Category Archives: Legalism

The Graceless Christian

The legalist lives a graceless existence that opens himself up to a crash-and-burn catastrophic spiritual self-destruction.

This realization hit me like a ton of bricks one morning while I was on the way to work and reflecting on another story of someone who seemed to have their life together who had just walked away from the faith in a blaze of glory. I was listening to my audio Bible, and I got to the passage where Jesus talks about those who aren’t sick and don’t need a doctor (Luke 5:31). One thing that has always bugged me about that passage suddenly became much clearer to me. It always bothered me that Jesus said that there were people who “didn’t need” a doctor. But, come on, Jesus surely knew that *we all* need a doctor! We’re all sick! Yeah, of course Jesus got that. So what was he getting at? What Jesus is expressing here is that those of us who avoid looking clearly at our own sin can quickly become pathagnostic; we can quickly fail to accurately diagnose sickness in ourselves and others. We become convinced that we’re healthy and that other people are truly sick. Spiritual health quickly becomes a world upside down.

Enter Jesus. In this situation, we quickly stiffarm him because we think we don’t need him. And we don’t need him because we’ve created a world in which he isn’t needed. The dying man kicks the doc off the front porch and sends him packing to the hospital. And this is what I mean by living a “graceless” existence.

Sure, the legalist needed grace to get him saved. But this is a whole different thing for him. The Christian life, to him, is a life of health guaranteed by his own good behavior. This good behavior is a mix of avoiding clear biblical sins and avoiding cultural taboos, which are supposed to keep him from violating the big biblical sins. In the flesh, the legalist is able to live a moral, upright, and healthy life. He really and truly doesn’t need a doctor in order to live a moral life. And it goes on like this month-to-month and year-to-year. The legalist lives a miserable and graceless existence apart from the healing hands of the Great Physician.

Into this void of grace creeps a sin which stricture and traditions can’t beat. And where sin abounds and there is no grace to abound even more, the graceless person is slowly overcome. This is the life of the legalist. Sin comes alive and she dies. She has no grace to fight sin because every day of her life has been a rejection of grace in the place of moral scaffolding. Every week has begun with the premise that being a good person is now just a matter of following the rules.

This graceless life can quickly end in a high speed wipeout of unrestrained sin because there is no room for the grace of God in a person’s life. Finding grace puts a believer on his or her feet. The first steps toward accepting grace are hard for the legalist’s heart. Here’s what the first steps looked like for me:

Let God show you that you’re more like the guy in the hospital than you’d like to admit. The sin that threatens to destroy you can be a means to grace if it brings an end to your graceless existence. When you think you’re messed up, let the scalpel expose more of your sinfulness.

Let the healing patient point you to the Doctor. When you think you’re healthy, you tend to see the sick as inferior. Once you begin to see your sickness, you’ll start finding true fellowship with those who are experiencing the gracious healing hand of Jesus. You’ll see grace up close and personal in the lives of other believers. Until you see the church as something that you need instead of something that needs you, you’ll never find the healing that God’s grace brings because you’ll always soar above the sickness.

Let grace train your heart to obey (Titus 2:11-13). Your behavioral medical kit is no good. Run to God’s grace for the ability to obey and for forgiveness when you don’t. As grace becomes your daily soul-nourishment, it will sustain you where your legalistic strictures did not. The growing cancerous sins are a massive threat to the paltry remedies of legalism. The scarily simple gift of God’s sustaining grace is your one hope for fidelity and obedience to God in this life in the face of besetting sins.

Legalism Part 4: My Life on Legalism

John Bunyan

Legalism seems to be the smallest of sins, but it is really one of the biggest.  The bigness of this sin shows up in a lot of ways.  The first place that legalism wreaks havoc is in our own souls.  I remember this distinctly.  It started out well.

I wanted to be a good kid.  It started out as a simple desire to follow God’s Word.  I would take battle to the Enemy like Pilgrim in Bunyan’s dream.  But little did I know that the Enemy was more subversive in his tactics than I had imagined.  The Devil doesn’t like all out war with clean battle lines and trenches.  No, he prefers the guerilla tactics of hit-and-run jujitsu combat.  He takes even our best aspirations and uses them to fight us.

I wanted to keep the rules.  Not just the Bible now.  My focus began to shift beyond Scripture to all the rules of the family, church, community, etc.  I had to fulfill everything.

I wanted God to like me.  Perhaps this thought came about because I didn’t think there was much of me to like.  I sucked at sports.  I studied hard, but I’ve never been brilliant.  I’ve always struggled with aspects of dyslexia, inverting letters or thinking ahead of myself as I speak.  I was socially awkward.  But I thought if I could learn more about God and pray and read my Bible, maybe at least God would like me.  Even if no one else did.

I wanted to be the best.  Now my legalism turned outward.  It was not just good enough to be good, I had to be gooder!  I couldn’t just read books, I had to read more books than anyone else I knew.  I had to be the best I could be spiritually.  Sure, sometimes I couldn’t find chapter and verse for the things I did, but I was always sure to tell people that I was taking the wisest or safest route on the issue at hand.  And to me, taking the less-wise and less-safe route was not the best.  Only the best would work for me.

I wanted to escape the cycle.  Now my legalism became heavy.  As I grew up and began to struggle with real sins and lusts and such, my legalism wasn’t enough to curb sin anymore.  Now the enemy was attacking from every angle.  My foundation for the past years had been my legalism and what a shoddy defense it was now!  The best I could do was to console myself between attacks of the glories of my own righteousness.  I would make fresh commitments to God.  I would read more books.  I read my Bible lots and lots.  But then the new round of temptations would come and I would be devastated.  I was angry with myself.  I wished God would just kill me.  I thought of suicide.  Despair and darkness would set in.  I would cry out for help and God would love me and help me.  And then I’d go back to my fortress of legalism.

Legalism hurts.  It cuts to the deepest part of the soul.  The promise of legalism is a life above the fray.  A life of purity and free from sin.  It is the life that is safely positioned far from the cliff of temptation.  It is the tiptoeing conscience, sneaking away from the big dangers of the spiritual walk.  But the promise of legalism is empty.  Believe me.  Legalism is a cliff unto its own self.  Legalism tiptoes around the sleeping giants of temptation and into the middle of a massive minefield.  The purity and higher life are merely a façade – a mask you have to wear to make people think you’re really something you aren’t.  But that’s just what legalism does to you.  What about what it does to others?

Legalism Part 3: The First Legalist

Red Apple. Used white paper behind apple and a...

See also Part 1 and Part 2

As I pondered the apple, it surprised me to think that legalism is something that finds its roots in the very beginning of the Bible.  Our first mother was also the first legalist!  You see, the legalist thinks they’re safe from doing bad things because they follow the strictest rules possible.  They’ve got the guardrails constructed to keep themselves from going off the road.

You see, Eve did just that.  Remember when the snake started talking to her about eating the fruit from the tree?  The snake questioned whether or not God really said they couldn’t eat from the tree.  Eve responded that they shouldn’t eat from the tree and that they couldn’t even touch it.  But this part about touching it wasn’t recorded in what God said to the couple.  Nope.  Eve had added this guardrail rule to keep her from violating God’s rule.  Somewhere along the line it became elevated to the same level as God’s law.  Imagine little Eve farming in the garden and always cutting a careful path as far from the tree as possible.  Whenever Adam would go near the tree to plant some flowers she would remind him, “Don’t get that close!”  But now Eve was the one standing there by the tree talking with Satan about not even touching the fruit or the tree.  It makes me wonder if maybe after Eve finished telling him that the fruit was not to be touched, he may have touched it himself or just pushed Eve into it.  I imagine the snake chuckling and saying, “See, you can touch it.  I wonder what else God has lied about?”  Far from protecting her, Eve’s guardrail only opened the door to sin.  It was like thin plastic in the face of a flame.  The broken image of God was not able to be prevented by a little legalism, what makes us think that it will be restored by a little legalism?

Eve was the first of our family to be a legalist, but she wouldn’t be the last.  Throughout Scripture we have examples of people who practiced the methods of Eve.  For example, I always find it interesting that when God came to earth, He didn’t spend a whole lot of time dealing with those who went around doing what would seem to be the worst sins of the race.  He actually spent most of His time addressing those who practiced the methods of Eve: making up rules to keep them from breaking God’s rules.  Why not address those who broke God’s rules instead of those who were trying to keep them?  Perhaps Jesus saw something here that we miss.  Perhaps Jesus knew that it is as much a sin to prohibit what God permits as to permit what God prohibits.  The Pharisees were going around promoting their prohibitions on everybody.  They were setting up a standard of righteousness that was choking out everyone around them.  You see…legalism is not just a sin against ones’ self.  I think this is why Jesus went after the Pharisees so hard.  Legalism has disastrous effects on the whole community.

Legalism Part 2: The Broad Appeal of Legalism

Toyota Prius

(To see Part 1, click here)

But why is legalism appealing?  We absolutely detest it in other people and especially when the finger is pointed at ourselves.  I think it is the one sin that the most righteous to the most wicked person in society would condemn in others but would be least likely to see that they commit it themselves.  But if we hate it in others, how can we live with ourselves?  Why then does legalism turn people on?  I thought that there may be a couple reasons.  Perhaps it has something to do with enjoying absolutes…black and white.  There certainly is something reassuring in knowing that there are no questions and only answers.  But the Bible doesn’t always work that way.  It seems to give us the answers to the key issues of life and leaves other things for us as individuals to work out (Rom 14).  God actually gives us the space to apply the Gospel in our contexts.  But the legalist hates this kind of thought.  It seems downright postmodern to believe that something could be right for one person and wrong for another; however, that’s exactly what the Bible indicates (Rom 14:22-23).  But there seems to be another reason why legalism is so appealing.   I think this is tied with the other appeal of knowing all the answers.  It is that sense of awesome spiritual superiority that you get when you have all the answers.  Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.  You’ve seen it in yourself and others.

It’s the parent whose kids all turned out right.

It’s the guy in prison who stole, but at least he didn’t commit child abuse like that other inmate.

It’s the hipster in the Prius.

It’s the preacher with the right Bible version.

It’s the cop who is always catching everyone else doing wrong.

It’s the vegan to that poser’s vegetarian.

It’s the guy who owns his own home.

It’s the kid who is the teacher’s pet because she always keeps the rules while the teacher is looking.

It’s the guy who wishes he could say “I told you so” a million times when people don’t follow his procedures.

It’s the overweight guy who smirks at the alcoholic.

It’s the protester on the street that says that another person or company did something wrong.

It’s the intellectual who always has the deepest insights on all things political and religious.

It’s the lady with a college diploma to that guy’s GED.

It’s the voter who is so thankful for the good sense not to vote like the person with that bumper sticker.

It’s the guy who lusts after women and not men.

It’s the person who looks at the bum on the street and assumes things about their poor choices.

It’s the family who always know what holidays to celebrate and how.

It’s the person who wears the nice clothes.

It’s the guy who is in touch and connected in his culture (whether high culture or pop culture).

It’s the angry motorist on the highway who wishes everyone could drive as well as he does.

Now I don’t suppose that all of these people have to become legalistic and superior about the way they do things.  But based on my experience, when you find yourself in one of these spots it’s really easy to start smiling and thinking to yourself about how much better you are.  Been there.  Done that.

As I continued to think about the appeal of legalism, I shuffled by one of the teachers offices and somehow the archaic image of the teacher’s apple popped into my head – an image which took a couple of odd twists and turns as it usually does in my bizarre little mind.  Somehow I ended up thinking of an apple or probably some other really cool fruit dangling from a mist-covered tree in a garden some years ago.  Perhaps the roots of legalism’s grip on me go even deeper.  Maybe they go back to my parents…my first parents.

Legalism Part 1: Am I the Only Person Who Deals Who Deals With It?

Martin Luther, author of the text of Christ la...

One day I was walking to class wondering why I was such an arrogant legalist – an annoying little jerk who liked to follow the strictest set of rules and liked to point fingers at everyone who broke them.  Never mind the fact that I had sins of my own locked up deep inside…no, I kept the list as far as everyone else knew.  But that was the life that I could remember for, well, as long as I could remember.

As I tripped on the bottom stair and continued up the sidewalk ahead hoping no one would notice (peoples’ opinions mattered, after all), I started wondering if there were others who had been hemmed in with similar struggles their whole lives.  Well, of course there were!  I could name a dozen or two more legalistic than myself…oh wait.  That was a rather legalistic thought, wasn’t it?  That’s how sneaky legalism is.  When you think you’re beating it, you think you can tell by comparing your legalism to other peoples’ legalism.

Pushing this thought aside, I started thinking a little more down another mental path: are there people who don’t struggle with legalism?  Are there people who don’t have the spiritual superiority complex?  You know, people who just enjoy their relationship with God and love other people like crazy?  I thought of a couple people that I really looked up to and wished I could be like them.  How epic it would be just to have a spirituality like theirs!  Frustrated, I kicked the bottom of the door frame as I pushed it open and moved from the atrium into the classroom hall.

But even these people surely plagued by some of my same problems.  Why is it that people like law and not grace?  Why do people, like me, like rules and religion rather than the righteousness of Christ?  Why does my heart pile up standards like garbage at a landfill, trying to make a makeshift Babel and climb to God?  It is almost like I start running to works unless God, by His grace, points me back to the cross.  Yes, I know the Gospel is far lighter than my set of rules and self-elevating standards, but I keep running back to them.   Why?  Why?  WHY???  Doesn’t Galatians (4:21) speak about people who desire to place themselves under the law?  Maybe that was the key.  I remembered something a pastor once quoted from Martin Luther: “Religion is the default mode of the human heart”…or something like that.  So maybe this is something endemic of the whole of humanity.  Maybe we’re all in on this.