I could easily blame the Catholic college I attended between 1973 and 1977, as well as my three months at the Charismatic Bible College I attended in 1985, for my predisposition toward legalism. If I did so, most people would respond sympathetically. Convinced that my behavior stems inevitably from such a background, those sympathizers do little to correct my error.
Those who do challenge me generally represent the opposite end of the spectrum, insisting that grace means a complete freedom from regulation. If Jesus really paid the full penalty for sin, they reason, we have liberty to behave as we please. I well remember a former boyfriend (who was more interested in momentary pleasures than in honoring the Lord) using the words, “It’s alright, Baby…Jesus always forgives us.”
No, it wasn’t “alright.”
To be honest, neither legalism nor lawlessness have any place in my life. The abuse of grace should be obvious, but evidently it no longer is. Far too many evangelicals these days seem to equate grace with license. I’ve written numerous times about that problem in my former blog, and I fully expect to write about it here in the future. But, even though the perversion of grace dominates the 21st Century church, we must not ignore the other extreme, which dishonors God just as much. Today, therefore, I prefer to write about my struggle with the sin of legalism.
Obedience to the Lord based on His revealed will in Scripture honors Him. In decrying legalism, let’s first establish that He demands our grateful obedience, not wanting us to remain in the very sin that caused Him to die on the cross. But I have often distorted obedience into self-righteousness. In that perverted state, I’ve subtly deceived myself into thinking that my good behavior actually maintained my salvation. My sins upset me, but only because I believed they would eventually cause God to blot my name out of the Book of Life.
Legalism gave me a sense of control…but only when I “played by the rules.” As long as I performed appropriately, I felt like I managed my salvation well. Perhaps I even felt like I managed God well. (What a gruesome concept!) Legalism exalted me when my obedience, motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, should have exalted the Lord Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, the book of Galatians addresses the sin of legalism. In the First Century, a group of false teachers known as Judaizers maintained that Gentles who converted to Christianity needed to obey the Law of Moses. These teachers ignored the fact that Christ’s blood made full atonement for sin, insisting that human works were necessary in keeping salvation. This teaching grieved the apostle Paul, who had founded the church in Galatia by preaching the Gospel of grace.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? ~~Galatians 3:1-6 (ESV)
Legalism makes a mockery of Christ’s death on the cross by demonstrating that human effort must supplement it. What a terrible affront to God! I cringe when I remember all the times I’ve tried to hinge my salvation to my supposed obedience rather than resting in the Lord’s finished work.
I could blame the exacting nuns who served as some of my college professors and the 32 rules of the Bible College in Wales. But those influences, although incredibly strong, merely nurtured the self-righteous attitudes that I hadn’t fully renounced in my own heart. I was the real problem. Blaming external factors looks good from a psychological standpoint, but the Lord would have me accept responsibility by confessing my sin of self-righteousness and then trusting in His shed blood to clothe me in His true righteousness. Then He gets all the glory!