Legalism and grace are polar opposites. Legalism is an attempt to grasp salvation by adhering to the law and keeping the rules. Grace announces that no amount of rule-keeping will save—the only thing that saves is faith in Christ! Legalism is grounded in merit. Grace is grounded in mercy.
Legalism results in disobedience. This is the biggest irony of all. Legalism fails in the one thing it is supposed to do: it fails to encourage obedience. The Pharisees were such a paradox: in their scrupulous attention to the law, they disobeyed the law. They violated the will of God in their zeal to keep the will of God. The Pharisees talked a good game, but they didn’t live it. They loved to swagger around and tell other people what to do, but they didn’t practice what they preached. This is the inevitable result of obsessing over things that don’t matter. Martin Luther was a young monk whose whole life had been dedicated to keeping the rules. To rule-keeping instead of relationship. And he wrote, ‘far from loving God, I actually loathed him.’ He was so frustrated with trying to keep an endless list of do’s and don’ts, he resented God. One day, he discovered grace. He experienced the freedom to love God out of a sense of gratitude, instead of obligation.
Legalism causes you to miss God: Grace causes you to find him. Romans 9:30-32, “…the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works…” The Jews were fanatical about the law, but they missed God. Instead of trusting God for salvation, they took over. They were so absorbed in their rule-keeping, they took credit for salvation.
So the paradox is that legalism can actually create disobedience! The ultimate example of this was the execution of Jesus. The Pharisees were careful to avoid entering Pilate’s palace before the Passover. They arranged the crucifixion so as not to interfere with Sabbath rules. So the most heinous crime in history was carried out with strict attention to legalistic detail. Legalism is like a harsh piano teacher. A stern teacher punishes the student for every mistake. The student is so afraid of making any mistake, he never plays the music. He’s more conscious of hitting the wrong notes than he is in playing a beautiful song.
Grace proposes a radically different approach. Grace calls us to emulate our Teacher. To learn to love our Teacher so much that we long to please Him!