Galatians 3

Galatians 3

How to Turn Legalistic Homes and Churches into Havens of Grace

Jean Jacques Rosseau began his famous treatise, The Social Contract, with these famous words: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”  I would like to paraphrase that slightly: “Man is born‑again free and yet everywhere we see him going back to the chains that bound him before his conversion.” 

I see two common kinds of slavery among Christian people.  One is a slavery to worldliness–materialism, sinful pleasures, and spiritual apathy.  This is a very serious problem and one God’s Word addresses frequently, even later in Galatians.  But some people, in a desperate attempt to avoid worldliness, have gone to the opposite extreme of legalism, which is just another form of slavery.  It’s the premise of my message today that it is possible to avoid being either a legalist or a worldly person.  Or to put it more positively, it’s possible for Christian homes and churches to become genuine havens of grace.

For two months now we have been studying the book of Galatians, in which the Apostle Paul denounces legalism as an illegitimate way of trying to establish a relationship with God and even an illegitimate way of pursuing Christian growth.  He proclaims loudly and clearly that we are saved by believing, not by achieving, and furthermore, we are also sanctified by believing, not by achieving.  

Now I have sensed from your comments that some of you are just plain afraid that if you abandon legalism, if you chuck your life-long rule-book mentality and really lay hold of the grace of God, you may end up falling into a loose and licentious life‑style.  Others are afraid for the church, worrying that if the church practices a pure grace approach, people will take advantage of it and an “anything goes” attitude will be just around the corner.  They are afraid to open Pandora’s Box.

Well, I’m glad that concerns you.  It shows you have a sensitivity to sin that is important for every child of God to have and to maintain.  But let me try to put your mind at rest.  To be afraid of grace is kind of like a parent worrying that if he loves his child too much the child will end up taking advantage of the parents’ love.  That’s an illegitimate concern.  You can’t possibly love your child too much.  No way!  Oh, you can hurt a child by doting on him, by offering inconsistent love, by giving conditional love.  But there’s no way that love itself is going to hurt a child and there’s no way that real grace is going to hurt a believer or a church by producing an unholy life‑style.  

Let me mention in advance that today’s sermon is not going to be our typical expository treatment of a Scripture passage.  I believe it’s based upon the truths we’ve been studying in Galatians, but we aren’t going to be breaking new ground in the text this morning.  Instead, this message will be primarily an application of what we already know.  

Now the first thing that is necessary for us to establish is that . . .

Legalism is a major problem in many Christian homes and churches.

Most of you wouldn’t argue with me, but some may still be a bit foggy on exactly what legalism is.  So let me clarify the issue by repeating the definition I gave you last Sunday.  I defined legalism as “a wrong attitude toward the code of laws under which one lives or which one imposes on others.”  

If the attitude is one of fearful observance in order to earn acceptance, it’s legalism.  

If the attitude is one of prideful obedience in order to exalt oneself, then it’s legalism.  

If the attitude is that we should proliferate rules rather than teaching discernment, then it is legalism.

Evidence of legalism in the home and church

1.  Acceptance is often based upon performance.  I honestly believe most parents do not intend to teach this to their children, but the fact is through our conversation, our expectations and especially our discipline we often say to them, “You must earn my acceptance and love.  I will accept you fully only if you behave properly or perform adequately.”  

A typical way in which we convey this is through strong praise when the child brings home good grades but silence or, worse yet, verbal put‑downs when he brings home average grades, even though he may have done his best.  Or we compare a child’s athletic ability to an older brother, giving praise to the older child while offering subtle disapproval for the younger.  Even just plain old nagging has a tendency to create an atmosphere of acceptance‑by‑performance.  

What such incidents do to a child is to teach him that he must earn acceptance and worth, and unfortunately he finds that lesson reinforced in every area of life.  At school he finds that the popular kids are the athletes and the good‑looking.  When he gets a job he discovers that there, too, he is valued only for his performance.

Spouses can also play this deadly acceptance‑for‑performance game.  Some people seem to have an almost irresistible urge to reform their partners.  Certainly, real love desires change for the better in one’s husband or wife, but when the spouse appoints himself or herself as a Committee of One to see that the desired changes are enacted, he or she is saying in effect, “You must change and I can’t really accept you until you do.”  

Churches can do it too.  If you have ever suffered a divorce or struggled with alcoholism you can forget ever teaching or becoming an officer in many conservative churches.  You’re welcome to attend, and give, but if you try to do anything else, you will quickly be reminded of the letter “D” or “A” hanging around your neck.  Acceptance based upon performance is certainly one prime evidence of legalism. 

2.  Judgment and condemnation are commonly practiced.  In the home this is communicated verbally through statements to a child such as, “You naughty boy,” or “You’re a jerk.”  Spouses level similar judgments at one another when they say things like, “You’re always late.”  Or, “If you weren’t so lazy you could get a better job,” or “I’m sure glad I got you a microwave; now you can ruin supper in one fourth the time.”

In the church this syndrome often shows up through condemning the uncommitted.  “You ought to be more faithful in your attendance!  You ought to give at least a tithe!  Why aren’t you using your gifts?”  Now it may very well be that more commitment is needed.  But so often behind our comments lies a spirit of condemnation and rejection that kills in others the very thing that could make them want to get more involved in the ministry of the church.

You know, I think there’s a practical way to evaluate the level of judgment and condemnation in a given church.  Ask how many people who have fallen into some serious sin have stayed in the church after repenting, as opposed to feeling that they had to leave because they were “damaged goods.”  I want First Free to be a hospital for the hurting, a refuge for those who have messed up.  

3.  A heavy emphasis is placed upon externals.  When parents give more attention to whether a child is wearing the latest fashions and has the right hairdo than to whether he or she is treating the handicapped kid in the neighborhood kindly or having a quiet time with the Lord, there’s a real danger of communicating legalism.  Jesus condemned the Pharisees for this very imbalance: 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  For you tithe mint and dill and cummin and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law‑‑justice and mercy and faithfulness.  But these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, you strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

Please note that Jesus doesn’t encourage us to “do as we please” regarding the laws we live under; rather He exhorts us to give even more attention to the foundational issues.  Legalists rarely do this.  I’m reminded of a church I attended briefly in Dallas in the 60’s, where a lot of attention was given to the regulation of the members’ lifestyles, but no one thought much about the fact that the church constitution forbade African-Americans to even attend the church.

A fourth and final evidence I want to mention (and there are others if we had time) is that . . .

4.  Rules are seen as more important than principles, obedience as more important than discernment.  Rules are important, and there are a number of them in the NT.  But there are also a number of principles in Scripture, and sometimes God offers principles instead of rules so we can use our God‑given wisdom and spiritual discernment to make decisions.  Let me share a few examples:  

“Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)

“Whatever you do in word or deed do all to the glory of God.” (Col. 3:17

“‘Everything is permissible for me’–but not everything is beneficial.”  (1 Cor. 6:12)

“Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”  (1 Cor. 6:19)

Now the trouble with many Christian homes and churches is that the principles of God’s Word aren’t considered specific enough, so we make up rules to take their place.  For example, the principle, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” is interpreted as meaning, “Thou shalt not smoke, drink, or have more than one hole in your ear lobe, and then only if you’re female.”  We can’t trust our kids or our lay people to use spiritual discernment, so we the leaders do the discerning for them.  And the result is that we end up with 18 year‑olds who are immature children instead of adults–prime targets for tubing it all in their first semester away at college.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s illegitimate for parents to have rules about smoking, drinking or body piercing as long as their children are in the home, nor do I think it is wrong for the church to address such issues and challenge people to examine their motives for participating in such things.  But love and acceptance cannot hinge on what decisions people make about these lifestyle issues.  Nor should we elevate our opinions about such things to the level of Scripture.  

I suspect most of us are beginning to see that this deadly sin of legalism is not just a theological heresy which happened to be a problem for some gullible believers in Galatia in A.D. 48.  It is a subtle disease that has infiltrated many of our homes and churches and even destroyed some.  But why?  If it’s so deadly, why have we allowed this to happen?  We touched upon this last Sunday, but I want to add a couple of important points.

Reasons why legalism thrives in the home and church:

1.  We tend to fear Christian freedom.  After all, to turn someone loose with relatively few laws and a lot of principles and tell him to use wise discernment, isn’t that asking for trouble?  Isn’t grace dangerous?  That is such an important question that I’ve decided to take another Sunday out of our verse-by-verse treatment of Galatians to try to answer just that question.  And I’ll give you just a hint as to what I’m planning to say next Sunday.  Yes, of course, grace is dangerous and risky, in the same sense that democracy is dangerous.  Some people tend to take advantage of the political freedoms they are given–we see it all around us.  But is there anyone here who wants to opt for a dictatorship instead?

Freedom does have its risks, its fearful aspects.  But once you’ve experienced true Christian freedom there’s no way legalism will ever satisfy again.  Remember Galatians 5:1:  “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”  

2.  We are comfortable with the security legalism provides.  There are no gray areas for the legalist.  There are no loose ends.  Everything is tied up in neat little packages and the decisions are all made ahead of time.  There’s security there.  Some homes are like little dictatorships.  Some churches have every little nit-picking doctrinal detail or lifestyle issue nailed down with dogmatic answers for everything.  There’s no room to question–just do or die.  

Insecure people sometimes thrive on that kind of approach, but it’s not for me.  I don’t think Christians have to look like or act alike or even believe alike.  If two people agree on everything, one of them isn’t necessary!  Certainly there are fundamentals of the faith that one can’t deny and still be a Christian in any meaningful sense.  We have 10 of them listed in our Statement of Faith, which our staff and our members are expected to agree to.  And certainly there are behaviors which are so clearly forbidden in God’s Word that no Christian could justify doing them.  But beyond those essential doctrines and behavioral issues, there is a world of options for the believer to pursue, butwithin two boundaries:  the authority of God’s Word and the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. 

So far this morning we have tried to provide evidence that legalism is a problem in many Christian homes and churches, and we’ve tried to explain why.  I want us to spend the remainder of our time dwelling on the fact that there is a better way.

Grace is a better way to live in Christian homes and churches.

In fact, grace is the only way to live; it is infinitely better than legalism, and I want to explain why by sharing four principles which, when carefully applied under the power of the Holy Spirit, can help us deal with this dreaded problem. 

By the way, just as we defined legalism, we might do well to define grace, since we are using that term a lot.  Grace simply means “unmerited favor.”  Every kindness God has shown us is gracious because we have never deserved any good thing from him.  When applied to our own lives, grace is showing kindness to someone else, not because he deserves it, perhaps even in the face of clear evidence that he does not deserve it, but doing so anyway because it’s right and God‑like to do so.  

Now the corrective principles I am offering correspond to the four evidences we talked about earlier.  Whereas the first evidence of legalism in the home and church was that “Acceptance is based upon performance,” the first corrective principle is . . ., 

         Learn to accept one another unconditionally.  I’m talking unconditional love–accepting one another as valuable despite all the warts.  I want to confess this morning that I’m not addressing this issue out of any sense that I have arrived.  I personally find it extremely difficult to exercise unconditional love.  My wife is a saint at it.  There are a number of people in this church who practice it regularly.  My natural tendency is to write people off after giving then a half-dozen chances and say, “Who needs this?”  But grace doesn’t write people off.  

One way to understand what it means to accept one another is to think about your best friend in the world.  Why is that person your best friend?  I’ll bet it’s not because he or she is just like you or because you share all the same interests.  Isn’t it rather because you feel totally accepted by him or her?  You can be yourself in front of that person, tell him almost anything and not worry about rejection.  Sadly, some people don’t have such a friend, which more than likely means they have never themselves learned to accept others.  

Avoid condemnation and rejection, even when the other person is clearly wrong.  There are a sufficient number of Scripture passages on the subject of judging a brother to establish this point well.  For example, James 4:11-12 says, “Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. {12} There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you‑‑who are you to judge your neighbor?” The other is Galatians 6:1-2: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. {2} Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Perhaps it is not obvious in James 4 whether the one being judged is really guilty, but in Gal. 6 it is certainly clear that he is.  Still we are exhorted not to judge but to restore.  The burden of these passages is to keep believers from condemning and rejecting those who fail.  Legalism says, “Squelch them, they deserve it.  Make public spectacles of them.  Don’t forgive them because that would imply a light view of their sin.”  Grace says, “Show them love, treat them gently, try to restore them to usefulness.” 

The command not to judge, of course, can be taken too far.  Certainly there are situations mentioned in Scripture when we are called upon to rebuke a sinning brother, discipline, excommunicate or even(as a last resort) refuse to socialize with him.  But always the purpose is restoration rather than punishment.  The grace-oriented parent or church doesn’t either condemn or condone.  They deal boldly with the sin but gently with the sinner.

Emphasize the inner qualities of the Spirit rather than external appearances.  In a legalistic home or church there is invariably an emphasis on certain external behaviors, and if you violate one of the taboos, you are a zero, no matter what else you may be or what else you may have done.  For some that may be drinking or smoking.  For others it may be listening to hard rock music or body piercing.  Whatever it is, if it elevates an external issue (often a non-biblical issue) above the inner qualities of the Spirit, it shows a lack of grace.  God told Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.”  God wants us to look more at the heart, and the grace-oriented parent or church member will do that.  

I’ll never forget a fellow in our church during my first stint as pastor here back in the 70’s.  He had come to faith in Christ out of a terrible past and had an amazing gift for evangelism and discipleship.  There was just one problem.  He was a chain smoker.  And this was back in the days when smoking was quite acceptable in society but gravely frowned upon in the evangelical church.  In fact, the Eleventh Commandment was viewed as “Thou shalt not smoke.”  

I remember talking to him about his smoking one day, and he told me the Holy Spirit hadn’t convicted him about it.  I responded by suggesting that perhaps he just wasn’t recognizing the conviction of the Holy Spirit.  I said, “You wouldn’t smoke during your Quiet Time, now would you?”  He got a surprised look on his face and said, “Well, yes, I always do.”  And his wife added, “He gets so involved in prayer that he forgets he’s holding a cigarette and has burned his fingers several times.”  

Now that blew my mind, and almost my theology.  I was hard pressed to remember times when got so involved in prayer that I was unaware of my surroundings.  I realized that if I allowed smoking to be of such paramount importance that I was willing to condemn and reject this man, I would miss the beautiful inner qualities and gifts he had to offer the Body of Christ.

The fourth principle is this:

Keep rules to a minimum and work toward developing mature discernment.  There was a time when God dealt with His people principally through rules, i.e. God made most of their decisions for them.  But with the coming of Christ God began to approach His people on a different basis.  I think that’s what the Apostle John was talking about in the first chapter of his Gospel:  “The Law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”  God is treating us as slaves no longer, but rather as sons.  Whereas a master may always tell his slave exactly what to do, there comes a time when the wise father quits telling his son what to do and instead gives him principles to guide his actions. 

I believe a Christian home can be operated efficiently with relatively few rules.  For a 12‑year‑old some appropriate rules may be:

Homework is to be done before T.V. 

Your room is to be cleaned every Saturday.

The decibel level on your stereo can’t be above 85 (I think that’s the limit for an airliner at the airport).  

Eat whatever you put on your plate.

Let your parents know where you are.

But the older the child, the fewer the rules.  And the rules may change.  When the teenager approaches 16 the rule may change from “Clean your room every Saturday,” to “Keep the door shut so the rest of us don’t have to see the mess.”  Instead of a rule about homework, the parent may choose to simply say, “I’ll pay your way to college if you maintain a B average” (assuming the child has “B” average capabilities).  The goal of every parent ought to be to help each child become an independent, productive person who can discern right from wrong and has sufficient motivation to choose the right over the wrong.

The church, too, I believe, should operate on a minimum number of rules.  Many churches have covenants which define for their membership what is acceptable behavior.  I think it is far better to simply state that we take the Bible seriously and expect our members to live in accordance with its teaching.  Risky?  Certainly.  The result of such an approach is that not all the members of this church share all of my personal standards or those of the elders.  But I’d rather have grace with a variety of life‑style than to be trapped in a straight‑jacket of ecclesiastical legalism.

One of our staff pastors was telling me he was saved at age 16.  Just a few months later the pastor got up and said, “If you’re going to be a member of this church, you will not go to movies, dance, or swim with members of the opposite sex.”  Gene’s step-dad’s response was, “We’re out of here.” Here’s this young kid, a brand new Christian, suddenly outside the protection of the church–all because of legalism.  Interestingly, that same church, 40 years later, is still practicing the same stuff, recently using their marquee to attack Billy Graham.  Not surprisingly, they’re still small and struggling, though they would probably argue that the faithful remnant is always small.

Of course, you can afford to minimize rules in the home and church only if you simultaneously teach discernment.  When children leave home and when parishioners move away, they probably won’t take the rule book with them.  But if they’ve been taught to discern good and evil, that ability will automatically go with them.


Now perhaps some of you are feeling pretty guilty right about now.  You know you’ve blown it with your children or with your spouse and you really feel discouraged.  Do what you should always do with guilt–confess it to the Lord, ask His forgiveness, and purpose to do better.  Don’t grovel in it because that won’t make anything better.  

There are many people who model grace for me in this church.  I see these principles we have talked about lived out in their lives in some incredible ways.  This church is what it is because of the grace exhibited by so many of you.  We aren’t perfect, but I hope and pray that if we are ever accused of being out of balance on the issue of grace and legalism, it will be that we exercised too much grace.  

As we prepare our hearts to receive the Lord’s Table, I want to remind us that ours is not a religion of “do;” it’s a religion of “done.”  Jesus Christ has already done all that needs to be done.  As He hung on the Cross He said, “It is finished.”  May we take Him at His word and receive the grace He offers.  May we also model it in our homes and churches.