We’ve all encountered those Christians that place legalism of one sort or another above God’s grace in their spiritual walk. Often times, this involves a minor point of doctrine that is treated so dogmatically that it overshadows all else. Legalism is the practice of creating laws where none exists. Paul addressed such legalism in the Book of Colossians, “So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it? “Don’t touch this! Don’t taste that! Don’t go near this!” Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention? Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important” (Colossians 2:20-23, Message).
On the flip side of that same coin, however, are those Christians that cry legalism anytime sin is exposed, explored, or preached. These Christians are so quick to charge others with legalism that practically all sorts of behaviors and practices are allowed. These Christians cite the ample grace of God as an excuse to do, say, and behave in any manner they choose. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It is the practice of offering grace without requiring repentance or discipleship.
These issues are even more confusing when you consider that Christians from both vantage points can often be well-intended. In their honest attempts to honor Scripture and glorify God they have drifted into fringe territory.
In such issues, there is one word that cuts through the fog much like a lighthouse … obedience.
Too often, in our zeal to mimic the grace of God, Christians confuse obedience with legalism. To study Scripture is to explore a consistent invitation to be obedient to God’s Word. The Bible communicates to readers how best to live our lives. God calls us to be obedient. In fact, it is through obedience that we demonstrate our love for God (1 John 5:2-3). Scripture clearly denotes that we are blessed not for simply knowing God’s Word, but rather for doing what His Word says (John 13:17).
So is it wrong to call on Christians to obey God’s Word? Surely not. There is nothing legalistic about confronting God’s people with His Word and expecting changed lives as a result. However, we should expect people to fail at times. The Apostle Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It’s for this reason we need a Savior! I am incapable of total and perfect obedience and it is by God’s grace alone that Jesus Christ bridges the gap between myself and God the Father.
But we should be careful not to use God’s grace as an excuse to continue sinning. In Romans Chapter 6, Paul asks, “Should we continue to sin so that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). We don’t have to wait long for his answer, “May it never be!” (Romans 6:2).
Paul goes on to teach that our old selves have died with Christ so that we may be freed from our slavery to sin. To be a Christian is to embrace a newness of life that’s found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ so that we may sin no more. We are freed from our slavery to sin so we may become bond-servants of Jesus Christ. Surely this involves changed behaviors, attitudes, and lives!
However, when we fail to live up to the expectations of this new life … and we will … this is when we should gratefully and liberally partake in the grace of God that is found though faith in Jesus Christ! This is the sort of grace that we should then offer to our fellow Christians when they slip up.
Christians would do well to remember that obedience paves the path between legalism and cheap grace.