Law and Legalism, Grace and Wisdom

On Sunday mornings recently we were tackling the middle section of Deuteronomy. It’s a challenging section with at first sight a lot of rules and regulations where it is not always easy to see how they relate to each other and where at times the culture they represent seems alien and even offensive to our culture. So how do we handle them? Here are a few thoughts with a case study.

  1. Choose Wisdom

First of all, we need to remember that the Law is summed up by the two greatest commandments “Love God with all that you are” and “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.  The Ten Commandments are an expansion on this, for example, the opposite of love is hatred and so killing is  a failure to love. The murderer does not love his neighbour, he hates him and wants him dead. Also, he rejects God’s commands, and despises the fact that his neighbour was made in God’s image. He fails to love  God with his whole heart.

So, the Law is intended to help us apply those principles of loving God and loving our neighbour to every day life.  The Book of Deuteronomy functions a bit like case law (or like the sorts of scenarios you might find in a workshop).  It gives lots and lots of examples of situations where we might fail to love God or neighbour and talks through what we are meant to do about it.

This means that the Law calls for wisdom. In other words, as we saw when we looked at the book of Proverbs (part of the wisdom literature), we are mean to engage our hearts and minds to consider how we are to respond to different life situations in a way that shows love.

  • Find Grace

The God of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy is the same God of John’s Gospel and Romans. He is a God of Grace. So we should we see grace in the Law.  We do this by remembering that the whole of Scripture points to Christ and so we apply the Old Testament through the New Testament and specifically through the Cross. Jesus is the one who takes our place and bears the penalty of the Law Jesus is the one who obeys and fulfils the Law perfectly.

However, we don’t just want to say that it applies to Christ. We believe in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, we will see that the Old Testament points us to the Father and Spirit as well.

For example, some people object to the patriarchal nature of the Old Testament where a young lady’s life is in the hands first of her father and then her husband.  We may be tempted to dismiss this as outdated. However, if, as some scholars prefer, we talk in terms of a patri-centric rather than a patriarchal society, then the emphasis is less on hierarchical entitlement and more on the responsibility of a father for his family and a husband’s sacrificial love for his wife.

Further, the patri-centric nature of Hebrew life should point us to the New Testament and the revelation of God The Son who in turn points is to the Father. As our lives are hid in Christ we are reminded that we are adopted into the family through him so that God is our Father. Further, we are reminded that Christ is the husband of the church and that he loves his bride sacrificially.

Then, as we turn to the work of the Holy Spirit, we discover in the New Testament that he is the one who changes our hearts so that we are able to love God and neighbour.

  • Avoid legalism

One of the problems we have seen through history is that people have treated the Old Testament legalistically. They have done this when they have mechanically tried to obey the rules, hoping that if they kept enough of them they will please God.

Sometimes, the response to this has been to reject the Old Testament, Law and rules altogether. We are saved by grace and so we can do whatever we like, it’s all about relationships now.  It is important to recognise therefore that Law is not the enemy of grace, nor is it the opposite of relationships.  Law is not the cause of legalism.  In fact, it is often where there is no law, no rules that people become legalistic as they impose their own burdens on others.  What the Law says is not the problem. Rather, the problem is our failure to handle it with wisdom through the lens of grace.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s take a look at a case study

  • Do you have a Quiet Time? 

Have a look at this article by Stephen Kneale a version of which will also appear in next month’s Evangelicals Now.

Stephen gives a number of examples of where we can become confused about the freedom we have in Christ and impose restrictions that are not there. One example he gives is the daily Quiet Time. This is the practice of taking time to read your Bible and pray each day. As Stephen explains, there are lots of good reasons to take time each day to pray and read your Bible.  However, this can so easily become a rule where if you fail to do it every day it will mark you out as a bad Christian and it will also lead to problems in your walk with God. Indeed, as with all legalism, the load of the burden is increased to a point of crushing excessiveness and often a lot of superstition. So, I remember not only being told to read my Bible and pray but also being regaled with the stories of missionaries and heroes of the faith who rose early in the morning to pray for several hours and I was warned in little ditties that if I did not take time to pray at the start of the day I could be sure that lots of bad things would happen to me, whereas if I took time to pray, I would sail through the day on a cushion of peace and blessing.  If only that were true!

So, that’s the problem with legalism, a good thing becomes a burden and encourages superstition.  There is no love in legalism because legalism casts out love and brings fear.  Yet the good principle is there in the Law. We see it in Deuteronomy 6:6-9 where the people of Israel  are told to teach the law to their children and grandchildren and where they are commanded to write out the law on their doorposts and to hang it in front of their eyes and on their arms. The ideas that God’s word was always meant to be on their mind, in their hearts and in front of their eyes.  They were to inhabit God’s Word and it was to indwell them.

Psalm 1 employs wisdom to apply this Law as we are told that the happy and content person is the one who meditates on God’s Law day and night. And that is where we get our idea of a Quiet Time. But if we continued with wisdom, we would not create a rule about how often, how much and at what time we should study Scripture and pray. We would keep asking the question, how can we ensure that we dwell in God’s Word and it dwells in us, richly?

We would then be reminded of Grace. We would remember that The Word has come and dwelt among us. We would remember that Christ, the living word of God dwells in each of us and that we are in him.  This would not lead us down a “do what you please cul-de-sac.”  The very fact that I am in Christ and have a relationship with him means that I want to spend time with him, to talk with him, to listen to him and to enjoy his company. Because I know that this happens through Scripture and prayer I will want to do those things, not to get into Jesus’ presence but because I am already in it.


That is just one little example.  Why not try it with some of the other examples Steve gives. What word of Scripture are we trying to follow? How has that become legalism? What happens if we apply wisdom? Where is God’s grace in the Law?

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