal merit.

The Grace Contrast

In contrast, GRACE is centered in Christ.  In the grace economy, God acts on behalf of Christ because of who He is and what He has done.

A person who is growing in grace is increasingly becoming centered in God’s grace economy by realizing that CHRIST is the center of it.  This comes by an increasing appreciation of Who Christ is to God and what He has done.

For instance, we know that the sum of the law is:  thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.  I’ve heard many people say in one sentence that we are not under the law, and then in the next they will use this verse to show how Jesus summed it up and made it “simple”.  I’ve heard people who think they are speaking grace say “It’s easy. All you have to do is love God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

However if we would slow down and meditate this word we will see that Jesus didn’t lower the bar, He raised it.  The requirement of the law is that we would love Him with the entirety of our being:

from the first breath until the last,

with all of our strength,

 with the entire focus of our mind, will and emotions –

 that He would be the only object of all of our affections and desires,

that we would run after Him with abandon,



without ceasing –

without interruption,

for the entirety of our days with every hour, minute, moment and second.

If we think about that for just a minute, we will wonder if there is anyone on earth that has ever lived in this way?  There are plenty who have flippently said “we’re just doing our best to keep the great commandments”.  And there are plenty who have given themselves up to pursue Him and have confessed that at best their attempts are feeble, although others may think that they are very holy indeed.   Some have claimed to have “arrived”, but the point isn’t that you would arrive there.  You’re either there or you aren’t – from the beginning and through your entire life without stop, or not at all.  There is no progress implied in the perfect commandment.

So what is the grace Answer?  The answer is CHRIST.  Christ the One who never sought His own glory, who never did anything of Himself, but only what the Father did in Him.  He could say that He always pleased the Father, and that He loved the Father with the entirety of His being, without ceasing, without interruption, not only as the Son of Man in time, but as the Son of God from eternity to eternity without end.

The transition from a legalistic temperament to a grace temperament is in the realization that the standard is not simply the law written in letters.  Those things are the shadow.  The reality, the substance and the body is Christ Himself.  He is the very Person whom the Father has endorsed by saying “This is My Son, in whom I am well Pleased.  Hear Him.”

Moving from legalistic tendencies to grace tendencies begins with the realization that I cannot be the center because I am simply unable to ever meet the standard. It moves on to the realization that the One who IS the center has freely given Himself and been given up to Me by the Father as a free gift through faith to be my center, my new frame of reference, my representative, and my very life.

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