Thoughts from a Recovering Legalist

I believed the lie that in order to be loved by God, accepted into His family, and forgiven for my sin I must do/say certain things and be a certain way. I still struggle with the idea that I can’t earn my way into heaven - that at the end of it all, I can’t stand before God and read my resume to Him and get through the pearly gates. This lie has been the worst thing in my life; it has kept me far from God while deluding myself that I was near. I’m ashamed to say it, but it is something that I’ve been struggling with since I accepted Christ into my life - I’m a recovering legalist.

Our Need

“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Romans 7:18)

We are not good in and of ourselves (Romans 3:10-12, 23, Psalm 143:2, Isaiah 53:6, 2 Chronicles 6:36, Micah 7:2-4, 1 John 1:8,10, Titus 1:15-16, Matthew 15:19, and there’s a lot more). This is obvious - look at the world around you and see how the depravity of mankind has ruined it. It is filled with genocide, racism, mass shootings, rape, exploitation, and so much more evil. So, knowing that we are overtaken by sin, a natural reaction is establishing rules and regulations to make sure that we do not harm one another, accidentally or on purpose. We call these laws or a moral standard, but ultimately its just a patch, a dam to hold back the worst urges and behaviors in us.

Enter the legalist, who acknowledges the evil of the world around him and the evil in his own heart. He believes the best way, maybe the only way, to fix the problem is a strict adherence to rules. But in reality, the legalist trades one sin for another.

Our Rebellion

“This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2-5)

I don’t think anyone woke up one morning and thought I’m going to be super strict on following God’s laws and condemn everyone who doesn’t. I know that’s not how it was for me at least. It started with good intentions: I wanted to pursue God and follow Him with all my heart. I wanted to stop sinning. I wanted to be a good person. The Bible gave me rules to follow (and I thought that was the way to know God more). But suddenly, I was looking at the Law more than I was looking at God. The Law was given to reveal sin (Romans 7:7-8) and reveal man’s need for God (Romans 3:21-28). The Law is hard because sinful people can’t follow it perfectly, and we are all sinful people because of the Fall (Genesis 3). When Jesus came, His expectations were even harder to follow, focusing not on external actions, but internal attitudes (Matthew 5:21-48). But I didn’t understand God’s heart for giving the law and my pursuit of holiness became a cycle of sin.

Legalism robbed me from joy in serving the Lord. He was no longer a loving Father whose commands were given so that I might live a secure, holy life; but, became this Taskmaster whose rule I had to follow or suffer the consequences for. And it made the whispers of the enemy all the more tempting: Why serve a God who doesn’t love me but loves what I do? He’s not worthy to serve, just do what you want, live however you want, binge on the things that can bring you joy.

The legalists’ rebellion is a subtle one: pride in their actions lead to a superiority complex; hypocrisy in their words of seeking God but truly seeking the approval of men; self-glorification by constantly pointing at their works instead of the grace of God. And like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son, we legalists become angry when those we deem “unworthy” or “unholy” are celebrated instead of us. This pattern of behavior is a sin, so is murder and lust and gluttony. But praise God that Christ died for a legalist like me!

His Grace

“The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21)

My sin is great and no amount of rule following is going to change the evil in my heart. But His grace is sufficient to remind me that His grace is sufficient. When I point to my works, Jesus shows me the cross - what I’ve done to put Him there. I look at my sin, all of the evil I have committed, all of the hurt I’ve caused others, and the scars that I carry, and I know that following rules isn’t enough. I didn’t need another plan, I needed a Savior to save me from myself.

The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus (John 1:17). He has provided a way for us to avoid being entangled in this trap. It is through grace we have been saved, not through works (Ephesians 2:8-9). That is pivotal to understand. Jesus’ death on the cross has already saved me, has already saved you if you have accepted Him. We are saved. We are loved. We are His children.

Our Response

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)

Just because we are no longer under the Law does not mean we have the freedom to act in whatever way we please. Christ knew the Law, loved it, followed it; therefore, we are called to the same (John 14:21). But the Law no longer needs to be overbearing. Jesus simplified the law into two: love God with all of your heart, understanding, and strength; and love one another as you love yourself (Mark 12:30-31). These two are still hard to do, because the sin within is at odds with the will of God; it does not want to love God or love others because it is easier to love self. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we are able to follow Jesus. The Spirit enables us to fight sin (Galatians 5:16-18). We come to Jesus and keep His commands because of a desire to bring God glory, not to earn His favor.

We can follow God because we are a new creation, our very nature has changed (2 Corinthians 5:7). Don’t grow complacent in following His commands, but know your salvation is not based on what you do. Your salvation is based on what Christ has already done; therefore, repent from your legalism, follow God with joy, and obey Him not for salvation but for the fullness of life that He promises to those who obey Him.

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