Legalism vs. the Message of Easter


Easter Sunday, the celebration of Jesus Christ's Resurrection, is this weekend. The message of the Resurrection, the touchstone for believers, is powerful. Jesus' victory over Death gives every man, woman, and child the opportunity to experience a relationship with the Living God. He is not an impersonal God.

Jesus is alive today, and He wants us to truly love Him. Yet, instead of knowing the Lord, man sometimes places his faith in God's Law. By doing so, he willfully separates himself from God. This is what is known as legalism.

Paul wrote in Romans Chapter 3:

28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
The born-again believer is sanctified by Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary, not by the Law. This is no condonation of lawlessness nor a call to licentiousness (note Romans 3:31 above). However, the walk with Christ must be paramount. Obedience to the Law in and of itself cannot effect (in the causal sense) this walk; it is a reflection, a corollary, of a relationship with Jesus.

Jesus said He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. God's rules are the same at the beginning of time as they are now. The introduction of sin drove a wedge between man and God. The Law is of God. Without Christ the Redeemer, man is outside the presence of God. Consequently, no person can ever fully know or satisfy God's Laws to perfection. And perfection is God's standard.

Upon the cross, Jesus said, "It is finished" (John 19:30). Through the sacrifice of the Son, man was redeemed to the Father. Spiritually, mankind is dead to sin, and sin has already wrought upon man the inevitable physical death. But by Jesus' blood atonement, men and women avoid the second death, that is, the death of the soul.

Oswald Chambers, the insightful Scottish Christian teacher of the early 20th century, spoke of a subtle trap that Christians often fall into: making a god out of one's personal holiness. He said, "As long as our eyes are upon our own personal whiteness we shall never get near the reality of Redemption." For the smallest sin is enough to separate man from God and condemn him.

Contrary to the modern myth that man seeks truth, the Bible teaches that man does not, and cannot, seek the true God by his own volition, nor his own device. Since the Fall, men and women have created their own paths to righteousness, paths they believe will sanctify them before God. In its most developed form, this is what is called religion. The Christian faith is a relationship with Jesus, the Son of God. No religion, no earthly work, can justify an individual before the Living God.

The Pharisees in the time of Jesus were an example of legalism, but they are assuredly not the only example. Legalism applies to any man or woman trying to reach God or godliness by their own devices.

The legalist's mind is similar to the libertine's mind: he simply cannot get out of his own way. The legalist and the libertine see only the word on the page. Whilst the legalist searches for rules, the libertine searches for loopholes to those rules. Both resist God's will and His sovereignty over their lives. God's Word speaks to the indwelt Holy Spirit of the believer, and it can stir the God-given conscience of an unbeliever. The sinful flesh (i.e. the mind and body) of man, however, resists the Word.

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit changes the believer from within. From that point on, that individual seeks to strengthen their relationship with the Lord. By loving the Lord, he or she is filled with a desire to obey Him, as well. By extension, the Law is obeyed. And as their love for the Lord is emboldened, the believer becomes a beacon of God's light — to ever increasing degrees and as befitting that particular individual. "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:17)

It is important to remember the order here: the action, the works, the person's identity follow submission to Christ. Legalism or "churchianity" is a reversal of that order because they claim man can come to know Christ by works (or the workings of his intellect). The legalist therefore exalts the Self; he mistakenly believes man's deeds can propitiate God for his sinful nature. Yet this is an affront to the message of the Resurrection. It is only by faith through God's grace that man is able to have a relationship with the Lord.

So a person must be right with God. 2,000 years ago, God sent his only begotten Son Jesus Christ to atone for man's sin once and for all so that man, His created being, could be restored to the presence of the Living God. Because one of the thieves crucified next to Jesus believed upon Him, the Lord said to the man, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)