Thursday, July 28, 2011

What It Is

My previous two posts discuss legalism in the first century, both among the Pharisees and as a threat to the early church. I pointed out that it manifested itself in two forms: as an attempt to establish a works-based meritoriously achieved righteousness, and as a system of extrabiblical man-made rules and regulations which are used in addition to, in place of, or even in some cases, in contradiction to scriptural commands.

It may be helpful here to clarify what legalism is not. It is popular in some circles to respond to every exhortation to obey scriptural commandments with the misplaced accusation of legalism (sometimes the term "Pharisee" is even used). But legalism is not obedience to biblical standards of conduct. It is not moral behavior or holy living. These are requirements on the Christian, not as a means of earning salvation, but as a servant-heart response to the lorship of Christ. A new creation is expected to live like a new creation and a repentant sinner should behave like they are repentant. Obedience to God is not legalism and Christ said "If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments."

Freedom from legalism is not an excuse to sin, as Paul makes emphatic and unambiguous:

"What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!" --Romans 6:15 (NASB)

The New Testament is filled with exhortations for obedience to God's commandments, thus it is not legalistic to enourage others to obey these commandments. So Paul tells the Galatians "For ye, brethren, were called for freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another (Gal. 5: 13)." The apostle James exhorts, "but be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves (James 1:22)." The apostle Peter commands, "But like as he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living (1 Peter 1: 16)." John says "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous (1 John 5: 3)." The writer of the letter to the Hebrews instructs, "Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb 13: 21)."

In fact, chapters 6-8 of the book of Romans make clear that it is precisely because believers are free from the law of sin and of death that we are also free to obey God. While the Christian will not achieve perfect obedience until meeting Christ and being made perfect, there should still be a pattern of sanctification, maturing, and growing obedience in the life of the Christian. There should be a desire to obey and an increasing fruit of obedience.

And that is not legalism.

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