Legalism: The Enemy of the Gospel
There’s a common misunderstanding in today’s church, which says there are two equal dangers Christians must avoid. On one side of the road is a ditch called “legalism”; on the other is a ditch called “license” or “lawlessness.” Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law, on rules.
Lawlessness, they say, happens when you focus too much on grace. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to balance law and grace. If you start getting too much law, you need to balance it with grace. If you start getting too much grace, you need to balance it with law. This dichotomy exposes our failure to understand gospel grace as it really is; it betrays our blindness to all the radical depth and beauty of grace.
It’s much more theologically accurate to say that there is one primary enemy of the gospel–legalism–but it comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (I call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (“back-door legalism”). In other words, there are two “laws” we can choose to live by apart from Christ: the law which says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules,” and the law which says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules.” Either way, you’re trying to “save” yourself, which means both are legalistic because both are self-salvation projects. So what some call “license” is just another form of legalism.