Ever since writing my recent review of the film ‘Les Miserables’ here, I have wanted to explore the themes of law and grace which were so evident throughout the film. I will be covering this subject in some detail over the coming weeks and I hope you will find it interesting.
According to the dictionary, one of the definitions of religion is: “The practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.”
The general idea is that by following a certain way, doing and believing certain things, you can get right with God. Religion is about living a good life and observing certain do’s and don’ts, try your hardest and you might be alright.
This way of living is very uncertain but to a greater or lesser degree this is the way of 99% of the world’s religions. You never have an assurance of salvation but can only hope that everything will be ok. This uncertainty can drive people to extreme religious observance, as did the Pharisees Jesus encountered. They were so religious that they memorised the whole of the first 5 books of the bible (Pentateuch) and went to extremes of tithing so that even their kitchen condiments were tithed (Matthew 23:23). The Pharisees loved the law, the problem was that they added to it.
Next week we are going to look at the purpose of the law (the Pharisees missed the point altogether!). But for now we shall look at “legalism”, the way people try to keep the law.
In Christianity, legalism is the excessive and improper use of the law. This can often take 3 forms: Keeping the law to obtain salvation; keeping the law to maintain salvation; judging others by looking down on them.
(1) Keeping the law to obtain salvation
We will see later that it is simply not possible to keep the law to a high enough standard in order to be saved. We may find ourselves doing really really well at keeping the law, but the bible says that if we fail at just one point we are guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10). The bible also says that if we were able to keep the whole law then Christ would have died needlessly (Galatians 2:21).
(2) Keeping the law to maintain salvation
This is very common and one which is easy for all of us to fall into. We fully appreciate all that Jesus has done for us but feel we must add to it in order to keep our salvation. When we think about this we start to realise how arrogant this way of thinking is.
We are justified by faith alone, not by faith and works. The bible is very strong on this. In Galatians 3:10 it says “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” And Jesus further hammers it home in Matthew 7:22-23 where he says ““Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
(3) Looking down on others
The third kind of legalism, where a Christian keeps certain laws and regards with contempt other Christians who do not keep his standard of holiness, is a frequent problem in the church. It is of course clear that certain situations need to be judged carefully and lovingly where obvious sins are committed (murder, fornication, lying, stealing etc) but this is not the same as judging others in debatable areas which are not clear from the bible. We need to be very careful and this is where legalism is more difficult to define.
Romans 14:1-12 says that we are not to judge our brothers on debatable issues.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:5). As long as our freedom does not violate the Scriptures, then everything should be okay.