Recently, while reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress to my family, I ran across an insightful character named “Mr. Fearing”. With him I also found one of the clearest descriptions of the effect of legalism I’d ever run across.
He doubted that his acceptance of Christ had made him worthy to claim all the promises of God. Therefore he was afraid he would not be accepted by God. He doubtless believed in a brand of religious legalism—that we must obey law to obtain sufficient grace to become worthy of acceptance.
How true this is for so many of us. Initially we believe in Christ alone for justification, but because our eyes have been opened to our sin, we are deceived into thinking that law-keeping is now necessary to prove that we are worthy of his acceptance, forgetting that it is because of this sin that Christ died in the first place, while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8).
Greatheart then says,
Yes, but the truth is, we must have sufficient grace before we can obey God’s law, and this grace is received through faith in the cross of Christ, and not by works of righteousness. By the Holy Spirit operating through our faith, we are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” Good works are the aim and result of grace, and not the cause. Grace is the remedy for fear; and if we pray, believing, we receive sufficient grace.
The statement “Good works are the aim and result of grace, and not the cause” puts a finger on the issue with legalism. Legalism subtly flips this profound distinction in our minds under the guise of true faith. It makes good works the cause of grace, deceiving us away from Christ. But if grace could be earned it would not be grace, but a wage. All we have earned by our work is the wrath of God, since the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Your only hope is the mercy and grace of God, who richly provided salvation in his Son:
…even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:5-9)
We are like an adopted child trying desperately to prove to his adoptive parents that he deserved to be adopted. Can that child ever rest in that condition? Can he enjoy his parents or be thankful for them? Can he ever freely love them? He will only labor on as a slave to his own imagination.
But we who are in Christ (who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit by faith in Christ alone) have been adopted by God the Father! He has made us alive in Christ for his own name’s sake! Can the promises of God be revoked? Will you prove to your adoptive father that you are his? What more can you do than Christ? Take no more confidence in the flesh and rest wholly on Christ, repenting of unbelief. (This is a daily prayer for me.)
When you are tempted to revert to legalism, remember that even if you give your body to be burned and have not love, those works are worthless (1 Corinthians 13:3). Only when we realize that we are already secure in Christ will we abound with the works we were created to do, which will confirm even more that we are his.