Legalism is a pesky problem. We would be mistaken to simply relegate it to religious areas. Rather, we should see legalism as it really is, the perverter of every area of life. Before I explain what in the world I am talking about let us first define legalism. To me, legalism is simply the belief that by doing right one will be considered right or achieve the right ends. Speaking from the heart, legalism says, If I do this I will be accepted, it is pride. Legalism speaks to the ultimate motivations of the heart, is it based in gratitude and humility (gospel), or is it based in pride and fear (legalism).
The reason legalism is such a problem and a perversion of reality, is because God defines reality, and He doesn’t do it with legalism, but Gospel, literally: good news. Through a Gospel lens is how the world must be seen. In the beginning, man’s relationship to God did involve obedience to His law, yet the relationship was never legalistic but always of grace. That is, the ultimate definer of why Man was accepted by God, was grace, not obedience. Man was to obey God, not to earn God’s favor, but because he already had God’s favor, evidenced by his own existence and immediate relationship with God. Obedience was the proper response to the grace of God.
Our world hasn’t changed from the beginning. Man doesn’t owe God obedience to earn something, man owes God obedience because he is something: God’s very creation and property. The fact that Man doesn’t obey God demonstrates the reality of Sin and the ungratefulness in his heart. The damage has already been done. Obedience to the law cannot correct the relationship, it cannot heal what is already severed. We need a Savior. A Savior who’s relationship with God has never been broken. A Savior who is like us in every way, but sinless, who can represent us before God as our Federal head, just like Adam did and failed.
The simple fact that we are still alive, when God’s justice should have killed us a long time ago, demonstrates that God is having grace upon all of mankind right now; it is not a saving Grace mind you. God may have a general grace that stays His justice for a time, and allows people to live and often thrive, but it is a specific type of Grace by which He saves some. We are living under the Gospel, or Good News of Jesus, precisely because from the moment Adam and Eve sinned, God’s rescue plan went into affect. Jesus, the savior of sinners, and the redeemer of God’s people, has been promised since the day Adam fell. What Jesus accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection was simply the fulfillment of this early Gospel promise, that God would save His people from their sins and restore their broken relationship with Him.
Because this truth was promised from our earliest history, and was fulfilled in the fullness of time by Jesus, and still is true today, is why I say that the world is defined by the Gospel. All aspects of our lives, therefore, ought to be defined by the Gospel too, and not legalism. It is a heinous thing to think legalistically about every aspect of life, and it is damaging to our very being. I am not saying we are not under obligations to other’s nor that we are not under authority that deserve obedience, but what I am talking about is the motivation for that obedience. While I could spend much more time talking about how a Gospel centered view point affects every area of life, I only wish to address marriage in this article. Let me just point out that the Gospel centered life starts with God, and just because many people don’t believe in God nor understand the Gospel, isn’t the fault of the Gospel but of those people.
A man, who from all external perceptions has a great marriage, once told me that his marriage didn’t become great until he realized that his wife could leave him at any time and it was his duty to treat her in such a good way that she would never want to leave. Makes sense, and seems to work, two things that especially American’s love, but also that warn us legalism is a foot. God’s kingdom is often backwards, and upside down, and rarely can you say of it, “makes sense and seems to work,” so when you do say it, you should be wary you may be talking about legalism and not the gospel.
For years I thought this advice was pretty amazing, and I often encouraged my own self to treat my wife better with it, and for years it seemed to work, sometimes. To be frank, I now think it not good advice but, is legalism. Please hear me out the rest of the way. Legalism, as we recall, is a motivation of the heart that flows out of both pride and fear. Keep that in mind as I explain how one should view marriage and keeping one’s wife happy.
Marriage is a unique institution because not only should it be defined by the Gospel, it actually was created to give example to the Gospel! When you get married you are covenanting to another person, binding yourself to them forever in a unique relationship. What should motivate you in marriage?
In marriage your wife has promised to love you and be with you no matter what, forever, period. Man, that kinda sounds like what God did with us. In a true marriage, there are no caveats, no escape clause, no “if you do this I will do that” type of language, but simply a unilateral, “I do.” Of course I could switch this around to the woman’s perspective as well, but since I’m speaking to myself, and about men, I will continue to speak from the man’s perspective. But I will add this, the wife actually has the more honored role in marriage. Marriage is meant to represent Christ and his bride the Church. Christ sought out His Church, wooed His Church, and loves and provides for His Church, and His Church responds to His initiative. So too, the man should seek out his wife, woo his wife, love and provide for his wife, and his wife responds with marital vows only after her husband initiates them.
Back to me. My wife has promised to love me no matter what. It isn’t based on how good I treat her, or provide for her, or even love her, it is a vow irrespective of all of that, she simply loves and commits to me for my sake. She won’t leave me, and she has promised to do everything she can for my good. Knowing all that, is my proper motivation to say to myself, “I need to figure out how to manipulate and bribe my wife so that she doesn’t want to leave me?” NO! The proper motivation is to realize the graciousness, the gospel of her marital vows, and respond with gratitude, love, and fidelity.
Remember, you can switch the roles from husband to wife, because the truth of the matter is, both sides ought to be motivated by gospel considerations and therefore gratitude. I know we live in a fallen world where no one keeps their marriage vows 100%. Both my wife and I sin, and so we do not keep our vows perfectly. We are selfish and do let the other person often define how we love them. Just because we are fallen, and make mistakes, isn’t a fault of marriage, or our vows, but of us. Thus, one can still be motivated by the Gospel in marriage, and when the other fails, we can love and forgive because ultimately Christ’s Gospel should define all our life.
Marriage is a gospel centered relationship. Until we realize the gratitude that should motivate our relationship with our spouse, we will be stuck in the frustrating and vicious circle of legalism.