Any time we are presented with a list of commands, like the 50+ commands found in Romans 12-14, we are prone to head down one of two dangerous paths: legalism or moralism.
Legalism is the pursuit of keeping a list of commands, biblical or man-made, in order to make yourself right with God. Paul just spent 11 chapters arguing against keeping commands in a legalistic fashion. First, he argues that we are all sinners, so it does no good to try to keep a list of commands to be right with God because we’ve already missed the mark. We can’t undo by keeping the law what we’ve already messed up by breaking it. Second, the Jew already tried the way of the Law, and he is not right with God because he is a lawbreaker. Third, that’s why God made the way of salvation by faith in His Son and not by the law.
So when it comes to the 50 commands in Rom 12-14,or any other biblical imperatives, we must not view keeping these commands as earning salvation or favor with God. If we do so, therein lies an eternal danger. If you think that salvation is in the keeping of the commands, it is possible for you to make yourself obedient to these commands to a certain degree and totally miss heaven.
Moralism is slightly different but just as dangerous and just as prevalent as legalism. Moralism views Christianity as simply a moral code, a list of do’s and don’ts. Moralism is not trying to be right with God by keeping commands, moralism believes it is right with God by simply being a good person. However, the Christian faith is not simply good works; the Christian faith results in good works. The failure of moralism is the absence of viewing good works as being dependent upon faith and grace. In a moralistic view, Christianity is just being a good person. The eternal danger is that it is possible to be a “good person” to a certain degree and totally miss heaven!
So how do we avoid legalism and moralism when it comes to Paul’s list of 50 commands in Rom 12-14 or any biblical commands?
There is a biblical paradigm found throughout Scripture that gives us the answer. The paradigm is that as God has been so merciful to us in Christ to save sinners, we respond to Him with lives of worship. The commands of Scripture are simply clarifying for us how we worship God with our lives. In Romans 12:1, this paradigm is stated as “the mercies of God” and our response as “living sacrifices.” Remember, Paul calls this our spiritual worship!
We avoid legalism and moralism by viewing these commands as the way we worship God with our lives, the way we respond to the mercies of God in our salvation. Legalism is not worship. Legalism is not responding to God’s mercies by laying down our lives in humble obedience. Legalism is trying to obtain God’s mercies. Moralism is not worship. Moralism is not responding to God’s mercies by self-denial for the good of others. Moralism is simply abiding by a self-imposed standard with no regard for the worship of God. But when we are in awe of how sinful we are and yet God has been so graciously merciful to us, we respond to His mercies by laying down our lives, resisting the world, and filling our lives with God’s Word. It is not an attempt to make ourselves right with God, it is our willing, proper response for being made right with God. It is not simply being a good person, this life is worship!
If we approach the commands of Scripture as the way we worship God in response to His rich, eternal mercies to us in Christ, we avoid the eternal dangers of legalism and moralism!!
Wil Owens, Teaching Pastor