I am convinced that there are two major heresies in the church: legalism and antinomianism. This post will focus on the error of legalism in different relational dynamics within the church. Sinclair Ferguson, the great Scottish theologian, defines legalism as “separating the law of God from the person of God.” What he means is that when we divide God’s good, holy, and necessary law from the God of grace Himself, then we use the law as a tool that deprives us of the joy of keeping God’s commandments. A Christian who uses God’s commandments as a means to control, manipulate, or even justify themselves as more righteous than another, proves to misunderstand the very character of our good Father in heaven who forgives us freely in Christ and treats us as forgiven. The reality is all believers struggle in this area; so, I hope to both warn and encourage the church to walk in Christ-like love towards one another in the following four kinds of relationships.
1. Flee Legalistic Marriage
The Bible describes the purpose of marriage as being a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5:32). Jesus as the great Bridegroom removes His bride from under the law as a covenant to obtain eternal life, and places us in Himself under the unconditional covenant of grace and love, and He never again requires us to earn His approval through obedience. This grace is the motivation of the Spirit that compels us to obey Him.
Legalistic marriages are contrary to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Within a marriage, when a spouse’s treatment of the other is dependent upon the actions of the other, then they may have lost sight of just how gracious God has been to them. For instance, a husband or a wife who needs the other spouse to perform a certain way (cooking, cleaning, encouragement, respect, affection, etc.) for them to replicate the grace of Jesus towards the other has forgotten that God not only has forgiven them graciously of all of their sins and short-comings, but has commanded them to forgive the other as Christ has forgiven them. The Father’s forgiveness towards us means that He treats us as forgiven. Jesus is the only sufficient gospel motivation that can empower us to love our spouses unconditionally as He has loved us.
2. Flee Legalistic Parenting
Godly parenting should also be motivated by grace, not by legalism. Christian mothers and fathers are called to disciple their children for the glory of God, according to the grace of God. Parenting that only focuses on obedience, and outward performance, creates a picture-perfect moralism. This type of parenting may in fact create children that don’t embarrass the family through gross, public sins, but it will never get to the heart of the problem. Children sin because they are sinners and the message of grace is the only remedy.
Mark Jones, a pastor-theologian in Vancouver, Canada, says in his article on the various types of legalism that this is “parenting legalism.” He says, “How we view the way others parent, even our own spouse, can be legalistic. The high expectations we have for our children when our own example is so pitiful at times reveals a legalistic spirit.” Parenting that issues commandments with the force of “do this and live” produces moralistic children who are taught to have legalistic hearts.
Consider how God the Father parents His children. He gives us commandments in a world full of sin to guide us in joyful obedience for our good and His glory. When he tells us not to steal, he does not do so to restrict us from something good, but rather because he freely gives us all things needed in this life (temporal) and in the life to come (eternal). He never uses a commandment to manipulate, trick, or muscle us into obedience, but from a heart of pity and compassion, He consistently loves us by setting both His law and His grace before us in the person of His Son. Therefore, parents must set Jesus freely before their children as our Father does for us.
3. Flee Legalistic Church Life.
By church life, I mean the ordinary relationships that members of a local church have with one another. This can be anything from Christian fellowship to serving within a ministerial context (AWANA, worship care, pastoral care, deacon’s meetings, etc.). Even within the most doctrinally unified churches, differences and disagreements arise. They may pertain to parenting, drinking, Sunday dress-code, politics, or practical disagreements between new and older members.
Regardless, all believers must remember that we are united to one another in Christ and called to love one another in an understanding way, meaning that we show much grace in disagreements. When we have disagreements on matters of Christian liberty, we need to remember that our unity is based on the gospel of Christ and love for one another. That means we can be gracious and patient with each other when we disagree. For example, some Christians disagree on what to wear to Sunday morning worship. While that question may be important, we need to remember in our hearts that God brings us into His kingdom by means of His Son’s royal sacrifice, not anything that we wear or don’t wear on the Lord’s Day.
When we require other members of our churches to conform to beliefs or practices that are not explicitly taught in the Scripture, we restrict Christian liberty. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors by keeping the royal law, but He never commands us to force cultural, political, or traditional preferences upon one another even if these things are good. Jesus has torn down the dividing wall of hostility through His life, death, and subsequent resurrection. Disagreements will exist, but we must never forget Jesus in our disagreements.
4. Flee Legalistic Friendship.
The most well-known friendship in the Bible is between Jonathan and David. The Scriptures say that their hearts were “knit” together. Jonathan served David as well as warned him of dangers threatening both his throne and his life. They enjoyed a covenant of love that is extremely unique beyond the bond of a husband and wife. Jesus teaches us about friendship as well in John chapter 15. He says that his disciples were His friends and that they were to love one another sacrificially as Christ had loved them (John 15:13). This is done according to Christ by keeping His commandments (15:14). Notice in these verses that it is Jesus, the Lord of life, who authoritatively commands His disciples.
In our friendships, we must not act as lords over one another, commanding things beyond what Jesus requires. Christian friendship is a beautiful thing, but who we decide to covenant a friendship with is still a matter of Christian liberty. Therefore, if you are in a loving Christian friendship, treat it as a gift meant for mutual edification, reflecting the glory of Christ. We should never seek to control our friends to perform in a way that pleases us, but honor the friendships that we share by speaking words of kindness, being faithful to our commitments, and above all, pointing one another to Jesus when we sin. Jesus was a faithful friend who laid down His life for all of His disciples. He doesn’t require us to be perfect friends, but we should follow his example by loving our friends when they fail to meet our expectations of them.
We must constantly examine our own motives for why we obey God and why we desire others to obey God. Jesus’ death didn’t just accomplish justification (being made right with God) but also the promise of sanctification (being made like Jesus internally and externally). We are called to flee from all traces of sin and legalism as a dangerous foe, and yet, Jesus has removed the law covenant as a means of life and approval for all who have faith in Him. We need not fear the condemnation of legalism in any sense for we are so freely forgiven. We should seek to obey and call others to obey God from the grounds of Christ who is Himself the gospel. Thanks be to God that He no longer requires works of the law for life for those who have put their faith in His Son. All glory be to Christ!