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Legalism is deceptive. This much we have seen. One of legalisms greatest tricks is to bathe itself in grace terminology in order to appear more Christian. With this method the devil has deceived millions of Christians. They think they believe in grace but in reality they are legalists - trying desperately to earn their way into heaven. The characteristics mentioned in the last four posts (Unmasking Legalism) are not simply theoretical ideas concocted in the minds of theologians. Instead they represent real stories. Stories of struggle. Stories of deception. Stories of bondage. However, the story does not end there. Jesus has the last word. You can have victory over legalism.
We now turn our attention away from the problem toward the cure. While legalism required many words to describe, I am happy to announce that the solution is much simpler. It is not a concept. It is not even an it. He. That's what the solution is. He - the one and only he - Jesus Christ.
So how can we experience that liberation he so freely offers? Below are some simple steps that we can take in order to experience true freedom from legalism.
1. Prayer. Obvious anyone? Of course it is. This is why its so easy to overlook. Human beings love to find some new trick that will guarantee fast results. But when it comes to Christianity, the only thing that will work is communication. We need to be connected to God and allow his Spirit to lead us and open our eyes. Prayer is what connects us to him. Ask God to reveal to you if you are a legalist. Unless you do this you will never be free from legalism. Since legalism masquerades as faithfulness to God those under its power seldom realize that they are. To them, everyone else is wrong and they alone are right. Therefore, you cannot trust yourself to determine whether or not you are legalistic. You need God to show you. So ask him to and he will.
2. Humble Admission. Once God reveals to you that you are a legalist ask him for the grace to admit it. Legalism is a form of pride and those under its power are often very proud. When God reveals your legalism to you it is important that you turn to him for the grace to humbly admit your failure. Many times God will reveal this to you via another person. Do not expect an angel to tap you on the shoulder and tell you that he has a heaven sent message about your legalism. No. Instead, God will work through other people. Even finding these articles and reading them could be God telling you that you are a legalist. Don't harden your heart. Many times in life we will have to humbly accept Gods evaluation of us even when that evaluation is contrary to everything we thought about ourselves. Can't admit it? Don't want to? That's OK. Tell God you don't want to admit it, surrender it to him, and when he begins to work on you cooperate with him. If you do you will be well on your way to victory over legalism.
3. Confession and Repentance. Prayer is a gift of God. It is because of Jesus that we can "boldly come before the throne of grace." The ability to admit our faults is also a gift of God. The Holy Spirit must enable us by showing us our faults and then softening our hearts. In the same way, confession and repentance are also gifts from God. We cannot confess our sins unless the Spirit shows them to us, and "it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance." Therefore, when you finally come to the place of confession and repentance it is because the Spirit of God is moving in your life. Cooperate with him. Confess your sins to the Lord and turn away from them. In addition, legalists often hurt and offend many people. Seek those people and confess to them as well. Seek to make amends and rebuild relationships. Of course, do not become a legalist about this either. Don't hunt people down in an attempt to "make things right." Be reasonable. Sensible. And let God lead. Remember you are not saved by your confessions but by believing in Jesus Christ. Confession to others is not a means to earn forgiveness, it is a means to rebuild relationships where they have been broken. If no harm has come or if it becomes too unreasonable then just let it go.
4. Live by Spirit. This is a paradigm shift for many legalists. Legalism is all about the letter of the law. This is because legalists want to cover all of their bases and make sure that they have done everything right so that God wont have anything wrong to say about them. However, the Bible teaches us that we are to live by the Spirit. While we still obey Gods law we don't use the law as a checklist of spirituality or as a supervisor. Christians are free. Free to live as God created humans to live - in a right relationship with him and others. Of course, this includes the 10 commandments which Jesus described as "love for God and love for man." However, this law is written in the heart of the new believer. We are no longer to live by tablets of stone which mandate that we do things we don't really want to do and avoid doing the things we desire. Instead, Gods law is written in our hearts - our minds - so that by the Spirits presence we desire to do good and not evil. Those who seek to live under the law are in bondage and become the very thing they attempt to avoid - un-Christlike. But those who live under the Spirit, free from rules and regulations, prompted by love and joy in an ever growing intimate relationship with God and man ultimately become the very thing God created humanity to be - Christlike. So let go of the law as your checklist and supervisor and let the Spirit of God fill you and lead you.*
5. Fruit of the Spirit. The result of step 4 is step 5. Those who live by the Spirit will, as a result, develop the fruit of the Spirit which are "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). In contrast, those who attempt to live by the law develop many of the fruit of the flesh which are "hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy..." (Gal. 5:20-21). Live by the Spirit and you will become the lovely, joyful, peaceful, patient, kindly, good-natured, faithful, gentle, and self-restrained person God created you to be. In other words, you will be like Jesus.
6. Relationships. Legalists tend to be lonely people. Make friends. Go out with them. Spend time doing things unrelated to church and religion. Not sinful things of course, but innocent activities like playing volleyball, going out for ice cream, camping, hiking, or going to the beach for a chat. Never take a break from Jesus but by all means, take a break from religion. In addition, do your best to distance yourself from people who are legalistic. Reach out to them of course, but don't spend time with them. You may eventually be able to reconnect with them, but you need time to heal. Stay away from them until you have healed and planted your feet solid on the gospel.
7. Gospel. The gospel. This is ultimately the only true way to escape and remain free from the power of legalism. The gospel, or good news, of Jesus Christ. Legalism is bad news. The gospel is good news. Find balanced Christians who can explain the gospel to you. Read books on the topic. But most importantly study your Bible. The books of Romans and Galatians are the most helpful for those who are seeking freedom from legalism. I also recommend Steps to Christ and Faith and Works by Ellen White.* The gospel not only sets us free from religious legalism it also sets us free from cultural legalism. Religious legalism is the legalism that finds its basis in certain Bible texts, and in the case of Adventists, Ellen White statements. Cultural legalism is the legalism that insists that ones culture is holier than any other. This is especially true of western Europeans who tend to think that classical music is holier than any other form of music. A true understanding of the gospel will set us free from both. It will simplify our Christianity and thus make us much lovelier and gentler people.
8. Emotional Health. Last but not least is emotional health. Many legalists suffer from anxiety and depressive disorders along with obsessive compulsions and other psychological problems that breed insecurity and a strong sense of shame and guilt. All of this culminates in poor emotional health. If you think you are in this category talk to your pastor, chaplain, or a Christian counselor. Emotional health is indispensable to victory over legalism.
I hope these last few posts have given insight and hope for those who are trapped by the power of legalism. If there are any questions or if you would like further guidance feel free to post a comment or shoot me an email. Alone we will always falter but together, and with the power of Christ, we can conquer this insidious foe.
In conclusion, I leave you once again with the words of retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor Martin Weber who in his autobiography My Tortured Conscience said,
...for the sincere Christian, legalism is a far more dangerous deception than worldliness[.] Every honest heart knows its wrong to play around with sin. Legalism, however, appeals not to the love of sin but to our love of God and desire to obey Him. It robs our spiritual life by hijacking our purest motives. I hate legalism! In the name of Christ I'll fight it till the day I cast my unworthy crown at his feet (75).
Unmasking Legalism (1-5)
* I am not here suggesting that Christians have no need of the law. To suggest that we need no law because we are led by the Spirit is tantamount to suggesting that we don't need the scriptures at all. After all, if we are led by the Spirit what is the use of reading a book? It is like asking, Why read a map to get where I am going if I have a guide who has been there? Throw away the map and follow the guide right? While that may work in the physical world it is a dangerous teaching to embrace spiritually. This is due to the fact that being Spirit led is a highly subjective experience while following the word is a highly objective one. It is easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking we are following the Spirit when in reality we are following our own corrupt desires. So then what do we do? Isn't the only other option to be a "letter of the law" legalist? No. The answer lies in balancing the two principles out. While we are to live by the Spirit we must recognize that the Spirit will always lead us in accordance to the revealed word of God and any impulse we receive must be tested by the word of God. There are people out there who say that the Spirit led them to commit adultery, practice polygamy, and even murder. These people were sincerely following the guidance of the "Spirit" and in some cases were even visited by Angels who confirmed and guided them. However, they were taken away from the word. This popular "live by the Spirit and throw away the law" doctrine is indeed dangerous. When I say "get rid of the law" then, I do not mean throw it away. Instead I mean to get rid of it as a checklist or a supervisor that you constantly look to to see if you are performing well enough. A secular moralist can do just as much. However, God is not looking for moral people, he is looking for transformed people. The Spirit transforms us by giving us a heart that longs to obey Gods will. Once we receive this new heart the law is no longer a checklist or supervisor but a joy and desire. Avoid both extremes and you will do well.