Legalism vs Love

I recently had a conversation with a young man who was struggling, as many of do, with his faith, temptation, and sin. You see the young man has a fire for God and a desire to please him but he also has a nagging compulsion to please his own desire.  He finds himself in a Romans 7 conundrum.  You know:

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Romans 7: 15-24 KJV

So this young man comes to me with feelings of guilt and shame because of his struggle. He is defeated because he believes that he should be above the continued struggle with temptation and each time he believes he has it “under control” he is presented with his imperfection all over again and without seeming hesitation he repeats the process again (a vicious cycle I might add).  The interesting thing is that his plight is not uncommon, in fact it is so common that the Bible itself tells of the commonality of this struggle: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 KJV

In the course of our conversation the young man expressed to me how, in times past, he has seen the escape and taken it but that recent events in interpersonal relationships have produced emotions in him that have caused him to ignore the preëmptive warnings, the varying outs that are offered when he is charting a course toward “demise.”  I realized when speaking to him that this young man is no different from any one of us who professes Christ. We all have imperfections and yes we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The difference between a true believer and a one who only offers Christian lip service is not a matter of emotionalism and guilt but rather of response.

During our discussion I brought up an interesting all be it peculiar scriptural reference from Matthew 5:25: “25Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.”  See the ultimate issue of this young man was that he was so filled with shame and guilt that he could not bear to seek forgiveness from the very God that he loved because he felt “unforgivable.” In so doing this kept him from being able to allow for the process of cleansing as ascribed in 1 John 1:9 it also hindered his ability to move forward and overcome his temptation. Now the reference from Matthew simple put was used to show him the importance of seeking reconciliation with God regardless of how he feels within himself about whether or not he is “worthy” to be forgiven. It is here that I find the inspiration for my topic.

You see the young man than said that he knows that his behavior must change however he was leery of becoming legalistic in his faith. He did not understand what is meant when Christians speak of legalism or religiosity.  So rather then go into a deep philosophical discussion I provided him with an example taken from scripture. The clearest depiction of what it means to be legalistic is given my Jesus the Christ himself, in Matthew 23.  Ultimately the picture that Jesus paints is summarized this way, it is not enough to perform the acts of righteousness while forgetting the sentiments and purposes of those actions.  Simply put we are legalistic when we exalt rituals, traditions, and practices into the positions of determining righteousness and we neglect the creator and motivator behind the practices and rituals.  We are legalistic when we perform the necessary duties but we do not allow our hearts to be cleansed and penetrated with the very significance of the duties.  We are legalistic when we perform actions of “godliness” in an effort to be shown pious among men but we neglect true piety and righteousness which is loving obedience to Christ.  You see the goal of God is to have a people that willingly live in intimacy with him because they desire his heart as he desires there, that’s why we have a free will.  It is also why the bible declares words like: “to obey is better than sacrifice”; “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire;…burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.”(1 Samuel 15:22 and Psalm 40:6 respectively). It is also why there are scriptures like Matthew 15:8 “8This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.”

Finally, the greatest understanding of what it means to love God and to obey him not out of obligation (legalism) but love is described by someone who got it, Paul in Philippians 3:1-14.  There are several phrases that Paul uses but one that appealed to me as never before was “that I may apprehend that for which I am apprehended of Christ.”  The minds eye is an amazing tool and what I saw was the portrait of a circular chase.  “The mark of the prize of high calling” that high calling is the very heart of God. The legalist does not seek God’s heart but rather his hand and that alone and thereby he only desires to do just enough to get by and no more.


The difference between legalism and love when it comes to matters of faith is the difference between obligation and desire. Here’s the thing…..God desires that we love him after all, that is the reason we were created.


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