Legalistic grace?

Legalistic grace

In my last post, I talked about the balance between love and truth. I discussed the danger of going to either extreme, and mentioned hypocrisy as one of the results.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about the contrast between legalism and grace, and everything in between. And after my pastor’s sermon yesterday morning and this wonderful post by a friend of mine, I’ve decided to write out some of what I’ve been thinking through.

It’s clear this is one of those balance issues, because we are in the age of grace, and yet not completely abandoning the law. Paul’s letters clearly instructed churches in changes they needed to make in their lives, and Jesus certainly wasn’t teaching this laid back, do-what-you-feel-like lifestyle. Yet today, hordes of people have leaned so far to the side of grace that they’ve actually forgotten that God’s will for His redeemed people wasn’t that they do whatever they please. This grace we take for granted cost the life of His Son. Sins aren’t “oopsie daisies.” They grieve the One who purchased our freedom with His blood.

Ephesians 2:8-10 states that we are saved by grace, through faith alone. Our works have no part in salvation, specifically so that no one can boast. That much is clear. But verse 10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” We are created to do good works! So apparently, they must come in at some point.

This is where the distinction comes between works that come after salvation and legalism, which says that works earned salvation or were required for it in some way. Grace covers all of our sins–past, present, and future–and enables us to grow in our relationship with God, overflowing in works of righteousness. The salvation comes first, and then out of the resulting relationship with our Redeemer, we obey and serve Him out of love.

Grace doesn’t excuse us from commands–it just means we don’t have to strive to measure up. Christ has fulfilled the law, so we aren’t condemned by it any longer (Romans 8:1). Grace frees us from having to be legalists and slaves to sin, and allows us to dedicate our acts of obedience to God with love, rather than obligation. In John 15:14, Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Numerous times, Paul instructs believers to “put off the old man” and put on the new. Far from being people who take advantage of grace to tout our “liberty,” we should be people who recognize the enormity of what we have been given in Christ and dedicate our lives to loving and serving Him.

Paul also warned the Corinthian church to beware of causing fellow believers to stumble. 1 Corinthians 8:9 says, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul discussed some “gray areas” in the day, specifically whether or not the believers could/should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He said that not being a stumbling block was so important that “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” Finally, at the end of this discussion, he said, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). His point was that rather than spending so much energy trying to create a set of rules to follow, we should ask ourselves whether we are glorifying God with this thing.

Here’s the balance: God makes it clear in His Word that salvation isn’t the end of His work in our lives.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” — 1 Peter 1:14-16

We are instructed to be holy, as God is holy. This command is a continual process in our lives from the day we are saved until the day we die.

But the complementing side of the scale is God’s grace poured out upon us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is now no condemnation for us as followers of Christ. It is not God’s desire for us to live in guilt and fear. Yes, He wants us to be more like Him, but He is not disappointed in us. He desires that when we fail, we confess and repent from it, and genuinely try to win next time, through His help. He doesn’t sigh and roll His eyes and say, “I guess I’ll just have to forgive you again…but you’d better not mess up next time.” 1 John 1:9 says, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God promises to forgive us, and He doesn’t do it grudgingly.

Finally, here’s a small portion of Romans 8 that explains our relationship with God. The emphasis is mine.

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” — Romans 8:12-15


We have an obligation to God, but the payment for our sins is on Christ. Any and all imperfections in our lives have already been taken care of. What’s left is for us to grow in our Christlikeness day by day.

Romans 8, the whole chapter, is really the best in-depth explanation of how and why the law and grace work together. What I’ve done here is simply try to explain what this dynamic looks like. I hope it was helpful to you–it was good for me to work through it.

What do you think the balance between the law and grace looks like in practical living?

5 thoughts on “Legalistic grace?

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  1. Mm, I like this. I think that so often, we put an emphasis on works over grace, when really, by emphasizing grace, we’ll be motivated and encouraged to continue in good works. If we say, “Look at grace for a minute, BUT DON’T FORGET THAT YOU HAVE TO WORK HARD SO GOD WILL LOVE YOU, we’re wrong. The cross of Christ is proof that God loves us, though we’re entrenched in sin, and that He desires to save us. We will still struggle with sin because we have an old sin nature, but as you wrote, “Numerous times, Paul instructs believers to ‘put off the old man’ and put on the new.” We are transformed human beings in Christ, and it is only because of God’s grace that we are who we are.

    So many people put such an emphasis on trying harder, but without God’s strength, we’ll fail. Again, like you said, God desires that we ‘genuinely try to win next time, through His help.’ Because of His strength, His Holy Spirit in us, we can be victorious.

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