Another Look at Legalism
There are two kinds of law – prescriptive and descriptive.
Prescriptive law involves arbitrary rules made up to control people and are invented by people. They are easily changed and often contradict each other. They require that someone be in control and they also need arbitrary punishments to be associated with them and artificially enforced by someone in power. This system supposes that by punishing people for violations of such laws that enough fear of punishment and associated pain will be produced that they and others will not want to break those laws again.
Descriptive law is a totally different situation. Descriptive law is simply describing natural principles of cause and effect. Principles are not arbitrary or made up; they are fundamentals of how reality works and are unavoidable. Most are familiar with what we call the laws of nature, the principles of physics, chemistry, etc. We have little problem believing in these laws and understanding that if we violate them the consequences are not imposed but are simply a natural result. If one jumps off a high building one will fall to their death, or at least bring on themselves a great deal of pain. No one is imposing a penalty on them, waiting at the bottom to inflict artificial punishment for breaking the law of gravity. What we call the law of gravity is really just a description of the principle of a natural attraction by any object of mass that draws other objects toward itself.
Man's laws and the justice systems associated with them are prescriptive in nature. God's laws are descriptive of the natural principles of reality. This is a huge distinction that must be understood in order to become free of guilt, condemnation and fear and to begin to appreciate the real truth about God and how He relates to His created children, especially those trapped in sin on this planet.
One of our biggest problems is that because of our fallen nature we have assumed that God's laws are prescriptive just like our laws. This is a major mistaken assumption but is promoted widely and goes unchallenged by most people. But believing this lie about God's form of government causes our hearts to live in constant fear of God and blocks us from desiring to draw closer to His heart. It also seriously distorts our ideas about obedience and confuses our ability to have a healthy relationship with Him. When we assume that God is the one in control of everything and is waiting to dispense rewards and punishments to those who obey or disobey His arbitrary laws, we are in essence basing our concept of God on our own concepts of law and justice rather than grasping the way He intends for us to live in harmony with reality.
For a long time I have assumed that legalism was simply an attempt to impress God with my obedience to His laws, to produce righteousness that could help me get into heaven. But lately I have been realizing that legalism is actually the whole system of prescriptive law, not just my attempts to keep the law on my own steam. Legalism is believing and trusting in the system of prescriptive law, insisting that God uses the same methods and has the same attitudes that we have in the way we relate to laws. Legalism is thinking that God demands obedience to arbitrary rules and is waiting to punish violators similar to who we treat each other. Legalism is not just trying to obey God's laws in order to impress Him or earn salvation, but it is assuming that God's laws are arbitrary, that the consequences of violating His laws will produce imposed punishments inflicted by Him as retribution for disobedience.
This confusion between two totally separate systems of law often causes us to think that violating human laws puts us in moral jeopardy with heaven. It tends to sometimes elevate human laws to the level of divine principles in our minds when in fact they are totally inferior and on a different plane altogether. This confusion has fed into tragic consequences such as during times of war when people try to use Scriptures to compel others to obey human laws that are really designed to force people into ways of living that are in conflict with God's principles.
While it is true that some human laws seem to reflect principles of morality like God's laws do, the very fact that they are humanly invented and attach artificial punishments to them firmly places them in the category of prescriptive law. And just because a child of God obeys human laws in obedience to God's will does not imply that human laws are somehow given greater importance. God's children obey social laws, not to appease God or satisfy some demand of His but because they are in relationship with Him and they are following the desires of His heart for them. When human laws are not in conflict with God's principles of reality and the guidelines of God's Word, then Christians have no problem submitting to these artificial rules in order to keep peace with all men. But they do not do so from the same motivation that others often have for keeping these same laws.
The world's system of prescriptive law and the justice systems designed around it in no way produce morality in a person, contrary to what most people think. This is because true morality can only exist in freedom, not under duress. And because the whole system of human law is designed using the elements of prescriptive law, with control and punishments enforcing them, it is impossible for them to be moral. They may restrain people from externally doing immoral things for a time but they never have the effect of changing the internal motives of the heart to effect significant moral improvement. They rely on fear as their primary element of motivation, and fear is incompatible with true morality.
Morality involves moral integrity, which is an inward attitude and state of being where a person chooses in total freedom to live in selfless relationship with others because it is right and it is best, not because they feel obliged to dutifully obey some rule or law. As soon as a sense of obligation comes in there is introduced an element of fear, and fear is not compatible with true love. True morality exists in the atmosphere of love and perfect love casts out all fear. Therefore, the system of prescriptive law can never produce true morality which is a condition of integrity at the heart level, not a measurement of behavior. Anything less than choosing right because it is right and because we are motivated by selfless love is contaminated with legalism.
But doesn't the Bible speak of being free from the law, not being under the law? Paul writes about this in his writings, but this does not mean that we are free to violate natural principles of reality as described by God's laws. And just because we do not fully understand all those underlying principles that God's law describes does not exempt us from suffering the natural consequences of violating them. God's grace may prevent them from being fulfilled for a time, but in reality His grace is the only arbitrary thing about salvation. Judgment is not arbitrary but natural; grace is arbitrary interference with the natural course of principles of reality, of cause and immediate effect.
Being free from the law the way Paul describes it a description of living from an inner peace that is produced from our hearts being in harmony with God which aligns us with His creation's principles of reality. Not being under the law is simply another way of saying we no longer depend on the fear produced by prescriptive law as our motivation for doing right but rather are choosing to live in harmony with descriptive law which is how we were originally created to live and thrive.
Legalism is the notion that God's laws are based on the principle of prescriptive law. Legalism also involves an obsession with our legal standing, either in human systems or in heaven's eyes. Many Christians who insist they are not legalists are actually extreme legalists as evidenced when they claim that Jesus died to pay the punishment for their sins which somehow frees them from obligation to obey the laws of God. They become obsessed with formulas in religion whereby they think they can escape burning in hell forever (another lie of the enemy) by saying a few key phrases and claiming Jesus as their Savior. They believe that getting the right formula in place for themselves will legally spring the trap for them and they no longer need to concern themselves with the laws of heaven, particularly the Ten Commandments. But these beliefs are riddled with false premises that are not in harmony with a true reading of the Word of God or the principles of reality.
Sadly this is a pervasive deception that actually entombs many in darkness, holding them deeply in the very legalism they claim to reject. Furthermore, by their teachings they assume that God is a legalist, that His laws are arbitrary demands with artificially imposed punishments with God as the controller and enforcer of His prescriptive laws. They teach that Jesus somehow paid our punishment to appease God and that all who properly identify themselves technically with His appeasement death on the cross, through some sort of legal fiction are made free to ignore the laws of heaven. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The life and death of Jesus was not meant to free us from living in harmony with the principles of reality as revealed in the laws of God. Jesus came to address the real problem of sin and to save us from it, not in it. He came to change our minds and hearts about how God feels about us and to unmask the deceptions and lies of the enemy that have blinded us to the truth about God. He came to show us His true character and the danger of living in violation of natural law. Every commandment of God is based on a principle of reality and whether we fully understand it or not, it is dangerous to believe we can ignore them. Properly understood, each guideline, law and statute given by God is designed to bring us into alignment with reality where we can live in harmony with each other and with the environment around us. These are not artificial rules intended to oppress or restrict our freedoms, rather they are descriptions of how to live free of the suffering produced from violating natural principles of cause and effect.
Does that mean that we should just try harder to keep all of God's laws? Unfortunately that is not possible, at least not realistically. No amount of trying harder will every produce one iota of righteousness necessary for us to live in God's presence in heaven. True righteousness is not an outward correctness of action but is being in right relationship, of having mutual trust and love – being right with God. What is needed more than anything else is for us to come into a total trust relationship with Him so thoroughly that we will instantly and naturally respond positively to every desire of His heart because we trust that He knows what is best.
Yet trust and faith can only come from personally knowing the One who alone is truly trustworthy, so coming to know Jesus as God's representative to humanity is the first and most important step before our lives can be transformed back into His image. As we allow Jesus more and more access to our hearts, our lives, our pain and everything inside of us, He promises to accomplish the work necessary to prepare our hearts to live safely in the intense presence of God in heaven. And during that transformation process we will also be brought into fuller sympathy and fellowship with those who are likewise being drawn closer to God. All of these people will be learning the truth about responding to and living within God's system of descriptive law as they grow in harmony with true reality as heaven lives it.