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Legalistic Grace

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For some time now I have been concerned about “our” (perhaps only my own) understanding of the “doctrine” of grace. It is true that we, as a people of God, have sometimes not grasped the depth of grace in our preaching and teaching.

Preaching tended to focus on a handful of subjects: right church, baptism, instrumental music, Spirit dwelling through the word. These lessons tended to emphasize human ability, human works and human perseverance. Along the way, as K.C. Moser once opined, Jesus became “the forgotten Man.” Some were even so bold as to say that God in his grace “gave the Plan” so that man could save himself. E. M. Borden’s famous sermon “Jacob’s Ladder” has been reincarnated in many a preacher’s homily.

I grew up in the acrid enviroment described in the previous paragraph. In many ways things have changed . . . for the better! I rarely hear a sermon (or read an article) that has the same self-righteous grit of some in a previous generation. Many have come to embrace salvation by grace as a DOCTRINAL teaching. Many have fervently embraced grace and with equal zeal repudiated legalism. But I have a gnawing anxiety . . . have we simply embraced legalistic grace?

What might “legalistic” grace be? Legalistic grace reduces grace into just one more item of belief to affirm. Mere legalistic grace sees only a forensic transaction in which the legal accounts are cleared so we will not go to hell in the afterlife. Legalistic grace is essentially “fire insurance.” It is something we “believe” or “affirm” . . . it is not the essence of life. Legalistic grace has not moved grace from an intellectual idea to the very fabric of being.

Legalistic grace is not biblical grace. Grace in the New Testament is not merely pardon but POWER. What kind of power? What is it for? It is Holy Spirit power. It is power for love. It is power to be set free from the “powers” that cause us to live and behave an UNredeemed manner.

It disturbs me . . . greatly . . . when I see my beloved brothers and sisters, many who violently repudiate legalism, treat a brother or a sister in ways that scream that they have embraced nothing but legalistic grace, another mere doctrine. Is it not ironic that we, after several years of preaching grace and teaching grace, can still sling mud with the best of them?

Now this is hardly a new problem. People have always found it easier to embrace a “doctrine” rather than a “life.” Paul writes to a group of Christians in Galatia and tells them “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (5.15). The antidote to living like a pack of unredeemed wolves is the GRACE of the indwelling Spirit (5.16-25).

I freely confess that I have, and continue, to struggle with legalistic grace. I want nothing to do with legalism. Yet I continue to reveal my slavery to the stoicheia of this world each time I engage in bloodletting with my brethren. Several NT epistles directly address the matter of simply “getting” along in the church. Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, Romans and Galatians all address this issue in one way or another. They all call the church away from legalistic grace to a gracious LIFE. In light of the Cross, the very essence of grace, we embrace the way of humility, love and service. This is directed not only to the world but to the church. The “doctrine” of grace means we become, like Jesus, suffering servants for all around.

Grace does not mean no more dialogue. It does not mean even good brotherly “debate.” What it does mean is that I am so permeated by the Spirit of Holiness that love, joy and peace dominate my discourse. It means that when a brother has a more “conservative” idea . . . or a more “progressive” one . . . we love and season our communication with the grace we have received. Brother “hunting season” is banned in the kingdom of God!

My question is have we embraced “Legalistic Grace?” Is John 3.16 and Ephesians 2.8 our favorite texts but we live like the brothers and sisters at Corinth? If the acrid atmosphere remains but the “rhetoric” of grace has returned we have good evidence that we have not embraced grace but Legalistic Grace. The wolf pack shows we have fallen for a Doctrine but rejected the Life of Grace. Biblical Grace is not mere forgiveness but deliverance from a unloving life.

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