WHAT ABOUT LEGALISM?
Rev. Dr. Paul Jinadu
For what purpose was God’s Law designed? The following verse tells us: “The Law is not made for a righteous person, but...for sinners” (1 Timothy 1:9,10). It even lists the sinners for us: the disobedient, the ungodly, murderers, fornicators, homosexuals, kidnappers, liars, etc. The Law’s main design is not for the saved, but for the unsaved. It was given as a “schoolmaster” to bring us to Christ. It was designed primarily as an evangelistic tool.
It is an unlawful use of the Law to seek to use it for “justification.” The Scriptures make that very clear: “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ...; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16). The Law’s rightful purpose is simply to act as a mirror to show us that we need cleansing.
Neither should the Law be used to produce “legalism.” We are given incredible liberty in Christ (Galatians 5:1), and there are those who would seek to steal that liberty by placing the Law on the back of Christians. Obviously a Christian refrains from “lawlessness.” He doesn’t lie, steal, kill, commit adultery, etc. However, his motivation for holy living isn’t one of legalism imposed on him by the Law. Why does he refrain from sin—to gain God’s favour? No. He already has that in Christ. He lives a life that is pleasing to God because he wants to do all he can to show God gratitude for the incredible mercy he has received through the gospel. His motive is love, not legalism. D. L. Moody said, “The Law can only chase a man to Calvary, no further.”
If the spiritual nature of the Law is used in evangelism, it will once and for all rid a new believer of any thought of legalism. The Law reveals to him that there is no way he can please God outside of faith in Jesus. He cringes as he begins to understand that God sees lust as adultery and hatred as murder. The guilty sinner sees that he is “by nature a child of wrath,” and therefore flees to shelter in Christ from the rain of God’s indignation. He knows that grace, and grace alone, saves him.
However, he who makes a commitment to Christ without the Law usually comes because he is seeking true inner peace and lasting fulfilment. He comes to fill a God-shaped vacuum in his life. There is no trembling. There is no fleeing from wrath. There is no fear. To him, God is a benevolent, fatherly figure, not wrath-filled. The Law hasn’t stripped him of self-righteousness. He doesn’t truly believe that his just reward is eternal damnation. Therefore, even as a professing Christian, he thinks that he is basically a good person.
Because of this, he is the one who is likely to think that he is pleasing God by reading his Bible, praying, fasting, and doing good works. He is the one deceived into thinking that somehow his good works commend him to God, and he is therefore the one who is liable to stray into “touch not, taste not, handle not” (Colossians 2:16–23).
The Law, when used lawfully, liberates the believer from legalism. If, however, it is neglected before the cross, those who profess faith in Christ are prone to go astray into legalism and then impose demands on other believers, stealing from them the great liberty we have in Christ.