Theme: Legalism versus True Holiness
This week’s lessons teach us what the idea of falling from grace really means, and that the freedom of God’s grace in Christ produces a holy life.
Scripture: Galatians 5:4
Yesterday we concluded our study by describing one failure of legalism. We need to see one more, before showing how true freedom leads to obedience.
Legalism produces bondage. Not only does legalism fail to produce what its defenders seek—that is, morality—but it actually has a contrary and harmful effect if it is seriously pursued. It produces bondage. Don’t you know people who always seem to be trying to live their lives by rules? People who are constantly afraid that they might transgress some legal or moral boundary and be knocked down by God? They are not free people. They are not even happy. They are oppressed, sad, grim, burdened, and discouraged.
Paul says that to live this way is to be “burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). The Jews of his day often referred to becoming a member of the covenant people of Israel as taking on “the yoke of the law.” They considered it to be their glory. But it was a heavy yoke, and Paul calls it the yoke of a slave, just as a yoke placed on the neck of a farm animal was to harness the animal for hard work. This is what the Apostle Peter was referring to at the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, when he advised against imposing the yoke of the Law of Moses on the Gentiles. He said, “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). According to Peter, this yoke was not only difficult to bear; it was impossible. According to Paul, it was slavery.
True holiness is the product of the Christian’s new nature and is produced by his or her love for Jesus Christ. It is why Paul says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). But let me illustrate that by a story.
Donald Grey Barnhouse was counseling a man who had met a fine Christian woman and wanted to marry her, but was afraid to do so because of a sinful past. He was afraid that his sinful past habits might get the better of him and cause him to betray her love and hurt her deeply. He was afraid to tell her of his past. Barnhouse counseled him to be open with the woman, telling her briefly about the nature of his past sins. “If you are going to be spending your lives together, there should be no barriers between you, and her knowledge of your weakness will help you all along the road,” he said.
Then he told him about another couple he heard of not long before. The man in this story had also lived a sinful life before his conversion, had met the Christian woman to whom he was now married, and had confessed the nature of his past to her. She was a spiritually mature woman, and she replied like this. She said, “John, I want you to know that I have studied the Bible for a long time and am aware of what the human heart is like. I know we are all capable of terrible sin and that you might fall into it. I also know that if you do—I pray you will not—but if you do, the devil will tell you that you will never be able to live the Christian life, that you might as well give up and continue sinning, and that above all else you should never tell me because it will hurt me. But I tell you this now. This is your home. When I married you, I married your sinful nature as well as your regenerate nature, and I want you to know that there is full pardon and forgiveness in advance for any evil that may ever come into your life.”
As he had been listening to this the man Barnhouse was counseling had bowed his head in his hands, obviously deeply moved. But when the end of the story came, he lifted his face, looked Barnhouse in the eyes, and said with great insight, reverently, “My God! If anything could ever keep a man straight, that would be it.”
Suppose the woman in the second story had approached her husband’s confession legalistically. Suppose she had said, “So that’s what your life has been like! Well, I want you to know that if I ever get wind of any hanky panky on your part, I’ll really give it to you when you get home. See this rolling pin? I’ll hit you over the head with it.” If she had said that, the man might have mused, “So she wants to play that game, does she? Well, I’ll just be careful then. I’ll do what I want. I’ll just be sure not to get caught.” Legalism does not produce righteousness.
But love does. And it is by love that God has chosen to lead us onward in the Christian life. The Bible says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom.5:8).
God loves you and has been exceedingly gracious to you. He has proved it by sending Jesus Christ to die in your place. If you know that and really understand it, you will determine in your heart never to violate the wonder of such a great love. And the love you have for Jesus, as well as his love for you, will enable you both to stand in grace and grow in holiness.
How does legalism produce bondage?
Why does love produce righteousness?
For Further Study: If you would like to learn more about grace and law, see Philip Ryken’s expositional commentary, Galatians (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005).