This reflection was written by Alexander Chapota.

When I became a Christian nearly twenty years ago, I knew the run was over. I was tired of lying, life had become so heavy, and I badly craved relief. And so I repented of my sin and dedicated my life to Christ. And yet, not many months after this experience, I found myself feeling heavy again. There seemed to be more rules and, with that, more lies, all to maintain this new Christian life I’d embraced.

The gospel that was presented to me sounded something like this: I needed to agree with God that, without obedience to his laws, my life was a mess. Repentance meant a willing surrender to follow the commandments. Giving my life to Jesus equaled doing what Jesus wanted. If I failed, I was taught to say sorry before going to bed and to strive to do better the next day.

In other words, to keep God happy, and to receive blessings from him, there were specific conditions to meet. This is a very common teaching, especially where I live in Africa, where Christianity is so misrepresented, to the extent that when one preaches a gospel that does not teach ten or twelve principles/conditions to become rich, it is seen as heretical. In fact, our very first subject in Sunday School was the Ten Commandments; from day one, the God that was introduced to me was a God of conditions!

But I already knew this God. You see, beyond Sunday School I grew up in a home that was run on an engine of conditionality, and I suspect you did as well! To receive new shoes, I had to perform better in class. To be admired by my friends in school, I had to appear smarter than everyone and find a good-looking girlfriend. It was not easy! But it was how I’ve lived my entire life. The irony is, I used to cheat in order to get things from my parents, friends and teachers.

Somewhere around 2006, I heard the gospel of grace, and for the first time, it was clearly presented to me that I am completely forgiven — and not because I’ve met certain conditions: “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans‬ ‭3:24‬ ‭NKJV)‬‬‬‬.

Sadly, I am not alone in this experience. Nor is it peculiar to my context here in Malawi. No matter where you go, there is great confusion about the law in the church today. We have a shortage of gospel preachers, and, as a result, a brand of Christianity that focuses on the law as the engine of the Christian life is thriving, what we might call “legal Christianity.” Though we pay lip service to grace, in practice far too many of us look at the law for motivation/energy. The preacher turns every scripture into law.

I have myself have been guilty of preaching this way, of failing to distinguish law and gospel, and therefore failing to deliver good news. I would speak about the death and resurrection of Christ but would then end my sermons with applications, always making sure my hearers understood their obligations as Christians. Martin Luther himself described my situation:

“It has become a deplorable custom that the Gospels and the Epistles are treated like law books, in which one is to learn what we are to do, and in which the works of Christ are presented as nothing but an example held before one’s eyes. Wherever this errant opinion remains within the heart, there neither gospel nor epistle can be read usefully and in a Christian way; such readers remain nothing but heathen, as before.”

A legal preacher sees Christ acting, speaking, or doing anything in the Gospels first and foremost as an example — instead of seeing him doing something on our behalf. When a passage of scripture speaks about salvation (e.g. the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8), the legal preacher will not stress the “neither do I condemn you,” but will focus the whole sermon on “sin no more.” The legal preacher may mention the word grace but will not dwell on it — and certainly not leave the people there. (Is there sin in your life? Is God pleased with you?) The gospel is just assumed, and the real work involves helping people keep the law of God.

At the bottom of this understanding lies a view of the law as a tool to obtain or maintain righteousness. Yet the theological use of the law is to drive us to Christ! Apart from what theologians call the civil use of the law, biblically, the law is there to give us godly sorrow that we might know our deficiency in being what God demands of us. The law is there to condemn us, to pass judgment and stir up our need for a saviour. The law is written upon our hearts. We inherently know what we ought to be doing. But because of sin we inherently won’t do it out of a pure heart with no self-motivations. That is why the scripture in Isaiah 64:6 says that “all our righteous deeds are filthy rags.” As such, we cannot rely upon the law to maintain our relationship with God.

“‘Behold, you despisers, Marvel and perish! For I work a work in your days, a work which you will by no means believe, though one were to declare it to you.’” (Acts‬ ‭13:41‬ ‭NKJV‬‬‬‬)

People naturally love legal sermons like ‘Ten Practical Ways to Live a Victorious Life,’ or ‘Twelve Steps to Walk in Abundance.’ I know I do! The Christian life without rules sounds unmanageable, too good to be true, and who can believe that? Legal Christianity, on the other hand, makes sense. Yet every time we look to rules, conditions or principles to become a better Christian, we have just put ourselves back under the bondage of the law. Or to put it negatively, we have cut ourselves off from Christ (Galatians).

As Christians, we live by faith in the righteousness of Christ. That’s the whole gospel. In Christ Jesus we are under no condemnation. The law cannot condemn us because Jesus Christ fulfilled the law for us! The Christian life is made possible by faith alone in the grace of God alone. True obedience before God is a fruit of God’s forgiveness of us (Luke 7:41-43).

In other words, the gospel is the law fulfilled! It is the announcement that Jesus Christ actively and passively obeyed God for us, for me, yes, even for you. Amen.