Against Legalism, a precursor to 1 John 2:3-6

Against legalism

My wife has a habit of feeling like she is not a good wife. Especially since she has started working part-time, she feels guilty that she does not cook for me often or clean the house as often. She always says, “I’m not a good wife.” Every time, probably twice a month, I have to remind her that it is okay that she doesn’t cook for me on a daily basis and it is okay that we share the chores. In my eyes, she is still a good wife. And I remind her how I fail to do my husbandly duties from time to time and we are both flawed and our relationship doesn’t have to be built like other people’s relationships. 

Imagine this: my wife forgets to clean the house one week and she doesn’t cook for me that week, then she packs her bags, hands me her wedding ring, and says, “I’m sorry I failed to be your wife.” 

That is what we call legalism. If my wife believed her status of being a good wife completely relied upon her ability to do her duties–if my wife believed that our wedding, our wedding vows, our marriage certificate, my love for her depended on her performance of her wifely duties, that is legalism. My love does not end because she failed to do something, I simply ask for her to continue to love me. God’s love does not end when we sin, He simply asks for us to continue to have faith in Him. 

Why do I bring up legalism, because this text, 1 John 2:3-6 focuses on the obedience of God’s commands. Every time obedience comes up, we have to remember this careful nuance: we do not obey God to be saved. I like to say: we don’t obey to be saved, we obey because we are saved. While John will talk about obedience being a key characteristic in a Christian and he will even say obedience is a sign that you are saved, John in no way is teaching us that we are saved through our obedience.

Legalism is a manmade term that you won’t find in the Bible, but the concept is absolutely there. Here are three verses that sum up legalism well: 

[Luk 18:9 ESV] 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan because there were some Jews who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” they were self-righteous. Righteous means you are innocent before God, morally excellent, even morally perfect. They did not trust God, or God’s love, or God’s grace. They believed that because of how hard they worked, all the works they did, that God would be pleased. The source of their righteousness is within themselves. Rom. 4 shows that the source of righteousness for a sinner is their faith. Instead of their faith, they trusted themselves. And this produced a prideful arrogance which in turn made them treat others with contempt. Because they believed they were perfect, if they saw someone else with a fault they would treat them as if they were inferior. Legalism always produces pride. 

[Eph 2:8-9 ESV] 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Ephesians 2:8 teaches the truth of salvation, that a sinner is only saved by God’s grace through that sinner’s faith. God gifted salvation to people who did not deserve it. That is crucial to remember: our salvation is not a result of works, not a result of our hard work, not a result of our perfection. You did not deserve salvation, that’s why Jesus died in the first place. It was God’s grace, his giving love, that offered us salvation. 

The salvation offered by God’s grace is obtained through our faith. Instead of perfection, which we do not have because we have all sinned, God asks for faith. God takes that faith and justifies us, he makes us innocent, he vies us as righteous. We are justified, just-as-if-I’d never sinned. 

[Gal 2:15-16 ESV] 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Paul mentions the “law” here. That is the Law of Moses which contains the Ten Commandments, the ordinances (the other commands), and the sacrificial system. The Jews would follow this Law, but Paul makes it obvious in Romans and Galatians that you are not saved by following the Law. And that goes for any type of law or any type of work. We are justified by faith in Christ. 

Let me add one more verse, this one is about faith, 

[Jas 2:17 ESV] 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.James makes the crucial point that faith includes works, or results in works. The nuance is so very important here. God saves us by our faith and our faith results in works. Without works your faith is not faith. But our faith is the basis by which God saves us. The obedience you do as a Christian, the changes in your lifestyle, the service you offer God is not how you are saved, it is because you are saved.

So, when we come to texts like 1 John 2:3-6, understand we are not talking about how to be saved, we are talking about ways to live our Christian lifes as saved people. Now that we are saved, this is how we are to live. 

[1Jo 2:3-6 ESV] 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

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