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