Legalism, License, and Love

Peninsula Community Church

July 26, 2015

Legalism, License, and Love

Galatians 5:1-15 – For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look:I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

As we have noted many times before, I love the way Paul writes his church letters under the inspiration of the Holy the Spirit. Paul often lays out one side of an argument or discussion and then gives the counter argument in order to establish balance in the discussion. In the passage before us, Paul deals specifically with the opposing views of legalism and license. To give a simple definition of these two we could say that legalism adds to the gospel while license takes away from the gospel.

First let us look at the idea of legalism – When it comes to legalism there is a belief that we need to control and manage sin rather than deal with real heart issues. We in essence say that God’s grace is not enough so we have to help God out. And so often this is a subtle thing that occurs. We don’t intend to be legalistic, but it happens. The reason for this is that we believe that we must make rules or laws to control behavior and manage sin rather than do what is right according to the Word of God. Legalism is therefore rules without relationship, emphasizing standards more than the Savior, and laws more than love. It is a system based on fear and one that is characterized by joyless judgmentalism, which produces futility instead of freedom.

In the New Testament, the Pharisees were known for their legalistic lifestyle. They added to the law in a effort to control their followers and to make themselves seem more spiritual than they were. They took God’s law and added additional rules to the degree that they could not follow the very rules they had established. Spiritually, the result of the Pharisaical attitude was that they became very judgmental and critical of those who could not keep the law they had established. A case in point was the woman caught in adultery or the disciples who worked on the sabbath to provide food for their group. This is why Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who presented themselves as more spiritual or more astute in the law and its interpretation.

So how does this effect the church and in particular the outreach of the church. In terms of society, because there are times where the church has been so legalistic, the church has come across as prideful, arrogant, and unfeeling toward society and those who are nonbelievers. The question posed by those outside the church is “why would I want to serve a God who is so unfeeling and is angry all of the time.” Those in society feel that God is waiting for them to make a mistake so He can wipe them off the map. Because of our legalism, people feel we are more concerned about our message than we are about their heart. Additionally, they feel they are never good enough to receive God’s grace.

I recently heard a pastor describe legalism in an interesting way. He stated that there are rules in life that are critical to living a healthy life. For example, he stated that one of the rules in his home was that his children were not allowed to play in the street. This rule was in place because it protected his children from any danger. He went on to say that the problem with legalism is that not only would one make a rule that their children could not play in the street, but they would also make a rule that they could not play in the yard, because they might be tempted to run into the street. They would only be allowed to play on the front porch. Still others would be so afraid of something happening to their children, they would say that their children could only play in the living room and watch the street from the front window of their home. Why, because if they are they played on the front porch they might be tempted to go into the yard which might tempt them to go into the street. Still others would say their children should be relegated to the basement, because if they played in the living room they would be tempted to play on the porch where they would be tempted to play in the yard which would lead to playing in the street. That is legalism. It binds us and brings us into slavery to the rules rather than the freedom found in God’s grace.

On the other side of the coin we find the idea of license. This is where we take away from the word of God to make it palatable to others and to ourselves. It is my opinion that this can be a more serious issue and is a major issue of our day. The problem with license is that we tend to adjust the word of God to societal norms rather than adjusting society to the word of God. Rather than applying the word of God to a specific situation, we try to make the gospel fit the situation. This means we reinterpret scripture to fit what we want. Now, it should be noted here that the legalistic believer does the same thing. He also adjusts the gospel to meet their meeds rather than adjusting their needs to the Gospel. Neither of these is good or acceptable because the word stands on its own without being reinterpreted or changed it to fit societal need. We must understand that when we take license to diminish the word of God we diminish the value of grace and we diminish the value of God in terms of what others might think of Him.

How does this effect the church? Some have said that the reason we are in a moral decline as a nation is that we as a church have not been very moral ourselves. Think about it for a moment, while we have an adverse view of gay marriage and we should, there are many in the church who do not bat an eye at premarital sex, pornography, extra-marital affairs, lying, pride, or any number of other things. We in essence are asking the world to do what we ourselves are not willing to do. Now I am not blaming the church or pointing a finger, I am simply saying where is our testimony of grace and of holiness. In taking license we try to remove the rules so we can live happily ever after. But true grace while providing forgiveness and healing does not remove the rules. In fact it lives within them. The world is asking “why would I want too change my life when there appears to be no difference between them and the believer.”

There is a better way to live. It is love. It was a way that would bring life and not death. It was a way to see God’s plan in a better light. Why is love so important? Through love, we serve one another. Through love, we understand God’s love for us and we love others. In so doing, we do not add to the word to make it more cumbersome nor do we take away from the word to make it more palatable. The greatest act of love we can have is keeping the purity of God’s word in a way that honors him and honors His word.

Paul in this passage gives us the sense that God’s will is for us to live in freedom and not in bondage. John Piper made this statement “His desire is for you live with uncompromising, unrelenting, indomitable freedom. It is for this that Christ died. For this he rose. For this he sent his Spirit. There is nothing he wills with more intensity under the glory of his own name than this: your freedom.”

The freedom of grace has never been a freedom to control behaviors or to allow sin but rather to serve others. You see how we treat others is how we will be treated. Gracelessness brings about gracelessness. But when grace filled ours lives it brings about grace filled lives. What do you want? It is your choice. It is your decision. This love is focused on God and it is focused on others. It is so easy to get focused and centered on our problems, our issues and desires and we miss out on what others need or desire. We begin to live graceless lives.

God’s love is the focus of the whole law. Rather than controlling others we must love others as God would love them. This is the reason he dealt with the issue of circumcision. This is a reference to Acts 15 where there the Jews taught that one was not saved unless they were circumcised. Listen to Paul’s words in Galatians 2:3-5 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. The problem was that salvation did not come by way of circumcision but by the grace that was given through Christ’s death on the cross.

For an audio of this message go to

Copyright © 2015 All Rights Reserved Robert W. Odom

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