Grace and Legalism

While we humans usually try to classify things (less sin, more sin, greatest sin), to God sin is sin.  It is not about degree; it is about broken relationship with Him.  After we come to Him, there is always a huge gap between the highest ideals of the Christian life and the reality of our own lives.  I know what I want to be, how I want to live ~ but I’m far from the mark.

If we are conscientious about our faith, we often feel we must do something to prove to God that we are serious about Him.  In our attempts, we may unintentionally put ourselves back under legalistic behavior, assuming that our pious way of life and good works will somehow earn us more of His approval or keep us safe from problems.  We forget that His love for us is already infinite.  By what standards do I determine whether or not I am living a life which will please God?  Is it by the number of times I read my Bible or pray or go to church?  Is it by the number of good works I have done, or how I dress or what I sing or what I read?  Or, is it by the depth of my trust in Him, and my willingness to submit to His greater wisdom for my life?  Are we putting our faith in our own behavior or in Him?

We have been taught all our lives that we need to do something if we are to get something.  By contrast, God tells us that our salvation is a free gift which we can never earn.  Without Christ, no matter how good a life we try to live, the penalty for our sin, our failure, is death.  God ‘s gift of life to us is free, dependent only on our belief in Christ as Savior.  Our spiritual wellness is found in putting our own wills under the headship of Christ, making Him Lord of our lives.  There is something in us which doesn’t fully want to accept this.  Our old nature softly drives us to try to rack up points with God so that we can feel that somehow we have participated in our own salvation.  If we have no part in our own salvation, if it is all from Him, we can take no credit.  That doesn’t feel right to those raised thinking that we must earn our way to success.  We want to have some pride in how well we are doing as Christians.

There it is! Pride: the root of all sin.  It is the desire to be self-determining ~ to do it our way.  It is the hook with which Satan tempted Adam and Eve.  He prompted them to question God’s wisdom and motives in keeping them from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They chose the path which would take them toward autonomy ~ relying on self rather than submitting to God.  It was the same sin for which Satan had been cast from heaven.  Part of us continues to want to be like God in determining our own lives and choosing our options.

Sometimes this hesitancy to rest in the grace of God as a free gift leads indirectly to legalism in the Church.  Our slide toward legalism undoubtedly starts with good intentions.  Because we love Him and want to be closer to Him, we choose to read our Bibles faithfully and pray every day and do various good works.  We refuse to go to certain places, or to read certain books or dress in certain ways, because we feel these things are temptations toward worldliness.  We want to keep ourselves set apart for God and focused on higher goals.  These are all good and proper things ~ but in reality God does not force us to do these things; we voluntarily choose to do them.

While these choices are healthy, none of them is required by scripture as a compulsory part of our salvation.  We are directed to live lives which will honor God, but not many details are spelled out.  It is we who decide which options we will choose in order to live faithful lives.  All these decisions may be made from good motives, but in making these arbitrary choices for ourselves, sometimes we find that our act of choosing an option soon mutates into a law in our minds.

I once saw a TV episode of a certain Christian family, where a courting couple are standing next to each other.  This couple has chosen not to hold hands before their engagement, but absent-mindedly take hands as part of a prayer circle.  The horrified mother cries, “Oh, no, no, no!” and they are forced to separate so they don’t “sin” by holding hands.  Did God really require this from them?  Is this found anywhere in scripture?  From arbitrarily “choosing” to “law” are just tiny steps, and soon we come to believe that we must live by all these rules, or perhaps He won’t love us as much, or that somehow we will have failed Him.  Not only do we make these things into commandments for ourselves, we sometimes then insist that others live by our standards or we begin to judge them ~ condescendingly presuming that their faith must not be as conscientious as ours, or else they would do it our way. Spiritual pride underlies these thoughts.  If we stand back far enough we see that we have put ourselves back under law… and somewhere along the line grace has been lost.  We begin to define ourselves by what we do or don’t do, and it becomes easy to be self-congratulatory if we live by lots of rules.  Instead, we should be judging our lives by the truth of who we are and Who He is ~ and the huge disparity between us..

Christ came to bring us freedom in Him, not to put us back under a system of rules and regulations. Some people resist this idea of freedom because they are afraid if there are no strictly regulated rules of behavior it is giving us license to sin.  I suggest that only those who don’t understand grace would believe that anyone who truly loves God and wants to honor Him would use freedom in Christ as justification for deliberate sin.  We might all fall into sin whether we live by law or grace, but if we are truly His we will always be prompted by the Holy Spirit to aspire to lives which honor and glorify Him.  No one who is truly His will deliberately look for loopholes enabling us to sin without being held accountable.

In the end, external behavior is not the true criteria of spirituality.  I can do many good things, yet be filled with pride, or harbor hatred in my relationships.  The Pharisees pointed to their meticulous keeping of the Law, yet Jesus told them they were hypocrites because He saw into their hearts.  If we love Him we will try to live in a way that communicates our conviction, but the substance of our faith is always more important than the appearance.  Jesus Himself was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners.  People were judging Him by the wrong standards.

We already know God’s standards.  We all know straight up that we are not to have other gods before Him (including money, children, or self); we are not to lie, cheat and steal; live sexually promiscuous lives; murder; dishonor our parents; covet or take the Lord’s name in vain.  We try to live lives which honor these prohibitions (and none of us fully succeed).  It is when we put matters of personal conviction into the same category as these standards and then impose our rules on others that we get it wrong.  Paul writes succinctly to the Corinthians that some things are a matter of individual conscience.  He tells them that whether or not they ate meat which had been offered to idols (one of the dilemmas which faced the Corinthians) it was a matter for each individual to decide.  The important thing is that whatever we do we are to do it as unto the Lord.

This means I have no right to judge those who set these rules up for themselves, any more than they have the right to judge me because I may or may not follow them.  Christ sets us free to live lives of joy and blessing rather than fear.  We can continue to make choices for ourselves about the kind of lives we live in order to faithfully represent Him here.  However, in the end, it won’t be about all the rules we have structured for ourselves, but how well we have learned to trust Him and submit gratefully to His will.  It will be about how we genuinely reflect His grace and mercy toward others.  We can live under law, or we can live under grace.  I hope we all choose grace.

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