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Extreme Grace, Part 5: Confronting Legalism

September 5th, 2014

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…”

Matthew 28:18

I have chosen this verse to begin this brief study on our freedom from legalism because it clearly presents the authority of Christ. We can confront spiritual legalism because of His grace and in the name of His authority. Christ is the only authority we need to be concerned with in matters of faith.

Legalism of any nature hangs on the matter of authority. One cannot enforce anything without proper authority. When a policeman in today’s world arrests someone they do not do it in their own name, nor on the basis of their strong personality, nor even on the basis of right and wrong. They do so in the name and authority of the law of the land, under the legal government of that land. The phrase “arrested in the name of the law” has legal power behind it and a policeman must operate under the authority of the law. This is all that he is authorized to do.

Furthermore, the police are not allowed to bring up old laws that have been changed or done away with. They can only enforce the existing laws. They cannot arrest in the name of nostalgia, or in the name of “the way things used to be” or in the name of “when I was a child…” They may only operate under the authority of the current, existing law, as directed and led by the existing governing authorities.

In matters of faith we have an ultimate authority and that is Christ Jesus. He is the One to whom we must give an account. He is the One who has ultimate authority in the church. He is the One who is Head of the church, the Lord of the church, and the Administrator of the church – and this means the Lord of every single believer.

There has been a great change in coming from the Old Testament, or the “Law” or the Mosaic Covenant, to the New Testament or the Covenant of Grace. Under the Law there was an understandable and appropriate public enforcement. The community of faith instructed one another, called one another to account, enforced the Law, and even intruded into one another’s personal lives, and they did this in the name of their God. Attendance was forced. Obedience was mandatory. Blessings from obedience were communal as well, and just as the sin of one member of Israel could impact others, so the obedience of all was also important – God promised to bless the nation as a whole as the nation as a whole was obedient.

Yet this system utterly failed. The Law did not make people better. God did not fail. His Law ultimately did not fail, for it did achieve His greater purpose. “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 3:24-25). Through the Law came the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20). Through the Law came the clearer understanding of the righteousness of God. Through the Law came the knowledge of the need of a sacrifice to remove sin. But when Christ died as the perfect sacrifice He made the Law obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Now He writes His law in our hearts and rather than forced outward obedience we have an inward spiritual reality – His indwelling Spirit and a new nature created to be like Christ in true righteousness and holiness (Heb. 8:10-11; Eph. 4:24).

The forced obedience of the Law was seen as a nasty, mean-spirited burden. At the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15, Peter stood up and addressed them all saying, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)  Jesus said to the Pharisees – who were the strictest of the Jewish sects – “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23:2-4).

This shows the real problem with forced obedience to strict religious rules, that even those who enforce them do not obey them in their private lives. This is always the problem with legalism. The hope of the world civilizations is not that their laws would be just, but that their citizen’s hearts would be good and honorable. To write a good law is important. To enforce the law is also important. But to create a decent, good, honest citizen is more important than both of these put together.

And so in Christ, in matters of faith, we have a new system. Christ is our Authority and Moses’ authority is no more. So the methods have changed. “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Heb 8:11). We still teach right from wrong and we watch over one another with care and concern, but it is in an entirely different spirit – the spirit of gentleness and grace, the spirit of hope and confidence in God’s work in the lives of all believers. Grace makes us generous and kind, not mean-spirited and judgmental. Does a brother struggle with a personal weakness? Which one of us does not struggle with something? So we come in faith to Christ and in love to one another and under His authority we call one another to obedience. But there is freedom also for the Spirit of God is at work within us. Even a rebuke is given in love and given with an invitation to turn to Christ for cleansing and renewal.

So, under the authority of Christ, we come to one another in love, and we look on our brothers and sisters in Christ not in light of our weaknesses and failings, but in light of the power of God to renew us and establish us in His grace and in full sanctification. No more judging. Only love.

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Extreme Grace, Part 4: Abuses of Grace

September 4th, 2014

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently, but watch yourself or you too may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:1-2

Mutual accountability under Christ, yes.

Judgmental prying, no (1 Tim. 5:13). Spiritual despotism or dictatorial leadership, no (Acts 6:1-7). Disrespect of leadership, no (1 Tim. 5:17-20).

One of the problems with the doctrine of grace is that it tends to be interpreted as meaning that all matters of faith are completely private and personal. If God forgives me, then who are you to judge me? There is some biblical thinking behind this in Romans 14:4, that asks, “Who are you to judge another man’s servant?” There are some proper limitations of how much information we should have about another person’s life, and to snoop and pry into someone’s private life creates another set of problems – even if that person is found to be at fault.

The first problem is hypocrisy. None of us could pass the test if every detail of our lives were exposed to the public. Each of us would have some weakness – too much sugar or salt in our food, perhaps our eyes lingered too long on a swim suit ad, failure to pray or read our Bible, etc. We may call these “acceptable sins” and therein lies the danger, for this type of practice makes the Christian life all about trying to please people rather than trying to please God. The truth is that no sin is acceptable, and that we are all works in progress. Church leadership should be “above reproach” but this does not mean perfection – for none of us attain that – but rather humility, a good reputation, and a willingness to do what needs to be done to restore confidence.

Christ’s words, “Judge not lest you be judged” (Matt 7:1), should warn us off of this behavior. Only God can judge someone. We simply lack to knowledge and perspective to be able to evaluate someone’s true condition. But more to the point, judging is done to put someone down, to damage them, to possibly destroy them, and we are not to destroy our brother and sister for whom Christ died (Rom. 14:15).

We are called to lift one another up, to restore those who fall, to encourage one another, and if we have cause to warn or rebuke, we should do so in love. “Preach the word. Be instant, in season, out of season; correct, rebuke, encourage, with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim 4:2). The sense of the need to judge and pry into people’s lives is a reflection of the lack of faith in God’s Spirit and His work to bring transformation. We, with rules and legalities, try to do what only the Spirit can do. But if we will be used of God we must humbly come alongside of our brothers and sisters and encourage them toward maturity as the Spirit guides them.

Another problem, however, is our own pride that does not want to admit our weaknesses. We may imagine that grace means that these failings are not important. Grace, however, means forgiveness, not that sin is insignificant. In order for Holy God to forgive us a payment must have been made for our sins, and Christ made that payment. He did not simply say that sin is unimportant, rather He bore on the cross the sin and shame of us all. We have forgiveness but it is costly forgiveness, and it calls us to serious discipleship. Part of our spiritual growth is personal and private, yet part of it does need the help and encouragement, and maybe even the loving rebuke, of the family of faith.

A popular novelist described her creative process as not creating the perfect story so much as sitting up with a sick friend, trying to nurse a storyline into better and more readable condition. I thought her honesty and humility was refreshing. But this also depicts what we do with one another – we do not find perfect Christians in the church, rather we find the sin-scarred, battle-weary, oft-discouraged, spiritually-sickened saints of grace. And we help one another, under the empowering and guiding hand of God’s Spirit, to gain strength, to get over our sins and hurts, to grow in grace, and to stand strong for Christ.

A popular preacher’s wife – from a church known as a radical grace church – said that we should obey God not for Him but for ourselves, because God is really only concerned with our happiness. While I believe that obedience to Christ does bring great and deep joy, God calls us to holiness, not happiness. We can get into a circular argument on this issue of happiness and holiness – “Which comes first, our happiness or our holiness?” – but the clear emphasis of scripture is on holiness first, that we must lose our life to find it, we must die to live, we must surrender to win, and in that surrender to Christ we find His resurrection life within us.

I do not believe we have improved on the Prayer of Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O, divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


A quick introspective note on 1 Tim. 5:24-25: “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others train behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden.”

I doubt that there has ever been a Christian leader who has not shuddered a bit (perhaps a lot) at the statement of verse 24, that the unknown sins in our lives trail behind us. At the Judgment Seat of Christ, all of the hidden sins of our lives will be made known. But since this is true for all of us, none of us dares to judge another, and each of us through this experience will be more profoundly aware than ever before of the grace of God in Christ that covers our sins.

But notice the emphasis of Scripture – it is on the positive, not the negative. Though the unknown sins will be mentioned, so will also the unknown good deeds be made known. God’s intent in His grace is to save us from our sin and to establish us in His righteousness by grace. He does not reveal our sins without also revealing the times that by His grace and power we did the right thing. Our failings will be removed from us. Our faithfulness will be affirmed. And we will cast our crowns before the Savior and say, “Thou art worthy!” It was Christ in us, working through us, that achieved the good deeds, not us.

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