What turns us into legalists? Is it focusing on good works? Or is it misunderstanding how grace works and that grace works? I think it's the latter.
Let's look together quickly at the Westminster Confession's treatment on Good Works (ch. 16)
I. Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.
1. Micah 6:8; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 13:21
2. Matt. 15:9; Isa. 29:13; I Peter 1:18; John 16:2; Rom. 10:2; I Sam. 15:21-23; Deut. 10:12-13; Col. 2:16-17, 20-23
One of the most galling and glaring examples of good works that are clearly not commanded in his holy word and is the result of zeal blinded by the gauze wrappings of good intention is the teaching of abstinence from alcohol as a biblical command. This has come up recently as an Acts 29/SBC church in Missouri has gotten burned by their own denominational bigwigs for holding a theology discussion at a brewery. (Ironically the brewery is owned by the family of arch-conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly). Scripture clearly teaches that money, sex, and alcohol are to be received, treasured, and enjoyed in their covenantal, grace filled contexts with thankfulness to the glory of God. (1 Tim. 4.3)
Good works fueled by good intentions but not driven by the command and intention of God is where legalism comes from. Neonomianism is just as deadly as antinomianism. In fact neonomianism flows from antinomianism, since we really can't live in a moral vacuum. If God's clear revelation is disregarded, a new law springs up in it's place. All that goodwill has to go somewhere, and many a conscience and much joy is choked out by the defilement (yes, defilement) of mandating something God has not commanded.
II. These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.
3. James 2:18, 22
4. Psa. 116:12-14; Col. 3:15-17; I Peter 2:9
5. I John 2:3, 5; II Peter 1:5-10
6. II Cor. 9:2; Matt. 5:16; I Tim. 4:12
7. Titus 2:5, 9-12; I Tim. 6:1
8. I Peter 2:15
9. I Peter 2:12; Phil. 1:11; John 15:8
10. Eph. 2:10
11. Rom. 6:22
Good works are shown in various lights in this section. Here's just a bullet summary:
- fruit of a new heart as fruits of faith
- sign of being new and therefore useful for assurance
- a blessing to others
- adorn our profession of the Gospel. (Real fruit will shut the mouths of those who mock us as God-talkers but not God-walkers. 1 Pet. 3.15, 4.4-5)
- part of our predestination (everyone's favourite Rom. 2.8-9 is followed by verse 10 where our good works are predestined for us, for us to do them, not God.)
- Good works, since they flow from God's election, are part of our salvation grasped and enjoyed by faith. This is where people start freaking out!!!! "Works, a part of salvation!??!!!! AAAAAAHHHHHH! Run away from ROME brothers!" Salvation is viewed in Scripture in three ways, which we traditionally call justification, sanctification, glorification. Justification is our passive enjoyment of the fruit of Jesus' active and passive obedience for us. Even the faith that we grasp this with is the fruit of his righteousness (2 Pet. 1)
" Confusing Justification and Sanctification Will Kill Joy
Then, and only then, on the basis of this forgiveness and this declaration of righteousness, God gives us his Holy Spirit and progressively transforms us morally into the image of his Son. This progressive change is not justification,
but is based on justification. This change is what we call sanctification. “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22)." (p. 18 pdf version)
Much of legalism has stemmed from a disconnecting justification from sanctification. If we are active in our justification ("I gave my life to the Lord" "I turned my life around and chose Christ"), we are tempted to be passive in our sanctification ("If God wants me to be holy, he'll do it!). The wonder of grace is that we are passive in justification, and graciously, freely active in our sanctification. Quietism and various higher life teachings will do a strange mixture of placing real change under the heading glorification and a wierd "let go and let God" teaching in regards to sanctification. What this does is butchers the imperatives of the New Testament into something like "let the Holy Spirit obey through you" when in fact it tells you "Since you are new by grace, through faith, by the Holy Spirit, (fill in your name here) do this!!!" He has justified you which changes your standing and he is sanctifying you in a gracious partnership between you and Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
The culmination of this salvation is called glorification. In some senses this is "eternal life". But Jesus himself says "This is eternal life, to know you, and the one you have sent." We have eternal life now, and this points to the quality of life that is progressively changing in what we call sanctification. This is all based on the finished work which is the root of our justification. (Rom. 4.24-25)
III. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of his good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.
12. John 15:4-6; Rom. 8:4-14; Ezek. 36:26-27
13. Phil. 2:13; 4:13; II Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:16
14. Phil. 2:12; Heb. 6:11-12; II Peter 1:3, 5, 10-11; Isa. 64:7; II Tim. 1:6; Acts 26:6-7; Jude 1:20-21
Thankfully, our theological fathers pre-guessed some objections. "Well if salvation is from sovereign grace, then that part of it called sanctification will be by sovereign grace. I would dishonor God if I got ahead of him. I'll wait upon him to stir me up to this work and pursuit of holiness." And thus their answer. The Holy Spirit gave us our first desire to trust Christ. But this first push, although all-powerful, eye, ear, heart and grave-opening and Spirit driven is not for coasting. I almost said "This initial push is not enough to sustain." In one sense to say this sounds like an insult to the Spirit. But if we have no daily doings with the Holy Spirit at the level of motivation, trust, and repentance then we are really insulting or as Paul puts it "quenching the Spirit." Colossians and Galatians make this clear: "If we start by the Spirit, let's keep in step with the Spirit." This means there's no coasting, but instead, walking, running, fighting, straining, trusting, and yes, resting again and again upon Jesus who fought our sin and won us as the prize. He has won us outright by his cross (George Herbert "Easter Wings"), and is winning more and more of us by his Spirit and Word and grace. This is what is called mortification (see The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard or the original genius work by John Owen on Sin and Grace (vols. 6-7 Banner of Truth) or the updated version by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic) and is discussed under the heading of Sanctification in our Confession and catechisms.
IV. They who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.
15. Luke 17:10; Neh. 13:22; Rom. 8:21-25; Gal. 5:17
One of the greatest disservices to Christians (and this sounds odd) is books like The Normal Christian Life and testimonies of "great saints" who fasted and prayed and have received visions of how God is going to reach the world for Christ through this or that man or organization. I grew up in the shadow of such teaching and such leaders. Preachers or leaders or mystics who attain such heights are really so far away from what God requires!! The problem with legalism is it's stress upon doability. Even the most self-abegnating soul is so far from true holiness. Our bound duty includes frames of mind, attitudes, actions, thoughts, desires, and so on. How many of us have gotten these all to cooperate all at the same time? Therefore, no saints can "loan" you some of their virtue. They're going to be needing theirs. There is no way to do extra credit if indeed "we are unworthy servants." (Luke 17.10)
V. We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment.
16. Rom. 3:20; 4:2, 4, 6; 8:18, 22-24; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7; Psa. 16:2; Job 22:2-3, 35:7-8
17. Luke 17:10
18. Rom. 8:13-14; Gal. 5:22-23
19. Isa. 64:6; Gal. 5:17; Rom. 7:15, 18; Psa. 130:3; 143:2
This paragraph gets at the debtor mindset regarding obedience. In Canada, refugee immigrants are welcomed to the country and are granted loans for their tickets and settlement fees. For several years of their newfound freedom they are paying off these immigration loans. Granted, there is much government help at this stage of their new life, but the debt remains. Our Father resettles us in his house at his expense. Our obedience is part of our life in our new house with a new Dad and new brothers and sisters. You aren't repaying the adoption fees. What we do for God, and I'm updating him at this point, John Calvin states is like a kid's refrigerator art displayed on the fridge. Is it great art? No, it's art done by a son or daughter. It's prized because of the relationship rather than it's quality. All our chores in God's house are done sloppy. We're still growing up into the image of Christ, even though we've been remade in his image. This is the now and the not yet part of our acceptability before God. Justification makes us acceptable to God through our union with Christ(Romans 4-5) , sanctification involves our living acceptably now that we are united to Christ (Romans 6-13), and glorification means we're "openly acknowledged" as what we truly are as truly redeemed and totally acceptable (1 John, Revelation). This is further fleshed out in the next paragraph as it speaks of "acceptability."
VI. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
20. Eph. 1:6; I Peter 2:5; see Exod. 28:38; Gen. 4:4; Heb. 11:4
21. Job 9:20; Psa. 143:2; I John 1:8
22. Heb. 6:10; 13:20-21; II Cor. 8:12; Matt. 25:21, 23; I Cor. 3:14; 4:5
Why should you obey God?
For Grace's sake of course. But the biblical witness and the encouraging, clarifying teaching of the Confession says the following:
- He saved you for this purpose. (Eph. 1 "chosen to be blameless")
- You get to. Freedom is for holiness not for sin. (All of Galatians, 1 & 2 Peter)
- He told you to. Be ye holy. Yah, that's still in the Bible!
- He is glorified by our obedience that flows from our dependence (John 15)
- He rewards it.
- It's your new love.
- It's the fruit of the Spirit's presence in your life.
- It's a nice walk, compared to the scenery you were used to. (1 Cor. 6.11)