When you preach the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus, there is always a risk that people who do not fully grasp it will think you are preaching license. Why? Because the grace of God results in liberty. And to some, this “looks” or “sounds” like license.
Of course, liberty isn’t license. Ever. Neither is it legalism. But what is the difference between these three? How can we be sure that we are walking in the liberty and truth of Jesus Christ?
License or “lasciviousness” is a Biblical term. In fact, Jude shows us the possibility that people would turn the grace of God into license: “Certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jude 1:4).
License is nothing more complicated than saying that because all is forgiven, I can sin. It is saying that when Jesus stamped my debt to God “paid in full,” that He was issuing me a license to keep on sinning. After all, if all my sin is permanently paid for, then why obey God? Why not sin, if grace covers it?
Most people who practice license have never truly seen they are sinners. They think Christianity is a religion, or a list of teachings to follow. They know little of real repentance and conversion. Thus, they say they believe, but new birth has never taken place (John 3:3).
Legalism is a term not found in the Bible. The Bible uses the phrase “under the law,” which means that I try to use my rule-keeping to make myself righteous, or to maintain or enhance God’s attitude toward me. In a nutshell, I am walking in legalism when what I do supercedes what Christ has already done for me.
The issue is this: Where is my faith? Not my “on paper” faith, or my “said” faith, but my real, operative, daily faith. Is it solely in Christ for salvation and for daily living? Or is my faith really in my works—in myself—in what I do and what I think I am?
There is an amazing self-deception about legalism. Most legalists usually say, “It is all by God’s grace, but God requires obedience for His grace.” Incredibly, this statement demonstrates exactly what legalism is! God cannot “require” anything for His grace. That is why it is grace! It is free. There are no conditions or requirements. Obedience is not a requirement for grace, it is the outcome of grace. Until we see this, and understand why, we are never going to see the truth.
Notice how legalism is at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from license. Legalism is attempting to be righteous by works, and license is claiming righteousness without works.
What is real Christian liberty? It is the reality that nothing we do determines anything about our standing before God. Salvation is a free gift, given by God’s grace and received through faith in Jesus Christ. Liberty is freedom from sin and its penalty—but also freedom to obey God out of simple love for Him. No person can give themselves the ability to obey God for only love’s sake. Love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and will grow to dominate us the more we walk with Christ. God is love, and we are to be conformed to His image.
—Adapted from “Legalism, License, and Liberty in Jesus Christ” by David A. DePra.