Lou: In the opening part of this chapter, you seem convinced that we need to be attentive to all ten of the commandments. But isn’t a person who is concerned about the law, who thinks a lot about the Ten Commandments, a legalist? Isn’t that the meaning of legalism? A person who thinks about the law? Shouldn’t we be thinking about Jesus rather than about the law?
Graham: When people put it that way, it implies that a loving person is a legalist, since love is the fulfilling of the law. And that doesn’t make sense. So I think we need to consider the real meaning of legalism. I believe that the essence of legalism is preoccupation with our legal standing before a legalistic God. Many Christians are preoccupied with their legal standing, because they don’t really know God. They don’t realize that He is a gracious God who is not preoccupied with our legal standing. Like the father of the prodigal son, He’s very preoccupied with our welfare and whether or not we will come home. So the essence of legalism is preoccupation with one’s legal standing with God.
Lou: Are you saying a person could believe and accept Christ’s sacrifice in such a way that they would in effect be a legalist?
Graham: We should say this very carefully, but I really believe it’s true. If you believe Jesus died primarily to adjust our legal standing with a God who is preoccupied with our legal standing, you are a legalist. And this means that you no longer take the blood of bulls and goats to God to adjust your legal standing (Heb 9:12-14), you now take Him the blood of His Son and say, “Will this adjust my legal standing?” And in that perspective God would say, “That’s good; now you’ve brought me the right blood.” To me, this is legalism.
Lou: So you’re saying that if our purpose in approaching God is to meet a legal requirement, it becomes a matter of legalism.
Graham: I would call that the Devil’s sad perversion. He has actually taken the death of Christ, which is a monument to freedom, and turned it into a ceremony that adjusts our legal standing. In other words, those who misunderstood the ceremonies in Old Testament times, but then became Christians, applied the same misunderstanding to the cross and to the blood of Christ. It’s just that now they had better blood and more persuasiveness with the Father to adjust their legal standing. To me, it sounds terrible to say that. It supports the Devil’s charges that God is arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. You see, all legalism is based on the concept that God has to execute those who disobey Him. Therefore, it follows that forgiveness will somehow take care of that. And that’s what produces legalism.