Overcoming Legalism

Paul said, “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11). Since believers are no longer under the law, why does the church still struggle with legalism and why do some choose to live as though they are still under the law? Troubled by the problems of immorality we often seek the simple solution of laying down the law, but that is counter-productive for three reasons.

First, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Gal. 3:10). Trying to live by the law only produces guilt, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Legalists are driven people who never reach perfection. Second, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law” (Gal. 3:21). The law is powerless to give life. Telling people what they are doing is wrong, does not give them to power to stop doing it. “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).

Third, the law actually has the capacity to stimulate the desire to do what it was intended to prohibit. “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire” (Rom. 7:5,8; see also Rom. 7:8). If you don’t think that is true, then tell your children, “You can go here, but you can’t go there!” The moment you say that, where do they all want to go? A Christian school published a list of movies that the students could not see. Guess which ones they all wanted to see? Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:9), but they did. The forbidden fruit seems to be the most desirable.

The commandments of God are not restrictive; they are protective. The Law reflects the nature of God and is therefore good. The glory of the Lord was revealed when He engraved the law in letters on stone (2 Cor. 3:7,8). But trying to live a righteous life by the law can only lead to discouragement, defeat, and death. “If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness” (vs. 9). Only by the Spirit of God can we live a righteous life and not carry out the desires of the flesh. Only by faith can we be justified. Only by the grace of God can we grow in Christ. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from God, who is the Spirit” (vs. 18).

Dr. Neil

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