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The Death of Legalism

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 6:14

The grace of God is essential to our salvation. Grace is also central to living the Christian life. The internal, transforming work of grace motivates us to live for Christ, not conform to unbiblical expectations.


Today in our journey, we sail into one of the most controversial statements in the New Testament. We are in Romans chapter 6, where Paul writes in verse 14, “You are not under law but under grace.”

That little phrase has divided believers from each other, split churches down the middle, and created a lot of confusion and differing opinions in the Christian community at large. And that is tragic because Paul intended verse 14 to be a summary statement that brought Christians celebration, not division.

Paul has just delivered the news that we are no longer bound in sin. We are secure in our salvation and able to dedicate our lives to the glory of God. But this verse, which summarizes our redemption by the grace of God, has become one of the most misunderstood verses in Scripture.

What does Paul mean that the believer is no longer under the law? Well, the Greek word for “under” means “under the control of” or “in subjection to.” Paul is saying that the believer is no longer in subjection to the law but now under the controlling influence of grace. To miss what Paul means here can distort every aspect of life; but to get it right means to inspire every aspect of life.

I want to make three observations here. First, Paul is saying that the Christian is not under the demands of the law in order to gain God’s approval. Remember, salvation is by the grace of God, in spite of the fact that we break the law.

Second, we are not under the penalty of law. Paul writes later in chapter 6, “The wages of sin [that is, the penalty for having broken the law] is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verse 23). In other words, salvation is a gift and every person who receives it has broken God’s law.

Salvation is not given to those who can perfectly keep a list of rules. It is given to people who want a relationship with the Redeemer, by grace through faith.

The failure to understand this verse has led many to a life of legalism. They have their list, and they’re checking it twice, so to speak; and all the while they are missing out on the relationship freely offered to them by the grace of God.

Let me make a few contrasts between legalism and grace here. First, the standard of legalism is external; the standard of grace is internal.

The law deals with external compliance. That is its role; and the more obedient we are to the law, the more orderly our society will be. And that is a good thing. However, that only relates to external order; it does not have anything to do with the dynamic of grace, which is a matter of the heart.

Let me put it this way: you can stop at all the stop signs, you can chew your food with your mouth closed, show up for your job on time, and follow orders from those in authority; you can be a model citizen externally and be absolutely pagan internally—in your thoughts and desires.

On the other hand, grace starts on the inside, where no one but God sees. That is where He works to change our thoughts and plans and attitudes. Grace works from the inside out.

Second, since the standard for legalism is external, it follows that the foundation for legalism is rules, while the foundation for grace is relationships.

Legalism always majors on the minors; it always exaggerates the nonessential things of life, those things written down in the Book of Second Opinions. And beloved, that has always been a best-seller.

The focus of legalism is external compliance, but the focus of grace is internal character. You see, legalism is more interested in what people do; grace is more interested in who people are.

And frankly, we like legalism because it creates rules that show how good we are; grace creates a relationship with God that shows how good He is. By the way, it is no coincidence the throne of God is referred to as the “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). You can approach His throne with boldness, because God will relate to you in grace, through His Son.

Here is a third contrast between legalism and grace: The objective of legalism is conformity; the objective of grace is transformation.

Legalists seem to take comfort in other people doing the same things they do or do not do. They form their little cliques, and they feel secure when they are around people who have the same checklist of dos and don’ts.

Now every one of us faced this problem early on in life. It is called “peer pressure.” It is the pressure from your peers to dress alike, talk alike, and think alike.

Legalism is just a grown-up form of peer pressure. But it is much more dangerous because it attaches the name of God to it and determines what pleases God. And it is also dangerous because it is based on external things so that it is possible to conform on the outside without actually being transformed on the inside. Therefore, somebody could become the chairman of the deacon board or the leader of the missionary society because he seems to do everything he is supposed to do and yet possess an internal character that is far different from his external conformity.

I want to add just one more contrast: The fruit of legalism is fear; the fruit of grace is fellowship.

When Moses brought those stone tablets down from Mount Sinai, he did not bring liberty; he brought the law. It was designed to bring civility, but it could not create spirituality. It would take another mountaintop event to bring about freedom—we call it Mount Calvary. The cross of Christ released us from the spirit of fear and replaced it with fellowship with God.

The inspiration for obeying the Lord today is not fear that God is going to zap us from heaven if we get out of line. No, our incentive for holy living is the gratitude we have for God, who loved us and gave Himself for us on the cross of Jesus Christ.

Legalism brings fear, which produces only greater guilt. Grace brings fellowship, which produces only greater gratitude.

Matthew Henry, the famous Bible commentator of the early 1700s, was robbed by thieves one day. Being robbed was an event that might have made him wonder if God loved him or if God was upset with him or if he had not been living like he should. But instead, at the end of the day, Matthew Henry wrote this in his journal:

Let me be thankful. First, I was never robbed before. Second, although they took my purse, they didn’t take my life. Third, although they took my all, it was not much. Fourth, let me be thankful because it was I who was robbed and not I who did the robbing.[1]

This was written by a man who was transformed internally by the principle of grace; and he demonstrated that here with an attitude of gratitude—gratitude for the God of all grace, to whom he belonged.

And that is who you belong to today, by faith in Christ. And the Lord wants to do something in you today. He wants to put to death the natural inclination of legalism—the desire to please Him by keeping all the rules and trying to be perfect. Instead, He wants you to rejoice in your fellowship with Him. So, take some time today to thank the Lord for His truly amazing grace.

[1] “Matthew Henry: Thankful Anyway,” Sermon Illustrations,

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