What’s the difference between loving God’s laws and legalism?
Last year I started reading through my Bible, beginning to end, for the first time. The most shocking and convicting verses came from Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible. Scattered throughout this chapter, there is mention after mention of how much the author loves the law.
I have rejoiced in your laws
as much as in riches.
I cling to your laws.
Lord, don’t let me be put to shame!
In your unfailing love, spare my life;
then I can continue to obey your laws.
Your laws are my treasure;
they are my heart’s delight.
Your laws are wonderful.
No wonder I obey them!
I cry out to you; rescue me,
that I may obey your laws.
have obeyed your laws,
for I love them very much.
I was reading this, and it struck me like a hammer over the head; I don’t love God’s laws. I love Jesus, and I wouldn’t have been able to put into words how I felt about this beforehand, but God’s laws felt almost oppressive to me. I felt like I followed the laws as a sacrifice because I loved God and wanted to please Him. I wanted to be obedient, so I did what I was supposed to, even when I didn’t like it. I had never thought about even liking the laws; sin is fun, at least for a time, and the laws seemed restrictive.
I could’ve lied to get out of trouble, but now I can’t because that would make me a bad Christian, and I didn’t want to displease God. Sex before marriage would be fun, but now I can’t because Jesus says no. I was focused on all the things I couldn’t do- and don’t get me wrong, I was following the law like the good Christian girl I was. But I was following them for the wrong reasons.
So when I read this passage, it stuck with me. I began to pray over and over; God, help me to love your law. Help me to cherish it. Help me to cling to it. Rightsize my view of your laws in my heart.
I asked how my life, and my attitude, would be different if I delighted in God’s laws? If I truly loved them?
Galatians 3:24 states,
“Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith.”
God gave us the laws because He loves us, not so we can prove our love for Him. They were meant for our good. Like a parent who has rules for a child, so they don’t put their hand on a hot stove, God has rules in place to protect us. The laws are a gift from the Lord, not meant for oppression, but as a good gift from a loving father to guide us in the right direction. Legalism is turning this good gift sour by focusing on us and how we are doing.
Legalism says I’m better than others because I follow the law.
Loving the law says I know I’m a sinner, which is why I need the guidance of the Law.
Legalism says God will love me more if I follow the law.
Loving the law says God gave me the law because He loved me so much already.
Legalism says to follow the letter of the law.
Loving the law says to follow the spirit of the law.
We see a specific example of this in Matthew 12:9-12 when Jesus heals on the Sabbath.
Then Jesus went over to their synagogue, where he noticed a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.)
And he answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course, you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep!
God gives us the sabbath to protect us and our hearts. The Sabbath gives us healthy boundaries and teaches us to trust God with our time. But of course, we can’t be so staunchly focused on the law of the sabbath that we forget about the heart of the Sabbath, which is to bring us closer to Jesus.
The laws show us our need for Jesus because there is no way we can do them all on our own. We also should be obedient regardless because Christ is Holy. But they are also good for us, so we should delight in and cherish them. They are from a good God who loves us, and we follow them because He loves us, not to prove ourselves or to get Him to love us more. We are obedient out of response to what He has already done for us, and everything we do is focused on being more like Him.
Love the law like King David does in the Psalms. Don’t fall into the trap of legalism found by the Pharisees. Ask God for help, and to rightsize your view of sin and His laws in your heart.