License, Legalism and Grace

In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it’s clear that he’s dealing with two very different problems.  On the one hand, there was the problem of what we might call “license”.  It’s basically the view that if I’m a Christian, I’m covered by the grace of God and I have the right, or the license, to do whatever I want to do.  I’ve got my ticket to heaven, God will forgive me, so I don’t need to worry about sin.  Immorality is not a big deal.  God’s grace will cover me.  And so, there were some in the Corinthian church who thought Paul was making too big a deal about sin.

            On the other hand, there were some in the Corinthian church who were caught up in legalism.  Legalism is the view that basically we have to earn our way to heaven, and so our lives are driven by rules and performance that somehow impress God.

            And most of us understand that the Christian life should be some sort of balance between the two.  So, we often imagine this line that has license at one end and legalism at the other, and we’re trying to stay right in the middle — but we feel the tension of both sides pulling at us.  We don’t want to focus too much on the rules and end up over here, but we don’t want to focus too little on the rules and end up over there.

            But our view tends to be if you’re going to mess up, if you’re going to lean in one direction or the other, it would better to lean toward legalism, because you definitely don’t want to lean toward the idea that it’s okay to sin.

            I think that explains, to some degree, why it sometimes seems that we’re afraid of grace in the church, and we’re comfortable with rules.  We’re afraid that grace will give people a license to sin.  We’re afraid that if we emphasize grace, then Christians will suddenly stop serving God and start living however they want to live.

            And if this is how you view the Christian life, then there is always going to be the concern that if we emphasize grace too much, that grace will lead to license.  But, in the New Testament, the tension isn’t so much between license and legalism.  The tension is between the flesh and the Spirit. 

            Imagine again this line and at one end is the flesh — things that I do in my own strength, things that satisfy my fleshly desires.   And at the other end is the Spirit, the things that the Spirit leads me to do.

            But there are two ways that the flesh can demonstrate itself – one is legalism and the other is license.  Both of those are manifestations of the flesh.  One of them is built on pride and the other is built on selfishness, but both of them place the emphasis on the flesh and what we can do.

            At the other end of this line is life in the Spirit which is made possible only by grace.  What that means is that the more you understand grace, the more you move away from a performance-based lifestyle and away from a life of sin the more it moves you to live a godly life in the Spirit. 

            And throughout Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he constantly has to do battle with both of these problems.  To those Christians who thought they had the license to live any way they wanted to live and commit any sin they wanted to commit, Paul said, “No, God’s grace doesn’t allow for that.  We need to live pure and holy lives.”

            And to those who took great pride in how well they followed the law, Paul said that God’s grace doesn’t allow for that either. 

            So, Paul begins 2 Corinthians chapter 6 by saying, “Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” (2 Corinthians 6:1)

            Last week, we saw how Paul talked about the fact that we’re ambassadors — we represent God, we speak for God, and he says here — we work together with God.  And on that basis, Paul says, “we appeal to you.”  We beg you.  We urge you.  Whatever you do, don’t receive the grace of God in vain. 

            The word “vain” means “to render ineffective, to render worthless”.  The Good News translation says here, “we beg you who have received God’s grace not to let it be wasted.”  Even though these Christians had received Christ, even though they received his grace, it was possible for them to make that grace worthless either by trying to earn God’s love through their performance or by living in a way that was unrighteous.  So, let’s talk about these two problems.

1.         Legalism

            Most of Paul’s emphasis to this point in 2 Corinthians has been on the legalism of some of the teachers in Corinth. In chapter 5, he talked about “those who brag about having a spectacular ministry” (2 Corinthians 5:12, NLT). 

            Legalism is tempting because it appeals to our pride.  If my salvation is determined by a checklist of things that I need to do, then if do those things, I feel pretty good about myself.  Let’s see, I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, hey I even went to church every week and listened to that boring preacher, look at what I’ve accomplished.  Grace, on the other hand, leaves no room for pride.  It forces us to acknowledge that God is the one responsible for my salvation.

            Doug Kelly once made the statement, “If you want to make people mad, preach law. If you want to make them really, really mad, preach grace.”  And I think what he meant by that is this —   Law offends us because it tells us what to do – and we don’t like anybody telling us what to do.

            But, strangely enough, grace offends us even more because it tells us that there’s nothing we can do, that everything has already been done. And if there’s anything we hate more than being told what to do, it’s being told that we can’t do anything — that we’re helpless, weak, and needy.

            We take great pride in being able to do something – this is what I accomplished, this is what I achieved.  But time and time again, Paul makes it clear that we don’t have any reason to boast before God.  God is not impressed with all of our achievements.

            Let me give you an illustration.  When I was in high school, I had a sharp mind.  I don’t know where it went, but I once had it.  And I used that sharp mind to play chess.  I was a nerd with a capital N.  And a capital E, R and D.  I loved to play chess.  And I was good at chess.  Really good.  One of my crowning achievements was when I was a senior in high school, I had the opportunity to play Brian Eley in a game of chess.  His name may not be familiar to you, but the year before I played him, he won the British chess championship.  He was world-renowned in the chess world, and I got to play him.  I didn’t beat him, but I didn’t lose to him.  I played him to a draw, something I was quite proud of.

            When I met Sueanne, I would like to be able to tell you that she was so impressed with my abilities and my brilliant mind, that she fell in love with me.  But her love for me had nothing to with any of my achievements.  She just loved me.  And for the past 49 years or so, she has continued to love me.  And for that, I am very thankful because I no longer have those abilities.  Two weeks ago, I lost a chess game to my 16-year-old grandson.  But Sueanne doesn’t love me any less. 

            Having been the recipient of her faithful love, I know that I don’t have to impress her.  I don’t have to win chess matches to earn her love.  I don’t have to make a certain amount of money for her to love me.  I don’t have to repair the car or be an excellent cook or maintain an immaculate lawn.  I don’t have to earn her love, she just loves me.  I can’t imagine being in a performance-based relationship where you have to do certain things to earn someone’s love.

            And that’s the appeal that Paul is making here – you Corinthians, you have received God’s grace, which means that you have this beautiful relationship with God, which is not based on your performance, it’s not based on all the works that you do, but it’s based on God’s grace.  He just loves you.  So why would you want to live under legalism?    “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”

2.         Paul’s Love for the Corinthians

            But now, Paul is going to turn to those Christians who thought they had the right to live however they wanted to live, and he’s going to rebuke them.  But first, he has to explain his love for them.  And I think the reason he does that is this:

            Whenever someone tells us to do something we don’t want to do, it’s easy to assume that they have evil motives.  Teenagers will often do this.  If a father tells his daughter as she leaves the house, “Don’t forget your curfew.  Make sure you’re home by midnight.”, she may think (or say), “Why are you so mean to me?  Why are you so strict?  I think you just like being in control and telling me what to do.”

            And it may become necessary for the parent to say, “No, that’s not it at all.  I love you.  I work hard and I make a lot of sacrifices because of how much I love you.  Everything I do, I do it for you.  I experience all sorts of problems and difficulties, but I gladly do it because I care about you and I want to show my love for you.

            I think that’s what Paul is doing here in this chapter.  He has repeatedly told the Corinthians to do some things that they didn’t want to do.  He told them to separate themselves from the evil practices of their culture.  And I’m sure there were many Corinthians who questioned Paul’s motives.  “Why are you so mean to us?  Why are you so strict?  I think you just like being in control and telling us what to do.”

            And so, Paul has to say, “No, that’s not it at all.  I love you.  I work hard and I make a lot of sacrifices because of how much I love you.  Everything I do, I do it for you.  I deal with all sorts of problems and difficulties, but I gladly do it because I care about you and I want to show my love for you.”

            In verse 3, Paul says, “We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry.  In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God.” (2 Corinthians 6:3-4, NLT)

            Paul says, “I don’t want to do anything that will get in the way of people hearing our message about Jesus.”  He wants to make sure that no one in the church in Corinth or anyone else, writes him off, walks away, and misunderstands who he is and what he teaches and whom he represents.  Paul wants to win people over by letting them watch how he lives.

            First, Paul lists some of the problems he faced.  Verse 4, “We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind.  We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry mobs, worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and gone without food.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5, NLT)

            Paul says, “I want you to see what I’ve been through for your sake.  This is how much I love you.”

            Then, Paul describes the character he has demonstrated.  Verse 6, “We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love.  We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us.  We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense.  We serve God whether people honor us or despise us, whether they slander us or praise us.” (2 Corinthians 6:6-8, NLT)

            Instead of being bitter and frustrated and angry and resentful because all the afflictions and hardships and calamities he had been through, Paul has shown nothing but patience and kindness and love. 

            Then, Paul lists some of the paradoxes of living the Christian life.  Verse 8, “We are honest, but they call us impostors.  We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive.  We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy.  We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10, NLT)

            Remember what Paul said back in verse 3: “We want to live in such a way that no one will find fault with our ministry.”  Paul made it clear that he was not in the ministry for money or for comfort.  He gave every evidence to show that he was not a Christian, he was not a minister for the worldly benefits it can bring.  He was a Christian because what Christ offers is infinitely more valuable than anything this world can offer. 

            And then Paul says in verse 11, “Oh, dear Corinthian friends!  We have spoken honestly with you, and our hearts are open to you.  There is no lack of love on our part, but you have withheld your love from us.  I am asking you to respond as if you were my own children.  Open your hearts to us!” (2 Corinthians 6:11-13, NLT)

            Do you feel the love in what Paul was saying?  Do you feel the hurt that Paul was feeling?  “We’ve given up so much for you, we have endured so many hardships for you, we have loved you so much.  It hurts that you don’t love us in return.”

            Paul desperately wants to reconcile with these Christians.  He doesn’t like the fighting that’s going on, he doesn’t like this tension.  He loves these people; they’re his children.  He doesn’t want them to head in the wrong direction.  He’s had a lot to say about legalism, those teachers who put so much emphasis on the law.  But now, Paul has to warn them about license, those Christians who didn’t see anything wrong with living like the people in the world.

3.         License

            Verse 14, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
    and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
    and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
    then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
    and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.’”
(2 Corinthians 6:14-18)

            Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers.  But what does that mean?  Is Paul talking about marrying or dating non-believers?  Is he talking about of business partnerships?  Is he talking about who we can socialize with?  Exactly what does Paul means when he tells Christians not to be unequally yoked?

            This passage is often used as a basis for separation from the people in the world, because Paul says, “Go out from their midst and be separate from them.”  Separation is a very biblical principle but, if you don’t understand it correctly, separation becomes isolation and pretty soon we’re hiding from the very people God has called us to reach.  So, it’s important that we understand this correctly. 

            Paul builds this command around the imagery of a yoke, which was farm term.  The image is of two animals yoked together, pulling the same direction in order to pull a plow or some other farm implement.  So, it was an image that had to do with a situation where two animals were bound together and needed to pull in the same direction. 

            Just being around someone isn’t being yoked to them.  Two cows that are grazing in the same pasture are not yoked together.  Two cows that are drinking from the same watering hole are not yoked together.  The idea of being yoked together was a close bond.  

            Any Jew who heard Paul use this illustration would have immediately thought of Deuteronomy 22:10 where God said, “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.”  You can put your yoke on two oxen, or you can put your yoke on two donkeys, but don’t put that yoke on one ox and one donkey.  The concern here is with an imbalance in power and purpose.  You can imagine what would happen if you put a yoke on an ox and a donkey.  That ox, due to its sheer size and strength would overpower the weaker animal, which would leave the field unevenly plowed, and probably harm the donkey.

            Paul takes this image and he goes beyond agriculture to say that when two individuals with different goals try to operate while being yoked together, it’s a recipe for disaster.  And the one that is stronger will destroy the one that is weaker.

            So, how does this apply to those of us who are Christians?   It has often been applied to marriage.  Now I don’t think that’s Paul’s primary application here, but I do think it is certainly a legitimate application.   The truth is, marriage is a very serious commitment.  Husband and wife are clearly yoked together and if you have different value systems, you have different goals in life, you have different belief systems, it’s going to be a very difficult arrangement. 

            So, my encouragement would always be for a Christian to marry someone who has the same goals, the same value system — believers that are pulling in the same direction.  But, if you’re a Christian who is married to a non-Christian, that’s not a sin.  I know that because Paul says in I Corinthians 7 that if you’re married to an unbeliever and that unbeliever wants to make the marriage work, then you need to make it work.  But it’s going to be hard.  And the best advice I can give is that you make sure you are the strong one influencing your spouse to draw closer to the Lord instead of allowing your spouse to be the strong one who pulls you away from the Lord.

            But that’s not Paul’s primary application here.  I think it’s clear that Paul is mostly concerned about Corinthian Christians who were engaging in pagan worship.  Remember, back in I Corinthians, we saw that Paul dealt with the question of whether or not it was okay for a Christian to eat meat that had been offered in a pagan sacrifice.

            And we saw that very often that meat which had been offered in a pagan sacrifice was sold in the marketplace.  Which raised the question, “Could a Christian buy that meat and take it home for dinner?”  And Paul’s answer was, “Yes, it was permissible for a Christian to do that, that wasn’t a sin.”

            But there were other Christians who said, “Since there’s nothing wrong with that meat, then there would be nothing wrong with participating in the pagan worship where they are offering that meat.”  And Paul said, “No!  Absolutely not!  You have no business being involved in a pagan worship.  You need to get out and you need to stay away.  Separate yourselves from that ungodliness.” 

            To be yoked together with someone means that you are in a compromising partnership with them, and you’re compromising your beliefs to do it.   And the danger of doing that is that when you start to say there’s really no difference between who they worship and who we worship, then you’ve opened the door to behave like they do.  

            If you look at the behavior of the Corinthians, you’ll see that they acted like worldly people, not like godly people.  Some of them were even going up and visiting the temple prostitutes.  Because of their unhealthy ungodly associations, it led them to live in immorality.

            I think Paul is talking here about any situation where we allow the world to influence our thinking to the point that we compromise our beliefs. In other words, Paul doesn’t want us to “conform to the world” as he put it in Romans 12:2.

            God’s grace doesn’t mean that we can go wherever we want to go and do whatever we want to do.  We need to only do those things that are holy and pure.

            So, Paul concludes this passage in chapter 7, verse 1, “Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit.  And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1)

            Paul begged the Corinthians “not to receive the grace of God in vain.”.  They received God’s grace, but they weren’t living like it.  They were trying to mix it in with the pagan religions and with law. 

            Now one of the interesting things that happens in many churches is that there’s a group of people that are pretty immersed in legalism but they don’t see it that way.  They tend to point their finger at people who are engaged in license, that are using grace as an excuse to do their own thing, and they point their finger at them and they accuse them, and use that to justify their legalism. 

            There’s also a group of people in many churches who are immersed in license but they don’t see it that way.  They think it’s just the freedom of grace, and they point their finger at the legalists and identify all the man-made laws and it frustrates them and makes them angry and they use that to justify their license. 

            And so, at the end of the day, you have these two different groups of people who are pointing their fingers at one another and neither of them realizes that they’re both living in the flesh.  Rather than pointing our finger at someone else to justify how we want to live, we need instead to examine our own hearts. 

            And I need to ask myself — Are there times when I have justified legalism in my own life, proud of doing all the things that I think God requires?   And are there times when I have justified license in my own life?  Have I ever tried to pretend that grace means I can do whatever I want to do?

            Do I really understand that the reality of grace is life in the Spirit, dying to self, realizing I’m no longer living for myself but for the one who died for me?  I’ve become a new creation in Christ and I’ve been given a message, a ministry of reconciliation.  I’ve been called to be an ambassador, and now I represent Christ to take this magnificent message into the streets and to tell others, “you too can be reconciled to a holy God”, but to do it in such a way that my life gives credibility to this thing we call grace.

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