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.