I appreciate the sentiments in this article, and I agree that legalism is a problem for many. To be a legalist, though, is not to affirm the moral truth of the Law. Legalism is not the careful keeping of God’s Law. What legalism is, is to rely upon the Law a means to salvation. The problem with this article is that Rohr treats the Law as the problem, rather than sin (breaking the Law) as the problem. His concern over legalism leads him to deny the proper place of the Law. Rohr says that the Law is only “. . . to get you seriously engaged with the need for grace and mercy; they were never an end in themselves (read Romans 7:7ff).” This is missing the point of the Law.
First off, Rohr creates a straw man argument in saying that “they (the Law’s rules and regulations) were never an end in themselves.” The Bible never says the Law is an end to itself (Psalm 19:7; 37:31; 40:8 and many other places); rather, one important purpose of the Law is to reflect the holiness of God, and how His people may please Him.
Secondly, Rohr seems to want to cut off any use of the Law as a way to know the character of God. He seems to limit the purpose of the Law to “getting us seriously engaged,” and not as a means to keeping us seriously engaged. But the moral character of God did not change at the cross, and the cross does not take away the moral requirements of the Law. The Law cannot (because of our weakness) save; but the saved seek to grow in sanctification, which is at the least, to keep His Law.
Rohr’s first two Bible passages do not at all say what he says they do:
Rohr says that Paul said this: “ ‘Cursed be the law,’ Paul even says (Galatians 3:13)”
But Paul really said this:
“13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’”— Galatians 3:13 (ESV)
Failure to keep and obey the Law brings a curse, but that curse is not the Law itself. Paul never uses this language to describe the Law. Rather, reliance upon the Law brings a curse. This is an important distinction, because Rohr’s approach denies the Law its rightful place as a rule of life for the Christian, and sure and true guidance for the Christian who desires to please God (John 14:15, 21, 15:10).
The curse comes not because of anything at fault wi-th the Law, but with us. That is why Christ became a curse for us. That’s grace.
Rohr: “But it seems Christianity has paid little heed to Paul’s revolutionary message, or even to Jesus who says six times in a row, ‘The law says, but I say!’(Matthew 5:21-45).”
What Jesus said: “You have heard” (Matthew 5, verses 21, 27, 33, 38, 43) and “it was also said” (Matthew 5:31). Jesus was NOT saying what Rohr is claiming. Jesus is not doing away with the Law, nor is He saying that He is somehow setting it aside; actually, quite the opposite (see Matthew 5:17 and below)
Jesus is not quoting the Law in these sayings. Jesus is quoting the Rabbinical interpretation of the Law. This is evident because, when Jesus quotes Scripture, He says, “It is written . . .” (Matthew 4:4, 6, & 10). Here He does not. He says, “You have heard.” This is a reference to the oral tradition of the Rabbis. That this is a Rabbinical interpretation is also evident from the last “you have heard,” in Matthew 5:43:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”
This is not a statement of Old Testament Law. It is a Rabbinical commentary.
Furthermore, Jesus makes it clear that the Law is not abolished, by saying, “17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Matthew 5:17 (ESV)
Fulfilment and abolishment are two entirely different things. What Jesus says is that the Law will not pass away until it is kept perfectly, that is, fulfilled, and it was done so in Christ. In fact, Christ’s “you have heard” statements reaffirm the deep and spiritual nature of the Law, not merely the outward appearance.
Legalism is a real problem, and it lays at the theological foundations of Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholicism, and every man-made religion. It is man striving to reach God.
But the cure for legalism is not antinomianism (lawlessness), but Grace. Grace is what God applies to us when we are brought to the end of our abilities by the Law. It must be kept in mind that the Law was good when I could not keep it; now, in Christ, who kept it for me, the Law is still good.
I personally believe that legalism among professed Christians is much less a problem than antinomianism, because there appears to be so little difference between Christians and non-Christians morally in our present age. If the Law, properly used as a means to show our need for Grace, but also as a perfect rule of life lived with the power of the Holy Spirit, was better taught today, the distinction between believer and unbeliever would be clearer.