A Cure for Legalism: The Gift of Incapability

Is grace just a cruel joke?

For those of us from fundamentalistic or spiritually-abusive backgrounds, obedience to God’s commands can feel like a painful impossibility. Our old way of trying to obey God’s commands didn’t work, and we haven’t figured out a new way to please him.

How do we reconcile the grace of God with the commands of God?

The Heart of the Matter

What if the Christian life is not about right and wrong, but rather is a matter of heart?

Because that’s what it is.

In Jeremiah 31:33-34, God says that no longer will people teach one another about God or about his law, but rather God will write his law on their hearts.

In the New Testament, when the teacher of the law asked Jesus who his neighbor was, how did Jesus respond? Rather than giving the teacher of the law a standard by which he could judge others (whether or not they were neighborly), Jesus essentially said, “Forget about the law. Forget about standards of right and wrong. This is all a matter of heart. Are you a loving person?”

According to Jesus, all the verses in the New Testament that talk about obeying God’s commands ultimately boil down to a matter of heart: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.

In John 13:34-35, Jesus gives a “new” command to his disciples: Love one another.

The Gift of Incapability

the_gift_of_incapabilityThe tricky thing is, we cannot change our own hearts. All the obedience to rules and regulations in the world doesn’t bring us any closer to God. It doesn’t make us a loving person. In fact, without a changed heart, it only makes us fearful and lonely and angry. Only God can write his law on our hearts so that we no longer live as a slave to the Law (and, I might add, to sin), but rather as a slave to Christ.

The Christian life is not a matter of rules and regulations, but rather a matter of heart.

Seeing it this way, we suddenly come to a place of incapability.

God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Jesus fulfills the law so that we don’t have to.

Nothing we do can make God love us more, and nothing we do can make him love us less. We ask him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We see him working in our lives in ways that we don’t understand and over which we have no control. We are brought to a place of humility and gratitude. We come blinking into the sunlight of God’s love and our hearts feel a strange warmth that is peace with God.

Gratitude Fulfills the Law

In this place of heart change–where we feel God’s love and forgiveness and joy in us, such that we are filled with gratitude–we actually become doers of the Word and not merely hearers. Even if previously we thought we had spotlessly obeyed the commands of God (as Paul thought he had), we come to see that it was all just filthy rags. It was our own effort and we were trying to control God into being pleased with us. 

In the new place of heart change–of the Spirit writing God’s law on our heart–we no longer concern ourselves overly much with rules and regulations. Instead, the love of God compels us to obey, to witness, to serve. It is no longer us doing it, but Christ living in us who does it.

The Christian life is all a matter of heart.

Head Knowledge Vs. Heart Change

I used to memorize hundreds of Bible verses and had them locked away in my mind where I could recite them by rote. But none of that memorization actually changed my heart. It wasn’t until I began to see God working very practically in my life to do for me what I couldn’t do for myself that the truth of those verses was written on my heart.

That’s grace.

Practical Steps

1. One way to build our faith in Jesus (instead of in ourselves) is to start writing down ways in which we see God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

When we see him at work in our lives: giving us wisdom, giving us love, calming our anxiety, answering prayers, soothing our troubled minds, helping us to serve, that is when his law begins to be written on our hearts. In our incapability we see his capability and our faith grows stronger and our love and gratitude grow greater.

2. Make it a prayer. Ask God to write his law on your heart. Then start to record the ways that God is doing for you what you cannot do for yourself, and give thanks.

Over time, this changes our hearts.

And a byproduct of heart change is greater obedience to the law of God, which is love.

5 comments on “A Cure for Legalism: The Gift of Incapability

  1. Hi Steve,

    I really needed this this morning. Still struggling in the healing process. I still have a hard time speaking out when i disagree with something being taught or discussed. In years past. I would say nothing, until it built up inside me so much that I would burst out in some angry way. I am more able to speak out gently now, but not always. Even in writing this, I have this unreasonable fear nagging at me that you will find something to criticize, and condemn me for. I still struggle with legalism, but the gospel has been healing me. I wonder if I am legalistic in my guarding against legalism? I certainly want to show more grace to everyone. Reading some of your checklists and other blog posts, I see that I have been spiritually abusive, as well as abused. But i will continue to trust the words written by James, “but he gives more grace.” Thanks again for your ministry. Whenever I read these things, it is helpful to me.


    • Thanks for your encouragement, Tom. We are all on a journey, and sometimes the journey is hard. But the pathway is further up and further in and even our awareness of our lack is a gift that points us back to the Giver who supplies all our needs. Press on!

  2. Thank you for this article, Steve. It’s helpful. What you say about obeying God so He will be pleased with me and its devastating results is so true. I want to learn who He really is and that He does love me because of His nature and His choice. Thank you for writing.

  3. Good article!

    I dislike legalism because I’ve felt judged and criticized enough by people throughout my life. And I don’t want to think of God doing the same thing to me. I’ve heard some say “Grace isn’t a license to sin!”

    Who ever said it was? I certainly didn’t. If someone thinks that they can go commit all the sin they want because they accepted Christ, that tells me they never understood Jesus’s sacrifice in the first place. Being saved results in a changed heart, and someone with a changed heart would not want to sin (although we still would from time to time.)

  4. I need this so badly. I’m struggling to do things myself and know I’m not able to. Yet, I find I do not want to allow God to do them in me. Thank you for writing this.

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