Tag Archives: unmerited favor

Is it Legalism?

 

Occasionally I get a challenge on my use of the word “legalism.”  Some say that I don’t use it right, that I am just using it to categorize people in a negative way.  They think it is unfair for me to use the word to describe those who hold to higher standards or certain kinds of behavior.

What these challengers don’t understand is that I have been where they are.  In fact, years ago, I wrote a little pamphlet entitled, “The L Word,” in which I debunked the challenges of those who pointed at my church and called us legalists.  I said that legalism was only properly used in reference to a system teaching that people can be saved by keeping the Law.  Since I always believed that salvation came through Jesus alone, by grace through faith, I could not have been called a legalist.

Have you ever been right and wrong at the same time and about the same thing?  Well, I have been.  The above assessment is technically correct.  Legalism teaches salvation by law.  What I didn’t understand then is that all forms of performance spirituality stem from and return to legalism.

Now, let me give you a little of the theology I believe.  There is one requirement for salvation and it isn’t something we do.  It is receiving, by faith, the gift God has given to us in Jesus.  That’s it.  Just saying yes.

And that’s where some people disagree.  Yes, it’s faith, they say, but it is also obedience.  It is also doing the things God says.  If you don’t do what God says, then you aren’t really saved, they say.  And I reply: that’s legalism.

If my behavior is a requirement for my salvation, then I am under the law and saved by works.  If it is 90% Jesus and only 10% me, then I cannot be saved because I can never measure up even to that.  It doesn’t matter what ratio you bring out, if it isn’t 100% the love of God through Jesus, given freely as a gift to those who will receive, then it’s legalism.

Still, most performance-based people would agree with this.  And that’s where I was.  But then I began to hear people say things like, “Well, real Christians don’t ___.”   Or even, “I have to wonder if so-and-so is still saved.”  And sometimes, “We have no fellowship with people who don’t ___.”  I began to understand that we still had some requirements in addition to Jesus.

If the teaching produces feelings that some are “real” Christians while others are not; or that a person could lose his salvation on the basis of some evil act or the lack of some good act—how is that not legalism?  It is still under the law and not dependent on the grace of God in Jesus.  It’s grace plus whatever rule or standard the teaching promotes.  If you have to speak in tongues or be baptized a certain way or wear certain clothes in order to be a real Christian, then Jesus doesn’t make real Christians.  He only makes potential Christians.  We have to do the rest.  And if you have to avoid smoking or divorce or television or alcohol in order to be a real Christian, then Jesus can’t keep what He has made.  It’s up to us to keep ourselves in the kingdom and keep ourselves saved.

And—listen—if it’s up to us to keep ourselves saved, then we are under law and not under grace.  And those who are under law are legalists.

So what does your church or organization teach?  What do the people around you say, particularly about others who are not like you?  Are some people “real” Christians while others who profess Christ in some other category?  Are some people you talk about in danger of losing their salvation or of never having been saved because of something they do or don’t do?

Legalism is the antithesis of grace.  It pushes the love of God into a side category considering it something like an influence, rather than the answer and hope of the believer.  The cross of Christ is not enough for the legalist, we must do our part.  And the legalist will tell us what our part ought to be.

The truth is that the cross is enough.  The work of our salvation was accomplished by the love of God in Jesus.  That’s the past work, the present work, and the future work.  All that is necessary, He has done.  Our part is to believe and receive.

And about now the objections are being shouted.  “But what about sin?”  “We have to do our part!”  “What about the commands?”  “What about those people?”  Go my blog page and type the word “sin” into the search box.  You can read my many answers to these objections.

My mom and I used to play cribbage and she often said, “No matter how many times you count it, that’s all you get.”  Count it any way you want.  The truth is still the same.  All the challenges and objections and qualifications boil down to a simple fact:

If Jesus is enough, that’s grace.

If Jesus is not enough, that’s legalism.

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Too Good to be True

Grace 101

Let’s face it.  If we are pointing out enemies of grace, particularly those areas where the path is hard from years of tradition and wrong thinking, we don’t have to go any farther than our own minds.  I define the flesh as the system we developed to handle life.  Perhaps we could broaden that to simply the things we learned and accepted about life from the world, our family, and the devil.  I have written several entries about the flesh, but it is worth pointing it out again here.

Most of us learned that life worked a certain way.  We were told that hard work and integrity paid off in the long run.  We were shown how to manipulate the system to avoid some of both.  And we learned that life had a certain “cause and effect” law that had to be acknowledged.  If you played the game, you had a chance at winning, or maybe just at staying alive.

We learned that behavior and performance were keys to success.  If you didn’t rock the boat and performed well, you would be accepted.  If you met the expectations of your parents, teachers, boss, etc, you would succeed, or at least be left alone.  Everything was about doing.

And, since that was what we already believed about life and ourselves, we opened ourselves to a religion that taught the same thing.  If we were good enough, maybe God would accept us.  We would have to play the game and see.

Then along comes this message from God.  He says that He loves you just as you are and that you could never change enough to please Him because 1) you are too messed up even to know how to change and 2) He will make whatever changes He wants to see in you.  His love isn’t about your performance or behavior.  It’s about His love.

He says He will do whatever it takes to get you to Heaven forever; in fact, He has already done it in Jesus.  He says that all your sins are already washed away and you can’t keep them even if you want to.  He says you are good enough right now to be accepted by Him because He loves you already.  No amount of service or sacrifice, obedience or devotion, will make you more acceptable or more loved.

But that message doesn’t fit with what we thought we already knew.  The ground around our thinking is already hardened by a system of performance and behavior.  We like the message of grace, but it is just too good to be true.  So, in our hearts and minds, we resist.  We want to believe, but we also want the message of grace to fit with our fleshly ideas.

Remember that sin you would like to forget?  Of course you do.  When God tells you that He loves you, does that old sin come to your mind?  Do you miss the joy of His love because you want so badly for that sin to be gone?  God says He doesn’t even remember it.

Maybe that old sin is something you still do.  Does that make it even harder to believe that God doesn’t see it?  Is it hard to believe that there is no sin on your account before God, no matter what you did this morning?  This is the truth about grace that doesn’t fit with the flesh.

“There is a price to pay for doing wrong and there is a reward for doing right.”  That has been hammered into us for so long that we believe it without thinking.  When God says that Jesus paid the price for your wrong and that no amount of right will earn you the love He has for you, it’s hard to accept.

Accept it anyway.  It’s the truth.  That’s grace.

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Can We Earn Grace? Pt. 2

(This blog will be offline for a couple of weeks while I travel.  Please enjoy these posts from the archives.  Feel free to comment or ask questions.  I will be able to respond when I return.)

 

      It would honestly be difficult for anyone who acknowledges the sovereignty of God to see grace as earned or deserved.  Since all good things come from God and nothing good is in us (of ourselves or on our own), then grace must be a gift from Him.  If I could earn grace, I would have to contribute something that I was not given, something of myself.  Paul acknowledged that there was nothing in his flesh that was good and that none of us can boast because everything we have that is good has been given to us. (Romans 7:18; 1 Corinthians 4:7)

      There are some Bible teachers today who tell their people that grace is earned by doing well with the grace you have already received.  They say that saving grace is a gift, but grace needed for living the Christian life successfully is earned by our obedience.  They see a system of grace given in small increments to those who are faithful.  If you trust God for a little, they say, you will be given much.  (Luke 16:10; Matthew 25:29) 

       There are two problems here.  First, this redefines grace.  Grace is no longer a gift from the Lord, but a wage earned by a faithful servant.  There is no place where grace is taught in this way.  Second, these verses are not about grace.  According to the simple interpretation, these verses would be speaking of authority or responsibility or even revelation.  A case could be made for each of these, but not for grace.  Some might suggest that this is a “principle” of Scripture, but that would be difficult to support. 

The whole purpose of God in His work on our behalf is relationship. His desire is for us to live in dependent relationship with Him. He will care for us and give us all that we need. All He asks is that we trust Him. Trusting Him is not earning something. In fact, even faith is a gift from Him. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

You see, the foundational message of the Scripture is the great love of the Lord for His people. He has created us to be dependent on Him. We don’t see this as a negative thing because when we come to Him we find ourselves to be complete and fulfilled. It was sin that made Adam and Eve feel independent from God and sin that keeps us from the completion and joy offered in Him. Jesus came to restore that dependent relationship and to restore the joy of those who would come. All of this is the story of God’s grace. We could never earn the grace or gift of God because He wants us to know of His love.

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Can We Earn Grace? Pt. 1

(This blog will be offline for a couple of weeks while I travel.  Please enjoy these posts from the archives.  Feel free to comment or ask questions.  I will be able to respond when I return.)

 This was probably the central question of the Reformation.  The Catholic tradition taught that grace was earned by obedience to the expectations of prior grace.  In other words, one received grace and then, in order to receive more grace, was expected to live a certain way.  If you look at this system logically, you see that in it all grace is ultimately earned.  Even the grace given to a newborn baby is based on the obedience of the parents.  Those who had never lived a life of faith could still find grace after death based on the obedience of their loved ones (often shown in the form of money given to the priests). 

       When Luther and the reformers began to teach that “the just shall live by faith” they challenged the status quo.  To live by faith, as stated in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, means that the Christian life is a gift that is received by trusting the Giver.  In other words, grace is a gift and not something to be earned. 

      Grace cannot be earned.  Since the Reformation, grace has been defined as “unmerited favor”.  Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, according to the Scripture.  Some say that it was because Noah was faithful.  Yet, if we understand that Noah’s faithfulness was itself a gift from the Lord, we are open to read that he was recognized as a deliverer at the time of his birth.  (Genesis 5:29)  The lineage of Noah was the faithful line maintained by God in preparation for Noah’s day. 

more…..

Dave@gracefortheheart.org

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What is Grace? pt.1

(This blog will be offline for a couple of weeks while I travel.  Please enjoy these posts from the archives.  Feel free to comment or ask questions.  I will be able to respond when I return.)

I have studied grace for over 30 years, particularly asking the same question for the last 15, and I still ask.  I have studied several answers, most of them the standard ones, but the concept of grace is always bigger. 

The best I have come up with is that grace is what God does.  Putting it another way, grace is the activity of God’s love.  The concept of “unmerited favor” is one I accept, but grace is more than just favor.  We need and appreciate the favor of God, but it may not be appropriate to say that God shows favor to everyone.  He does show a certain grace to everyone.  “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.”  “God is not willing that any should perish.”  “God so loved the world that He gave…”  Over and over we read of the love of God for all people and the fact that God acts on that love in some way toward all. 

I have come to understand that this activity is, in fact, grace.  Thus, there is grace shown in the giving of the Law and grace shown even in God’s wrath against sin.  The Law was a gift of God’s love and, unless we are willing to disagree that God’s fundamental motivation is love, even His final judgment against sin and those who choose to remain in sin is somehow an expression of His love.  I would say that this is grace.

I would never leave grace in a negative sense, however.  God’s love is a desire to live in relationship with His people.  His activity of love always has that as a primary goal.  It may seem negative for Him to judge or punish, but the only motivation is love.  This is why I am left with the idea that anything God does out of love is grace.  He seeks to draw us into a relationship with Him. 

–more coming–

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Old Testament Salvation

So, what about those folks of the Old Testament?

I have heard so many grace teachers say that the people of the OT were under law and that their salvation was based on their performance.  No!  No!  No!  It was grace from the beginning!

The topic of salvation is a large one and I can only share what I think, not as much support as I would like.  But I will say strongly that I believe salvation was based on faith in the Savior, not on the system of sacrifices or on keeping the law.  If we look at just a couple of things, you will see what I mean.

First, the animal sacrifices never saved anyone or solved anything.  All they did was point to the coming sacrifice and cover the sins of the people in the meantime.  God made a point of the need for covering from the very beginning of sin.  Animals died to provide coverings for Adam and Eve.  But their sins were not washed away by the blood of animals.

Nor did keeping the law ever save anyone.  First, no one actually did it perfectly.  Paul says that breaking one commandment makes a person guilty of breaking all.  In other words, one sin is as bad as many.  So keeping the law was out of the equation.

So, how were the people of the OT saved?  By grace through faith!  Abraham’s faith, Paul says, was counted as righteousness.  He looked to the Lord for his provision.  They looked forward to the cross just as we look back on it.

David understood this.  He said,

Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; My ears You have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require. Psalm 40:6

 

Instead, David notes, the sacrifice acceptable is the broken life that looks to the Savior.

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart– These, O God, You will not despise. Psalm 51:16-17

 

And who is the Savior?  The Lord is our only Savior!  This is why it is so important to us that we proclaim Jesus as God.  God Himself became the sacrifice for us.  Mystery?  Sure!  But it is absolutely true!

Isaiah understood.  He shared the words of God.

I, even I, am the LORD, And besides Me there is no savior. Isaiah 43:11

 

There is no savior besides the Lord.  So He was the Savior of the people of Israel and He is our Savior.  We understand that the Lord came to us in the Person of the Son, but that understanding changes nothing.  We may have more information than the folks of the OT, the benefit of hindsight, but there is one way of salvation.

Paul made it very clear:

For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Hebrews 10:4

 

One sacrifice—His.  One Savior—Jesus.

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Faith and Obedience are not the same thing

Years ago, when my family and I were under the teaching of a well-known legalist teacher, we learned that believing and obeying were the same thing.  The idea was that those who truly believed or had faith would, of course, obey.  Obedience was simply the working out of your faith.  So, those who wanted to show others how much they believed would work hard to obey the commands of the Lord.

But is this right?  Is obedience the same as faith?  It seems obvious that the two are connected, but isn’t there more to faith than obedience?  And what are the consequences of thinking they are the same?

Well, what the legalist does not understand is that faith and obedience are first opposites, then one proceeds from the other.  You see, you can come to the Lord in obedience or in faith.  Under law or under grace.  By your works or by trusting in His work.  This is an “either/or” proposition.  The Bible does not say that if you obey then you must have faith.

…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. Galatians 2:16

In fact, those who come to Christ by their obedience, their works, will find them to be insufficient—always.  There are not enough works for you to do to be saved.  Nor is your life long enough for your good works to overcome the effect of your sin.  The simple truth is that our faith is what opens the door to salvation, not our obedience.  The two are quite different.

In fact, our faith looks to Someone else’s obedience.  Jesus is the One who obeyed and won the victory for us.  We can only look to Him.  In this sense, our faith and our obedience are opposites.  They take our focus in different directions.

However, many legalists point to the letter of James where we are told that faith without works is dead.  They say, “See, faith and obedience are bound together as one.”  But that isn’t what James says.  James says that works/obedience proceeds from faith.  Faith is dead without works, like the apple tree is fruitless without apples.

Obedience is the natural fruit of faith.  If we trust Jesus, we will do what He says.  We ought to cultivate faith first, if we want obedience to result.  The legalist seeks to cultivate obedience and thinks that obedience and faith are the same.  That error leads people to discouragement and resentment.

When legalism pushes people to obey and disregards the priority of faith in the work of Jesus, it teaches them to focus on their works instead of Him.  Their only hope, His work for them, is forgotten in the striving.  Their peace, their joy, their rest, their assurance—are all to come from His work, but they will never have these things by setting their hearts on their own obedience.

So the goal of the Christian life is never to obey.  The goal of the Christian life is to grow in faith, in relationship with Jesus.  As we draw near to Him and walk with Him, we will find ourselves obeying almost without thought.  It will be natural for us.

Your thoughts?

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