In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul writes to the church about the importance of freedom from legalism. Referring to the Law, he says, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (v. 6).”[i] Even in the Corinthian church, which was known for its problems with immorality—Paul emphasized freedom in the Spirit over following the letter of the law. The law he calls “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone (v. 7).” It had a purpose, a glory of its own, in that it guided Moses’ people and helped them to establish themselves as a God-fearing nation. Yet by the time of Jesus, that law had become something that condemned people more than it liberated them. Paul says, “For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it (vv. 9-10).” So Jesus came, setting free those who were captive to legalism, and introducing new freedom in the Spirit.
Yet early on, believers forgot that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36).” If the Old Testament was full of rules that they couldn’t follow, they simply added a book called the New Testament to give them even more rules. Then they started adding even to that. Here is one dialogue that dates back to ancient Christianity:
"I am in earnest about forsaking 'the world' and following Christ. But I am puzzled about worldly things. What is it I must forsake?" a young man asks. "Colored clothes, for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don't eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against Him who created us, to attempt to improve on His Work."
Elizabeth Elliot comments on the above dialogue, "Does this answer sound absurd? It is the answer given in the most celebrated Christian schools of the second century! Is it possible that the rules that have been adopted by many [modern] Christians will sound as absurd to earnest followers of Christ a few years hence?"[ii]
Paul dealt with Christians who felt that even though they were freed, they were still obligated to the law. Yet, Jesus gives us hope. Paul writes:
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed (vv. 12-16).
I used to think that this mean that Paul was comparing Christians with Jewish people, and saying that Hebrew hearts were hardened. Then I realized that Christians can have hardened hearts too—that whenever the Law is emphasized, a veil seems to come over us and darken our eyes. Yet when the freedom of Christ is exalted, the veil is taken away. Why would a Christian, once having been set free from the power of the law, keep chasing after the law anyway? David Dykes, the pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, writes about his childhood dog Rex:
Sometimes when a bird or a flock of birds flew over on a sunny day, Rex often chased their shadows on the ground. I can recall watching as one bird flew around in a circle with Rex chasing the circling shadow on the ground, barking the whole time. Poor, dumb, bird-brained Rex–he never figured out the shadow wasn’t real. Sadly, there are many well-meaning Christians who are doing the same thing. They are chasing shadows: They are still trying to please God by keeping religious rules and observing religious rituals.[iii]
2 Corinthians 3:17-18 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” When we are saved, when we receive the Spirit of the Lord, we receive freedom. The darkness is removed, and we enter the light of His glory. Why then would we choose to remain in the darkness of the Law? This past week at Vacation Bible School, our kids learned that following rules can’t make you closer to God, but following Jesus will, because He is the Light of the World. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “I have found, in my own spiritual life, that the more rules I lay down for myself, the more sins I commit.”[iv] Rules may shine a little light in the darkness, but Jesus is brighter than the sun. Nobody who fumbles around with a flashlight or glow stick for a while, who then emerges into the sunlight, chooses to return to the darkness and dim lamp light. So why should Christians who have been set free, return to legalism, after Jesus has set us free? Why should we chase shadows that way? Psalm 118:27a says, “The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.” Jesus is the light—let us walk in His light, and never return to darkness or lamplight again.
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are from the ESV.
[ii] Elizabeth Elliot, The Liberty of Obedience, Nashville, Abingdon, 1968, pp. 45-46.
http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/l/legalism.htm. June 13, 2016.
[iv] Charles Spurgeon, in Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, W. Wiersbe, p. 235. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/l/legalism.htm. June 13, 2016.