There is an individual and a corporate dimension to this struggle.
i. Individual struggles
We struggle to accept that when Christ cried from the cross "it is finished" that the work of atoning for sin was completed (John 19:31). The righteousness that we need is found in him, it comes to those who do not work but trust God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:1-8). But within us there remains a desire to earn God's approval, to contribute something toward our acceptance with him. This must be turned away from again and again. God cancels unpayable debts out of sheer grace, not because we have persuaded him to do so by our attitudes and actions (Luke 7:36-50).
A gospel of grace goes against the grain of the aspirations of our fallen human nature. In fact legalism is a clear expression of our fallenness. The desire to earn acceptance with God based on our own works is a colossal failure to see just how fallen and condemned we are and therefore how much we are in need of grace alone to save us (Eph. 2:1-10).
ii. Corporate struggles
Perhaps because we are so ashamed to admit to the profound corruption of our own hearts we seek to hide behind the petty legalisms that can regulate the behaviour of the church and Christian organisations that we belong too (read Mark 7:1-23). A certain form of external behaviour (more often than not man made) becomes an indicator of true holiness. This approach masks over human depravity, and does not lead to relationships where the mighty grace of God in justification and regeneration is displayed, rejoiced over, and treasured together. How could it be when sin and holiness is treated so superficially?
Q2. How does legalism affect our relationship with God?
It silences the voice of praise for grace shown to ruined sinners in the work of Christ. It extinguishes our joy in the Saviour. It dimishes love to Christ for his mercy and grace toward us. It limits to a point in time (my performance and response to God) dimensions of love that stretch back to God's eternal plan and purpose (Eph. 1:4-5). He loved us from all eternity and gave his Son for us.
In place of praise, joy, and love we are left with uncertainty, servile fear, and grim obedience. "Have I done enough?" is a question that we will ask and never know the answer too. In short we will not have assurance that we ought to have that we are forgiven and accepted for Christ's sake. As Dennis Johnson puts it:
Only when our obedience flows from a justification-secured assurance of the Father's approval of us for his Son's sake is our obedience an expression of love for God above all, rather than an attempt to obligate through our efforts.
Q3. How does legalism affect our relationship with other Christians?
A legalistic attitude produces ugly Christian behaviour.
i. We play the comparison game
We find ourselves measuring our standing before God in proportion to how we compare with other Christians. Their gifts, character, blessings, and experiences determine our own security before God. The truth is that neither we nor they are loved by God for our giftedness or graces; we were loved by God from all eternity, loved as the sinners that we are, loved when we were dead, lost, disobedient, and powerless. We were never chosen and loved for the good in us, rather it was because of the mercy and grace of God (in full awareness of our corruption) that we were saved from our sin and given a future inheritance in heaven. Why then do you look on others to assess and measure your standing before God?
ii. We nurture the pride that boasts and the pride that envies
At the root of legalism is pride. Not only the pride that boasts in who we are and in what we have done when things go well, but also the pride that is wounded and hurt and then manifests itself as envy, jealousy, manipulation, and despair. Both forms of pride are wrong, both need to be corrected by taking faith away from ourselves and our good and bad performances, and resting that faith in Christ and his righteousness.
God in the gospel does not rebuild our troubled sense of self-esteem. God destroys our self-esteem by his law, he re-educates our sense of human dignity, depravity, and destiny; and in the gospel he casts us upon Christ and his righteousness instead of feeding our pursuit of self-love.
iii. We tolerate the sins of suspicion, superiority and hypocrisy
Legalism makes us feel good that we are not like others. It creates the illusion that we can look down our nose at less righteous people. Ironically it does this by reinforcing a diminished view of our own sinfulness. Legalists have never come to grips with Ephesians 2:1-10.
But how can it be dealt with? I'll come back to that in the next post.