I am not a legalist.
I say this at the outset because I am scared of the label, both from the perspective of perception and also the spiritual implications. I don’t want to be that guy.
I am sure you can relate.
At the same time, I’ve noticed a troubling personal trend. This trend is not new, but it is nevertheless fresh and disturbing. During times of spiritual apathy, sin, or negligence of spiritual disciplines I notice the feeling of being distant from God and his blessings. Then, I resolve to pray, read my Bible and do what is right. The result? I feel better. I feel assured, accepted and refreshed.
At this point, you might be asking, “What is wrong with this?”
I’ll tell you. But first, a couple of qualifiers:
- We should feel disturbed when we sin, are lazy or otherwise negligent in our spiritual disciplines. There is blessing from conviction by God the Holy Spirit.
- We should feel better when we pray, confess sin, and engage in our spiritual disciplines.
So, what’s the problem? Where’s the issue?
The issue is about who the savior is.
Notice the basis for consolation? It is my performance. I sin so I feel bad. I then do better so I feel better.
Do you see what I have here? I have my only little, neat self-salvation project. I see my weakness when I look in and out at what I am and do. Where do I turn? I turn in for consolation from who I am and what I do.
This practice, which is far more prevalent than most of us think, is gospel-muting. It’s Jesus-eclipsing. It’s legalism.
I find my legalism, that is, my attempt to earn or keep God’s favor, to be far more prevalent than I’d like to admit. When I think I have it in check it comes out of nowhere.
One example is with my personal devotions. This actually was happening to me this morning. I was examining my own heart and seeing sin. Do you know where I went for comfort? I ran to the pantry of my good works. I pulled out my prayer, devotions, sermons, discipleship, and other fresh packages from the treasury of merit. Thankfully, God graciously stripped away my foolish plea, and I fumbled my perceived good works before him. I have been reminded again of personal futility.
I was also reminded afresh of Christ and his gospel. The basis for a believer’s standing before God is never his own works. God does not love us because we have obeyed but because Jesus has obeyed in our place. He is the basis for our standing before God, not ourselves. In short, he is our righteousness (2 Cor. 5.21; Phil. 3.8-9).
The implications of this truth are life changing. My performance before God does not earn me anything. He can’t love me more because of what I do, because he loves me completely and eternally because of what Jesus has done! He is our basis for continued acceptance and pleasure. I can’t garner one more ounce of God’s pleasure no matter how much I pray or read my Bible. This is as humbling as it is liberating.
So what of sin, laziness and other issues? God reminds us that he disciplines his children (Heb. 12.5ff). This discipline, feeling of guilt, and perhaps even the feeling of being apart from God are meant to drive us to Christ, not to ourselves. These feelings are intended to be instructors in a class of personal anthropology: we are sinners, we need a savior. And, in so doing, they remind us that our savior is not ourselves.
So, I am not a legalist, and you probably aren’t either. However, I still leave the pantry door of good works open. I suspect you do too.