Legalism and License. What is the difference?

In Christian teaching, license is a moral distortion of liberty. It is the notion that living under grace gives us the freedom (or even the right) to do whatever we want and be free from any binding standard. (This is called "antinomianism.") It argues that since Christ has paid the penalty for all our sins, we are free to live as we please. But of course that is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. Christian liberty is not a license to do as we wish, but the power to do as we ought. Though the epistles recognize our freedom in Christ, that is balanced with the fact that:

A) There is a vast difference between legalism and license. If we truly love God we will want to do only those things that please Him (Jn. 14:15, 21, 23; I Jn. 2:5). Since God hates sin and cannot abide it in His presence (Hab. 1:13), why would we want to grieve Him (Eph. 4:30) and hinder our fellowship with Him (Ps. 66:18; Isa. 59:2)?

B) In showing Christ-like love to others--which we are to do (Jn. 13:34), we will want to avoid those things that could harm them. To act in such a way as would cause others to stumble into sin is hateful and wrong (I Cor. 8:9, 11-12; I Pet. 2:16; cf. Rom. 15:1-2).

C) Sin is still dangerous and destructive, if allowed into our lives as Christians. It can still enslave us if we let it. Instead, we should be living in a way that is edifying to ourselves and to others (I Cor. 6:12; 10:23; Gal. 5:13; cf. Eph. 4:29).

James speaks of "the law of liberty" (Jas. 1:25; 2:12), I believe he is referring to the entire Word of God, as applied under Grace. The Law of Moses called for strict obedience, but did not, in itself, provide the power to obey. The Law was thus a frustrating burden, a yoke of bondage (Acts 15:10; Gal. 5:1). Under Grace, we are given a new nature (II Pet. 1:3-4), and indwelt by the Spirit of God (I Cor. 6:19; Rom. 8:9). This is the spiritual and universal aspect of God's "New Covenant" with Israel (Jer. 31:33; 32:40; Ezek. 36:26-27), made possible by the shed blood of Christ (I Cor. 11:25). We have, by this means, a new sensitivity to God and His will, and a new power to do what is right. That is liberating!

It is not that the Christian life is without standards. God's righteous standard is eternal (Isa. 51:6, 8). Rather, we now have a new desire and a new power (by God's Spirit) to live lives that are pleasing to Him. But that brings us to the matter of legalism. Charles Ryrie, in his fine book, Balancing the Christian Life, says, "Legalism is not the presence of laws....Legalism may be defined as a fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self" (p. 159). Put a slightly different way, It is not "legalistic" to have moral standards. Legalism is the belief that God's acceptance needs to be earned by our good works. It involves a failure to understand and appreciate the grace and love of God.

This addresses the motivation for Christian living. When Christ died upon the cross, He paid the penalty for all the sins of all mankind for all time (Isa. 53:6; I Jn. 2:2). If one lays claim to Christ's Calvary work as His own, that is all that is necessary. There is no longer any outstanding payment in the way of our full acceptance by God. We are "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6). Each and every believer is a "son and heir" in the family of God (Gal. 3:26; 4:7). Our standing before God is anchored in grace, His unmerited favour (Rom. 5:1-2).

In that exalted position, we live to please God, not to earn something that is already ours, but to express our appreciation for it. In this sense Law and Grace are complete opposites. (Under Law, doing leads to blessing; Under Grace, blessing leads to doing.) There is a word that is used some two dozen times in the epistles. It is the word "beseech" (plead, entreat). It perfectly reflects our new standing. The Law said, "Do this and you will be blessed." Grace says, here are all the blessings, free and clear, guaranteed in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Now, won't you please show Him how much you appreciate that? Won't you please obey Him in response to His gracious gift?

That is the thrust of verses such as: Romans 12:1, "I beseech you therefore, by the mercies of God [because of the great work of salvation described in the earlier chapters], that you present your bodies a living sacrifice..." And Second Corinthians 6:1, "We then [because of what is described in 5:21], as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain..." And Ephesians 4:1, "I therefore [on the basis of the great work of God described to this point in the book]...beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called."