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Law or Grace?


How do you balance legalism and grace?

Steve Answers:

This might be the most difficult question IÕve ever received
This might be the most difficult question I’ve ever received!

About 15 years ago Seventh-day Adventist youth in NorthAmerica answered survey questions about a bunch of things. Their answers became a study called Valuegenesis. I was a member of the research team, and the results that took us all by surprise were teens’ answers to a set of questions about salvation. They were asked if they thought salvation resulted from keeping the law (legalism) or from grace.

Some responses showed an emphasis on legalism (keeping thelaw), and other responses indicated a bent toward grace (God’s gift). The research team then raised the question How can young people believe in both legalism and grace at the same time?

Let’s start by describing these two concepts. Legalism has to do with a strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law. It’s likegoing 56 miles per hour in a 55-mile-per-hour zone and getting a ticket for it.Grace is a gift you don’t deserve. It’s like getting stopped for going 85 in a 70-mile-per-hour zone and getting a warning instead of being thrown in jail!

How do you balance excessive conformity to the law with giving people what they don’t deserve? It’s not a matter of mixing black paint with white paint and ending up with a balanced gray paint. Legalism and grace just don’t mix. It’s not a matter of oil and water not mixing either. At least those two substances stay apart from each other. Legalism and grace conflict with each other.

Here’s the classic Bible text for grace: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8, 9).

I think the reason people try to balance legalism with grace is that it seems that grace is just too risky and dangerous. Grace is bountiful and gushing. Legalism is limited and confining. They just don’t balance.

Another factor is that sometimes we don’t want to accept a gift. As we’re growing up, our parents teach us to be responsible and to take care of ourselves, so we become independent of their life-sustaining gifts. But independence isn’t a good thing when it comes to God. Not taking Him up on His life-sustaining gift is fatal.

Some people throw God’s laws out the window and claim tolive only by grace. But God’s laws aren’t bad. It’s our poor performance in living the law in a legalistic way that’s bad. Let me explain by putting it in a mathematical equation like this:

Law = good

Sin = bad

Grace = super-good

Here’s how these three relate to each other:

Sin > law (Romans 7:13)

Grace > sin (Romans 5:20)

Putting these in a progressive equation from least powerful to most powerful looks like this:

Law < sin < grace

Legalism focuses on a good thing, the law. But the law isn’tstrong enough to deal with sin. Grace is God’s gift that overpowers sin. So why would you even want to balance legalism with grace? How do you balance the two when sin is in the middle? Go for grace all the way!

By the way, Adventist teens were recently tested again to see if they still tended toward legalism or grace. This time results showed a noticeable shift toward grace. I think teens are now heading in the right direction instead of getting pulled opposite ways.

Cling to grace. Because of it, rejoice and live in gratitude! You’ll find this idea presented in great detail in Romans 1-8, particularly in the New Living Translation.

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