So earlier today, a cousin of mine made a very interesting statement via that wonderful abomination of the web known as "Facebook". I found it interesting because I wasn't exactly sure what she meant by "Legalism = the absence of Grace".
I wasn't confused by the words themselves, but rather, the manner in which they were used.
"Legalism" is defined as a strict adherence to the letter of the law, as opposed to the actual spirit of the law.
"Grace", when used in a religious context (I assumed, of course, that it was used in a religious context), is defined as "in the favor of God".
When I expressed my confusion about this, I was told that adherence to the letter of the law is an expectation of failure. I know this is going to come as a huge shock to all, but I couldn't agree more.
My confusion did not stem from the wording, but rather the fact that she was referring to God's law (as opposed to the law of man). Some may wonder what difference this would make, but it's really quite simple. The law of God is quite simple, and doesn't take a huge amount of intellect to understand the basic ideas behind His principles. The laws of man, on the other hand, are a vast maze of complicated edicts requiring extensive study before one can even get a mediocre grasp on them. For instance, the Texas Transportation Code has several hundred chapters...and that's not even getting into areas of public health regulations, penal codes, insurance codes, et cetera. The laws of God, by comparison, are extremely simple.
Speaking strictly of the laws of God, it is very possible to live ones' life according to the letter of the law...and still be in violation of the intent of the law. When one violates the spirit of the law, he has no judge but God Himself.
This concept, when applied to the laws of man, bring us to a bit of an issue. Man is a fallible creature, as evidenced by Romans 3:23. Romans 13:1-7 (the one that my dear cousin Billiam likes to throw out there, presumably due to his handcuff fetish and his knowledge that I have no respect for officers of the law that don't follow the law) tells us that we should submit ourselves to "governing authorities".
In a court of law, it is no defense to claim that you have followed the "spirit of the law", as opposed to following the law itself. Doing so may very well land you in prison, depending upon the circumstances. As such, we as citizens have but two options...live our lives according to the spirit of the law and risk imprisonment, or live our lives according to the letter of the law ("legalism") and continue to live on the outside of prison walls.
An interjection of God's law into the laws of man creates a very problematic situation in and of itself. Even though the basic laws of God are fairly simple, there are plenty of people who have their own take on their precise meaning. If you need an example of this, look no further than to the fact that there are more separate denominations of "Christianity" than you can count on your fingers. Man is not God, pure and simple. Unless the Holy Spirit of the Lord himself starts chiseling traffic code and criminal law onto stone tablets, I think we need to be following the letter of the law...which, thank God, includes the 1st Amendment of the constitution that prohibits laws based solely upon religion.
Furthermore, we must look to the fact that a faith and following of God is expected, by God Himself, to be voluntary. It should never be forced upon someone, as this is not faith but spiritual slavery. If God wanted us to be forced to live according to His law, I have every firm belief that He has every ability to prevent us from doing otherwise...which leads me to believe that He OBVIOUSLY wants us to make the choice to follow Him according to our own volition.
Having had similar discussions with several people in the past, the most common retort has been the "Ten Commandments" rationale, stating that several of God's laws are already a part of man's law. Yes, we have laws against killing, raping, stealing, robbing, et cetera. However, we must also realize that while they are a part of God's law, they are a part of man's law because they deal with the violation of the rights of others. Other parts of God's law, such as the commandment against having masters other than Him, are specifically EXCLUDED from the laws of this land because they violate the right of a man to make his own choices.
So we're still left with the fact that "legalism", in the context of man's law, is an expectation of failure. Again, I couldn't agree with this more, but I do not feel that we should deny the need to follow the law as written. I feel we should, instead, work to repeal every unnecessary law we currently have on the books today, and leave only those which relate to the violation of the rights of our fellow human beings.
It's really quite simple, and essentially boils down to "Do Not Steal." If you murder, you have stolen someone's life. If you rape, you have stolen a person's physical affection. If you kidnap, you have stolen a person's liberty. I could go on, but you get the idea. The idea of "Thou Shalt Not Steal" is a fairly universal concept. It's present in the laws of both God and man.
No human being has a full understanding of God, and any attempt to interject His wisdom into our laws will result in a mockery of Him. If you need any real-world proof of this, look to the various theocracies of the world, where the "Word of God" is the basis of man's court system.
For the sole reason of man's imperfections, we as a society must strive to keep our laws to a bare minimum. Keep the Bible in your heart, your mind, and your actions. Keep it out of the legislation, lest you attempt to become the master over another in His name, for you are not God.