Are you a Legalist? (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed two ends of a spectrum for how people relate to the Law: Legalism vs. Antinomianism. The two positions pose the question “What do we do with the Law?” and then go about answering it through one of two methods: either total and zealous obedience which risks missing the point of the Law entirely or lack of regard to the importance of the Law exhibited through total disobedience. That Law, which is the set of holy ordinances handed down to Moses and then to the Hebrew people, has been a highly debated issue amongst Christian thinkers for almost two thousand years.

To avoid the traps of legalism and antinomianism we need to understand the concept of biblical covenants.  Effectively, a covenant works like a contract. However, unlike a contract, once a covenant exists it never passes away. Regardless of whether either of the parties holds up their end of the agreement both parties continue to be responsible to their obligations should a violation occur. Since God is always faithful and true, this means only one side of the covenant is likely to fail (Hint: it’s ours).

Throughout history, there have been a series of these covenants between man and God, forming the backbone of the religions of Judaism and Christianity as well as the cultural identity of Israel and the Jewish nationality. For this post, I will focus on just two covenants, though the rest are intricately linked to them.

First in order is the Mosaic Covenant. This is the covenant that resulted in both the formation of the Hebrew nation as well as the establishment of the Law. With this covenant, God performed a decisive move in upholding his previous covenant with Abram to make him into a great nation. He also delivered to His people a strong and lasting revelation of who He is through the Law and the covenant rituals. Finally, God established once and for all that there is good and there is evil. Failure to keep the terms of the covenant was proof of the evil living within the hearts men.

Second in order is what we call the New Covenant. This covenant is the one ushered in by Jesus’ work on Earth and reveals to us the grace of God. The Mosaic Covenant had quite a bit of language about what would happen to those who failed to uphold its words. This is what led entire sects of Jewish zealots (the Legalists) to seek perfection in keeping the commands of God. The New Covenant showed us that it is not by works, but by grace that we are saved. This then led to the people (the Antinomians) totally ignoring the Law and living as they pleased since salvation has been accomplished for us. We know that neither approach is correct, so we still have to figure out how to relate to the Law.

Remember the rules of a covenant? The covenant remains in tact regardless of whether one of the parties keeps their end of the deal. The New Covenant acts as a wraparound covenant, where in the owner pays the debt for the former and now owns a new debt from the debtor. In Jesus, the debt for the Mosaic covenant was paid. God, in his goodness, knew that man had no hope of upholding their end of the agreement. He clothed Himself in flesh and became a man in order to fulfill man’s side of the agreement for him leaving us a spectators as He works out our salvation for us.

Today the Mosaic covenant remains as a testimony against us, showing us just how far short of acceptable we are. However, the good news of the Gospel is that all God really wants from us is our love and worship. He is willing to go to great lengths to demonstrate His love for us and asks only that we turn from our sins and worship Him alone. Jesus even instructs us on how we can show God that we love him:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. -John 14:15 (ESV)

The Bible is full of God’s commands, so what is Jesus saying here if man cannot save himself through Law? Jesus goes on in John 14 to describe how God the Father will send a helper, The Holy Spirit, to remind us of his commands and all the things that Jesus has done. The Holy Spirit will help us to relate to theLaw properly and rely on God to do the impossible, which is to save man through the fulfillment of His covenants. In order to cure ourselves from legalism, we have to accept the good news that Jesus did the work for us. If we glorify God through repentance and worship, then we will do what he says, not out of requirement but out of love for him and an outpouring of our faith in him. Finally, through the steady and faithful work of the Holy Spirit, we will show our love for the Father through the evidence of keeping His commands, first through loving God and second through loving our neighbor as our self.

When we trust God and leave the work of salvation to him, the Law is no longer a testimony against us. It then becomes a revelation of who God is. Through the Law, we can know Him. We can know how He thinks, what He likes, and the things that He values. Through the Law, we can revel in His glory, in awe that He has accomplished what we cannot. This is the cure for Legalism, loving God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. All else will be added to you.

How can a young person stay pure?

By obeying your word.

I have tried hard to find you—

don’t let me wander from your commands.

I have hidden your word in my heart,

that I might not sin against you.

I praise you, O LORD

teach me your decrees.

I have recited aloud

all the regulations you have given us.

I have rejoiced in your laws

as much as in riches.

I will study your commandments

and reflect on your ways.

I will delight in your decrees

and not forget your word.

~Psalm 119:9-16 (NLT)

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