Legalism, License and the Spirit of the Law

A little long but well done!  Mr. Oakley has written some very timely articles.

The “spirit of the law” spoken of in the New Testament (in passages such as Rom. 2:29 and 2 Cor. 3:6) is revealed to and in a believer through the Holy Spirit, not through self-indulgence, not through self-righteousness, not, in fact, through “self”-anything but through God Himself.

Knowledge of the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law is at the very core of the new life granted to the children of God through Christ. It is part and parcel of the freedom bought for us at the cross and absolutely essential to fully experiencing that freedom. The opposite errors of legalism and license that have plagued so many Christians through the centuries are both derived from a functional ignorance of what Jesus came to deliver His people from and both lead back to spiritual bondage.

In the case of legalism this ignorance manifests itself in a futile attempt to earn our way to God through self-righteous moral scrupulosity. Legalism may be based on codes of conduct obvious or implicit in either the Old or New Testaments, but in each case it is manifested by works that originate in the self rather than in the enabling power of God.

Furthermore the motivation behind legalism is often found in a combination of pride and fear of punishment rather than love of Christ. Because of this faulty motivation those caught up in it cannot please God no matter how holy their conduct may appear. They are out of touch with the grace and kindness of God, the only things that lead to true repentance in humility of spirit. People who are bound up in legalism have bypassed the cross to their own harm and the harm of those under their sway. To be completely given over to legalism is to exhibit the same alienation from the Son of God for which the Pharisees were condemned.

Licentiousness, meanwhile, shows an ignorance of the continued destructive power of sin. This is the error that says that Jesus came to abolish the law rather than fulfill it. To be licentious is to be morally self-indulgent, to commit obvious or subtle sins in the mistaken belief that one can somehow avoid sin’s wages because one has been released to do so by grace.

But, as Paul said in Romans, “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2). License does not prove freedom from the law of God, but only defiance of that law. Its end is the same slavery to sin that held us before we came to know Christ, and, like unrepentant legalism, licentiousness begs the question of whether we ever knew Him at all.

Standing over and against both these potentially deadly errors is living in a state of harmony with the “spirit of the law”. This is the hallmark of the truly surrendered and Spirit-filled Christian. Such a person is no longer ruled by the opposite poles of self-centeredness apparent in legalism and license, but by the Spirit of Christ Himself. This kind of believer is not sinless, no Christian this side of Heaven is, but the law is in the process of being written on his or her heart.

This can only happen when the Holy Spirit has so shifted our attention off ourselves that Jesus is before our spiritual eyes more than we are. He then progressively fulfills the law in us and makes us truly holy as He is holy. We come to embody the fulfillment of the law that our Lord and Savior achieved on Calvary.

True freedom from sin is the lasting fruit of this vicarious fulfillment. The Spirit behind the law now becomes resident in our deepest hearts and we are set free to live in the true righteousness we once tried to either simulate or reject.

© 2009 by Shea Oakley
All rights reserved

Shea Oakley is a freelance Christian writer from Ridgewood, New Jersey

“Originally published in Pulpit Helps Magazine, used by permission.”

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