Monday, January 11, 2010

Grace or Legalism: Which is the Better Motivator for Christian Living?

Preached by Dr. Terry W. Dorsett, pastor, Faith Community Church, Barre, VT

January 10, 2010


 

Acts 15:1-11, 19
1
Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!" 2 But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy. 3 When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!" 6 Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: "Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Why, then, are you now testing God by putting on the disciples' necks a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are." 19 Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those who turn to God from among the Gentiles.

(Holman Christian Standard Version)


 

  • Verse 1 - Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!"


     

  • To understand this passage of scripture, one must first understand the historical context in which it was written.
  • When the Christian church was first founded, almost the entire membership was made up of Jewish people who had lived under the Old Testament law.
  • One important part of the Old Testament law was that all Jewish males were circumcised as a sign of their commitment to God.
  • Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the penis of the male.
  • God could have chosen any sign to demonstrate such a commitment.
  • But I think we would all agree that in an time BEFORE pain medication, this particularly sign was not likely to be adopted by other groups and therefore stood out as a unique way to demonstrate commitment to one's faith.
  • It was also a sign that was permanent since the foreskin did not grow back.
  • Likewise, our own commitment to Christ is a lifelong commitment that we cannot turn back from.
  • As the New Testament church grew, more and more non-Jews became Christians.
  • Since the vast majority of these non-Jews had not been circumcised, some of the more traditional Jewish believers wanted to force them to go through this ritual.
  • It is important to note that it would not have been wrong to "suggest" such an action as a good way to "keep the peace" among brothers.
  • But when some teachers started saying circumcision was required for salvation, a real issue arose.
  • Many people falsely think that believers in the Old Testament were saved by following the law, but this is not true. People throughout time have ALWAYS been saved from sin and hell by grace through faith.


     

  • Read Romans 4:1-5.
  • Romans 4 clearly shows that Abraham, who founded the Jewish race and the religion that came with it, was justified by his FAITH, not by keeping the law.
  • The sole purpose of the Old Testament law was to demonstrate that we CANNOT possibly be "good enough" to earn our way to heaven. We clearly need GRACE.
  • Grace is the undeserved favor or blessing of God.


     

  • Read Galatians 3:24-25.
  • These verses clearly teach us that the law was a "school master" that taught us that we needed grace through faith instead of the law.


     

  • Though the Bible clearly teaches that we are saved from sin and hell by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, legalism has always been a problem in the church.
  • Legalism is a form of religious belief that says that in order to be a Christian; we must conform to some type of behavior or religious "LAW."
  • What confuses many people is that the Bible does teach that Christians should conform our behavior to the Bible in order to be godly.
  • How do we reconcile grace and the law?


     

  • The two key questions to ask are:
    WHEN does the conforming happen?
    WHY does the conforming happen?
  • Under the law, we attempt to conform BEFORE we believe in the hopes that belief will follow.
  • Under grace, we conform our behavior AFTER we believe as a RESULT of our new faith.
  • Under the law we never know if we conformed enough to be saved but under grace our salvation is secured from the start.
  • Under the law, we attempt to conform our behavior because we are trying to prove our worth, or make God happy, or check off our religious "to do" list.
  • Under grace, we attempt to conform our behavior because of our deep love for God and appreciation of what Christ did for us.


     

  • Law or Grace: Which is more effective in motivating Christian living?
  • An emphasis on the law often produces people who DO the right thing outwardly but have often missed the point inwardly.
  • The danger is that they will only do the "right thing" when people are watching.
  • Legalism leads to spiritual pride and judgmental attitudes.
  • Legalism is a powerful motivator in changing behavior, but is very unhealthy emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.
  • An emphasis on grace produces people who have set their heart on loving God even if all their behaviors do not yet match the level of their love.
  • Grace oriented people desire to do what is right even when no one is watching because it flows from their love for God.
  • Grace oriented people think of spirituality as a process of growing closer to the Lord and learning more about His love throughout life.
  • Law – oriented churches are normally filled with people who do many things "right" on the outside even if their hearts are still dirty.
  • Grace– oriented churches are normally filled with people who are doing their best to live right but are aware of their weaknesses.


     

  • Verse 2 - But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy.


     

  • Notice that Paul and Barnabas engaged in serious argument and debate with the legalists.
  • Legalists are not interested in calm rational discussions. Legalists prefer to argue.


     

  • Verse 3 - When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers.


     

  • While the legalists were focused on having arguments about the law, the grace oriented people were explaining to everyone how God was saving sinners.
  • People get excited when they hear that sinners are becoming Christians.


     

  • Verse 4 - When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.


     

  • When Paul and Barnabus arrived at the "mother church" in Jerusalem, they were welcomed because everyone was excited to hear about how lives were being changed.
  • But would that excitement translate into a new way of thinking for the mother church?


     

  • Verse 5 - But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!"


     

  • The Pharisees were the most conservative group in Jewish life.
  • They had dedicated themselves not just to the Old Testament law, but also to their own traditions that they had made equal to the Old Testament law.
  • There are many modern day Pharisees who have added their own "laws" to what the Bible says about how we should live.
  • If a truth is in the Bible, Christians should seek to obey it, but if something is not in the Bible, we should not try to force that idea on others.
  • Verse 7 - . . . Peter stood up and said to them: "Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe.


     

  • Peter was a key leader in the church.
  • Peter came from a traditional Jewish background so he had the respect of the Jewish believers.
  • But Peter had a supernatural revelation about how God wanted the non-Jews to follow Christ too. (Read Acts 10).
  • Therefore Peter also had the respect of those who were more committed to grace than the law.
  • Peter reminded everyone of how God was working to bring both groups to faith in Christ.
  • Peter was like a bridge between the two groups.
  • We need "bridge" people in the church that know how to connect the law-oriented people with the grace-oriented people and bring unity in the Spirit.
  • Who can be a "Peter" in our church and help bridge the law and grace?


     

  • Verses 8-9 - And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.


     

  • God sees deeper than just our outward actions. God sees the heart.
  • The person who does the right thing with the wrong heart attitude is not fooling God.
  • The person who has a right heart toward God but is still struggling with certain behaviors can count on God's help. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
  • God gives us the Holy Spirit to help us overcome our struggles and become better Christians. (John 14:15-18)
  • God cleanses our hearts even when our actions still disappoint Him. That is what grace is all about.
  • The danger of this kind of "grace" thinking is that someone may say, "I can live however I want to so long as my heart is right."
  • But if our heart is right, then we will want to live right. There is a difference between "struggling" with sin and "surrendering" to it.
  • People who live under grace still struggle with sin, but they have not surrendered to it. (Romans 6:1-18)


     

  • Verse 10 - Why, then, are you now testing God by putting on the disciples' necks a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear?


     

  • Even legalists cannot obey the ENTIRE law, no matter how hard they try.
  • Basically legalists are asking others to do what they are unable to do themselves.
  • How productive is that going to be in promoting spiritual growth?


     

  • Verse 11 - On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are.


     

  • While some people may be better at keeping the law than others, we are all saved by grace through faith in Jesus.
  • There is a tendency to become more "law-oriented" the longer we are a Christian.
  • This happens because we begin to deal with our own junk and act better. Which is good, unless we forget what it is like to struggle?
  • Let us NEVER forget what it is like to struggle with sin.
  • Let us ALWAYS remember where we came from and what we once were.
  • As we remember these things, we will be more grace-oriented toward others who are still struggling with the damaging effects of sinful behavior.


     

  • Verse 19 - Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those who turn to God from among the Gentiles.


     

  • Peter concluded his speech by suggesting that the church should not cause difficulties for those who are turning to God.
  • This does not mean that the church should be timid about discussing sinful behavior.
  • The church should speak clearly about sinful behavior, but also give people time to work on their issues in an atmosphere of grace.


     

  • Conclusion:
  • Churches are usually filled with people who are either law-oriented and or grace-oriented.
  • Grace-oriented churches will be healthier in the long run but require great patience to be a member of.
  • Law-oriented churches may look better on the surface but often have numerous heart issues hidden under the surface that never gets dealt with.
  • We should try to be grace-oriented as we grow in our faith and as we witness to others.


 

9 comments:

  1. Though I don't normally publish my sermon notes in my blog, I thought this one was worth sharing. If churches want to reach the next generation, they must get a grip on how to balance these two issues.

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  2. Dr. Hershel StricklandJanuary 11, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    Great teaching, my brother. May I have permission to adapt to here and use it?

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  3. Very interesting and insightful. Gotta say you'd have been crucified for using the foreskin illustration back when I first started preaching! Good conclusions and well presented. I'll give it an A.

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  4. I enjoyed reading your sermon notes. Maybe you should post them more often. It never hurts to "hear" some more preaching, and since I can't hear it in person, this was a good substitute. God bless you, your family, and your ministry!!

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  5. "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." Not to punish someone when he deserves it... be quick to forgive... show kindness when they don't deserve it. In my experience I have been brought to repentance when humans exercise mercy but don't follow my sinful behavior. They stand strong and I "sense" rebuke. Then I feel ashamed not before them, but before the real Judge. I am filled with wonder about His grace, forgiveness, cleansing. That's the goal: That each professing Christian testify regulary of His awe, wonder and fear of our Omnipresent Lord.

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  6. This is awesome, thank you.

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  7. Most excellent message. I will save this for my archives and for teaching. Thanks for posting this. Blessings!

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