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Grace and Legalism

What characteristic most distinguishes Christianity from other world religions? Someone has suggested it is “grace”—the idea that one is saved solely by the unmerited sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross and not by any form of human merit or action.

Now “salvation” is largely a Judeo-Christian term, but the basic concept of getting right with God and being rewarded with eternal bliss has its counterparts in other religions as well. Muslims yearn for paradise; Buddhists seek enlightenment; Hindus desire to merge with the Absolute Soul and escape from the cycle of reincarnation.

The question, of course, is how does one attain ultimate bliss either before or after death? Is it a free gift with no strings attached or is it earned in some form or fashion? Most religions maintain you have to do something, even if, as some Christians say, it is as basic as just believing in Jesus as the Messiah and trusting in his atoning sacrifice.

Hindus have to seek the knowledge that helps overcome bad karma with good karma. Buddhists must look within themselves to conquer desire and acquire a true perception of reality. Muslims must uphold, insofar as possible, the five pillars of Islam to please Allah. Jews must attain the holiness of character and action that God requires. But in every religion, at least to some extent, it is the benevolent nature of deity or reality that allows such a path to bliss even to exist.

So, in the broadest sense, all religions have some notion of a universal benevolence one might term grace. But in the narrower sense, most religions teach that blissful outcomes are the result of human efforts rather than of a purely divine initiative. Christianity teaches that salvation is a divine gift whose only attached string is that the gift must be accepted.

Legalism is, in a way, the Christian counterpart to the teaching of most world religions that human action and initiative is essential. Legalism, like grace, has both a broad and narrow sense. Broadly speaking, it is the idea that one can please God only by adhering scrupulously to a law or a code of conduct. Narrowly speaking, legalism is the process of thinking like a lawyer and trying to define precisely every word and intent of that law code.

To give one simple example, a Christian legalist would see the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:32 to constitute a Christian law about divorce: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Defining the meaning of each word in this law would then be necessary in order to obey the law perfectly. The paramount question becomes, “Is there a legal loophole that might justify divorce and remarriage for a good Christian?” If not, is there any way around this law of divorce—say, a generous policy regarding annulments?

The foundation of legalism is the belief that salvation depends on keeping the law, a human activity. The forgiveness found in Jesus (or, for Jews, in connection with Yom Kippur) goes only so far. If you continue to break the law of God, the sacrifice of Jesus will eventually lose its efficacy and forgiveness leading to salvation will become impossible. As Hebrews 10:26 says, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”

The tension between grace and legalism is strong in Christianity. Even Paul recognized it in the first century (Romans 6:1-4) by alluding to those who thought that grace (free pardon in Christ) might be a license to sin all the more. This tension is usually resolved by saying that good behavior is a grateful response to grace, not a way of earning salvation. As Thomas Erskine said, "Religion is grace; ethics is gratitude."

But this does not solve the tipping point issue: At what point does repeated bad behavior nullify grace? Even more to the point, exactly what kind of bad behavior will bring about a Christian’s damnation? Some Christians say, “Once saved by grace, always saved by grace.” Others are not so sure. They think the Bible teaches there are many things you can do to lose your salvation (e.g., Hebrews 3:12; 6:4-6; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 1 Corinthians 9:27).

A more subtle form of legalism is patternism. Patternism is the assumption that there is in the New Testament a detailed blueprint for the conduct of Christianity. Patternism becomes a variant of legalism when the perceived blueprint becomes a law in and of itself, and lawyers must argue over every detail of the pattern.

For example, in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, the writer lists the qualities one should look for in bishops (overseers) and deacons (servants) of the church. In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul says an overseer should be “the husband of one wife.” According to patternism, this quality is a qualification that must be carefully defined. Obviously, the qualification requires an overseer to be married. But does it mean an overseer can never have been divorced (one and only one wife)? Does it mean an overseer cannot be a widower (one living wife)? Does it mean an overseer can never remarry if his first wife dies (one wife forever)?

Patternism taken to the extreme sees most everything mentioned in the New Testament (or even not mentioned) as a potential law whose infraction might send a person to hell. According to this thinking, divorcing a mate for any reason other than proven adultery is a grievous sin. But so is having a church kitchen, since kitchens are not mentioned in the New Testament. So is having multiple communion cups, since scripture says Jesus took “the cup.”

The list of prohibited things can be quite long, and one violation is just as damning as the next since God expects complete obedience. The lawyers of the church must constantly argue over what is binding and not binding, which practices unmentioned in the New Testament are mere aids to legal activities and which are illegal additions to the scriptural pattern.

For centuries, Christians have had to navigate between the extremes of legalism and license. Legalism often casts doubt on the hope of salvation because you never know if have lived just right. Patternism adds to the number of “laws” that must be followed and leads to even more bickering and division over how those laws must be obeyed. License, ironically, is just an egocentric form of legalistic thinking. License says, “If there is no law preventing it, I can do whatever I want.” The focus is still on outward constraint or absence of constraint rather than upon an inward directive to find and do what is truly right.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” Despite how human beings distort it, religion is ultimately about magnanimity rather than pettiness. In Hinduism and Buddhism, everyone is eventually "saved," thanks to the fact that reincarnation gives you a billion or more tries to get it right. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam give you only one lifetime, but they assure you God really wants you to be saved—if you will only give Him a little cooperation.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 23, 2010 4:16 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Biblical Presuppositions.

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