Legalism and Love: The Motive Behind Our Works by Joshua Shaw

Joshua Shaw is a church planter, seminary student, and writer. He and his wife are in the process of planting a church in Denver, CO where they work for the outreach organization CARES with Apartment Life. Read more from Joshua and learn more about his ministry at Spirit-Filled Truth.


He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy,
by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit
Titus 3:5

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Galatians 3:1-3

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God
Ephesians 2:8

Legalism

Throughout the accounts of Jesus in the gospels and within the pastoral epistles, legalism runs rampant. Within almost every page of the New Testament we can see Jesus refuting the scribes and pharisees for longing to make themselves righteous through the Law or Paul writing to the churches in Asia Minor about the glorious work of Jesus to fulfill the law and save us by grace alone. And yet, the sad reality of legalism is that it is still pervasive within our churches today.

After the Protestant Reformation theologians and pastors such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Menno Simons, strongly apposed a works-based righteousness. They wanted to see the people of God come alive to the reality that Christians are saved “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” We are not saved by our own doing, but by the wonderful and majestic grace of God.

But even now, in a twenty-first century Protestant Evangelical Christianity we still struggle with legalism. We know all the right answers to all the right questions. We have heard all the Billy Graham sermons and read all the John Piper books we can get our hands on, but we are still bent towards legalism…

Why?

It’s because of love.

Love

Humans were made to crave and have intimacy with God himself. We were formed from the ground and breathed life into by the Creator and Maker of the universe. We were created to worship our Father in Heaven. And the essence of worship is to honor, acknowledge, and love.

And at the heart of legalism is a longing to be loved and to love.

If humans were created to love, adore, and honor God, yet our relationship with him has been corrupted by sin, it is our natural tendency to want to fix that relationship. Although we were once enslaved to the lusts of this world, now that we have been redeemed by God, and because of this we are craving His affections and acceptance.

However, if we were being honest with one another, even though we believe God loves us, accepts us, and sees us as beautiful and righteous because of the blood of Jesus, we still doubt it. We doubt that God truly loves us and accepts us. We doubt that we are beautiful enough or that we are worthy enough for his love.

Because of this desire we try and earn his love and affection through works because we are longing for his love, yet we have forgotten the wonderful works of Jesus for us on the cross.

This, beloved, is not the heart of our Heavenly Father. He has already lavished his love upon you. He has already accepted you. He has already redeemed you, and he delightfully sings over you and rejoices over you. You are his child and his beloved. You do not need to earn his forgiveness and you do not need to seek after his love.

God loves is not like a t-shirt launcher at a sports game. You don’t have to be the craziest fan and most exuberant personality to be acknowledge by him and receive his love. You merely have to sit at his feet, love him, and love those around you. That is the great commandment: “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself. So, love God, love yourself, and love your neighbor.

May you be blessed and encouraged by this truth!

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