The Dangers of Legalism and Liberalism
Read Ecclesiastes 7:15-23
"Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise, why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool."
At first glance, it seems as if Solomon, in all his wisdom, has run off his theological rails. His warnings against excessive wealth and poverty, and power and pleasure, are easy to understand. However, this statement seems to contradict what the rest of the Bible is stating. How can one be excessively righteous when that is the goal and purpose for which we strive in Christ?
However, the focus of Solomon in this passage is not upon obtaining the righteousness of Christ but rather the self-righteousness that comes through legalistic rules and regulations. To be overly righteous is to fool ourselves into thinking that we can obtain God's righteousness by following external rules. Thus, the writer is pointing out the dangers of legalism. Legalism reduces the Christian faith to a set of rules. In the end, we do not obtain true righteousness. Instead, it only brings pride and attitudes of superiority that become hypercritical of others.
Conversely, we are not to be overly wicked. Again, the writer here is not advocating "a little sin." Instead, he encourages us to avoid using God's grace as an excuse for indulging in sin. We are not to use the grace of Christ as justification for our sinful practices. Thus, he warns against liberalism that allows for and promotes sinful behavior so that it does not matter how we live, for God accepts us for who we are and what we do.
Instead of falling prey to legalism or liberalism, we are to be governed by the fear of God, which is the foundation for all wisdom (vs 18). The fear of the Lord provides perspectives, for it reminds us that we can never measure up to God's standard through legalistic adherence to rules and rituals. Conversely, it also teaches us that God never overlooks sin and all sin is an insult to God. Legalism undermines grace, for it distorts it into something that can be earned. Liberalism undermines grace by using grace to justify sin. Both attitudes ultimately lead to a rejection of God's salvation and the necessity of accepting Christ's death on the cross. When Christ died on the cross, he demonstrated the severity of sin. Sin is a serious affront to God's character. As a result, his justice demands justice, a justice that leads to the eternal and severe judgment of God. Nevertheless, the cross also points us to the wonder of his grace. Because of God's grace, Christ became our substitute, dying on the cross to pay the penalty of our sin so that we might be free from the severity of God's wrath.
Consequently, Solomon's point in verse 18 is that we are to navigate between the two by avoiding the extremes. While rules and rituals remind us of the importance of obedience, so also the awareness of our sin reminds us of our need for God's grace. The one who fears God is the one who walks a balanced life, recognizing our tendency towards sin and thus keeping it in check, also acknowledging that the substitute for true righteousness is self-righteousness. Do we justify sin by using God's love as an excuse? Do we become legalistic, seeking to obtain righteousness through rules and external acts? Both are a violation of grace and to be avoided.