Legalism describes a method of trying to be right with God by keeping His Law. Keeping the Laws of God is not the problem, but why I do it can be. The Bible says:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)
Under grace, I acknowledge that I cannot save myself. Nothing I do can take away my sin or give me the righteousness necessary to live with God forever. This is made possible only by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He paid my penalty for sin. In Him, I am forgiven, justified, sanctified, given all of who and what He is. If I turn from faith in that gift of salvation, I have stopped believing what God says and started to think that I have what it takes to please God. This is not only false, but vanity.
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question . . . .”
The bottom line of their discussion finally came through Peter who said, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
In the end, they decided to warn those new Gentile believers to stay away from sins that had characterized their pre-Christ lives, but this was not to save them. This particular obedience would make their new life evident (Acts 15:1–21) just as any other Christian would stay away from old sin because they were new creatures with a change of mind about their former sin. In some cases, that former sin might even be the rituals of a religion that could not redeem them!
The Law has a purpose. The ‘rules’ show me that I fall short:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20)
Trying to fix it on my own, even after I’ve accepted Christ as my Savior, is self-righteousness and reveals pride that goes with it. Instead of becoming more holy, I become a pain in the neck. Not only that, I lose the joy that comes through grace. Serving Christ is motivated by love and is spontaneous. If I switch from that to serve in fear, or a sense of duty, or for any other reason, I lose God’s peace and am generally off-putting to those around me.
As today’s reading says, living by Law breeds pride or fear. I cannot obey it and all my effort to do so produces smug self-righteousness or a deep fear that I will never measure up . . . which is true. Apart from Him, I can do nothing.
As Fortner also says, if I seek acceptance before God in any measure whatsoever upon the basis of the law, I will never be accepted at all. Christ alone is my acceptance before God, my righteousness, sanctification, holiness, redemption and peace. To add anything to His finished work is to make his work vain and useless. Christ will be all, or He will be nothing.
Dear Lord Jesus, You are my Lord and Savior; I am not. Not only is self-saving impossible, it is an insult to what You have done and an insult to the Holy Spirit who uses the Law to show me what I need to confess as sin. Keep my totally aware of how much I depend on You for saving me and keeping me in Your eternal and perfect care.