Have you ever noticed how often Paul warns the first century Christians about the dangers of the law and those who preach it? In just about every letter there’s a warning: Watch out for those who put obstacles in your way contrary to what you have been taught (Rms 16:17). See that no one takes you captive through philosophy which depends on men rather than Christ (Col 2:8). If anyone preaches a different gospel, let him be cursed (Gal 1:8). Charge certain men not to teach a different doctrine (1 Tim 1:3). Paul’s habit of warning people was intentional:
“It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs…” (Php 3:1-2)
Perhaps Paul was motivated to write the same things again and again because of what had happened to the Galatians:
“I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace.” (Gal 5:4 MSG)
The Galatians never intended to cut themselves off from Christ, but this is what happens when you are seduced by the dead works of religion. One moment you’re under grace, the next you’re back under law. One moment you’re free, the next you’re enslaved. It is a subtle shift unmarked by signposts. Paul’s solution was to trumpet the dangers of law-living in all its forms. With the benefit of hindsight we read his letter to the Galatians thinking, “it’ll never happen to me.” Yet despite this brilliant epistle, many Christians are doing exactly what Paul warns us not to do and are in danger of falling out of grace.
Watchman Nee famously distinguished grace and law like this:
“Grace means that God does something for me; law means that I do something for God.”
To fall from grace is to buy into the idea that we can compel God to bless us (or not hurt us) through our performance. It is infinite hubris to think that we can manipulate the Creator in this way. Paul said that nothing we do matters, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision; the only thing that counts is faith expressed through love (Gal 5:6). Faith responds, it never initiates. Faith is a positive reaction to what God has already done. If you live by faith in the goodness of a grace-giving God, then none of the following symptoms of a law-based life will apply to you.
Watch out for these dogs – seven more symptoms of a law-based life
1. You always try to do the right thing (while avoiding the wrong thing)
A preoccupation with doing the right thing is a classic sign that one has been eating at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. To live by a code of conduct is infinitely inferior to the life Christ wants to live through us. In choosing the wrong tree, Adam chose independence from God. An independent spirit wants to decide for himself and thus prefers rules to relationship. But someone under grace says, I trust Him from start to finish. He will lead me in the right path (Ps 23:3). Your choice is rules or relationship. You cannot reduce relationship to a set of rules. Live by rules and you’re setting yourself up for failure, for the law stimulates sin and produces death (Rms 7:5). Even when you do the right thing it’ll be the wrong thing because you’re operating in an independent spirit instead of walking by faith (Rms 14:23). But if you choose to abide in Christ, you’ll find yourself doing the right thing at the right time every time.
2. You think we must do all the things Jesus said
Jesus said “be perfect” (Mt 5:48). How’s that working out for you? If you can’t score yourself a perfect 10, then you’ve already failed the test and there’s no hope. It’s true, God requires perfection and nothing less. But we have a perfect High Priest whose perfect sacrifice has already given us perfect standing before God forever (Hebs 10:14). Jesus was born under law and preached the perfect law to those under law in order that our sin – and our desperate need for a Savior – might be fully revealed (Gal 3:24, 4:4). Jesus preached the law and then fulfilled it on our behalf. The new covenant of God’s grace did not begin at Matthew 1:1, but at the cross when God’s own blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28). If you fail to filter Jesus’ words (before the cross) through Jesus’ actions (on the cross) then you may have settled for an inferior covenant. For more, read this.
3. You think poverty is a good thing (it teaches character)
If you believe this, then you’ve never been poor. If poverty is a good thing, then abject poverty must be great! But there is nothing admirable about a 12 year old girl having to sell her body for food money or babies dying from preventable diseases. The devil wants you to think that poverty is a gift from God or that it is a controversial subject. It is not. Poverty is part of the curse, while prosperity is part of the package of God’s provision made available to us through the cross. (What do you think “blessing” means?) A poverty mentality is a natural consequence of living under law, for the law constantly reminds us of our indebtedness. But grace reveals a God of the “more than enough.” Live under the “weak and beggarly elements” of the law (Gal 4:9), and you’ll end up weak and beggarly! There’s no such thing as a prosperity gospel, but neither is there a poverty gospel. There’s only the gospel of Jesus Christ who became poor so that through Him you might become rich (2 Co 8:9). There was no lack in the Garden and there’s no poverty in heaven. If poverty is not God’s will there, it is not His will here.
4. You think nothing will get done unless we first bind the strong man
A law mindset will always get us to think in terms of things we must do, even if they things that Jesus has already done. Who is the strong man Jesus spoke of in Matthew 12:29? He is the devil who had been keeping the planet in bondage ever since the fall. But at the cross Jesus disarmed and triumphed over His enemies (Col 3:15). Now it’s our privilege to plunder the enemy’s house and set prisoners free. To live under law is to say that Jesus can’t do it, won’t do it, or hasn’t done it. But grace rejoices that the work Jesus came to do – which included taking down the devil (1 Jn 3:8) – was finished at the cross. We empower a disarmed enemy when we believe him to be dangerous and in need of binding. Instead of focusing on the enemy and ourselves, look to Jesus who is our victory. Satan is already under His feet (Heb 2:8). Now put him under yours (Rms 16:20).
5. You don’t think of yourself as righteous
Then you need to repent and believe the good news! Before the cross righteousness was demanded of sinful man (Deut 6:25). But at the cross righteousness was freely given (Rms 5:17). If you have not received the gift of righteousness, if you still think there are things you need to do before getting saved/blessed/whatever, then you are suffering from a full-blown case of “under lawism.” The law says “do, do, do,” but grace says it’s “done, done, done!” The gospel of grace reveals the gift of righteousness that comes from God (Rms 1:17). There are only two things you can do with a gift. Receive it or reject it. We receive it by renouncing our sinful self-righteousness and acknowledging our need for a Divine Savior and His righteousness. God doesn’t make you righteous because you are good, but because He is good!
If you are a believer but still don’t think of yourself as righteous, train your mind to agree with God’s word: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). That’s not describing some future event. That’s describing what happened at the cross. Under first Adam you were literally a sinner; in last Adam, you are literally righteous. “If anyone is in Christ… the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17).
6. You don’t think of yourself as holy
Then you’re in trouble because “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebs 12:14). Dead religion defines holiness in terms of behavior, but this definition falls far short of the perfect holiness required by God. Just as you cannot make yourself righteous, neither can you make yourself holy. But thank God for Jesus who is “our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Co 1:30). It is by His sacrifice – not yours – that you have been sanctified (Hebs 10:10).
The next time you’re struggling with this, go read 1st Corinthians. Few would say the Corinthians acted holy. Yet despite their bad behavior, Paul addresses his letter to the “church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ” (1 Cor 1:2). It takes a lot of faith to call the Corinthians saints, yet that is what they are in Christ! Holiness is not based on your behavior, but your identity. Jesus is holy and righteous. In Him, you are holy and righteous. A preacher of law says we must strive to become holy. That’s like saying, “I don’t identify with Christ who is my holiness.” But under grace we exhort one another to be holy (1 Pe 1:15), because that is what we are!
7. You think you have disappointed God
Under law, it’s natural to think that you have disappointed God. No one – except Jesus – has ever fulfilled the requirements of the law. All fall short of God’s glorious standard (Rms 3:23). But here’s the good news. It is impossible to disappoint God. Disappointment results from unmet expectations and God doesn’t have any. The word “disappoint” is neither in His vocabulary nor in the Bible. Before you were born He knew everything you would ever say and do. He knew how long it would take you to come to the cross. He knew exactly how many times you would stumble. He knew in advance when you would run like a coward and act like a dullard. He even knows about all the mistakes you haven’t made yet. And He still loves you! Isn’t that wonderful?
Under law it’s natural to think of our shortcomings and project them as disappointments onto our heavenly Father. But grace opens our eyes to a good God who loves us with an unfailing love (1 Cor 13:8) and who, knowing all our faults, chooses to remember them no more (Heb 8:12). The next time you do something dumb, don’t listen to the lie that says you’ve disappointed Him. That’s the path to guilt and condemnation. Instead, have faith in His shadowless love and rejoice!
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