Tag Archive: legalism


Two Kinds of Legalists

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Legalists come in all sorts of flavours, but the common thread is that they look at the Bible as primarily a set of rules.

There are two kinds of legalists. Some try to justify themselves by obedience to the rules (religious legalists). There’s a lot of these in churches.

Others seek to justify themselves by rejecting the rules as too hard or modifying/interpreting to a more comfortable fit (liberal legalists). But both display a misunderstanding of grace, because both are still trying to justify themselves.

You can tell either type by the way they view those who don’t measure up. Religious legalists will be judgemental towards those who don’t follow the rules closely enough.

Liberal legalists, on the other hand, will be judgemental towards those they think are bigoted and intolerant.

Both consider themselves better than the people they judge, and they justify themselves by their own actions and enlightened attitudes.

The person who understands grace does not deny or change the rules. They acknowledge the claim the rules make on their lives; they don’t try to change the them to fit, but embrace their failure and trust in Jesus as their justifier. Remember the tax collector? “God, be merciful to me a sinner”. And he went home justified.

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Can We Live As We Want?

Many people think that because Jesus paid for our sins, we can relax and just live as we please. He’s a forgiving God, right?

Not so fast.

Even a casual reading of the Bible will tell us that God cares, and cares very much, about how we live. Christ’s death puts us in right standing with God, but if we have any concept of what it cost God to pay our debt, we would hardly live to further indulge that which separated us from Him in the first place.

In Galatians, Paul lays it out pretty plain: God’s moral law delineates simple, unselfish living: love God, and love your neighbour as yourself. But when we try to do this, we often fail; there is sort of a moral gravity that pulls us towards selfish thoughts and actions, and even though we know better, we break this law. Our inability shows us our need for an intervention.

Our failure to be perfectly moral serves now as our “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ”; it is only by knowledge of our moral imperfection that we realize our need of God’s grace.

The gospel tells us we don’t try to earn our way into God’s good books by keeping the rules but by admitting our need. We have to trust Him and His provision. And if we hope for forgiveness we must bear in mind that codes and creeds don’t forgive, but persons: and we are dealing with a real Person, not just a religion. And that relation will change us from the inside out.

Anyone who thinks they can now live without care for their own behaviour simply shows they neither understand nor appreciate the Grace that is offered them; it’s only the heart that weeps for its own spiritual poverty that stands ready to accept forgiveness.

God will always care very much about how we live. If we are really His, our lives will reflect it, dead to our old selfish ways and following Him not because we’re being forced to, but out of humble gratitude for the work done on our behalf.

Trying or Trusting

Ps. 119:32 “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free”

We can’t be free, we can’t rest until we are thinking more of Him than we are of ourselves. I think this is what the Bible means when it says to take up your cross or to mortify your flesh. It’s a radical re-ordering of your relationship to God.

We are not trying to “turn over a new leaf”, to pull ourselves up by moral effort – it’s telling us we died and have entered new life. It’s telling us to live not in the old way, but in the new, wonderful fact of our life in Him. In that life, we are thinking more of Jesus than we are about ourselves. It’s a life of worship.

We can’t obey or please God, really, without this work in our hearts – obedience out of a heart that is changed, that rests in a work already done.

Pursuing God

I think the way to approach God isn’t so much by consciously denying ourselves, but by actively pursuing Him.  It’s an important distinction.
A purely negative action leaves a void, and keeps us focused on what we are depriving ourselves of. It’s easy to get a martyr complex and think about how “spiritual” we are being while our pride and self-centred ness remain intact.
But how if we make Christ our goal, we pursue Him and place the knowledge of Him as our supreme good?  That which is solid, eternal, and unchanging becomes the centre; lesser, temporal  things, good in themselves, remain as blessings, and the bad things are simply pushed out of our lives as hindrances.
This is the difference , by the way, between discipline and legalism. The former focuses on the goal, the latter on self and what it’s missing. Discipline leads to increased joy and satisfaction, legalism to pride and joyless religion.
I’ll take the joy.

Thoughts on relationship

Ps. 119:101

I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word.

Legalism comes from fear of punishment, and is the basis of code-based religion: some times it even masquerades as Christianity. And fear is selfish, because we are worried about what bad thing might happen to us.

Discipline, however, is goal-centred and looks outward. In this scripture the writer is so in love with God that he doesn’t want anything to get in the way. He’s not so much concerned about himself, but just wants more of the source of life. It’s a positive (I do this and achieve a goal) rather than a negative (I must do this or else).

Any relationship worth having must have a certain amount of humility in it. And, for the purposes of definition, I’ll describe humility as a looking outside oneself, a love of the other. When you’re in love, you’re so preoccupied with the Lover that (at least in one sense) what you might get out of the deal is secondary.  Love expressed to the beloved is what’s behind your actions.

And this is what drives Christ’s love. It was for the love of His Bride He went to the cross – He was so excited at the concept of spending eternity with every one of us that He allowed Himself to be beaten, flogged, and crucified. We were His goal.

What a motivation for our own service to God! When we really think of all He did, can’t we take our minds off our own selfish agendas and just be captivated by Him, shaping our lives around the single goal of knowing Him more?

Is He a little religious compartment of our lives or Lord and Lover? Read Matthew 7:23 – He doesn’t so much ask us if we keep rules (remember it was the religious people who engineered His crucifixion) but whether we know Him. Our own actions should arise out of relationship with a real, living God rather than just being religious rules keepers. The ironic thing is that when we just focus on Him, our lives tend to keep all the rules and then some, but for the right reasons: from love, and not selfish fear.

Feeling Judged

Nobody likes to feel judged. We get defensive when someone points out we’re less than perfect: who do they think they are, anyways? One of the reasons moral law is rejected, and one of the reasons Christians are accused of being “legalistic” is because by highlighting God’s law, peoples’ lives are shown to be defective.

But there’s another component: the fact that we look at ourselves at all. The self-centred life is consumed with itself, its needs, wants and agendas, and especially How It Compares To Others.

The Law is the ultimate yardstick. It shows us that we are no big deal, and worse, that we are failures. The moral law is a mirror that isn’t at all flattering, and (let’s be honest) we resent it being pointed out. But it’s  only a teacher. By highlighting our less-than-stellar performance, it points us in the end not to ourselves, but to relationship for mercy and acceptance.

A fundamental characteristic of successful relationships is that we focus on the other, rather than ourselves. The Law does not flatter us: no worries. We’re not supposed to be concentrating on that anyways, save as a guidepost to something better. And that is exactly what  a relationship with Jesus is all about. We are called out of selfishness, called out of concern with ourselves and our shortcomings (though it is a veil we must pass through to realize the necessity of this new life. To bring us to the point of dismay over our own attempts at  goodness, the law is a necessary teacher), to relationship; to the heart of Love. By the Law we see  our shortcomings; but grace tells us to look not to our own goodness, but to Jesus as the basis of our relating to God.

And another thing: when we are thus occupied, we  care less what others think of us, not because we feel superior or inferior (it’s a non-issue) but because we care more for what God thinks of us than what the rest of the world does. This is a genuine freedom.

As we draw near to God, we either feel small and dirty next to His holiness, or we don’t think of ourselves at all. As C.S. Lewis points out, the latter option is preferable. Besides, how can we love perfectly when we are busy thinking about ourselves? By being called  into vulnerability and relationship, we find our ultimate healing.

It’s like fussing and fretting over our reflection when our date is at the door, waiting for us. But He sees us, not by the reflection in the mirror – however true it is to life – but in the light of His love; because He sees what He made us to be.