Sin does not lie directly in what we do, but rather in the motivations that are behind what we do. The law and legalism are tied into sin because they get at those motivations. Eating a cookie that is not forbidden is not a sin. On the other hand, if our authority (say mom, who just cooked the cookies) tells us not to eat one and we do so anyway, then we have sinned. Eating the cookie itself is not the sin, rebellion and disobedience is.
The command does not produce the sin either. It is not mom’s fault that I have sinned if I eat a forbidden cookie. When we do something we are not supposed to, or when we refuse to do something expected, it is our own sinful natures that are reacting against the authority. Rebellion, independence, and the pride that leads us to think we are the better authority—these are the roots of our sin.
Romans chapter 7 tells us that we have, in our salvation, died to both the law and our sin nature. Instead of being under a bunch of dos and don’ts, we are now new creatures that long to please God. We are free from the law that used to arouse our sinful nature. We are also free from that sin nature—in part. The struggle that we are now faced with is not a fight against ourselves. It is a war fought between our real selves (God’s new creation) and the old, dead sinful nature that is no longer us at all.
Legalism is often the route that Christians elect to attempt to overcome this struggle. In doing so they are shooting themselves in the foot. Legalism empowers the old sinful nature by creating more opportunities for sin. Instead we need to encourage our new desire to please God—an active pursuit of good rather than a list of prohibitions and requirements.
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