One of the more ironic aspects of my life is that among a certain group of people I am thought of as a particularly legalistic sort of person. Now, while since childhood I have had a strong interest in moral and legal codes of conduct, there is no definition of a legalist that would include me, because I neither like to find loopholes in laws to avoid obedience on technical grounds, nor do I believe that strict adherence to any legal or moral standard can earn salvation. Quite frankly, the fact that this can be thought of me is something I find highly risible, were it not such a frequent and willful misunderstanding. Given this, I thought it worthwhile to comment at some length about my views on the subject of merit and grace, so that my thoughts and beliefs on the matter ought to be perfectly plain and easy to understand for anyone who is literate, at least.
In dealing with the question of law and grace the term legalist gets thrown around a fair bit, too often in fact. As it will be defined and used in this discussion (and as it is used in all of my conversations on the matter), a legalist is someone who exhibits one of the following two ways of behavior: either they seek to practice in a way that is technically compliant with laws or rules but is in clear violation of the intent and spirit of the laws, or they believe that salvation and eternal life may be earned through the accumulation of merit gained for good deeds. While both forms of legalism are a problem, generally a conversation about legalism refers to the second form of legalism, in the practice of some (like the Medieval Roman Catholic Church) to store up merit that could be purchased for use by believers whose own practices were less than godly, as if godliness were a mere commodity to be hoarded and sold.
One of the reasons why no one is permitted to be a judge in his own cause is because of our native tendency to bias the accounts in our own favor. When we think of ourselves as having a ledger with God, we tend to think, if we are legalists, that good deeds in one area of life will outweigh bad deeds in another area of life. We will engage in compartmentalization and other similar behaviors to consider ourselves as virtuous despite our knowledge of our less than perfect behavior. We will also, if we are legalists, be prone to speaking badly about those aspects of a legal or moral standard that we are particularly poor at obeying, in the belief that sinking such a standard will reduce a lot of debits from our merit account with God, and thus allow us to consider ourselves as being worthy of God’s salvation by virtue of our obedience to a self-defined law of love. At least this is how many people seem to behave.
It is somewhat striking that today in the course of my teaching I dealt with two passages that are striking evidence of God’s grace. The first is a fairly well-known passage, in Galatians 1:6-10: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.”
Passages like this, where Paul vehemently condemns those who preach another gospel and loudly proclaims God’s grace in his own life and the lives of others, tend to lead people to cast aspersions on what is called the “Old Covenant.” And yet this is not either just nor fair. God did not try out salvation by works, and then change His mind and then decide to offer a grace to Christians that had never been talked about before. Salvation has always been on grace. We cannot be saved by our own righteousness, nor has it ever been possible. Even were we entirely perfect in obeying the law of God we could not demand salvation as our wages that God owed us. It has always been a gift. Believers, whether now or of old, have always required the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ to be justified in the sight of God.
We find a clear biblical record of this in an unexpected place, Exodus 33:12-17. Before going through this passage, some context is worthwhile. Moses is going to God after the people of Israel have just committed the sin of making a graven image of a golden calf in the professed worship of God, and Moses is seeking the forgiveness of God and the restoration of Israel to a covenantal relationship with God in what is obviously the “Old Covenant.” That said, let us look at Exodus 33:12-17: “Then Moses aid to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people.’ But you have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.” And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.” So the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.”
It is impossible to ignore just how deeply grace is embedded into this restoration of the “Old Covenant” relationship between God and Israel after the lapse of the golden calf incident. Much of this grace is directed to Moses, who is clearly one of the faithful awaiting His resurrection at the return of Jesus Christ. However, some of this grace, at least, is explicitly given to a people whom God knew to be stubborn and stiff-necked (see, for example, Exodus 33:1-6). This is not often well-recognized or understood, so let us spend a little bit of time making this fact plain and explaining its consequences.
In the heart of the law, when God is re-establishing His covenant with Israel after one of their innumerable lapses into unacceptable worship practices, the word grace is mentioned over and over and over again as God shows His grace to an undeserving people time and time again, even under the Old Covenant. It has never been possible to have a personal relationship with God, or any kind of covenantal relationship with God, apart from grace. There are not only no other terms aside from God’s grace and unmerited generosity by which salvation can be found, but any blessings from God and any relationship with God is only to be grounded on the grace of God. By our own merit we can make no demands of God, for our righteousness is as filthy rags, and it has never been different at any point throughout the entirety of human history. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and He has always and will always found His relationships with human beings on grace, because we are simply not worthy, nor can we be worthy of what God offers us.
It is on the basis of our true understanding of our natural spiritual state apart from God, and the place we begin our walk with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that our obedience to God’s ways begins. No one who examines themselves deeply and searchingly is going to think themselves righteous on their own merits. Certainly that is not the case with me. If I have even uncovered half of the cowardice or darkness in my own heart and mind, it is more than enough to make it perfectly clear that for any righteousness to be seen in my ways it must be due to God in me. But by the same token, if God is within us, it should be obvious through our love and concern for other people and in our love of God as expressed in our obedience to His ways and laws. A love that is felt and is not shown in actions and behavior is not love at all. Any such righteous works as we have are due to God’s grace, but they are no less righteous for that. Let us make sure that we are not confused by those who seek an escape from God’s ways rather than an escape from the death and slavery to sin that we so richly deserve because we have been born in rebellion against our Creator. And let our love and gratitude and the actions that spring from God dwelling within us not be confused under any circumstances with a belief that we are in any way saved by our own merit. For that idea is clearly preposterous.