How to tell the difference between Legalism and Love
- · Start with God’s Love
- · Test by God’s Word
- · Recover through God’s Son
You might be surprised to learn about the context in which the verses of our text are situated. At the beginning of Romans 13 Paul spoke about Christian conduct in the public forum, especially with respect to secular leaders. By introducing the thoughts of verses 8-10, Paul demonstrates that the law of God has a bearing on how we live and interact in the world around us. The end of chapter 13 talks about the Lord’s final day of judgment, and serves as a reminder that we should all be ready by repenting of our sins and believing in Jesus.
It’s a strange combination of themes in this chapter, but perhaps one that makes more sense than we may think. We live in a culture that discourages the inter-mixing of our Christian faith with regular life. We have been raised to keep church and state separate, and there are good reasons for this distinction. However, our culture has taken it to an extreme where Christians are routinely maligned and even persecuted for living their faith in Christ and being examples to the world of what God’s inspired Word says. Many of the commandments that Paul lists here are still considered by our society to good for all people to follow. Most, but not all. There are obvious areas in our nation where some of these commandments are blatantly disregarded, or even worse, the sins condemned in them are openly celebrated. It’s in those areas where we need to pay attention, because we will be threatened to suppress our faith.
This lingering question of how to live as a Christian in a society that does not uphold God’s Word is a difficult one. At times it can feel like we’re constantly back-peddling from assaults against our faith. A major challenge before us as we witness to our world is that we aren’t perfect either. We, who claim to believe in and support these commandments, are just as bad as anyone else at keeping them. That’s a major problem. At the very beginning of our text, Paul tells us Christians to “owe no one anything except to love one another,” yet from the onset we cannot keep that single command, let alone the many others that follow.
The world to which we witness is well aware of this also. It’s easy to point out the hypocrisy of Christians. We preach a moral standard from God, which we believe all people should follow, yet we can’t do ourselves. The technical term for such behavior is hypocrisy when it’s intentional. The more subtle, less obvious form is called legalism. Legalism is following the commands of God outwardly. It’s doing what is good, not out of love for others, but as a way to look better than others. Think of it as doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The Bible describes legalism as following the letter of the law, but not the Spirit; with spirit meaning either the proper intent or the very person of God who inspired and gives meaning to the Word (Paul used this thought twice in Romans). Legalism is hypocrisy, the very type of hypocrisy that we Christians are most susceptible to. And its presence in our lives is all too common.
When Paul tells us to owe no one anything except love, legalism is the glaring blemish on our record. What he says in our text seems like a hopeless endeavor. No matter how hard we try, or how well we’re doing, there will always be some form of legalism that trips us up. But, the application of this text is not discouraging – when we see it in the proper way. True enough, if we focus entirely on our lives, our thoughts, our actions, our efforts, our goodness – we find no comfort. But, there is something greater here than legalism – there is love. Love from God and for sinners like us. Yes, even Christians and believers are still sinners, and therefore, yes, we need and long for the love of God. We see today, more than our own mistakes, the difference between legalism and love. We start with God’s love. We test by God’s Word. And we recover through God’s Son.
When we look at God’s commandments, we often feel burdened, defeated, and desperate. This is natural, because the law convicts us of our sins. The law is the impassable barrier between us and God. That is all true about the law and important to know. But, you can also look at the law from a different perspective. Not your own, but God’s. That’s what I want you to think about immediately today, because that’s the perspective that is given. In contrast to all the condemning notions of the law that we are so familiar with, Paul tells us that the law is about love. Love is the fulfillment, the summation of the law. This is God’s perspective. This is also how we can see the law by faith in Jesus.
When you start with God’s love, you can see the law as love in your life. From the very first verse we recognize how important this is. Paul writes, Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. When I think about myself in light of that verse, I have no hope. I am not completely blameless, that is, owing nothing. I have tremendous debts and obligations before the law. I also do not love in a fulfilling way. But, when I see this verse from the perspective of my Savior, Jesus, I have hope. Jesus assumed my debt and freed me from my obligations. I can truly be someone who owes nothing because of Jesus. Think of the parable of the unmerciful servant. In my life, I am unmerciful, not extending free forgiveness to others. Yet, Jesus comes into my life through His Word and forgives me of my much greater debt – free of charge! I owe nothing now, through Jesus, and I can show true love in light of the law. Because of God’s love for sinners, there is hope even here.
Consider the last verse as well. Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. If I only see myself in that verse, I have nothing. When I see Jesus in it, I have everything. Another way to learn this is by a passage like John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.” The most common way that passage is interpreted by people is to think of service from person to person; like a firefighter, police officer, or soldier who literal puts their life on the line to save others. Self-sacrifice and love are inherently connected. However, in this verse, Jesus was speaking about Himself. He was describing love from God to people, the kind He would display just hours after He first spoke these words by offering His life on the cross. When we see Jesus’ love, as given by God the Father, we have much more hope that love is the fulfillment of the law. Focusing first and foremost on Jesus also curbs the desire for prideful legalism to enter our hearts.
It’s so important to always think of God, and what He does, first. But at some point, what God performs must apply to my life or it doesn’t mean anything for me. When it comes to using God’s love in my life – the next step beckons me to test by His Word.
Here we see that God’s love is not generic and vague. God’s love fulfills the law. Sometimes we struggle to define love. What does it look like? Who can do it? How does it happen? There are so many differing answers to these questions out in the world. But God simplifies it and gives us one answer – love fulfills the law. If whatever thought, word, and action is being tested, if it doesn’t seek to fulfill God’s law it’s not love. Examples are given through the well-known commandments that are listed. But so many of life’s situations fall somewhere below these explicit commands and it takes knowledge and maturity in the Word of God to test things adequately. Because God lets us live in freedom and leaves many decisions to the individual, we don’t want to unduly shackle others with constraints that God Himself doesn’t give. Yet, we also don’t want to leave all matters of truth, morality, and justice up to each person to decide. Love fulfills the law.
Paul used another word in verse 9 saying, “All the commandments are summed up in one thought – love your neighbor as yourself.” There can be no love without the law, and no law can be fulfilled without love. When we question what we should do in life, or what love really is – God would have us go back again to His Word. It’s our measure or rule for life. It will never change in what it has to say to each and every person in the world. And as we seek to be Christians who are mindful of God’s love for sinners, and as we desire that all people come to know and receive that love by faith in Jesus, we must use the Word of God.
What I’ve said so far is true, and it is a good summary of what Paul is teaching here. In order to show love and avoid legalism, you must be led by God’s love in Christ and you must continually go back to His Word of truth. That is all very true and very important to Christian faith and life. However, there’s something so important, so incredibly vital, that must also be said. The last step is to recover through Jesus.
Why add this last step? Doesn’t it suffice to say, follow God’s love and God’s Word? That’s true, but this last step is so necessary because you will inevitably mess up the first two. There may be times where you succeed in keeping God’s grace a priority for your faith, and where you are faithful to His Word. But for every successful moment there will be plenty of accompanying mistakes along the way. No matter how strong your faith, no matter how faithful your confession, no matter how pristine your life is, no matter how confident a person you are – you will fail.
Recover through Jesus. Like resting your body after a long day of work or an excruciating exercise – rest your soul in God’s Son. Rest assured, you’ll need it in life! This last step is so important because it’s often the life-long and well-established Christians who succumb to legalism. Jesus warned near the end of His life, And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). Lawlessness, especially that which leads to lovelessness, can happen to Christians much easier than we care to admit. And legalism is the vehicle that makes it happen. Legalism breeds under self-righteousness before God’s commandments. Legalism has the form and appearance of Godliness without the substance. And it’s a pitfall for many mature believers and disciples of God’s Word.