Unmasking Legalism (part 4)

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22. Obsession with overcoming sin (Becoming like Christ), the human nature of Christ, the time of trouble, and the 144,000. Legalists within the SDA church almost always exhibit an obsession with these topics. The obsession is typically tied to a theological lens known as Last Generation Theology (LGT). Of course, not every LGT proponent is a legalist but generally speaking this seems to be the case. Those under the bondage of LGT are often obsessed with overcoming sin for they see it as necessary for salvation. The human nature of Christ is also huge. For them, Jesus must have been just like every other human being and experienced temptation from within and without or as he couldn't be our example. Since LGT teaches we must be perfect like Christ in order to be saved then it is necessary that Christ have no advantage over us. As a result, LGT places a larger emphasis on the 144,000 than does the Bible itself. Since they are described as being perfect LGT proponents strive to be among them. Lastly, many LGT adherents are obsessed with the last days and speak much of standing firm in the final crisis especially when we will have to live without the mediation of Christ (another key of LGT). While none of these concepts are totally unbiblical in and of themselves, LGT strings them together in an unbiblical and legalistic way. While LGT proponents reject creature merit with vigor their focus and theology reveals their true identity.

23. Violation of the Grace and Law paradox. It is not enough to believe in both grace and law. Every legalist believes in both. Grace and law form a paradox and both truths must be kept in equal tension to one another. Legalists, however, tend to subordinate grace to law and yet claim.to believe in both. Anytime you subordinate.one truth to another you distort both. Hence, liberals tend to subordinate law to grace and the result is licentiousness. Likewise, conservatives tend to subordinate grace to law and the result is legalism. While you may not say we are saved by works, the act of subordination grace to law results in a works-focused legalistic religion. While you technically believe in grace, the beauty of it is eclipsed by the standards of the law. In order to be balanced both poles of truth must be kept in equal tension. Anything more or less distorts the truth.

24. Hard, humorless sincerity. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy. Legalists often lack this fruit. As a result they always have long faces and find it difficult to lighten up and smile for more than a few seconds. However, we must be careful with this lest we judge everyone with a serious face. Not everyone has what I refer to as a "smiley face." However, this characteristic is not just seen on the countenance but in the character. As a result, people often avoid legalists. This avoidance tends to make the legalistic feel justified in his/her ways. After all, the truth is not popular. However, what the legalistic fails to realize is that while truth is not popular it is attractive. Jesus was always surrounded by people, including children, who saw in his face a joy they longed for. I recently heard a story that illustrates this well. A couple of women were doing door to door surveys on a Sunday afternoon when a very angry man opened the door, tore the survey in front of them, then told them: "Get off my property! Its Sunday, you're supposed to be in church! In fact, that's where I'm going!" And he slammed the door in their faces. This man undoubtedly felt very self-righteous about what he did, yet his hard, humorless sincerity was nothing more than the devil in disguise. While he may reject salvation by works his lack of joy shows he, and all who fall into this trap, have yet to discover the peace and joy of the gospel.

25. Always feel the need to "balance" grace. When I was a legalistic this was one of my biggest struggles. Anytime anyone spoke on the beauty of grace I immediately felt compelled to remind everyone about the law. I was afraid that too.much grace would turn.people into licentious Christians. Little did I know that it is grace, not law, that makes us saints and not sinners. Once I discovered this I no longer felt the need to say "saved by Grace but..." While I believed in salvation by Grace I was still a legalistic for I had not come to understand the true power and beauty of grace.

26. Unable to form healthy relationships with children, youth, and young adults. This characteristic is intimately related to characteristic number 24. Those who suffer under legalism often, though not always, are unable to form healthy relationships with young people. Since young people are generally attracted to vibrant, joyful, and warm people - all of which are qualities legalists often lack. Growing up I had a pastor who was very legalistic and only ever spoke to the youth when he was correcting them for dressing or doing something he thought was sinful. As a result, young people did not look to him as a spiritual guide but as an unjust judge. While he, or others in this bondage, may never teach salvation by works their attitude and character show that while they play church very well they are not filled with the love and tenderness of the savior.

27. Self-quarantine. This characteristic is as ancient as the desert fathers and is alive and well in the church. Typically, those who fall under this category move away from society into the mountains and country, not for the love of nature, but to escape the evils of society. While there is nothing wrong with leaving the city for a more peaceful life in the country (a move I would recommenced to anyone) this group tends to make country living salvational. In addition, their ultimate goal is  not to find a place of rest where they can retreat for a time before returning to society in order to reach the lost but to "get away" from sinful society. However, there is another category of the self-quarantine legalist. This category, unlike the desert fathers who lived in isolation in monasteries, still live in society. However, while they are physically present they are nevertheless in exile. In Adventist circles they are extremely elitist, refuse to read, see, or participate in anything that is not conservative Adventism. They typically read only the Bible and Ellen White and live in suspicion of anything that is fun or lighthearted. Always serious, they spend their days in somber loneliness. While they may live in a city or subdivision they never get out much. This group often exhibits very poor social health. While it is true that in the absence of godly company Christians often prefer to be alone than risk the temptation of worldly associations this group rejects even the company of other godly folk who just don't happen to be as holy as they are. While they may never preach salvation by works, they certainly resemble the legalistic monastics of early Christianity who, in an attempt to be holier, quarantined themselves from any outside influence that they deemed corrupt. As John Newton once said, “I endeavored to renounce society, that I might avoid temptation. But it was a poor religion; so far as it prevailed, only tended to make me gloomy, stupid, unsociable, and useless.”

28. Obsession with Conspiracy Theories. Most legalists often find conspiracy theories fascinating because of their sensational nature. Knowing conspiracy theories has a way of making us feel holier than all of those other poor deluded Christians who only talk about the love of Jesus and other wishy washy subjects. Somehow, "knowing" the secrets behind government policies, political agendas, and encrypted symbols sets us free from the gullibility that most of Christendom is under. As you can tell, this characteristic is very prideful. The legalist who finds himself enamored with this things can seldom speak of little else and tends to only associate with those of like mind (everyone else finds their company unpleasant). Sadly, this obsession results in a myriad of negative effects upon the character, personality, and emotional health of its captive. While they may never preach salvation by works they certainly seem uninterested in salvation by grace alone.

29. Trigger Happy with Church Discipline. This final characteristic is exhibited in those who rapidly jump on those who are sinning in the church and, rather than seek restoration with church discipline as a last resort (the biblical model) they seek church discipline from the onset. For them, upholding the image and standards of the church by making an example of the sinner is more important than restoring the sinner in love. At times, the legalist will even insist that church discipline must be commenced even when the sinner has already repented. While there are serious moral issues that demand immediate church discipline, those of his persuasion pain even smaller matters in this light and refuse to sympathize and empathize with the sinner. They may not wear a t-shirt that says "saved by works" on it, but they certainly wear a character that does. Their lack of sympathy and mercy on the sinner shows that they are following someone, but it is not Jesus.

Now What?

While there are more symptoms than the ones I have mentioned I think by now I have established a useful resource for those who are struggling with legalism. For many years I too suffered with many of the characteristics mentioned in these last four posts and at times I must still fight against some of these cultivated tendencies. In the next post I will share some biblical pointers on how those struggling with the sin of legalism can overcome. Yes! There is hope for all of us no matter how entrenched our habits and concepts may be. Jesus is a tender, sympathetic savior. He understands our human weakness, our tendencies, and our pride. He longs to heal and to restore not only those sunken in the mire of licentiousness but also those strangled by the burden of religion.

Further Reading:
Unmasking Legalism (part 4) Unmasking Legalism (part 4) Reviewed by Pastor Marcos on September 10, 2013 Rating: 5

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