Some Thoughts Regarding Righteousness and Legalism

I mentioned in my last post that I had recently spent some time studying the doctrine of justification by faith. The Bible teaches that Christians are brought by God’s grace into union with Christ. It is in this union with Christ that we are saved. It is in this union with Christ that we are justified. It is in this union with Christ that we have our righteousness. And it is in this union with Christ that we have hope. Consider, for instance, the implications of 1 Corinthians 1:30:

“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'” (1 Cor. 1:30)

If we are in the Lord Jesus, then our boasting is in the Lord. And if we are in the Lord, it is because of the Lord (not ourselves, our goodness, our initiative, our wisdom, our sound judgment, our moral inclinations, our upbringing, or any other thing). It because of God that we are in Christ, and it is because we are in Christ, that we are declared righteous in God’s sight. Our righteousness is not an inherent righteousness but an alien righteousness. By that, I mean it comes from outside of us, not from inside of us. It is Christ’s righteousness, credited to us.

There are endless implications of the doctrine of justification, and  in particular, implications  for our life and worship. One that comes to mind, is that the doctrine of justification wages war against our natural tendency toward both legalism and “anti-lawism” (commonly known as antinomianism, from the Greek word for law, “nomos”). Here are a few quotes that I have appreciated and hope that they might instruct and encourage you as well:

Legalism is “pursuing holiness divorced from an understanding of what Jesus has accomplished for us. This is the essence of legalism. Often we think of legalism as applying the wrong set of rules. But that’s not necessarily true. Legalism is using any set of rules-bad rules, good rules, even God’s laws-in a wrong way…You’ll either become hopelessly disillusioned at your failure, or if you succeed, you’ll become puffed up with self-righteous pride. Your legalism might appear to produce results for awhile, but ultimately it will work against your pursuit of holiness.” Joshua Harris, Not Even A Hint, p. 49-50.

“Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through my obedience to God.” C. J. Mahaney, The Cross Centered Life

Yet, there is something else we need to think about for our practical lives. For instance, consider Paul’s prayer for the Philippians:

“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.” (Phil. 1:9-12)

There is a real sense in which our righteousness in Christ will have a fruitful expression in our lives. Sometimes our attempts at stamping out legalism can squash the kind of spiritual discernment that goes hand-in-hand with fruit-producing. Our participation in this living fruit is to exercise a discerning love…love for God and love for others. This means that we have an ongoing need/responsibility to make judgments and decisions about what is good and what is not. Or, even harder, between what is good and what is best! Every day we inevitably have many opportunities do this. In fact, we could not avoid these choices if we tried.

Life in Christ ought to be lived out with an overriding desire to enjoy and glorify God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Legalism will not get us there. Legalism is a spiritual bust. Anti-lawism will not get us there either. Anti-lawism promises freedom but it is a liar. The kind of freedom it gives is deceptive and fleeting and ultimately is not freedom at all. But true life is in Christ, who himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). May you enjoy life in Christ as a justified sinner and avoid the perils and pitfalls of legalism and anti-lawism.


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