From Legalism to Grace


It’s been an emotional week at the Crandall house. Last weekend we sent Bethany off to college, and Micah left for Pennsylvania yesterday to start his sophomore year. I will miss having them in our everyday life here in Milton. I was reminded of one of the reasons why a couple of days ago. We were all talking about something, can’t remember exactly what, but before I could finish my sentence Micah knew exactly what I was going to say. He knows how I think.

It’s only when you have a close relationship with someone that you start to know how they think. The large majority of people who would call themselves Christians don’t know how God thinks. That’s because all of us start out not automatically thinking like God. God himself says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8) In order to start thinking like God thinks, we have to have a close relationship with Him.

We get to know God by getting to know His Word, the Bible. The Bible tells us how God thinks. When we trust in Jesus, He places His Holy Spirit in us, and the Spirit leads us to be close to God through His Word. As we are led by the Spirit into all the truth we start to know God’s thoughts and to think like Him.

If we are to think like God our mindset has to be reset. If you are fairly new in your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, then the Lord is working in you to change how you think. You were born with a mindset that actually works against God and against all the good things He wants to do in your life. If you have been a Christ-follower for some time, chances are that something has happened in your life which has thrown your way of thinking off from God’s way of thinking. You also need your mindset reset. And this is why we are going to jump in deep to the letter that Paul the messenger of God wrote to the people called Philippians.

Paul, like the rest of us, had to go through a mindset reset when he started following Christ. After his life-altering encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he spent the rest of his life testifying to the grace of God that he had received and that he knew was available as a free gift to anyone who also received it by faith. Although Paul became known as the apostle of grace, prior to his encounter with Jesus Christ, grace nowhere to be found in his life. Paul was a man full of pride over his legalistic form of righteousness. In his own words he says he was “faultless” (Philippians 3:6). He worked harder than anyone in order to maintain the righteousness that comes from obeying the law which God gave to the Jewish people.

In his self-righteous zeal to hold to the laws and the traditions of his people, he even went so far as to persecute the people who had begun to understand that there was a different kind of righteousness than the legalistic kind that Paul and his kind knew. The righteousness which comes by faith in Christ through his grace was a foreign concept to Paul. At first he considered it an enemy to everything he knew to be right and true, so he did everything in his power to try and stop it.

This reaction to the message that Jesus came to earth to give us was the same reaction that the chief priests and elders of the Jews had. They responded to Jesus by having him arrested and persuading Pontius Pilate to execute him by crucifixion. In the same way as Paul, they reacted against this free gift of God which is eternal life through Christ – not through human ability or hope.

So when Paul writes to these new followers of Jesus called the Philippians and he says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:2), these ideas of grace and peace were only there because Paul had encountered Jesus. There is a difference between meeting someone and encountering them. You can be introduced and say “hello” and exchange some pleasantries but that’s not a real encounter. If Paul had only said “hi” to Jesus there would not have been a radical change in his life. He went from trying to kill Christians to joining them! That’s a supernatural change that only God can do.

Paul went from working harder than anyone else to gain legalistic righteousness to understanding the grace of God which was given freely to him through his relationship of faith with the Lord Jesus. Previously Paul had been an enemy of God and was fighting against the very message that the Lord was sending out to all the people of the world. He had no peace with God. He was at war with God. So when he sends peace to these believers, we must realize that Paul’s understanding was turned upside down. His mind was recalibrated. His mindset was reset, and it was a transformation that was for our benefit.

Paul’s life is a testimony that touches on the same reality that we face in our lives. Your journey through life may have some similarities to Paul’s. We might call Paul a “church” guy. He grew up in a strict Jewish home. Although he was born a Roman citizen and grew up outside of Israel, he did his religious training in the city of Jerusalem under one of the prominent teachers of his day named Gamaliel. One of the challenges of growing up in church, some of you may be able to relate to this, is that you focus on the rules of being a good Christian instead of the relationship that you have with Jesus. It is important to know the rules that God has for us, but our human tendency is to look to following the rules legalistically rather than seeking to please our heavenly Father.

Another way of saying it is “technical obedience.” Once we start to “technically” obey the teachings of the Lord we start down the path of legalism. It’s not that God’s rules are wrong. What is wrong is our response to God’s rules. The way things should work is that as those who know and love the Lord, our desire and our actions would not want anything that He doesn’t want. Jesus put it this way, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

Our problem is that so often our hearts are hardened to what God wants. We want what we want when we want it. So rather than softening our hearts to the Lord’s will, we focus instead on the rules. We look for loopholes. We look for exceptions. We look for ways that we can get as close as possible to breaking God’s rules without “technically” breaking them.

If you’ve grown up in church and have been part of the church for a while, chances are that you are pretty good at this technical obedience stuff. You know who else was good at that? The prodigal son’s older brother.

Jesus told a parable about a man who had two sons. We call it the parable of the prodigal son, and he typically gets all the attention. But Jesus also had a message about the son who stayed home. He was the “good” son who did what his Father wanted. However, when the younger son came home and the father received him with open arms, the older brother was angry and refused to come home and celebrate. His reaction was the polar opposite of the father who wept at his son’s return and killed the fattened calf and called everyone he knew together to celebrate. Instead the older son pouted.

His reaction highlights legalistic righteousness or technical obedience. The older son did not share in the same grace that the father extended toward the sinful younger brother. Instead he highlighted his own obedience. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” (Luke 15:29) This statement is so telling. The older son was looking at his own obedience to the rules instead of his relationship with his father. He completely misses the heart of his father towards him and his brother. The father points out to him, in a statement of the obvious, that since he is his son everything that he has is belongs to him also.

This is the deception of legalism. We so easily fall into it because the world around us and our own sinful nature leads us astray. Because of our relationship with the Lord Jesus, we have everything. We don’t have to work for it, although we do work for the Lord and for His Kingdom not out of obligation but out of sincere love. What we have comes because we belong to His family. Yet, legalism says that I have it because I have worked for it. It is due to me because I have earned it. The only thing that we as human beings have earned, however, is death. This is what Paul writes in Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

You may have a lot in common with Paul in regards to legalistic righteousness. The other option is the path of the prodigal son which we call lawlessness. Human nature takes either one path or the other. Both paths have an exit off of them which is called the grace of God which leads to peace with God. When Paul encountered Jesus, he took this exit off of the way of legalism. Let’s take a closer look at what the grace of God did in his life and how it so radically changed him.

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (1:3-6)

Prayer can be a funny thing. We come to the one being in the universe that has absolute power to do whatever He wants, and so often our prayers are full of anxiety and fear and worry about things that are completely beyond our control. But Paul shows us what the grace of God can do in someone’s life. He always prayed with joy and thanksgiving for these Philippians because of their “partnership in the gospel.” Think about that for a moment. This gospel is the grace of God lavished upon people that don’t deserve it simply because they respond to the Lord in faith.

Remember where Paul came from? He was the guy that worked harder than anyone else to prove his own righteousness. He was the guy that had contempt for those people who believed that righteousness was a gift of God. He was the guy that knew every jot and tittle, who knew every Bible reference, whose knowledge was greater than everyone else’s.

And that didn’t change for Paul overnight after he trusted his life to the Lord. He argued with people about the gospel and tried to prove them wrong. It got him into a lot of trouble, so much so that he had to leave places in fear for his life. But the Lord was working in Paul to show him what His grace meant. God was working in Paul’s life to bring His work of grace to completion.

So many precious believers in Jesus are on the front end of God’s work of grace in their lives. Like Paul, they are stuck on the things that they do rather than on the relationship with Jesus who has already done it. This comes out in different ways. Some live in fear that because they don’t measure up that God doesn’t really love them or can’t really forgive everything they’ve done. Or that even though they are a Christian they are sort of a second class saint. They haven’t got their wings yet king of thing.

Some look at the things they’ve done and think that there’s no way that God can really forgive their past. They think that there’s got to be some kind of catch. Therefore, they try to supplement the work that God is doing and bringing to completion in them. God is doing a good job, they think, but He needs a little help.

Neither of these mindsets characterize the grace of God, and Paul who step by step experienced the grace of God would agree. The good work that God does in us is not to make us better at keeping the rules but in knowing what this relationship with the Lord is all about. Where He leads we follow. He leads in the way of grace and away from the ways of legalism and lawlessness. The partnership that we have with the Lord in the gospel is that it is all about His grace, His gift of life through Christ that none of us deserves.

“It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” (1:7-8)

Notice the words of affectionate love that Paul uses. He holds them in his heart because they share in the most important thing that we can know in this life – the grace of God. Paul had suffered because he believed in the grace of God. As he himself was once a persecutor of Christians, he also received persecution at the hands of those Jews who had not yet had their eyes opened to the grace of God.

Everywhere Paul went he faced opposition from those who were committed to legalistic forms of righteousness. So when there were those who “got it”, who understood the message of the gospel, like Paul they were transformed. They became “partakers of grace.” They began their journey out of legalism and into the ever expanding grace of the Lord. Instead of finding fault in Paul for getting thrown in prison for the gospel, they recognized the forces at work in the world that try to keep people held down and in prisons of manipulation and control. They themselves had broken free through the message of Christ and were unconcerned about how it looked for Paul to be in prison.

The great irony of Philippians is that Paul wrote this letter from prison, yet he was perhaps the most free of anyone alive because of the grace of God in his life. The one who had been the greatest opponent of grace was willing to do whatever it took and go wherever the Lord led so that others could know the grace of God which he had received.

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (1:9-11)

This beautiful prayer of Paul contains only what a man captured by the grace of God could include. He doesn’t focus on being good but on understanding what is excellent. The best or the most excellent thing is to grow in the grace and the love of Christ. Legalistic obedience to the rules is not the most excellent way. Rather, faith in the Lord working through love is not just the best way, it is the only way to be pure and blameless.  This only comes through Jesus, not from human effort as Paul writes later, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.” (3:8-9)

To move out of legalism and into grace Paul starts with a “prayer for love to abound.” This love is not a gushy kind of love that lacks power. It requires knowledge and discernment so that a correct understanding of God’s grace is present. It is right in line with his confidence that God will complete the work He has begun in them. God is love, and this is His greatest gift to His children by faith. God is going to continue to do His work so that He will be praised and glorified through His people.

I first recognized the hold that legalism had on me during my college years, and it has been a journey of recognition and repentance and ever-growing relationship with the Lord by His grace. It’s probably more accurate to ask yourself where are the places in your life where you live by the rules over your relationship with the Lord, where you live by legalism instead of grace. What is the Lord doing in you to give you a greater understanding of His grace and how that works in and through your life?

Allow me to finish with a caution. Sometimes we are tempted to do a radical shift in a way that the Lord has not intended concerning His grace. Instead of legalism we swing to the other side of lawlessness and we throw out the rules. His rules still apply. Yet they are not the focus; He is. There are ditches are either side of the path of life. We stay on the narrow way by keeping our eyes on Jesus. The rules are there to convict us when we have gone our own way, kind of like the warning bumps on the side of the road that let you know when you are veering off of the right path.

The heart of the message of Christ is the grace of God. Eternal life with God is a free gift through Jesus Christ. It is never earned, only given in response to faith. It is our mindset that needs to be reset. When we have our relationship with the Lord as our priority over the rules, we have begun to move forward in His grace.