Last Sunday we began a sermon series exploring the question, “Who needs the gospel?” The heart of the message arose from four words in 1 Cor. 15:3: “as of first importance.” It seems pretty clear what Paul is saying. He says that the gospel he preached remains the most important bit of news ever. If that’s the case, then it must find a place in our lives every day. I encouraged the church to recognize that every single person has a “daily, ongoing, personal need for the gospel.”
So to the question, “Who needs the gospel,” every single one of us must reply with “I do.”
But all too often we subtly slip into saying “not me” instead of “I do.” Not me, I don’t need the gospel. And I highlighted four ways we do this. One of those ways is legalism. When we make legalistic thinking our default, we are saying, “Not me. I don’t need the gospel.”
Allow me to quote here C.J. Mahaney’s extremely helpful definition of legalism, which I shared on Sunday:
“Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through my obedience to God.”*
Read it again, because it’s spot on. Go ahead. I’m not going anywhere.
It’s looking at my good works, looking at my obedience to God, and thinking, “This will earn me forgiveness and acceptance.” And when we think like that, we are not making the gospel the most important news ever. It’s not “of first importance in our lives.” We are saying, "I didn't need Christ to die for my sins, be buried, and be raised, because I can atone for my own sins!"
Can you think of an area of life where you feel like you are failing? How are you viewing that failure? Perhaps your response to your failure is one of, “I need to fix this or nothing’s going to go right for me!” If so, you may be giving in to legalism.
But if you have received the gospel through repentance and faith in Christ, you are right with God! You are forgiven and accepted, and there remains no condemnation for you (see Romans 8:1). Repent of your sin, be confident of God’s forgiveness to you in Christ (see 1 John 1:9), and ask him for grace to grow in that area.
But make sure your confidence is in the right place: in Christ’s obedience, and not in your own obedience. In Christ’s atonement, and not your own attempt at atoning for your sins. In Christ’s sacrifice in-your-place, and not your own attempts at self-improvement.
Recommended reading on this topic includes the following: Philippians; First Thessalonians; The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, by Mark Dever; What is a Healthy Church Member?, by Thabiti Anyabwile; and The Trellis and the Vine, by Colin Marshal and Tony Payne.
*I'm struggling to find the source. It's either in his book Humility, or in The Cross-Centered Life.