Spend any time in the American church, and you’ll hear legalism and lawlessness presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law or rules, and lawlessness when you focus too much on grace. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to “balance” law and grace. If you start getting too much law, you need to balance it with grace. If you start getting too much grace, you need to balance it with law. This “balanced” way of framing the issue has kept people from really understanding the Gospel of grace in all of its radical depth and beauty.
Read the rest.It is more theologically accurate to say that the one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). In other words, there are two “laws” that we typically choose from: the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules,” or the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules.” Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. “Make a rule” or “break a rule” really belong to the same passion for autonomy (self-rule). We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license. So it would be a mistake to identify the “two cliffs” as being legalism and lawlessness. What some call license is just another form of legalism. And there’s always and only been one solution to our self-salvation projects: God’s salvation project in Christ.
Books by Tullian: