Is obedience to God "Legalism"? Is disobedience "Grace"? ...

Does It Matter If You "Sin"?

Does God impose rules on His people? Is it "legalism" to choose to obey what you believe God requires of you?

Martin Luther is famously quoted as urging Christians to sin. "Let us sin mightily", he reportedly said, "that grace may abound". In the modem world too many Christians seemingly take him literally - witness the huge percentage of Christians who "live in sin", or who cheat on their taxes or their boss or their spouse.

Luther aimed to emphasize the abundance of God's mercy in freely wiping the slate clean when we seek forgiveness for sin. We can but hope he didn't mean to be taken literally! Such, indeed, is God's love and mercy and favor that no sin we commit is beyond the reach of the forgiveness freely extended through His Son.

What Is "Sin"?

Yet there is deep misunderstanding among Christians on this. Do we know what sin is? When we sin is it OK to confess it and be forgiven - then repeat it again and again? And how often will God forgive? If a Christian is convinced a certain practice is sin - is it "legalism" to avoid it? Is it "legalism" to do something you think pleases God - even at the risk of losing a job?

Christians in sport, in business, in their personal life have stuck by their guns in what they see as submission to God's will. They have turned aside opportunities - a chance at a gold medal, promotion, an illicit liaison - to obey God. It has taken courage, guts, struggle, often ostracism by fellow Christians. Others would rather die than miss regular Mass, or fail to attend church on Sunday, or observe Christmas or Easter or other similar activities. Is this "legalist"?

Other Christians would consider it sinful to fail to follow a different worship pattern. Millions of Christians around the globe, for example, choose to worship on the (Saturday) Sabbath and not on Sunday. They take literally the command "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy." Yet these same folk are often branded as "legalist".

So - is it legalism to obey God?

The Bible Defines Sin

To answer our initial question we must ask another: how do we define "sin"? Other faiths may have their own definition, but for Christians we may look nowhere else than to the Scriptures. Too often we make up our own definition. It is sin, some think, to play cards, or dance, or watch TV or go to the cinema, or eat meat on Friday - or at all! It may be considered sin to smoke or to light a fire on Sunday or drink alcohol or to divorce. Some such practices may indeed be sinful. But do they match the Bible definition?

We need not be in ignorance. The apostles have left markers for us. Paul says "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). A tall order indeed. To be more specific, the apostle John tells us "sin is transgression of the law" (I John 3:4). We can see, then, that if we go contrary to the laws of God - we sin.

If, then, we refuse to sin - by this definition - is it legalism? If, say, the Bible says we should worship God on the Sabbath (Saturday, largely) and on specified holy days, is obedience to this legalism? Most Christian teachers have convinced their flock that it is. But, they say, you must observe Sunday and Christmas, and you must tithe, and you must obey your leaders!

Does that mean we - whether we observe Sunday and Christmas, or whether we observe Sabbath and the Biblical annual Holy Days - think we will be "saved by our works"? Of course not!

The apostle Peter urged his hearers: "Repent and be baptized ... for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38). That's the only route to becoming a Christian. Having, then confessed my sin to God and accepted His forgiveness freely given in Christ what next? Nothing I have ever done, or could have done, "earned" that forgiveness. I looked at God's definition of sin. I acknowledged that I had consistently sinned - i.e., transgressed His Law. And I sought - and received - forgiveness. Freely. Apart from "works".

Living In Sin?

Tomorrow, then, I can walk out and transgress that same Law? Not likely. As the apostle Paul wrote: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin [i.e, go on transgressing God's Law - inspired apostle John's definition, not mine!] that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin live in it?" (Romans 6:1,2). Now that I'm "dead to sin" I must quit sinning! If that means keeping the commandments - then I keep the commandments!

In the context of forgiveness, John wrote: "And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says `I know him' and disobeys his commandments is a liar and the truth is not in him" (I John 2:3-4). Are you a liar? Is the truth in you?

None of us is perfect - all have sinned and will continue to sin as long as we are in the flesh. Yet we are "in Christ". We "have eternal life" (I John 5:13). When we fall, God's mercy expressed through Jesus Christ is more than sufficient to cover it. If we cling to a "love of the truth" despite our abject failures - God forgives us, upon our repentance.

In contrast, if we continue to sin by choice - to break God's commandments - then we simply do not, despite our protestations, have a love of the truth!

The Terrible One

It would be a rare Christian who would take umbrage about keeping the final six of the Ten Commandments. These are what Jesus termed the principle of "love your neighbor". Indeed these six are fairly universal - no Buddhist or Hindu or even an animist would disagree that this is the way everyone should live. The Six define basic morality. They are the channel hewn out by God for perfect human relationships, and as such are not confined to Jew nor to Christian. To transgress any one - lie, steal, lust, etc. - is indeed sin.

When, however, we look at the first four of the Commandments we hear Jesus say "This is how you love God". There is in truth but one God who is jealous of how we worship and who doesn't want us to take His Name in vain - i.e., to apply His Name to something He has not authorized. Would you, as a Christian disagree? Would not bowing to idols etc. be sin? Of course.

Then would it be sin to transgress the Fourth command? Any Jew would agree that it is sin. Yet the vast majority of Christians would disagree! To them, the command "Remember the [7th] sabbath day" is indeed "the terrible one" - and any who observes it is despised and considered at best an inferior Christian! Yet it was the norm for all the apostles and New Testament Christians - Jew and Gentile.

Law-abiding Apostles

Clearly, none of the New Testament writers thought that obedience to God is "legalism"! Both the apostle who has been (falsely) branded as "anti-law" and the one known as the "apostle of love" saw obedience to God as essential to the Christian life! Indeed Paul wrote: "So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Romans 7:12). Again "the law is spiritual" (v. 14). And, "I delight in the law of God" (v.22). Or have you not yet read those words of God's apostle?

If you consider yourself to be forgiven, now is the time to check that you are not still continuing in sin - by God's definition. It could be that "the truth is not in you".

To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.

For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Issue 12, November/December 1998. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.

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