We have one last boulder to roll off the road before we are free to move ahead on our journey to liberation. As you recall, each obstacle we are studying in this section is a direct hindrance to one of the five primary benefits of our salvation.
The fifth and final benefit is to enjoy God’s presence. Many situations or conditions can keep us from truly enjoying God’s presence. For instance, not spending adequate time with Him will greatly affect our pure enjoyment of His presence. Having an underdeveloped prayer life will also rob our joy, as could harboring bitterness or anger at another person. But the person who studies God’s Word in depth and experiences a consistent lack of enjoyment of God often suffers from a condition with an ugly name—legalism.
The term legalism does not appear in Scripture, but perfect illustrations of it are scattered throughout the Word. Each of the following Scriptures teach us something about legalism.
Matthew 12:9–14 tells how Jesus healed a man who had suffered since birth with a withered hand. Now with a word Jesus restored it. But because He healed the man on the Sabbath, “the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus” (v. 14).
Acts 15 tells of a crucial decision in the early church, a decision that vitally affects you and me. The church was growing, and Gentiles were coming to know Christ. “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’” (v. 5). The leaders had to determine whether we become Christians by faith in Christ alone or by keeping the law. In the discussion that followed, Peter delivered the ultimate verdict. He said, why should we put “on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (vv. 10–11).
Legalism appeared again in the Galatian churches. Teachers came telling the new Christians they must keep the Jewish law to be saved. Paul “laid down the law” on the issue.
We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:15–16)
In the passages above and many others, we get a clear picture of legalism. Ecclesiastes 7:20 clearly sounds the futility of legalism: “There is not a righteous man on earth / who does what is right and never sins.” We cannot please God or find freedom in rule-keeping. Never have. Never will. Tragically, self-generated righteousness will always appeal to the human heart.
Beth Moore, Breaking Free: Discover the Victory of Total Surrender (Nashville: B&H, 2007).
I have just completed a series of lessons on legalism, based on the book of Galatians. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.