16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
What is Grace?
A common definition describes grace as the unmerited favor of God toward man. In the Old Testament, the term that most often is translated “grace, ” is hen; in the New Testament, it is charis.
The word hen occurs around sixty times in the Old Testament. There are examples of man’s favor to man as well as the grace of God demonstrated toward man. The term occurs most often in the phrase favor “in your (i.e., God’s) sight” or “in the eyes of the Lord.” This assumes the notion of God as a watchful master or king, with the one who is finding favor, a servant.1
While faith is the human response to divine grace,2 faith itself is also a gift from God.3 We as humans cannot generate faith on our own. God must will us to have it. Faith, too, is a display of God’s grace. The doctrine of election has two functions: it extinguishes human independence and self-righteousness and shows that God is perfectly free in bestowing favor.4 Every step forward in the Christian life,5 from our call6 to repentance to salvation,8 is due to grace.
What is Legalism?
Completely opposed to the concept of grace is the concept of legalism. It appears that the Bible shows to forms of legalism:
- Personal Legalism
- When we adhere to God’s rules because we want His favor.
- When we adhere to God’s rules because we want favor from others.
- Communal Legalism
- When we add rules (not found in the Bible) for ourselves and others to follow.
Legalism v. Grace Motivation
When God originally gave the law, He did so as an act of supreme grace. People were in darkness and did not know what God required. The law said, “This is God’s standard. Live according to it. He will save you.” However, the Pharisees took this law and changed it from an act of grace to a great burden. Their thinking became, “This is what I must do. If I fail, God will punish me. If I do it, I will be righteous and God has to accept me.” This philosophy is contrary to what God intends. Jesus exposed this incorrect thinking and revealed the correct thinking.
Incorrect Thinking: a Person Can Earn God’s Favor
Jesus proved that no one, not even the Pharisees, could keep the law. (In fact, the Pharisees were corrupt fakes who did not act according to the spirit of the law.) Because the law was something than no one could fully keep, no one could boast in earning the favor of God. His favor could only be given by grace.
Correct Thinking: Pursue Holiness Motivated by Grace
Jesus advocates good works that are done in the following manner:
- Recognize that your works flow not from your own effort or talent but through a gift given by God. He gets all the glory, not us.
- Pursue righteousness, not to gain favor, but because you have already received favor in spite of your failures.
- Encourage freedom in Christ for others under the umbrella of holiness.
Am I Legalistic?
Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves as we personally assess our love for God and others:
- Do I believe I have deserved the success in my life?
- Do I perform to gain the approval or admiration of others?
- Do I believe that how I pray will force God to respond?
- Do I insist that others adhere to the preferences of my life instead of (or in addition to) the principles of Scripture?
Whenever we live as if our works warrant the favor of God, then we are living in line with the erroneous acts of the Pharisees. God has saved us so that we can live a life of holiness, motivated out of gratitude for the grace He has already bestowed upon us. We are to live as new people of God, “saved by grace,” not those who attempt to earn their salvation.
- What is grace? Why is it important?
- Is your service of God and others motivated by grace or legalism?
How does this study reinforce your belief in the gospel?
- Elwell, Walter A. “Entry for ‘Grace'”. “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.” 1997
- Romans 5:2, 10:9; Ephesians 2:8
- Ephesians 2:8
- Ephesians 1:1-6; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5
- Romans 5:1-2
- Galatians 1:15
- 2 Timothy 2:25
- Ephesians 2:8-9
- Matthew 23:23-36; Luke 11:39, 18:9-14