"We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is not made for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers - and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me."
1 Tim. 1:8-11
Legalism has been a serious problem in the church ever since the church began nearly 2000 years ago. The Apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians, perhaps the first book written in the New Testament (within 20 years after the resurrection), was written primarily to combat legalism in that church.
If you really think about it, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Since believers still have a sin nature and live in a sinful world, many Christians have a strong tendency to trust in what they can do to please God in order to get Him to do things for them - like get get more blessings (more money, better job, better health, etc.)! They see God as someone who is watching them closely and they need to do good works and live right for Him in order to get on His good side and avoid the possibility of Him sending or allowing bad things into their lives. This focus on self and what we're doing rather than on Jesus Christ and what He has done for us and promises to do is at the heart of the problem of legalism.
When Christians try to live their Christian lives by following the Mosaic law or any other performance-based system, they are basically saying that what Jesus Christ accomplished through His death and resurrection wasn't enough. They are saying that Christ alone is not sufficient. They are saying that the Holy Spirit needs help. The source of power in legalism is the sinful pride of man.
The Apostle Paul aggressively opposed legalism throughout his ministry. Why? Because he knew that legalism diminished the work of Christ and was not the way God wants His children to live.
Please read the above verses from 1 Timothy again. Can God's Word be any clearer? The law is not for the righteous. Who are the righteous? Believers in Jesus Christ are the righteous! They have the perfect righteousness of the Son of God because He is in us and we are in Him. Therefore, the law is not for members of the church, the Body of Christ!
"It is because of him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God - that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption ." (1 Cor. 1:30)
"For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit." (Rom. 8:3-4)
The righteous requirements of the law have been completely met in believers today. Since believers have the perfect righteousness of Christ, the law is not for them.
Who is the law for? The lost. They are the unrighteous. They're not righteous because they've not received the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.
The law is designed to convict the unbeliever, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, that he or she has a sin problem, is an enemy of God, and is destined to experience eternal separation from God in hell. This work of the Spirit is also designed to lead unbelievers to the humble realization that there is only one solution to their sin problem - receiving Jesus Christ as their personal Savior for the forgiveness of their sins.
The Bible is very clear. Our heavenly Father does not want His children to live under the Law of Moses. He gave the Law to Israel, not the church (Rom. 9:4)! Unfortunately, most Christians don't live totally free from the law or some other performance system. As a result, they fail to experience the abundant grace life that God has already given to them in His Son.
The Mosaic Law was just one of several law codes God has given people throughout human history. Adam and Eve lived under a law code in the Garden of Eden. Noah had to follow the laws of God in his age, so there was a code he lived under. Later, Abraham was required to obey certain commands and laws (Gen. 26:5). He lived under what is sometimes called the Abrahamic code.
As members of the church, the Body of Christ, we don't live under any of these law codes or any other law codes.
"For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14)
This verse makes it clear that law and grace are two separate ways God has dealt with man. It also indicates that at the time the Apostle Paul wrote this in his letter to the Romans that a change had taken place. People who put their trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins were now under a grace system, not a law system.
The two systems, law and grace, are two perfectly good systems. Both are clearly found in the Bible, but they are very different. In fact, they're so different that they're totally incompatible with each other. Let's look at each system closely.
The law is a performance system. It's a system where the receiving of blessings is conditional and it's based on the proper adherence to certain standards and expectations. It's a system where the "if..... then" principle is the mode of operation. This is how God operated with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.
"Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession." (Ex. 19:5)
"...if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (2 Chron. 7:14)
If Israel lived up to the mandates set by God, then the promised blessings would be received. However, if they failed to obey the mandates, then curses and judgment would follow (Deut. 28:15-68).
"However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you..." (Deut. 28:15)
The law system is a system of conditional blessings. If the nation Israel followed God's commands, blessings would follow. If the people did not, they would face curses.
We want to be clear about what the Bible teaches about the the law. The law is good and holy. The problem is not with the law but the fact that we can't keep it! Furthermore - and this is where many Christians stumble as a result of bad teaching on the purpose of the law - the law can't produce holiness in us. Rather, one of the primary reasons God gave the law to Israel was to show the Israelites that they had a major sin problem and no amount of animal sacrifices would ever be enough to effectively and finally deal with sin. The law exposes sin for what it is and was given by God to lead people to look to Him for a solution. The law was and is designed to lead people to Jesus Christ!
Now, let’s look at how God's wonderful grace works.
"...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Rom. 3:23-24)
Grace is a free gift - it's an undeserved gift from God. Grace is a free gift system and it's just the opposite of the law system. It's a system of unconditional blessings. God's grace to us today operates solely as a result of the finished, all-sufficient work of our Lord Jesus Christ at the cross and by His resurrection.
"But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!" (Rom. 5:15)
Romans 11:6 clearly states the impossibility of these two principles, law and grace, co-existing:
"And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace."
The Christian life will not operate properly on the basis of being uninformed and it also won't work properly just because you or I want it to work a certain way. We experience the life God wants us to enjoy as we see ourselves as God sees us and understand what He is doing today in the dispensation of grace. As believers, members of the church, the Body of Christ, we are not to live under the law or any other performance-based system.
"Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law." (Gal. 3:23-25)
The Bible says that "we are no longer under the supervision of the law" (Gal. 3:25). Can the Word of God be any clearer? How can this truth from the Apostle Paul be missed? One of the main purposes of the Law of Moses was to show people that they couldn't keep the law and, therefore, needed a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ! Now that faith in Christ has come, believers today are not under the law program God gave to Israel.
Paul makes it clear that God intended for the law program to be temporary. During this time period the law was in charge and had a disciplinary function in dealing with individual Israelites and the nation as a whole.
In Gal. 4:1-7 Paul continues his explanation as to why the law is not binding on Christians. He uses the example of a child who's an heir of an estate being no different than a slave because he is "subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father" (4:2). This child period represents the time of the law's control. During this time, people were in bondage, slaves to the "the basic principles of the world" (4:3). In this context, "the basic principles of the world" means the legalism of Judaism and may also mean all the other forms of law living found in man-made religious rules and observances in the gentile world that are not part of Judaism (also in 4:9). Then "when the time had fully come" (4:4), which indicates that the work of the law required a lengthy period of time, God sent His Son.
Believers in Christ have now received "the full rights of sons" (4:5) and are no longer slaves. Paul is describing Christians as adult sons living in a new age. Now that we have full sonship status in Christ, the authority of guardians and trustees (the Mosaic Law) has ended. We no longer need the law to guide us, lead us, or discipline us. The law's guardianship ended when "God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts" (4:6). Our slavery to the law has ended! We have been set free from the authority of the law and Christ is now our teacher. Christ now teaches us about grace!
Because our relationship to God radically changed when we believed in Christ, we have the great joy and privilege to live under a new and better program through Jesus Christ - grace!
"For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14)
"When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross." (Col. 2:13-14)
The law code that God gave to Israel is not for people in Christ! It is not for the church! God canceled the written code, took it away, and nailed it to the cross! We have died to the law (Rom. 7:4) and all the commands that are part of the law.
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1)
The "yoke of slavery" Paul is referring to is the law. Now that Christ has set us free from the law, why go back and live by it again? Just as we are saved by grace through faith, we are to live by grace through faith!
The law is holy and good - but it's not for believers today. The law is for unbelievers - to expose their sinfulness and lead them to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
God's Word tells us we have died to the law and are now alive with Christ. What a wonderful thing - to have Christ living in us and to be alive with Him! Trusting and resting in all that Christ accomplished for us at the cross and the work of the Spirit of Christ living in us gives the Holy Spirit the freedom to produce the Christian character in us and good works we have been created for.
"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." (Gal. 5:16)
The godly character God wants to build in your life is produced by the Holy Spirit, not self-effort. Just as by faith we trusted in Christ for our justification, we are to by faith trust in Christ for our progressive sanctification. God wants us to trust Him to do the things in us He says in His Word He will do.
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Against such things there is no law." (Gal. 5:22-23)
"...filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God." (Phil. 1:11)
Trust in the fact that we died to the law when we died with Christ at the cross. Rest in this spiritual truth from God's Word. Only God's grace, expressed so wonderfully through Jesus Christ living in us and through us, can produce in us the increasing godliness that we desire and have been created for (Eph. 2:10).
"The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God."