Avoid Legalism: Emphasize the Law

Recovering the gospel alone isn’t enough to keep legalism at bay.

One passage of Scripture that teaches the distinction between the law as a covenant and the law as a rule of life is Romans 7. Romans 7:4 says that believers have “died to the law through the body of Christ,” showing that we are no longer in a marriage covenant with the law (Rom 7:1-3) to obtain our justification; rather, Christ kept the law for our justification (cf. Rom 3:20, 28; 4:5-6, 5:18-19). But Romans 7 also teaches that the believer aims to follow the law as a rule of conduct in his sanctification.

 

Many of today’s young evangelicals have happily thrown off the legalistic fundamentalism of their childhood. They’ve come to a greater understanding of God’s abundant grace, and the gospel has liberated them from slavery to guilt and fear. That’s a very good thing. But I submit that recovering the gospel alone isn’t enough to keep legalism at bay. We need a renewed emphasis on the law of God or else legalism will inevitably reemerge. Specifically, we need a clear emphasis on (1) the law as a covenant, and (2) the law as a standard or rule.

One passage of Scripture that teaches the distinction between the law as a covenant and the law as a rule of life is Romans 7. Romans 7:4 says that believers have “died to the law through the body of Christ,” showing that we are no longer in a marriage covenant with the law (Rom 7:1-3) to obtain our justification; rather, Christ kept the law for our justification (cf. Rom 3:20, 28; 4:5-6, 5:18-19). But Romans 7 also teaches that the believer aims to follow the law as a rule of conduct in his sanctification. Paul, the mature believer, says, “I delight in the law of God in my inner being” (Rom 7:22) and “I myself serve the law of God with my mind” (Rom 7:25). In Romans 8:4, we’re told that Christ died for us, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

The is nothing other than what our Baptist forebears taught in the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. “Although true believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned, yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty” (19.6).

The Law as a Covenant

The law as a covenant says, “Do this and live” (Lev 18:5; Ez 20:11; Lk 10:28; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12). It demands perfect obedience for eternal life (Gal 3:12; 5:3). It makes no provision for forgiveness of sins (Gal 3:10). The law covenant is inflexible and absolute. Even one sin against the law covenant brings guilt and eternal condemnation. That means that in Adam, all are condemned in the court of the law covenant. The good news is that Christ’s perfect obedience to the terms of the law covenant brings justification and eternal life for all who belong to Him.

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