There are two stumbling blocks many Christians fall into when it comes to the Gospel. One of them is legalism, and the other is lawlessness.
Legalism is simply trying to obey rules to please another. It is making our own efforts to try to please God either in order to be able to receive salvation or in order to progress in our Christian walk.
Some examples of legalism might be the following; baptism, church attendance, moralism, church membership, evangelism, serving in the church, and things like that.
There is nothing wrong with the listed activities above. They are good things in themselves, and have a place in the life of a person who has trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. They become wrong when we do them for the wrong reasons.
I have asked people whom I am sharing the Gospel with, if they have ever come to a place where they repented of their sins and trusting in Jesus Christ, and many times, I get an answer like, 'I was baptized when I was eight'. They are basically thinking that their baptism will help them get into heaven. But the Bible says, 'Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but by His mercy, He saved us'.
The Apostle Paul had some strong words that he said to a group of people called the Galatians. The Galatians were people who came to know the Lord, but they wanted to go back into Judaism in order to continue in their walk with God. They began in the Spirit, but they were continuing in the flesh. Paul asked them, 'Who bewitched you?'.
Lawlessness is the opposite side of the pendulum. There are professing Christians who understand that salvation is free, and assume that since salvation is free, they know that they cannot do any works to please God, therefore it does not matter what they do, once they have come to Christ. They are far from being legalistic. They get it. They understand that they cannot be saved by works. So, they throw out the works part of the equation, and live in the same way that they did before they came to Christ.
An example of this would be a well known Christian artist who is set free from legalism to pioneer the Christian music industry, yet wants everyone to make sure she can continue to make out with boys. As soon as her music began to hit the charts, people were calling her a 'female Billy Graham' which she resented. She made it very clear in her concerts and talks that she was interested in guys, and eventually she married and had a family. This woman left her husband for another man and received 'Christian counseling' in which she learned that God's primary concern for us is that we are happy. Her counselor advised her to leave her marriage since she was not happy in it. She is now married to the man whom she was having an affair with, even though this man is not a professing Christian. This is an example of lawlessness.
We think it has to be one or the other. Are we still under the law? Can we do whatever we want once we are saved and still be saved? There seems to be a lot of mystery when it comes to where the boundaries are and what they define.
Is it really that complicated though? I think a look at Scriptures can help us understand it more clearly. Most of us probably know the verses in Ephesians 2:8,9 which tell us that we have been saved by grace, through faith, not of works lest any many should boast. But in Galatians Paul says that if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ died in vain. It doesn't come much clearer than that.
As far as the lawless go, I think they actually grasp the idea that we don't have to work to atone for our sins, but they would go to the extreme of saying that it doesn't matter what we do or don't do. They do not see anything wrong with sinning, for the most part, because Jesus died for our sins. The problem is, that when they came to Christ, did they grasp the seriousness of the sin issue before God, or do they just think that the blood of Jesus will take away every sin we commit from now on, so, it doesn't matter if we sin or not.
Let's look at this a little deeper though. We know we can't do anything to atone for our sins. But, since Jesus died for our sins, is it ok to stay in our sins?
Romans 6 makes it very clear when Paul was asking the Romans this question. Paul answered his own question right after he asked it and his answer was 'God forbid'. This leads to further questions about this issue.
If Jesus died for our sins, and the greater our sins are, the more grace abounds, it would make sense for us to keep sinning in order to receive the grace to be forgiven, but something happens when a person is truly born again. A change of the attitude toward sin comes to the person who has truly experienced salvation. A person receives a brand new heart, with brand new desires from God at the time of new birth. This heart does not want to sin. This heart will battle against sin. The new believer will be aware of God's presence and this will produce the fear of God in him or her, which will keep the new believer from sinning. God also gives the power to say 'no' to sin. So when temptations come, even lifelong ones, they begin to lose their power and grip on the person.
Does that mean a person who is truly born again will never sin? Not at all, but his or her desire will be to not sin. Some have even fallen into sin for a while, but God's mercy is great and they came back and were restored.
So, we can't be saved by good works or deeds, or by avoiding certain things. We are saved completely by the blood of Jesus Christ, who died to pay for all of our sins. If we try to add anything to that, it would be an insult to God. We get into heaven on His score alone, not His score and a little of our score.
But if we have the mindset that we can be saved and still do the things we like that we know are contrary to God's standard, we have to wonder if we are truly saved. Jesus said that if a person does not forsake all he or she has, then he or she is not worthy to be His disciple. Being a disciple is not legalism. We are not working to keep our salvation. If a person does not want to forsake all they have for the sake of the kingdom of God, then we have to wonder if God has truly done a work in the person's heart.
If you knew that Jesus was in the same room as you are, would you be pleased with what you find in your room? Would you be concerned about what Jesus would think about whatever is in your room? Perhaps people who believe that we can do anything we want once we are saved, have a small, powerless god they are worshiping? Maybe they don't know God is everywhere all the time. Perhaps they don't understand that God is all knowing. Maybe they think of God as a Genie in a bottle?
Salvation is not a formula to get to heaven. It is having
our sin sick souls treated with the spiritual medicine to cleanse us from it.
It is the process of being set free from those things that hold us in bondage
and are opposed to God, in our lives. We hold onto our sins, and our sins hold
onto us. It is when we are both free from sin that we can experience the
freedom that is promised in John 8:32 '“If you abide in my word, you are truly
my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ESV