“Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.” C.J. Mahaney’s (The Cross-Centered Life) pithy definition gets at why obeying God in word and deed can be a problem. It’s not a problem that we obey–that’s very good, but why we obey. If we obey hoping God will forgive us, or so He might accept us, perhaps unknowingly we actually blaspheme God. I don’t think that’s too strong of a word and here’s why: whether we realize it or not, banking on our own efforts curses God’s Calvary effort. It dismisses Jesus’ work as adequate. Because the Bible says we are forgiven by faith in His work alone, obeying to be forgiven in essence refuses the gift. It’s declaring that Jesus dying as a sin sacrifice is not enough. “I have to somehow complete His work.”
Imagine your parents giving you a Christmas gift and hearing you say, “Oh thank you! This is awesome! I promise even if I have to work overtime, as soon as possible I’ll pay you for this.” Mom and Dad would exchange horrified looks. For weeks they imagined the look on your face as you unwrapped your present. They thought you’d receive it with joy. You did but… How pained they are to have their child think he needs to repay them for what they freely gave.
It’s not that obedience is wrong; it’s very right. But it’s the difference between obeying to get, and obeying because you’ve gotten. The person who recognizes that God declares him righteous solely by his faith alone in the work of Christ, now happily obeys God and wants to as a result of being justified. She doesn’t obey so she’ll be forgiven, but because she’s been forgiven. The difference is enormous.
Justification saves us and it is God’s work alone. We …are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:24-25)
Once we have been justified, we are confident God accepts us, confident God’s forgiven us of all past, present and future sin, and no longer live in fear (1 John 4:18). The rest of life is one of obedience in response to God’s mercy and salvation. We call it sanctification, the process of being made holy. Unlike justification which is God’s solo project, we are sanctified by a partnership of our own efforts (1 Timothy 4:7), and the Holy Spirit’s work (Philippians 2:13).
Legalism’s curse is not just keeping–or judging others by rules not found in the Bible, it is keeping those rules that are there, FOR THE WRONG REASONS.