An Excerpt from J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology:
The New Testament sees salvation in Christ as liberation and the Christian life as one of liberty- Christ has freed us for freedom. Christ’s liberating action is not a matter of socio-politico-economic improvement, as is sometimes suggested today, but relates to the following three points:
First, Christians have been set free from the law as a system of salvation. Being justified by faith in Christ, they are no longer under God’s law, but under his grace. This means that their standing with God rests wholly on the fact that they have been accepted and adopted in Christ. It does not, nor ever will it, depend on what they do; it will never be imperiled by what they fail to do. They live, and as long as they are in this world will live, not by being perfect, but by being forgiven.
All natural religion, then, is negated, for the natural instinct of fallen man, as expressed in every form of religion that the world has ever devised, is to suppose that one gains and keeps a right relationship with ultimate reality (whether conceived as a personal God or in other terms) by disciplines of law observation, right ritual, and asceticism. This is how the world’s faiths prescribe the establishing of one’s own righteousness- the very thing Paul saw unbelieving Jews trying to do. Paul’s experience had taught him that this is a hopeless enterprise. No human performance is ever good enough, for there are always wrong desires in the heart, along with a lack of right ones, regardless of how correct one’s outward motions are, and it is at the heart that God looks first.
All the law can do is arouse, expose, and condemn the sin that permeates our moral makeup, and so make us aware of its reality, depth, and guilt. So the futility of treating the law as a covenant of works, and seeking righteousness by it, becomes plain, as does the misery of not knowing what else to do. This is the bondage to the law from which Christ sets us free.
Second, Christians have been set free from sin’s domination. They have been supernaturally regenerated and made alive to God through union with Christ in his death and risen life, and this means that the deepest desire of their heart now is to serve God by practicing righteousness. Sin’s domination involved not only constant acts of disobedience, but also a constant lack of zeal for law-keeping, rising sometimes to positive resentment and hatred toward the law. Now, however, being changed in heart, motivated by gratitude for acceptance through free grace, and energized by the Holy Spirit, they “serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way the same way. Its third fault is lovelessness in that its self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and creative compassion out of the heart.
In the New Testament, we meet both Pharisaic and Judaizing legalism. The Pharisees thought that their status as children of Abraham made God’s pleasure in them possible, and that their formalized daily law-keeping, down to minutest details, would make it actual. The Judaizers viewed Gentile evangelism as a form of proselytizing for Judaism; they believed that the Gentile believer in Christ must go on to become a Jew by circumcision and observance of the festal calendar and ritual law, and that thus he would gain increased favor with God. Jesus attacked the Pharisees; Paul, the Judaizers.
The Pharisees were formalists, focusing entirely on the externals of action, disregarding motives and purposes, and reducing life to mechanical rule-keeping. They thought themselves faithful law-keepers although (a) they majored in minors, neglecting what matters most; (b) their casuistry negated the law’s spirit and aim; (c) they treated traditions of practice as part of God’s authoritative law, thus binding consciences where God had left them free; (d) they were hypocrites at heart, angling for man’s approval all the time. Jesus was very sharp with them on these points.
In Galatians, Paul condemns the Judaizers’ “Christ-plus” message as obscuring and indeed denying the all-sufficiency of the grace revealed in Jesus. In Colossians, he conducts a similar polemic against a similar “Christ-plus” formula for “fullness”. Any “plus” that requires us to take action in order to add to what Christ has given us is a reversion to legalism and, in truth, an insult to Christ.
So far, then, from enriching our relationship with God, as it seeks to do, legalism in all its forms does the opposite. It puts that relationship in jeopardy and, by stopping us focusing on Christ, it starves our souls while feeding our pride. Legalistic religion in all its forms should be avoided like the plague.
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