I delight in the law of God, after the inward man. The Apostle Paul
In addressing how to preach the greatness and sovereignty of God, we find ourselves continually dealing with shoulds and oughts. And this brings us to the source of every godly imperative, which is the law of God. But pastors who take refuge there will soon find that creates a new set of difficulties.
Pastors cannot teach the necessity of godly attitudes in handling the truth without soon dealing with the law of God. And when this happens, it is the rare pastor who has not at some time encountered criticism of his sermons as “legalistic.” And it is very common for Christians to define legalism as taking the law of God “too far.” The legalist, the Pharisee, is seen as someone who just doesn’t know when to quit. Sure, the law says to do this or that, but why do these guys take it so seriously?
This common understanding is really nothing less than total confusion. When Christ rebuked the Pharisees, it was not for keeping the law; He attacked them because they refused to keep the law. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Mt. 23:23). Notice the last sentence there. Christ did not rebuke them for tithing out of their spice racks; He rebuked them for having no sense of biblical proportion at all. He rebuked them for keeping (with a great deal of fanfare) the periphery of the law, while trashing the heart of the law.
Because of this, Christ says that His followers were to be much more scrupulous about how they lived. “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20).
We are creatures; our pattern of life must conform to an external standard. Everyone in the world lives according to law—law-guided behavior is inescapable. As creatures, we are incapable of choosing between law-guided behavior and nonlaw-guided behavior. The heart of legalism, therefore, is the substitution of man’s law for God’s law. God tells us what His law is, and in His Word He describes the relationship of all believers to that law. If by grace we submit to His declaration, it shows that we have been saved by grace, and through His grace we keep the righteous requirements of the law (Rom. 8:4).
If we do not submit to God’s law, we will be submitting to the authority of some creature. It does not matter of the substitute for God is self, or some Bible teacher, or a Hindu guru. It is always the same; those who will not live by God’s law are simultaneously submitting to man’s law. For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men (Mk. 7:8).
We are incapable of turning away from God to nothing. We cannot worship the void because we cannot escape the world in which we are placed. Consequently, all rebels follow the pattern seen in the first chapter of Romans. They substitute. They worship and serve the creature, rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.
Of course there are varying degrees of substitution. Some try to rebel against everything that God says. For some, salvation (or enlightenment) is the result of the sum total of all a man’s work. They make no bones about it: they are going to make it on their own. Once a friend and I were speaking with some Jehovah’s Witnesses. One of them, an elderly woman, listened as my friend gave his testimony of how God had graciously saved him. When my friend was done, the woman said, “That’s not the way it is with us—we have to work for everything we get.” This was a form of legalism, substituting the law and gospel of man for the law and gospel of God.
But there are less obvious forms of legalism. Because they are less obvious, and serpents are subtle, these substitutions are found among professing evangelical people. Many who profess to follow the Bible (as the Pharisees also professed to follow it) in effect substitute their own laws for the laws of Christ.
Some make the substitution for the sake of “holiness” or “sanctification.” They say, for example, that a Christian must not drink anything containing alcohol. But the Bible contains no such requirement, and provides many examples to the contrary. Why do people who call themselves Christians want to be holier than Christ was? All such attempts are legalistic.
Others substitute their own wisdom for the gospel of pure grace. It is intolerable, the thinking goes, that God would save us out of His gracious pleasure; man must make his contribution. I was once talking with a man who was maintaining that Cornelius was saved because he—on his own—was worthy of the gospel (Acts 10:1-8). When the leaven of this teaching has done its work, the result is another gospel.
All the commands are summed up in the greatest command of all, which is to love God supremely and without reserve. Because we are sinners, we cannot obey this command apart from the grace of God. But for those who are recipients of this grace, they find that it works in them to accomplish God’s good pleasure. And the good pleasure of of God is expressed for us in a written form in the law. He who loves keeps the law. He who truly keeps the law is doing nothing more than loving God and loving his neighbor. “Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loves another has fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).
Our duty is clear. We are to obey the law in our love for God and man. But all of us are sinners are incapable of doing this. Because of His loving-kindness, God has provided a means of transforming hearts which hate the law. At this point, our duty is equally clear—it is to obey the gospel.
And when God by His grace makes it possible for us to repent of our sin and believe the gospel, we find that we have been set free to love Him and love our neighbor. Put another way, we have been freed from sin that we may keep the law of God. As Christians, we can accept no substitute. As pastors, we must allow no other standard for behavior to ever enter into our pulpits.