(This was originally titled “Legalism – Just another form of rejecting Christ?” which in retrospect was a terrible title! Who would want to read that? I really am trying to get to the good news here, but sometimes you have to wade through some bad news to get to it… or rather, perhaps to fully appreciate it. I would appreciate your feedback and would be delighted to have a discussion about this topic. Please share your thoughts.)
Legalism. Self-righteousness. You could call it a “religious spirit” or a “spirit of religion”. Many today simply refer to it as “religion”. Jesus warned his disciples, calling it, “the leaven of the Pharisees”.
Paul refers to it in Romans 10:13:
“For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law.” NLT
In a recent facebook status I posted, “It is my belief that legalism is and always has been the single greatest threat to the Christian faith. It is just another form of rejecting Christ.”
This blog post is elaborating on that premise. I also believe that this is a problem that is rampant in the church (and in the heart of every man) and needs to be addressed.
Paul writes the letter to the Galatians warning people of the false “gospel” of trying to attain righteousness by working for it. This is really no Gospel (or good news) at all. He writes:
“I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.”
~ Galatians 2: 19-20 The Message
Did you notice that Paul says, “my ego is no longer central”? That’s what self-righteousness does. It makes it “all about me”.
Some of the marks, results, and warning signs of self-righteousness or legalism include:
- Judgment – Harsh judgment of yourself and others becomes the modus operandi.
- Perfectionism – Because you are desperate to avoid the harsh judgment of others.
- Pride – Legalism is based in Pride. Legalism says, “I can make it on my own, I don’t need you Jesus.” (Though as someone who read this pointed out to me, many use legalism as a form to try to please or win God’s favor, to earn his grace, and are, in all sincerity, trying to please Christ by their own efforts. This reminds me of a verse from Eugene Petersons paraphrase, the Message, “Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” Romans 12:2)
- Hypocrisy – Since you have no freedom to be yourself, you have to pose, pretend and hide.
- Separation & Division – Paul confronts Peter to his face in front of everyone for his hypocrisy when he separated himself from the Gentile believers to save face with his Jewish friends from Jerusalem. Galatians 2 ( Hear a sermon about this that really blessed me here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/adullam-vineyard-podcast/id376094976)
- Fear & Bullying – Peter caved to his fear of the disapproval and scowls of his Jewish friends. People are kept in line by fear of disapproval – perhaps of another Christian friend, perhaps even by a pastor.
- Lack of Freedom – Galatians 5:1 “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” NLT
- Insecurity – You are always second guessing where you stand with God if it is dependent on your performance.
- Condemnation – Because without Christ, condemnation is all you have left. If we insist on standing in our own righteousness, in effect, we reject the righteousness God provides and so are doomed.
- Depression – If you are under condemnation, you will certainly feel depression as well. That’s not to say that the saints of God don’t also from time to time experience forms of depression.
Also, it is very encouraging that nothing need be permanent. If you’re on the wrong road, you can choose to turn around and find the right one.
You wouldn’t believe how much of the Bible is written just to correct this fatal error on the part of humanity. I am sure that this self-righteousness or legalism is in the heart of every man. C.S. Lewis refers to it as the “diabolical” pride of man. We just noted above how it was in Peter (see Galatians 2) – and this was after Pentecost. Jesus truly was the only exception, the only one immune to this hellish depraved disease of self-righteousness.
And now, I’m going to bring this whole discussion way closer to home. I am a recovering legalist. If I am an expert in anything, this would be it. I could write the book on legalism. For the last few years, Jesus has been opening my eyes to it and I now have a whole new clarity about what has plagued me for so long.
I could identify with the whole ego thing that Paul mentioned. I was the center of my “Christian” faith. It was all about me. I experienced that list of things I mentioned earlier. I judged myself and others and I assumed that everyone judged me as well. I experienced seven long years of severe depression as I experienced the results of being alienated from Christ.
Galatians 5:4 “For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.”
There is a great deal more that I can and will write about in upcoming editions. But for now please pray with me:
“Jesus, please set us free from our self-righteous ways, we need you to be our righteousness and so we trust you to be our righteousness and we thank you that you areour righteousness. Thank you for keeping your beautiful and holy law of love on our behalf, thank you for taking away our condemnation for breaking your law when you died on the cross.
“Please teach us and lead us to the place of freedom that Paul found where he could say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless.” NIV
“Thank you that because of your sacrifice, we don’t have to earn your grace or perform our way into your favor. May the grace of God become everything to us, and let us live free, for you came to set us free.” Amen