God’s Will Instead of Legalism

on being a christianHans Küng on God’s will versus legalism:

Although the law can declare God’s will, it may also be used as a shelter in which to hide from God’s will.

The law thus easily leads to an attitude of legalism…

A law provides security, because we know exactly what we have to keep to: just this, no less (which can sometimes be irksome) but no more (which is sometimes very congenial). I have to do only what is commanded. And what is not forbidden is permitted. And there is so much we can do or omit in particular cases before coming into conflict with the law. No law can envisage all possibilities, take into account all cases, close all gaps…

This seems to be the only way if the letter of the law is identified with God’s will: interpreting and explicating the law until we have an accumulation of laws…

But the finer the net is woven, the more numerous are the holes. And the more precepts and prohibitions are set up, the more the decisive issue is concealed. Above all, it is possible that the law as a whole or even particular laws are kept only because they are laid down and the consequences of breaking them are to be feared. We would not do what is required if it had not been prescribed. On the other hand it is possible that much is not done that really should be done, merely because there is no law about it and no once can bind us to it.

Like the priest and the Levite in the parable, we saw the victim and passed by.

Thus both authority and obedience are formalized: something is done simply because the law requires it…

The advantages of legalism both then and now are immense. It is easy to see why so many people in their relations with other human beings prefer to keep to a law rather than make a personal decision. How much more would I have to do which is not prescribed, how much omit that is not forbidden?

It is also easy to see why so many people prefer to keep a law even with reference to God Himself. For in this way I know exactly when I have done my duty. If I achieve something, I can expect a corresponding reward; or even an extra allowance if I have done more than my duty. Thus my debits and credits can be accurately calculated…

It is precisely this legalistic attitude however to which Jesus gives the deathblow.

He aims not at the law itself, but at legalism, from which the law must be kept clear: at compromise, which is typical of this legalistic piety. He breaks through man’s protective wall, one side of which is God’s law and the other man’s fulfilling of the law… He measures the letter of the law against God’s will itself and thus places man, liberated and gladdened, immediately before God. Man’s relationship to God is not established by a code of law, without his being personally involved. He must submit himself, not simply to the law, but to God.

This is why Jesus does not present man with a new system. He does not give directives for all spheres of life. Jesus is not a legislator

He demands not only external acts which can be observed and controlled, but also internal responses which cannot be controlled or checked. He demands man’s heart. He wants not only good fruits, but the good tree; not only action, but being; not something, but myself– and myself wholly and entirely.

–On Being a Christian, pp. 241-246

12 thoughts on “God’s Will Instead of Legalism

  1. Amen. God does not simply want law keepers. Rather, He desires loving seekers who come to Him. He is the fulfillment and reality of the law! I like Paul’s view that the law should function as a child conductor (Gal 3:24) to bring us to Christ instead of distracting us from Him. Jesus is not a legislator. He is the most lovely and wonderful Person in the entire universe. May the Christian life not become a life of fulfilling legal, religious duties, but a romance with our beloved Lord!


    • I know in my own experience what Küng is talking about when he says, the “advantages of legalism.” This is a de facto or descriptive way of putting it. Most people wouldn’t admit to embracing a prescribed legalism, but there is something in our nature that inclines toward this in practice. It’s is just so much easier to negotiate the static properties of a law than the feelings of the living Lord.

      A case in point- drinking alcohol. A saw a tweet by a friend recently that quoted 1 Timothy 5:23 with the hashtags #alchohol #itsok. Isn’t this eactly what Küng is getting at? The attitude of, “Oh look, I have a verse that says I can drink wine and there are no problems.” Now you are skirting the decisive issue- God Himself- and negotiating your life based on rules of conduct. Not only do we have our conscience to guide us in moral issues, we have the teaching of the anointing, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the sense of life which exceed the coarse simplicity of legalism. These things force us to deal with God Himself in all our daily affairs. We should live by the presence of the Person within us, not merely by the historic text of the Bible. We shouldn’t scour the Bible for permission to do things. We should seek God’s face in prayer, act in the index of Christ’s eyes, and follow the rest in our spirit (2 Cor. 2:10, 12-13). Of course, the leading of the Holy Spirit will be congruous with the precepts of the Bible, but His leading may be finer than what is forbidden in His word.


  2. Great insight, and deep. I like how Kung brings us back to the fact that Christ makes His home in our heart so that He can be before us at all times, and we before Him. This sounds like a real relationship.


    • Me too. Although there are typically clear guidelines in a relationship, you are always dealing with a person. This involves feeling, consideration, and love. Maybe this is why God stressed the issue of love, right in the middle of the ten commandments and all throughout the Old Testament. Love saves us from legalism. Love requires we deal with a person.


    • Definitely. As I read this I tried to keep my thoughts away from the typical attitudes of legalism- wagging the finger for breaking rules, superiority for keeping the rules when others haven’t, pride, etc. What struck me then was legalism as impersonalism (not the Hindu philosophy). The possibility of being a person passionate about Christianity, the teachings or the movement, but missing the Person behind it all, the raison d êtrtre.

      Greg Dutcher recently adressed similar issues in his new book “Killing Calvinism”, especially in the first 3 chapters- 1) Loving Calvinism as in End in Itself, 2) Becoming a Theologian instead of a Disciple, and 3) Loving the Soverignty of God more than God Himself.


  3. Most insightful. God is not interested merely in our actions – “He demands man’s heart.” Religion is in the realm of ethics, right and wrong, and codes of conduct, but God operates in a completely different realm. This may be hard for us to grasp, but this is what the Bible reveals. God’s way is to start at the center of our being and then to work His way to the circumference. If the tree is good, the fruit will be good also. Source determines fruit, and fruit manifests source.


    • Hard to grasp at first, but then revolutionizing, although at times also bothering. Reminds me of a chapter called “The Contradiction in a Christian” in a book called “The Pursuit of a Christian” by Witness Lee. You should check it out. It develops this thought more in experience. I think you’d like it!


    • Overall it’s pretty good, although it’s very long and Kung is too liberal for me at times. He has some amazing quotable portions though. I always think of him as the Proust of theology: long-winded, complex, and narrative.


  4. It is much easier to be religious and legal than to pay the price to enjoy the Lord, live by His life, deny the self, be one with Him in our mingled spirit….
    I know that this fleshly way doesn’t fulfill His purpose and is part of Satan’s deceit, but if we (I) don’t love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, body, my whole being, I will remain in darkness thinking that I am pleasing the Lord with my behavior.
    May the Lord grant me His grace and mercy to see the vision (since knowledge is not enough), to live a life that express Him and not my religion!


    • Hi Beatriz,
      Much easier (so it seems)! I’ve been praying over Ephesians 3:16-19 lately. It’s a huge help. I’m realizing that God is after something so much bigger than perfection. He wants constitution. I think this is what Paul’s prayer in Eph 3 is getting at. God building Himself into the core of our being.

      God had perfection twice- Adam and Lucifer. But perfection apart from God is not reliable- both fell. But when God becomes our life and constitution, when we know Him as Father, another kind of perfection is produced- Matthew 5:48- “you shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Because we have God’s perfect life, we meet His perfect standard.


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