Legalistic grace?

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In my last post, I talked about the balance between love and truth. I discussed the danger of going to either extreme, and mentioned hypocrisy as one of the results.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about the contrast between legalism and grace, and everything in between. And after my pastor’s sermon yesterday morning and this wonderful post by a friend of mine, I’ve decided to write out some of what I’ve been thinking through.

It’s clear this is one of those balance issues, because we are in the age of grace, and yet not completely abandoning the law. Paul’s letters clearly instructed churches in changes they needed to make in their lives, and Jesus certainly wasn’t teaching this laid back, do-what-you-feel-like lifestyle. Yet today, hordes of people have leaned so far to the side of grace that they’ve actually forgotten that God’s will for His redeemed people wasn’t that they do whatever they please. This grace we take for granted cost the life of His Son. Sins aren’t “oopsie daisies.” They grieve the One who purchased our freedom with His blood.

Ephesians 2:8-10 states that we are saved by grace, through faith alone. Our works have no part in salvation, specifically so that no one can boast. That much is clear. But verse 10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” We are created to do good works! So apparently, they must come in at some point.

This is where the distinction comes between works that come after salvation and legalism, which says that works earned salvation or were required for it in some way. Grace covers all of our sins–past, present, and future–and enables us to grow in our relationship with God, overflowing in works of righteousness. The salvation comes first, and then out of the resulting relationship with our Redeemer, we obey and serve Him out of love.

Grace doesn’t excuse us from commands–it just means we don’t have to strive to measure up. Christ has fulfilled the law, so we aren’t condemned by it any longer (Romans 8:1). Grace frees us from having to be legalists and slaves to sin, and allows us to dedicate our acts of obedience to God with love, rather than obligation. In John 15:14, Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Numerous times, Paul instructs believers to “put off the old man” and put on the new. Far from being people who take advantage of grace to tout our “liberty,” we should be people who recognize the enormity of what we have been given in Christ and dedicate our lives to loving and serving Him.

Paul also warned the Corinthian church to beware of causing fellow believers to stumble. 1 Corinthians 8:9 says, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul discussed some “gray areas” in the day, specifically whether or not the believers could/should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He said that not being a stumbling block was so important that “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” Finally, at the end of this discussion, he said, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). His point was that rather than spending so much energy trying to create a set of rules to follow, we should ask ourselves whether we are glorifying God with this thing.

Here’s the balance: God makes it clear in His Word that salvation isn’t the end of His work in our lives.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” — 1 Peter 1:14-16

We are instructed to be holy, as God is holy. This command is a continual process in our lives from the day we are saved until the day we die.

But the complementing side of the scale is God’s grace poured out upon us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is now no condemnation for us as followers of Christ. It is not God’s desire for us to live in guilt and fear. Yes, He wants us to be more like Him, but He is not disappointed in us. He desires that when we fail, we confess and repent from it, and genuinely try to win next time, through His help. He doesn’t sigh and roll His eyes and say, “I guess I’ll just have to forgive you again…but you’d better not mess up next time.” 1 John 1:9 says, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God promises to forgive us, and He doesn’t do it grudgingly.

Finally, here’s a small portion of Romans 8 that explains our relationship with God. The emphasis is mine.

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” — Romans 8:12-15


We have an obligation to God, but the payment for our sins is on Christ. Any and all imperfections in our lives have already been taken care of. What’s left is for us to grow in our Christlikeness day by day.

Romans 8, the whole chapter, is really the best in-depth explanation of how and why the law and grace work together. What I’ve done here is simply try to explain what this dynamic looks like. I hope it was helpful to you–it was good for me to work through it.

What do you think the balance between the law and grace looks like in practical living?

The paradox of love and truth

preach the gospel at all times small

We’re living in a world today where Christians largely fall to two extremes. The first: those who focus on loving others and accepting them for who they are so much that they lose the holiness and consideration of the truth that, as Christians, they should have. The second: those who focus so much on the truth and keeping themselves separate from the world that they become hypercritical of others and sacrifice their witness of love to a world in desperate need of it.

It’s a paradox–the paradox of love and truth. Neither extreme is correct, or what Christ intended. Both love and holiness are necessary to a Christian.

…One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:35-40

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” – John 17:14-17

Do you see the paradox here? Jesus’ two greatest commandments were to love God and love others. But in His prayer for the disciples on the night He was betrayed, He says the world will hate the disciples because they are not of the world, and asks the Father to sanctify them (make them holy) by truth. Obviously both are pretty important.

But how do we win a world to Christ with truth that sometimes hurts and love that sometimes is scared to say something hard?

First of all, we must realize there’s a balance. Extremes are dangerous, and sadly, we are often too quick to rush headlong into one side of an idea without considering the other. Those who focus completely on love forget that love that omits truth is not love at all, while those who get caught up in preaching the truth constantly can forget that no one will be won to Christ by arguments. We need to have love and truth in our witness to truly be a light to the world. But what does this look like?

A witness characterized by love realizes that Christ loved us while we were sinners. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” If we are to love like Christ did, we have to love those around us like He did–sacrificially, realizing that they are sinners in need of a savior, and doing all we can to point them to that savior, even when it’s not easy. Even when it’s “messy.” To do this, we need to spend more time listening than speaking, and show people we truly care. They need to be able to trust us and feel safe with us, and respect us enough to want to listen to what we say.

A witness characterized by truth realizes that the very foundation of trust in Christ is knowing and believing the truth that God is holy and just and we are sinners who have failed to meet the mark (Romans 3:23). During His ministry, Jesus said some pretty controversial things and a lot of people were upset with Him because of that. But that didn’t change the fact that they were true and needed to be said. If we are to share the truth like Christ did, we must be bold and speak out even when the world doesn’t want to hear. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world today that is flat-out wrong, and we must trust God enough to speak up and “say things like they are.”

However, a witness characterized by love and truth realizes that a life well lived is often the best witness of all. A quote I read once that really stuck with me says, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” A witness characterized by love and truth realizes that there are times to speak truth boldly, and times to be quiet. She realizes that actions speak louder than words, and will spend more time modeling the truth by her actions than speaking it with her words, that way when she does speak, her words will carry the weight of matching her actions. She realizes that loving someone means telling them the truth about themselves and God, but doing it in a gentle way, as instructed in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.


A great failure of the church today that comes as a result of these two extremes is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy destroys the church’s witness to the world faster than anything else. If you preach love and mercy but condemn or mistreat sinners, making no attempt to listen to their stories and understand, the world will scorn you, and rightly so. If you accept everyone “as they are” and say that everyone should do what’s best for them, even though you have said you believe in Jesus (who said He’s the only way to heaven!), they will shake their heads at you and call you spineless or a “milksop.” And rightly so!

In a world where so many are going to the extremes, will you be the one to love people by listening to them, caring about them, serving them, praying for them, and sharing the truth with them? If you would be a good witness, make sure your life lines up with your words, and never forget where you came from. Look at each person as someone made in the image of God, loved enough by Him that He sent Jesus to die for them; as someone with an eternal soul headed for either heaven or hell. And then do your best to show love to them, speaking the truth in gentleness and respect when the time is right.

What do you think the balance between love and truth looks like? When have you had to walk the line in a situation with someone? How do you help yourself see each person as made in the image of God?