Legalism is oft-used word and an oft-followed philosophy (although many do not realize they are trapped in its snare). So what is legalism, anyway?
In its more explicit application, legalism refers to the Law of Moses in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and the belief that by following the Law one can be justified before God (by justified, think “made right” or “saved”). This kind of explicit legalism isn’t the legalism that typically entangles us most of the time, because it’s so easy to spot (and because it is so clearly obliterated by Scripture – see entire book of Galatians). I don’t find many people who are trusting in the Law of Moses for their justification/salvation.
But the principle behind this “Old Testament” legalism still plagues us. What, exactly, accomplishes justification according to legalism? Following the Law. And what is following the Law? An action which I do by my own effort. The legalism of our day has the same ultimate driving force behind it as explicit legalism – the belief that my merit before God comes from me. I trust in myself. I justify myself. We say in our minds, Not me. But our practice of running from God after spiritual failures and yet sprinting toward him proudly after spiritual successes says, Yes, you. Legalism at its core is justification by self-effort. In common usage today, Christians give the word “religion” the same definition.
Jesus gave a truly profound warning against this idea that comes so naturally to us all (John 5:45). Addressing a group of Jews (explicit legalists), he said, “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope.” Do you have ears to hear what he is saying? There is no need to accuse or condemn those who trust in the Law, because the Law will do that for itself. The very standard in which the Jews were trusting for deliverance would become the standard that would sentence them. What does that mean for you today? That if you set your hope on your own behavioral merits before God, your own behavioral shortcomings will stand to condemn you before God. Belief in self-propelled reward leads to the reality of self-wrought destruction. Trust in your own good, and your own bad will sentence you. Your penultimate success will not prevent your ultimate failure. Your good will not outweigh your bad – not when the standard is perfection. Do you have ears to hear these things?
What is the solution, then? The estate of humanity looks pretty bleak at this point. Are we helplessly and hopelessly condemned forever? By no means!
By trusting in a substitute, we can be made right with God. The light of Jesus Christ breaks into our darkness, and by faith in him we apprehend a right relationship with God. He prevents our failure. His good outweighs our bad. His merits overcome our shortcomings. His reward becomes ours. The question is not whether we deserve reward from God; that question has been already answered with a resounding no. What we deserve is punishment, because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But forgiveness and life are offered to us anyway, with the affection of God the Father as the motivator. It’s grace, when you least expect to find it. It’s freedom, when you thought you already had it. Read John 3:16 with new eyes. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
But, sadly, we don’t naturally like grace, do we? When we’re rewarded, we want the credit. We don’t want to depend on anyone or anything else for our lot in life, this one or the next. The legalist from within emerges, threatening to stomp out the hope of the gospel of grace. So the question you must ask yourself becomes, Can I bear to live in the light of a love I did not earn?
If you can, you will live a very long time, indeed. Forever. And this will be your song:
In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace!
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my all in all,
Here in the love of Christ I stand!
Sometimes you just know God is talking right to ya. Here’s an excerpt from Chuck Swindoll’s famous title, “The Grace Awakening“:
This chapter is dedicated to all who are in ministry…I want to ask crucial questions. Is what you’re doing the work of your own flesh energized by your own strength? Are you relying on your charisma to pull it off? Do you often have a hidden agenda? How about your motive? Is the enhancement of your image of major importance to you, or can you honestly say that your work is directed and empowered by the Spirit of God? Is yours a grace-awakening ministry?…
‘This is the word of the Lord saying, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord of hosts.’ (Zechariah 4:6)
“Might” and “power” intrigue me. They are words that describe human effort, another way of saying the energy of the flesh. They ring a familiar bell in the minds of all ministers, for every one of us has been guilty of doing the work of God in the energy of the flesh. Yet human wisdom and fleshly energy alone will fail. God’s best work is not going to be done by human might or by fleshly power…The work of the flesh will amount to zilch in light of eternity. The glory will belong to the person who made it happen, and the rewards stop there too…
A ministry built by the energy of the flesh looks just like a ministry built by the energy of the Spirit. Externally, I warn you, it looks the same. But internally, spiritually, down deep in the level of motive, you know in your heart God didn’t do it; you did it!
Let me put it to you straight. Restrain yourself from might and power if you are a minister. Deliberately give the Spirit time and room. Consciously hold yourself back from clever ingenuity and reliance on your own charisma. If you don’t, you will live to regret it…
My warning stands: Anything that does not result in God’s getting the glory ought to be enough to restrain our own might and power so his Spirit can do the job…
What a great word from a great man. Useful council for a person convinced that success in ministry is reached by any other means than the outpouring of God’s grace.
Note: A few email followers told me that the emailed links from previous posts were not working. That problem has been fixed.
What has already been agreed upon, let us now repeat: God blesses us as adopted children in Christ because he loves us and wants us to feel loved. However, in the previous post, I made my very best effort to convince you that there is a more ultimate reason that God blesses us: so that he would receive glory and praise. Many people, however, will still feel like this cannot be possible, because giving and getting have to be mutually exclusive or there would be a conflict of interest. Right?
If people are experiencing this negative reaction it is normally in one of two forms (both of which I have experienced myself): 1) People are disappointed; or 2) they feel as if God’s love is somehow invalidated by his ‘agenda’ of glory-getting. In the first camp, Read the rest of this entry »
Some of the most unfathomable blessings of God are found in Ephesians 1:3-14. And I’m not just talking about common grace blessings that are given to all people (like sunsets and pretty flowers), I’m talking about special grace blessings that are given as gifts only to those who belong to Jesus (like salvation and all the elements that compose it). Now Ephesians 1:3-14 does not simply list these special gifts and say, “Here they are!” It is not a systematic theology book and I don’t intend to try to make it into one. Rather, this passage was written as a part of its surrounding context and drives to a point later on in the letter. But, just for the sake of being blown away by the incredible blessings God has bestowed upon his Church, let me list what I see God giving his people in this passage:
• every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (v. 3)
• an unconditional choosing (v. 4)
• a loving and blameless stance before him (v. 4)
• loving predestination (v. 5)
• adoption as sons (are you kidding me? No.) (v. 5)
• grace in the Beloved (Christ) (v. 6)
• redemption through Christ’s blood (v. 7)
• the forgiveness of our trespasses (v. 7)
• the knowledge of God’s mysterious will (v. 9)
• unity in Christ (v. 10)
• a guaranteed inheritance (v. 11, 14)
• a permanent sealing by the Holy Spirit (v. 13)
• the word of truth (i.e., the gospel of salvation) (v. 13)
These bullet points are each divine miracles, scandalous grace-glimpses. Look closely and you can spot election, the effective gospel call, justification, adoption, perseverance, and the promise of future glorification (nearly all the elements of salvation). There are few Bible passages that make me feel more loved than this one. Rightly so.
But now we have arrived at the question that will require our attention for the next few posts – the question of motive…. Read the rest of this entry »