In our weekly Bible study at my church we are currently studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is instruction about the grace of God and a warning not to get caught up in legalism. The believers in Galatia had been infiltrated by the Judaizers and were now divided about whether or not to insist that new non-Jewish believers adopt the Law of Moses and such customs as circumcision. Paul is telling them that the Law and Grace are mutually exclusive. We are no longer under the Law, but are to walk in grace, by (and in step with) the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We still face something of the same problem today. There are those who tell us we can’t be good Christians unless we follow a strict code of rules: we can’t do this or we can’t do that, or go here or go there. We must follow all these rules, or we will be considered “worldly Christians” and judged. Legalism tries to suggest that external behaviors are an accurate indicator of internal sanctification. It subtly implies that we somehow can score points with God or that God will love us more if we do these things. However, God can’t love us more than He already does. T hat love is not dependent (or withheld) on the basis of how well we keep “the rules”. He will not stop loving us if we are not perfect. Rule-keeping also does not make us superior Christians (just ask the rule-keeping Pharisees whom the Lord called “whited sepulchers”).
One problem with legalism is that those who follow it may assume that by obeying all the rules they don’t need to do any more about their relationship with God. They may feel they can relax in their relationship with Him as long as they maintain the external evidences of their faith. However, because they feel comfortable with themselves (because they are obeying all the rules), they may forget to look inward to try to see themselves as God sees them. They remain oblivious to the pride, self-righteousness, self-will, anger and mean-spiritedness, etc. that may be hiding there in our old nature. This can produce Christians very confusing to the rest of the world: their pious words don’t match their personalities and their actions.
We cannot substitute legalism for a viable, growing, and transparent relationship with God. We need to be aware of our still-active old natures because such awareness can keep us humble. When I look inward and see how far I am still from the example of Christ, I am overwhelmed with regret. I recognize the depth of mercy involved in of God’s ongoing love for me, and the depth of grace involved in His having provided a way of reconciliation.
When we persist in following the relative ease and safety of legalism to order our lives instead of the way of grace and the more spontaneous (and sometimes frightening) way of following Him one step at a time, we may weaken our own growth. Rule-keeping denies us liberty of conscience. Instead of being led by an ongoing communication with the Spirit of God, we are trusting in the rules to be our guide. Walking in grace may mean going into the unknown in faith, and living in dependence on the Holy Spirit to guide us through various situations and decisions. One image which has helped me is a picture of swinging out over an abyss on the rope of faith and then letting go, trusting completely that He will be on the other side to catch me. Legalism can’t help us there. At its root, legalism demonstrates a lack of trust in the power and faithfulness of God to guide and order our lives. We wrest the control of our lives back from Him and put our faith in the rules instead. If we are afraid ever to be confronted with any kind of temptation, what does that say about our belief in the strength of our own faith or of the ability of God to strengthen or protect us?
We may become rule keepers because we are afraid of the temptations found in the world. Christ was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners, but He was demonstrating being ‘in the world, but not of it”. There are some legalists who refuse to work or go to school anywhere they may be in contact with non-believers. If we cocoon ourselves away in protective Christian ghettos, having little contact with those who might challenge our faith, or seeing non-believers only as targets for evangelizing rather than potential friends, we may stay safe and be more comfortable ~ but how do we reconcile this kind of safety with the call to be salt and light?
This is not to say we should live our lives as the world does. We are called to be holy and to live moral and upright lives as a testimony to the will of God. However, there is a difference between not actively pursuing the world and hiding from it in fear. We need to think carefully about the degree of withdrawal from the world which we exercise. How do we balance out our fear of being drawn into temptation and the need to learn how to live out our faith in a hostile world?
When I was young there were no Christian schools or homeschooling. We who were Christian had to know what we believed and why, and to learn to withstand temptations on the basis of our faith. When we were questioned about our beliefs or our decisions not to participate in some activities, we had to be dependent on the guidance of the Holy Spirit for how we worded our answers. First, however, we had to be in contact with those who might ask the questions! I think in some ways we may need the challenge of the unbelief of our neighbors to keep us honest about the choices we make in how we present our testimonies.
There are other ways we might shut our ears to the voice of the Holy Spirit and continue to put our trust in ourselves instead. For example: although some who call themselves Christian today have devalued and minimized the necessity of knowing the scriptures, most still believe it is important to know what God has to say to us. We read and study our Bibles.
However, there are those whose study becomes not a path to increased spiritual growth and a deeper knowledge of the character of God, but merely an intellectual game. They love to joust with words and debate fine points of doctrine, and take great pride in their own knowledge. What they might not do is apply what they are discussing to themselves. They are happy to know all about the scripture, but may not feel it necessary to look inside to see whether or not they have integrated this wisdom into their own system of belief and practice. They fall back on contentment with their intellectualism rather than a living, breathing, moving faith. Unfortunately, I have observed many Christians like this over the course of my life. It has reinforced my belief that we need a conscious faith, kept honest by prayerful, objective self-assessments from time to time. The old-fashioned practice of praying before bed each night and reflecting on my conversations and the events of the day in confession is still a good way to start.
Ultimately, all of us need to be conscious of the temptation to be self-satisfied or to see God as a mere icon and not an active, moving force in our lives. While I do not believe we should constantly be staring at our own navels in self-absorption, we need to do internal checks from time to time to see just how far we have moved toward the goal of being made into the likeness of Christ. As a believer for many, many years I have observed that the closer I get, the more I know Him, the farther I see I have to go. It is a paradox. We cannot be complacent.
As long as we remain on earth we are earthbound. We will carry the millstones of our old natures around our necks until we die. If we truly want to be “all for Jesus”, we need to count all the man-made rules, traditions, and cliches as secondary (or even irrelevant), and get down to the core, the essence of what it means to be God’s person. To be effective witnesses of God’s love, we need to be courageous enough to live by faith, stop trying to find an easy way out thorough rule-keeping, and instead live each moment according to sanctified consciences, led by the Holy Spirit. It can be a bumpy road, and sometimes very frightening, but it keeps us in close contact with the will of the Father, and can bring us into circumstances where we can speak for Christ in a way that we could never experience if we have been hiding ourselves away in the safety of rule keeping.