Legalism vs. justification

Church yesterday morning was really beautiful.

I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled with legalism and performance-based religion most of my life. And, given human nature (and me personally) it’s probably a gremlin that will haunt me my entire earthly life. So I’m extra thankful when we get straight-up, hard-hitting admonishment and encouragement to fight the sneaky lies of legalism.

Justification: declaring righteous. Condemnation: declaring guilty. Legalism: rules for the sake of rules. Antinomianism: no rules, do whatever you want.

Gospel: Jesus did it for you. Believe, rest, live.

Fighting legalism is hard. It sneaks back in; its tentacles fill dozens of tiny crevices. Staying in the center of the gospel — justification by faith alone, and nothing else — takes supernatural strength. But when it starts to get a hold of you, this gospel, faith-and-Jesus-only truth frees you from enslavement to rules and to sin.

(I also have many thoughts about freedom, but that’s a whole other post.)

You may ask, “If you don’t need to follow a checklist or do anything to be made right before God, doesn’t that mean everything will just go haywire? With people doing exactly whatever they want?” This is the classic case of antinomianism, and the preacher argued that if we aren’t being accused of antinomianism occasionally, we aren’t preaching the freedom of the grace of God enough.

Of course I am not arguing for complete anarchy and chaos in the name of the gospel. But once the gospel gets a hold of you, obedience to God’s law flows naturally. Where legalism obeys for the sake of obeying, gospel obedience comes out of knowing that God accepts you already, loves you already, exactly as you are. This is so much different than doing things “right” so that somehow God will be impressed, and give you everything you want.

For me, the diagnostic question is this: Are your rules your god? What are you looking for to validate your presence in the world? Who gives you rest and security and strength?

The service ended with the congregation reading a confession aloud together. I know, I know, these things can seem stodgy and dull — but this one isn’t. Put aside your pride and your preconceived notions; read it and confess. Read it and trust. Read it and find new life.

Gracious and merciful Father,
We have strayed from your ways by following deceitful lovers.
They promise much, but bring only heartache and emptiness.
Our idolatry rejects, dishonors, and hurts you. Forgive us.
Work in us deep repentance and real godly grief.
Deliver us from apathy, indifference and wandering.
Help us to not forget the sinfulness of sin and all it deserves.
Astonish us afresh with the saving grace of the gospel.
Have mercy on us and stir our affections for you.
Thank you for sending your Son to bear the burden of our sin on the cross,
so that we can be justified, restored to right relationship with you by faith.
Keep us in your paths. In  Jesus name, Amen.

A Truth Worth Fighting For. Downtown Cornerstone Church, 14 Feb.
Galatians 2:11-21

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