Grace does not mean there is no law and we are free to behave any way we wish. Grace is to lead us to holiness, which is the walking in the presence of God and reflecting his character.

Law, Lawlessness and Legalism

Law, Lawlessness & Legalism.

Gary talked last week about judging, and the way “Judge not, lest you be judged” has been misinterpreted to mean that no matter what anyone does, we should not judge the behavior. He pointed out that we are not to condemn someone for their sins, lest we get condemned for ours, but that does NOT mean we are not to discern what is right and wrong, or identify certain behaviors as sin.

We have all known people or been in churches where we have felt their judgment. This judgment often takes the form of Religious Legalism and the pointed finger of accusation. This judgment can come as a result of real, bad behavior, or sin, like stealing; or it can come from religious legalism about externals like length of hair, card playing, makeup, dancing, and the color of the carpet in church. Because of this legalistic attitude, in reaction to it, people often begin to err on the other extreme of lawlessness. They often appeal to Grace, implying that if you are for grace then you really shouldn’t judge anyone’s behavior and everything is acceptable to God because God doesn’t judge and he loves everyone. True enough, he does love everyone, but that does not mean he approves of everyone’s actions.

Now today, most people who think grace means you shouldn’t judge then means that you shouldn’t judge whether homosexuality, fornication, abortion or adultery are wrong. They immediately want to apply grace to sexual behaviors. And if anyone says these things are wrong, then these Christians are being legalistic and judgmental.

Today I want to talk about the Law and Paul’s understanding of Grace. While today, most people want to apply grace to homosexuality and sex outside of marriage, the same people are not very graceful if you happen to be Conservative Christians, nor are they tolerant of racists and rapists. In other words, even their tolerance and grace only goes so far. The same people who don’t want anyone to judge sexual behaviors will furiously judge racists and rapists. At the same time, they may give Islamic legalists a pass….weird … My point is, they too judge lawbreakers, only certain types of lawlessness.

First of all we must ask, “what is the purpose of the Law?” The Law was given to protect us from harm and to protect others from us doing harm to them. I compare the Law to a sign post that says: Bridge Out Ahead!
bridge out

Now if someone says, I don’t care what that sign says, I’m going to do what I want and rushes straight ahead anyway, ignoring the signpost or the law, doesn’t make it right. You end up like this:ignoring the bridge out sign

The Law defines sin, and the problem with sin is that it distorts the image of God in us. It is less than God desires for us. It damages us and enslaves us. We know the power of sin in addiction to drugs, alcohol, lust, pornography, greed, seeking power over others, and low self-esteem, physical abuse, self-hatred, shame, and guilt. God hates sin because it does damage to us and to the Creation. And sin causes us to do harm to others.

The problem with the Law, Paul stated is that while the “Law is Good” it is powerless to stop sinful behavior or sinful desire. In fact, the very command ‘not to lust’ for example, turned lust into a forbidden fruit and made the temptation to sin all the more powerful. (Romans 7). So people responded, “Well if I can’t stop sinning, I might as well give into it and let Grace cover me with forgiveness.” Paul faced this situation in Corinth, where a man started sleeping with his father’s wife. Paul’s reaction was furious to think that his message of God’s grace in Christ could be so seriously misinterpreted to mean that any kind of behavior was now lawful.

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Well, you might say, if the law won’t help us be good, and grace doesn’t mean that we can go on sinning on purpose, then what do we do?

Paul’s answer is Holiness. And we will get to that in a minute.

Romans 6:13-23 “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:13-23

So, how can Paul preach grace and that all sins are forgiven, and preach that the Law is no longer binding on us, yet still believe certain things are evil and sin?

First of all, there are two meanings to the word Law:
1. A moral standard of right and wrong written down in a legal code
2. The Jewish Religious Law called the Torah.
When Paul says we are not justified by the law, he means that neither following the Torah or the legal code will save us, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Everyone needs forgiveness through Jesus Christ. His argument against the Law in Galatians and Romans is against requiring people to follow the religious codes of the Torah, like how long your hair should be, what foods to eat, whether to be circumcised, etc. These things have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ and are no longer binding.

But the MORAL law, the standard of right and wrong, has never passed away because it reflects the righteous character of the Holy God of Love. Paul is saying that lying, cheating, stealing, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, adultery, murder, etc. are still WRONG. And living in those ways is incompatible with the life of faith.

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10

So, if all fall short in attitude of the heart if not in deeds, and if we can’t make it into heaven by being good people and following the law, then how can Paul or God expect us to be moral?

I have to give you the short version here, because this sermon is already too long. If you are in Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit of the Living God lives in you and He is righteous and will lead you into good desires and guide you into right conduct, and above all will lead you to love your neighbor as yourself…. IF YOU WILL YIELD to Him and not insist upon your selfish ways. Paul is saying that through Jesus and the new covenant has been written into your hearts, where you and your conscience know the difference between right and wrong. God has called you to a higher righteousness than merely obeying the legal requirements of the law, he has called you into Holiness, and to dwell with him in holy fellowship. You cannot continue to sin on purpose and be immoral and live in holiness. Paul expects you to be holy.

I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people – Leviticus 26:11, 12
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more – Jeremiah 31:31-34

So, how do we treat others who are disobeying the moral law of God.
1. We are to love them, just as God loved us when we were still in sin and separated from him.
2. We are not to approve, endorse, or justify sin. You can’t say homosexuality or fornication is right, when the moral law of God says it is worthy of death, no matter what the culture tells you you should believe and approve of.
Why don’t we just go along with unrighteousness and call evil good ? Because it is harmful to them and it is not loving.
This holiness is now accomplished by the agency of the Spirit who is able to do in us what we could not do for ourselves:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do…so that the JUST REQUIREMENT OF THE LAW might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit – Romans 8:1-5, NRSV

Thus the Holy Spirit enables us to be a holy people, and Paul cannot separate the demand of God for holiness in us from the saving and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. It is not human works of the law that produce holiness in us, but the Spirit. The reason that sexual impurity and idolatry are forbidden and excluded from the NT community is that they violate the norms of love; and love is the character of holiness… So the Law of Christ is the Law of Love, but it is not a law that is empty of content. The “just requirements” of the Law now fulfilled in us by the Spirit – in Paul’s mind – necessarily include sexual purity, no thievery, no idolatry, no homosexuality, etc. (I Cor. 6:9). And so there is no contradiction between the idea of being saved by faith through grace, not by works of the flesh, and the new Law of Love, which reflects the character of God in sanctified conduct. We are to be holy because He is holy. Any other lifestyle is incompatible with the character of holiness that now lives in us because a Holy God lives within us, and such conduct defiles his dwelling place.

2 thoughts on “Law, Lawlessness and Legalism”

  1. send me other analysis on whether the church should accept offering or tithe from prostitutes, arm robbers, and people who engages in dubious business practice and earn their money.

    • I don’t have a total answer on this question. I have a friend who set up a church in a very bad neighborhood in Pennsylvania, full of drug dealers and prostitutes, and they started repenting and coming to church and giving their drug money and other money to the church. They hadn’t yet completely given up their lives of crime. They had to drop off their guns at the door and pick them up on their way out. Talk about a rough neighborhood! Paul also ministered to the dock workers and prostitutes in Corinth. He reached the lowly and outcasts of the city. A few years after he visits Ephesus, he writes “let the thief no longer steal…” Apparently, he did not expect an instantaneous change of character or behavior in those who had newly come to Jesus.


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