Tag Archives: sin

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?

The Dark Side: Thoughts on the Existence of Morality

One of the oddities of the human animal is his sense of morality.  Right and wrong.  Moral compass.  Conscience.  Call it what you want, a sense of morality spans the breadth of humanity.  Over the past few centuries a number of philosophers have attempted to deny or question the existence of this moral sense.  I’ve decided to collect some thoughts (mostly distilled from a number of writers) on the matter.

1. Why does it bother me when someone wrongs me?  I can argue that there is no morality innate within humanity, but as soon as someone harms my wife, loots my home, or puts me out of work I feel that I have been wronged.  Simply put, if there is no right or wrong, why do I get offended when someone hits my vehicle with a shopping cart while I’m in the store and they don’t even bother leaving a note?

2. Why do I not do whatever I want when nobody is watching?  Think of a time in your life when you have done something good (or not done something bad) when no one was looking.  Maybe you found a wallet full of cash and sought out the owner to see that it was returned.  Why did you do that?  There were no public consequences that demanded that you return the wallet.  You did it because something told you that it was right.  Why?

3.  Why do I find certain things inherently evil?  9/11, the holocaust, human trafficking, racism, etc.  Why do these ideas conjure thoughts of anger and a desire that the perpetrators be punished?  Why does it seem unfair that Hitler was able to kill 10-11 million in the holocaust, but died quietly from a cyanide capsule in his teeth?  Why do our hearts cry out for justice beyond the grave for people like that?

4. Why do I experience guilt?  Do you remember when you told your first lie, cheated on your first test, or mistreated your parents?  Do you remember how it made you feel?  Why does it bother you when someone catches you in a lie?  Why do we even tell lies to begin with?  There seems, to me, to be no good biological reason for such a feeling, especially as it often contradicts what would naturally be in our best interests.

5. Why do I make moral judgments about seemingly minor issues?  Your Christian neighbor goes to church and dresses nice, but you can hear him yelling at his kids at night.  We see this and call him a hypocrite.  Your friend cheats on his spouse.  We see this and judge him as a cheater.  Interestingly enough, we avoid judging ourselves by the same standard.  When we play nice to the boss and then waste time on the clock, we don’t see ourselves as hypocrites.  We tell ourselves that we put in enough time this week, so a little personal time is okay.  When we cheat on our taxes, we don’t see ourselves as cheaters.  We tell ourselves that the government has plenty of money and that we deserve our hard-earned cash.

6. Why do I stand in the way of human progress for the sake of morality?  In other words, philosophers and intellectuals tell us that the human animal is all about survival of the fittest.  Anything that does not serve to advance our standing in the community, our personal possessions, our intellects, etc. does not make sense.  In fact, to stand in the way of such progress makes no sense according to this philosophical model.  Here’s where the rubber meets the road: why bother saving the whales (by the way…I’m not saying that this is wrong, I’m using it for the sake of argument)?  If everything is about survival of the fittest, then why not dominate the weaker species?  Why should the “1%” not dominate the “99%”?  If everything is about human progress, isn’t it right for the strong to take advantage of the weak?  Let’s take this a different direction.  Why do I do things that impede my own progress?  Why do I return the wallet when I need the cash?  Why do I give to feed the poor?  These actions only impede my progress and make no sense in a paradigm without morals.

I don’t think I can definitively prove spiritual concepts through rational means, but I would hope to demonstrate that my belief in a moral nature of man at least has some ground in the shared human experience.  As one great theologian of the last century put it, I cannot build anyone a bridge from unbelief to belief, but I can at least lay out the pylons for the bridge.  In my mind, the moral nature of man is one of such pylons.  Why is it so fantastical to imagine that the reason why we have this moral compass is that we were created by a God who has a moral law and that He implanted that law in our hearts?  Why is it absurd to think that the reason why we see so much wrong with the world is that humanity has rebelled against God, shaken their fist at their Creator, and have sought to obscure His moral law?  In my mind, these explanations make for more sense than the humanistic model, which gives me no compelling reason for human morality.

Blind Spots

What Sounds Smart Today May Look Stupid Tomorrow

This morning my pastor quoted Matthew Henry’s commentary on James 2:1-4, where the great Christian writer stated as follows:

But we must be careful not to apply what is here said to the common assemblies for worship; for in these certainly there may be appointed different places of persons according to their rank and circumstances, without sin.

Interestingly enough, the passage is speaking to exactly that same issue, but Henry is blinded by the culture of his day and perceives the established tradition to be acceptable.  Its easy to throw stones at Matthew Henry, but I realized that I need to take a moment to look at myself.  If a guy like Matthew Henry can study his Bible and invest his life in Christian service and still miss the mark in his life, I’m certain I’ve got some blind spots that I need to be on the lookout for.  This morning I took a few minutes to think of some ways to identify blind spots in my life.

  1. Pray for wisdom from God to recognize where I’m not living as I should.
  2. Listen to the Word of God and apply its light to all traditions, practices, and applications.  Nothing is off limits.
  3. Listen to critiques of Christianity by unbelievers.
  4. Listen to critiques of my Christian subculture by those who are not part of it.
  5. Listen to critiques of individual of other generations.
  6. Seek insight from Christian brothers I rub shoulders with.
  7. Repeat.
If you have any more ideas, please feel free to share!