Look, I get it. Legalism is the new dirty word in Christianity. And we do legitimately have to guard against legalism. But what essentially is legalism and is obedience necessarily contradictory to salvation by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8)?
I was reading the Bible during my quiet time a couple of days ago, and one verse struck me afresh from the gospel of John 3:36 “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
The Hebrew parallelism (and contrast) is interesting. We would expect the verse to read “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not believe the Son will not see life”. And that would be true! But that’s not what the verse says. It says “he who does not obey the Son will not see life”. Belief and obedience are synonymous! Why do Christians then see the concept of obedience and immediately equate it with legalism? The answer I think, in small part is because our thinking is influenced by the Western mindset. We are not accustomed to hold biblical tensions together.
So what is legalism? In simple terms, I would define it as trying to earn God’s favour through our obedience. What is the difference between that and true biblical obedience? Well, obedience that pleases God is the result of receiving God’s favour by faith; it is our response to Him. To put it in another way, God can demand our obedience not because that’s the condition for our salvation, but rather because He has already saved us.
There is, however, one missing ingredient in all this, but that’s for a later post. 🙂