Like many in the Church of Christ I was raised in a legalistic atmosphere. Probably one of the most legalistic sects of which this denomination is comprised. I didn’t know it though as I really didn’t know what was meant by legalism. If anything it meant to me strict law-keeping which it is not. Then in December, 1965, my eyes were opened in a situation somewhat embarrassing to me at the time. At a forum in Illinois where I was on a panel bro. Harold Key asked me a question wherein my answer depended upon the definition of legalism. I couldn’t answer the question. Bro. Carl Ketcherside answered for me, essentially explaining that legalism was depending upon one’s works as related to law-keeping in order to be saved, either partially or wholly. Salvation in this way is not possible because it depends upon man being 100% perfect, without sin. Who will assert such?
On the other hand I was equally ignorant of the concept of grace. I had never heard a sermon devoted wholly to explaining and teaching this way of salvation. From time to time some sermons or talks made reference to the concept, but these were usually to downplay its significance. The emphasis was upon what man must do to be saved, not upon what God has done for us. When Ephesians 2:8-9 was considered or quoted it was quickly nullified by “but” and indicating that the “works” to which Paul referred were works related to the Law of Moses. We have a new code of law to which we must comply in our works if we want to be saved. Our salvation is dependent upon our achieving it at least partially through our own abilities.
These two ways of salvation are quite a contrast. Legalism is egocentric and leads to a form of Christianity with an emphasis upon what is done in church buildings and maintaining an exclusive church or organization characterized by self-righteous religiosity. Grace is theocentric and leads to a Christianity with an emphasis on a daily lifestyle and relationships, including all brothers and sisters in Christ, and characterized by manifesting the “image of Christ.”
Which of these views we embrace is indicative of how we perceive our relationship to God. They are a way of thinking that dominate our attitude, and in turn our response to God and our relationships to not only our siblings in Christ, but the world as well. Let me finish this letter by listing some positives of grace which I find encouraging and hope you do as well. They are quite a contrast to legalism.
1.) A Right Understanding Of The Concept Of Grace Gives You An Assurance Of Salvation That Legalism Cannot Provide.
Why do so many people in the Churches of Christ have a lack of assurance and peace of mind relative to their eternal salvation? Ask them if they are going to heaven and at best their answer is, “I hope so.” That answer stems not from a hope based on faith in Jesus Christ, but from a fear inherent in the legalistic approach to salvation. One of this persuasion will never be sure if he is correct enough, done enough, knowledgeable enough, good enough, and that he will be repentant of this last sins before leaving this earthly life. Will his works tip the balance scales in his favor? Will he make the cut? He is focused upon his own abilities, his religious activities and words to deserve and earn God’s blessings.
Let me tell you brethren, we will never be correct enough, have done enough, be knowledgeable enough, be good enough, and maybe not repentant of our last sins if we should die suddenly, but we will be saved if we have kept the faith, trusting in God’s works through Jesus Christ. That’s grace! Grace is unmerited favor, getting what we need, but don’t deserve, or “favor bestowed when wrath is owed” as one writer put it.
Because of grace we can enjoy our freedom in Christ, not to crave sinning and being held unaccountable, but to be filled with assurance, hope, joy, love, and peace. The legalist is in debt and frets over how he can pay, whereas the grace-oriented believer knows that Jesus Christ has paid that debt and responds by focusing upon the blessings God has bestowed him and living a life characterized by gratitude. We miss the fullness of salvation and many of its joys when our concept of salvation is egocentric rather than Christocentric. We’re going to heaven not because we deserve it or will earn it, but because we are sinners who are relying totally upon God and His grace. “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.”
2.) A Right Understanding Of The Concept Of Grace Provides Motivation For Gratitude To God And Love And Praise Of Him In Contrast To Legalism.
Fritz Ridenour, author of How to be a Christian Without Being Religious: Discover the Joy of Being Free in Your Faith, wrote the following in his introduction:
Christianity is more than a religion, because every religion has one basic characteristic. Its followers are trying to reach God, find God, please God through their own efforts. Religions reach up toward God. Christianity is God reaching down to man. Christianity claims that men have not found God, but that God has found them. To some this is a crushing blow. They prefer religious effort-dealing with God on their own terms. This puts them in control. They feel good about “being religious.” Christianity, however, is not religious striving. To practice Christianity is to respond to what God has done to you.
Salvation by grace through faith is based upon what someone else has done for us. Thus the focus of a grace-oriented person is not upon works as ways of making ourselves right with God, but working to give God all the glory and praise for bringing us into a covenant relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. Writing along this line of thought John Stott wrote:
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name be glory.” (Psalm 115:1). If we were responsible for our own salvation, either in whole or part, we would be justified in singing our own praises and blowing our own trumpet in heaven. But such a thing is inconceivable.
The legalist does not recognize the greatness or magnitude of God’s grace and love and mercy. God is not fully enthroned at the center of his universe, but is reduced to a larger version of self working within our understanding of reasons and rules and with whom the legalist shares that center. On the other hand, the grace-oriented believer, even though he doesn’t understand the logic of grace, prostrates himself and exalts God in word and deed. “But now you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you many proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness in His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9).
3.) A Right Understanding Of The Concept Of Grace Gives A Believer Assistance In Killing His Greatest Enemy – Pride, In Contrast To Legalism.
Man tends to be egocentric. The believer is no exception. “I’m saved and in fellowship with God because I climbed the ladder correctly and I adhere circumspectly to the ‘acts of worship’ in my Sunday morning church service.” Man tends to be ethnocentric. The believer says, “I’m saved because I’m with the right Church of Christ and don’t ‘fellowship’ brethren-in-error or digressives.” Man is defensive, rationalizing his sins. “Division is necessary to maintain purity of doctrine when brethren of diverse opinions won’t recognize the truth.”
Underlying these motives is pride, the basis of sin. Eve wanted her eyes to be “opened” and to “be like God.” All down through the ages it has been the will of man to do it his way. Man tends to make his salvation dependent upon his correctness, knowledge, and rightness, which diffuses and undermines the grace of God manifested in the gospel. The apostle Paul said such a view means “Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:21) Being saved by “grace through faith” excludes boasting based upon pride related to one’s works. (Romans 3:27)
4.) A Right Understanding Of The Concept Of Grace Gives A Believer Greater Freedom To Love Others In Contrast To Legalism.
When you know your salvation is the result of God’s grace, you see people through different eyes. If you realize that you did not earn or merit your salvation it changes the way that you look at people who don’t know God and brethren who don’t share your interpretations or opinions of the scriptures. With regard to both of these classes of people it is less likely that you will come across as condescending, self-righteous, and having a sense of superiority. God knows these kinds of manifestations are serious problem for believers in this day and age. Motivated by the concept of grace it is more likely you will manifest a righteousness characterized by humility, love, tolerance, and understanding. All because not of what we did, but what God did and does for us. Thank you holy Father for having mercy ne me, a sinner.
J. James Albert