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Christian Apologetics (10): Legalism (4)

D Vallance, Detroit

Three Scenarios: Lawlessness, Legalism, and Liberty

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God" (1 Pet 2.16).1

Scenario 1: Lawlessness

The lawless person habitually ignores the commandments of Scripture. Analysis of his works is straightforward — he is disobedient, thus a sinner, thus unspiritual, and thus displeasing to God. His flesh is unbridled, and he has no regard for law or faith or grace. If he was raised in an assembly, he may still show up at the meetings, perhaps flaunting an all-things-are-lawful-unto-me, it-isn’t-sin-if-it-doesn’t-make-me-feel-bad, I’ll-show-up-when-I-feel-like-it attitude. Legalists, of course, react to his behaviour with apoplectic fury, but spiritual Christians — while grieved — will befriend him and seek to understand the true state of his heart. Most likely he is an unconverted man who needs the gospel — his open contempt for rules raises doubts about whether law ever worked in his life to convict him of his need for salvation. He may, however, instead be a fleshly believer who has been presenting his "members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness" ignorantly (Rom 6.13). If he grew up without the Bible, and has lived since conversion without spiritual guides, then he may respond to God’s Word (2 Tim 3.16) and to our intercession for him.

Scenario 2: Legalism

The legalist assiduously obeys the Bible, as far as anyone can see. Analysis of his works seems easy at first, until we notice some red flags. While his deeds appear to be good, they also appear to be robotic and joyless — even forced and grudging. We also notice that he likes to major on minor things, and keeps adding his own rules to the Bible. Often, he is cranky, a real stickler who treats with contempt those who fail to reach his standards. After thinking it through, we conclude that what looks at first like obedience is really disobedience. If our suspicions are true (he is not obeying from the heart, he is not serving in love, he is not walking in step with the Spirit), then his works amount to nothing. And if he is actually disobedient, then he too — like the lawless person — is a sinner, unspiritual, and displeasing to God. Again, we must at least wonder whether this person is even converted.

Notice the similarities between the lawless person and the legalist. Both are fleshly — the lawless person flouts rules in the power of the flesh, while the legalist follows rules in the power of the flesh. Both are disobedient, even if in opposite directions. Both abuse the law, and both oppose grace. The legalist expresses his self-reliance and self-assurance by using morality; the lawless person does the same using immorality.

Scenario 3: Liberty

The free person meticulously and zealously obeys the Scriptures, but, unlike the legalist, the free person’s efforts are clearly natural, not phony. He (or she) operates with joy and exudes Christ. He is obviously a changed person, a humble God-fearer whose ability to live righteously comes from a power inside him. He speaks the truth with love, and yet treats people who don’t live as he does with kindness. After watching him carefully, we conclude that while God resists the proud, He does indeed give grace to the humble (James 4.6; 1 Pet 5.5).

Unfortunately, this third person is heavily criticized by the other two. The legalist regards him as far too loose, and not serious enough about tradition. The lawless person regards him as far too tight, and not serious enough about freedom. In the next article we will explore the meaning of liberty, and show why both of these objections are groundless.

To be continued.

1 In this series of articles, unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations from Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version.


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