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Post 35 | The Two Faces of Legalism

It's a pricy penny.  And there are two sides to this coin.  Legalism.  "Behaviorism," I've heard it called.  Pharisee-ism.  Self Righteousness.    In my last post I talked about my firm, growing and delighted belief that the cross is not the gospel, or the most important part of or "the heart of" the gospel.   My belief that the events of the cross aren't the center, with the "other" events of Jesus toggled around it, like the rays of a child's hand-drawn sunshine.   The gospel events are the pieces of a puzzle, or dominoes -- one goes missing and the whole operation halts and cannot be finished.  I shared that I believe the gospel is what God, three-in-one, did for us and gave to us, because He loved us and it made Him happy and glorified to do such things.

(Recap if you missed it:  

What did He do? Chose, loved, made, sustained, came, lived (sinlessly), died as a Lamb, experienced hell, defeated it, resurrected, left the grave for good, walked on earth again, ascended to heaven, sat on the throne, and made us heirs of every single good gift.  

What are the good gifts He gave us? Family, Salvation, License, Nobility, Righteousness, Freedom, Hope, Paradise, Feasting, Companionship, Blessing, Honor, Power, Home, Victory and every other good thing.  Every single one.)  

Legalism contorts both of those things (what He did and what He gives).  It uses His very Holy Language, Scripture itself, and twists, mangles and stabs.  It is offended by diversity, license and individuality.  It thrives in like-mindedness, repetition and rules.  

“There are people... bent on making you a slave of their conscience. They are legalists, and their tools are guilt, fear, intimidation, and self-righteousness. They proclaim God’s unconditional love for you, but insist on certain conditions... I’m not talking about people who insist you obey certain laws or moral rules in order to be saved.   Such people aren’t legalists. They are lost! They are easily identified and rebuffed. I’m talking about Christian legalists whose goal is to enforce conformity among other Christians in accordance with their personal preferences. These are life-style legalists. They threaten to rob you of joy and to squeeze the intimacy out of your relationship with Jesus."  Sam Storms (borrowed be EGM)

There is a legalism that tries to re-sculpt what God has finished.  It tries to convince you that you need this on top of Jesus' complete, A-Z, work.  Many a cult and religion have taken off by using the Bible and Jesus Himself, and then adding to it.  Many not-cult churches are guilty of doing the same thing.  Sometimes it's as "simple" as saying "You must be believe in Jesus and be baptised in order to be saved."  

This form of legalism -- the kind that claims you can add to the security or finality or actuality of your salvation -- is, well, to be frank, very easy to identify.  Anything -- anything -- other than "by grace I have been saved through believing, through faith!" is salvation-legalism.  "I did not do this myself -- I contributed nothing, as this is the gift of God to me." Excellent.  Easy.

"Yet, I have noticed that many of us Christians are certain that God's observing face must be twisted in a displeased scowl. Most seem sure that God experiences a roller-coaster ride of emotions regarding us – dictated by this morning’s state of behavior, spiritual focus, or attitude. We seem to assume that God saves by grace alone and then enjoys us according to a fluxuating, gold star, logarithm-graphed, merit badge system…alone. I knew I should have paid better attention to cosines and tangents in high school and if only I could remember that one other spiritual discipline we were taught last year." Enjoying Grace Ministries

This other form of legalism is a crafty serpent.  It sounds like Colossians 3 with a "don't you dare!" and supernatural-ultimatum tone.  It looks like hands held high (much like the shirt collars), busyness and involvedness in church affairs, and a Bible filled with underlines.  It looks good.  Really good.  Self-depricating, scripture on the tip of the tongue, and a fierceness in guarding God and 'His commands', while remaining doting, 'humble', and friendly.  Pharisees.

They convince you that you are to work hard at pleasing God.  "If you have been raised with Christ, you better seek the things above." They talk about 1 John 1:9 as if it were written to believers, not the lost.  For some reason you feel like you're never quite walking out your salvation without enough fear, enough trembling, and enough accomplishing -- psh, you feel like it's your responsibility to "walk out well," its in your hands.  Conversations in church groups and accountability sessions -- more often than not -- circle around your and their struggles: the conflict in marriage, the unbelief in hearts, the (always sexual) lust given into, the pride we possess that deceives us more than we can know, the single person's fight with emotional purity.

When you share with them the honest, vulnerable, painful stories of your life, they ask you things like "Do you think you are being bitter?" or "Do you think you deserve something more?"  Sports were "gospel-centered" by doing things like praying before, after or during games, never missing Sunday morning church because of sports, by opening up practice with a devotional -- I even know of kids who were sent out of practice to spend 10 or 15 minutes 'with the Lord' because they hadn't done it earlier in the day.  The way to make 'regular things' turn into 'a Christ-honoring thing' was to do 'the spiritual things' (pray, encourage, use scripture, confess sin, etc).  'Godliness' (according to human standards) was often highlighted publicly and often for doing publicly-'spiritual'-things (for example: the youth worship band being applauded for their godly lives and their motives for playing in the band -- "their desire is to glorify God!" -- when I know for a fact that some of the kids are 'struggling' or abandoning their walk with their Lord, and some were playing in the band because they loved their instrument and... that was about it.  I also know some of those kids were Pharisees. PS. I don't care about which kids were up there... I care that their personal lives, motives and hearts were often falsely announced and then clapped-at.  Why can't we just clap-at their talent and thank them for their time? Regardless of "why" they play?  Their skill reflects their God even if they don't realize it.  I actually have more to say about "this" so I should let it be for now.  It should be a separate post.)

"Rarely would these folk ever admit to any of this. They don’t perceive or portray themselves as legalists. If they are reading this they are probably convinced I’m talking about someone else. They’d never introduce themselves: 'Hi! I’m a legalist and my goal is to steal your joy and keep you in bondage to my religious prejudices. Would you like to go to lunch after church today and let me tell you all the things you’re doing wrong?'

I suspect that some of you are either legalists or, more likely, the victims of legalism. You live in fear of doing something that another Christian considers unholy or vital, even though the Bible is silent on the subject. You are terrified of incurring their disapproval, disdain, and ultimate rejection. Worse still, you fear God’s rejection or displeasure for violating these things. You have been duped into believing that the slightest misstep or mistake causes God’s disapproval and disgust." Sam Storms

The first time I read this article I had tunnel vision and sat on my bed wide-eyed.  I was such a blinded, knowledgable legalist that I even frequently used the word 'legalism' and accused other people of it!  Flashes of my life struck like lightning in my head, and I sat there in stunned acknowledgement: "Oh. My. Gosh.  That's me.  I'm a thief of joy, and I'm terrified of God being disappointed in me.  The times when I was most convinced I was 'taking a stand for God' or 'being a good friend by not shying away from tough love' were the times I robbed joy the most.  I must make people so uncomfortable."  While I never (EVER) told anyone that the way to be saved was to "add to the gospel," I did live like people could do things to add or detract from God's pleasure with them, therefore, I was a legalist. "IF you LOVE Him, you WILL obey Him." I announced.  It was a demand, not a new way of life, a promise.  "Guess what, guys!  If you love Me, if you believe in Me, part of the perk is that you're going to obey me! More and more, until heaven where you'll be flawless."

I didn't realize that my salvation was final and God's delight in me was final.  I had lived two decades primarily thinking of 'the gospel' as 'my salvation' and "I'm not a legalist because you can only be saved in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone!"  but I didn't feel like God really absolutely enjoyed me all.the.time.  All the time.  That I never disgusted Him.  That when He thought of my name, when He watched and walked beside me in my life He wasn't thinking "Gosh, when will she EVER learn?  She's a hard-hearted one, this Kristen.  It's a good thing I'm strong so that I can change even HER."

"I will not keep silent... you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give. 

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, 
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, 
but you shall be called -- your name will be! -- My Delight Is in Her!   

Your land will be Married for the Lord delights in you, 
as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,     
so shall your God rejoice over you."

Since the gospel is two-pronged, legalism is too: what God did for you, and how you can add to it!  What God gave to you, and how you can change that.

"When you are around other Christians, whether in church or a home group or just hanging out, do you feel free? Does your spirit feel relaxed or oppressed? Do you sense their acceptance or condemnation? Do you feel judged, inadequate, inferior, guilty, immature? Jesus wants to set you free from such bondage!" (Sam Storms) Do you feel like you have to explain, in dramatic detail, why you can't make it to small-group or other church events?  Do you still feel really, really, really bad about not going?  When you walk into church after worship has already started, do you feel like your friends in the seats around you are disappointed you are late or are thrilled to see you?  (Also, does it cross your mind that if you show up late looking good and made-up that people will think you are really vain and self-absorbed... and if you show up late and disheveled people will think you are really a disaster?)

What I am writing and sharing here is much more about my own story and what I believe with all my heart the world needs to know -- the riches we have in God -- than me feeling angry towards or trying to bash the people and leaders (and parents!) who surrounded me growing up.  This is about my husband who grew up a thousand miles away and who had never heard of my church/family of churches, but lived his life in legalism.   This is about anyone who could be a legalist and not know it (most don't).  This is about Scripture saying "They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them and their offspring throughout generations.” (Exodus 30:21) and the men who cared deeply about Scripture, who spent their lives desiring it be passed to their offspring and the rest of generations, being offended when this Jesus waltzed into the scene saying things like " eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15)  He directly contradicted Scripture and therefore God, so it seemed.  The Word of God matters! they must have thought!  How dare He! they must have worried!  God's Word is True! they must have countered. But they missed the point.

This is for anyone who may have missed the point.  Who have devoted themselves to God, Scripture, Church and missed it.  Like me.  Like my husband.  You may have been raised in the circles we were raised in and never missed it.  But we did.  And we know others have.  And if you have perhaps missed it -- if you have perhaps obeyed, and memorized, and know the language, and serve, and sing, and have a lot to say about your faith because you take your faith very seriously, stayed a virgin, have a bright shining face but make possibly make your fellow saints feel uncomfortable, please listen.  This is where Jesus was harsh.  This is where He was violent.  The diligent, obedient, compliant, determined, admirable, dedicated Older Sons can be left outside of the Father's House.  Obedience is fabulously important -- please don't hear what I'm not saying.  Obedience, diligence, etc is good.  It's necessary.  It is.  But there is a reason the horrifyingly disrespectful, greedy, douchebag, sleezeball son was rejoicing at the feast, welcomed into the house.  There is a reason the boy-who-would-fulfill-every-checklist, the son who obeyed was left out of the celebrating.  He missed the point.  He had the appearance of wisdom and goodness.

This isn't directed at someone or some specific group: it's for the church kids and adults anywhere and everywhere who are doing it right.  Be. Careful.  If you may be an Older Son, listen closely:

“You tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders... You do your deeds to be seen by others... you love the place of honor and greetings in the marketplaces ...

... For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces... You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! 

You clean the outside of the cup but inside they are full of self-indulgence... outwardly you appear beautiful, but within are full of all uncleanness... So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy. 

You serpents. 

You group of venomous snakes."

"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch' referring to things that all perish as they are used — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." Colossians 2

Be free.  Be free to be real.  Come as you are, and be who you are.  Pursue every good thing you can get your hands on.  Enjoy it.  Live life like you want kids to respond to their Christmas gifts: with anticipation, wild, noisy happiness, and natural excitement.  He's everywhere.  He's in running line drills, He's in strumming your guitar to Dave Matthews Band, He's in the sound of a toddler's voice, He's in a new haircut that just kind of makes you feel pretty, He's in the color of eggplant, He's in the pages of a Book and in the pages of wordy Ernest Hemingway.  He's in nature and in Times Square and in bath-tubs and in graveyards and in coffee shops and in bed at noon (because you slept in).  He's in the days of sweatpants and the days of sweaty workouts and the days of tears and the days of cheers.  He's not disappointed with you.  He adores you.  He is in charge of "who you are" and He calls it "good" and He is making it "perfect."  Everything about Him is good, and everything about Him is yours.  If washing your hands makes you happy, wash away Germ-Freak and if you don't mind jumping right into a meal without, stuff your face Fatty. You are free.  Do not submit to self-made, severe religion.  Be free! Head inside for a feast!


---> EDITED TO ADD <---

I am not looking for just affirmation and "positive" response (don't get me wrong... I want that too!).  In a way that's not "giving you permission" but that's hoping for conversation: it's okay to disagree with me.  I'm not trying to draw the line in my sand and push you away and keep you in, I'm opening up the front door and putting my self, life and thoughts out here hoping you'll come in, even if your story or beliefs are different.  I don't *have* to write -- I believe this, and I talk about it as much as I can as it fits the occasion.  I want to discuss, I want to help, I want to share -- and I want you to as well.   And if you think it's futile slash annoying to discuss on comments... e-mail me (kristen leigh photography at gmail dot com), ask for my number and call me, set up a time to chat in person.  I'm not afraid of people disagreeing.  I'm afraid of what would have happened to me if I hadn't been told the things posted above, if I hadn't become completely free, indeed.  Especially if you've grown up in the same places Caleb and I have -- we know those two "worlds" well, and we love so many people in them.  Even people who we might disagree with on every point.  If you're willing to join in a discussion and chew over big, real topics - welcome! Really!