Overcoming Legalism

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Jimmy was raised in a legalistic church setting. He professed faith as a child and was taught the glorious truth of the gospel that Jesus Christ died for sinners. But after that initial profession of faith, his entire Christian experience was focused on rule-keeping. Christians, he was taught, kept the rules—and not simply the straightforward biblical commands, but also a range of “principles” in the area of dating and friendships, alcohol use, popular culture, and the like. The major concern was to keep Jimmy and younger Christians like him “unspotted from the world”; the result was that the gospel he knew was truncated to a set of performance standards.

When Jimmy got to college, he was tired of keeping the rules. Not only was rule-keeping exhausting, but it put him out of step with his roommates and friends who didn’t seem bound by rules. And they seemed to be having fun and were happy. Wouldn’t it be better, less exhausting, more fulfilling to give up the rules and simply enjoy life? And so, Jimmy gave up keeping the rules; and in doing so, he also walked away from the church. After all, if Christianity is about rule-keeping and he was no longer keeping the rules, then he wasn’t a Christian. And what’s more, Christianity didn’t work for him.

Sadly, Jimmy’s story is not unusual. In fact, for many young people raised in the church, this is exactly the pathway they follow. True, after forsaking their legalistic moralism and “sowing their wild oats,” some of them come to see that their understanding of the gospel was anemic and even false. Yet most of them never return to the church, and hence they never really give biblical Christianity a hearing.

How do we respond to this? Is there any hope for those raised in legalistic church circles, for those who are perhaps battered and bruised, conflicted and confused about the true meaning of the gospel?

Yes, there is hope. And that hope is found in returning to the gospel of Jesus.

Everyday Sinners, Everyday Gospel

As we return to the gospel, what we must confess is that we never get beyond the gospel. Because we are everyday sinners, we need an everyday gospel.

As long as we live, we will be wrestling with the remnants of sin. Yes, for those who have trusted in Jesus, something decisive has happened. We have been united to Christ. We have put off the old man and put on the new man. By faith, we have been baptized into Christ.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:17–19)

And yet, although we are new creations in Christ, we also have learned patterns, wayward desires, and foolish habits that remain. Further, as we learn more about the holy God who has loved us with a steadfast love, we see the labyrinths of our hearts, the subterfuges that we practice, and the hydra-headed nature of sin.

The weapon that God has given us to battle the remaining sin in our hearts and bodies is the gospel. Thus, we bring our hearts back to who and whose we are in Jesus Christ: we are united to Jesus, we are those whom He has declared to be righteous and holy. Moreover, He has granted the Holy Spirit to train our minds and hearts to say yes to righteousness and no to unrighteousness. In the power of the Spirit, we put to death the misdeeds of the flesh and we live unto the virtuous practices of holiness.

Because we sin every day and because we are sinners until the day we die, we need the gospel every day. As we meditate on what Christ has done for us through His life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, and as we see ever more clearly how all of Scripture is about Christ’s work, we are formed into a different kind of people. The gospel itself shapes us every day into new women and new men.

Pilgrim’s Progress

This gospel formation means that Christianity really isn’t about rule-keeping. To be sure, a Christian obeys God’s Word, but the way to obedience is not by focusing on keeping the rules, flying right, and doing better. At the heart of what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 is to explode the notion that righteousness is about external obedience to the law. When He says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20), He tells us that the way to righteousness is not through mere external obedience. Instead, the way to a righteous life is the Spirit’s inside-out transformation as we progress in living into the gospel. As we use the means of grace—including corporate worship that centers on the Word, sacraments, prayer, and fellowship, as well as private worship—God meets us, drives the gospel into our hearts, confronts our patterns of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, and makes us new.

But this sort of gospel transformation takes time. We progress in it as we are formed and shaped and molded by the Spirit’s work. As we go further up and farther in, we see more sin, confront more deception, believe more gospel, receive more divine comfort. We learn by experience and gain wisdom and insight as we turn from folly to reverence and love the Lord.

And here’s the thing: as we live in step with the Spirit, we actually live in ways that “keep the rules.” Those who bear the Spirit-fruit of love will be those who keep the two tables of the Ten Commandments. Those who bear joy will know the strength to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. Those who bear peace will be whole and wholesome, not restless or anxious. And so forth. We keep the rules, not by focusing on them as merely deeds that must be done, but by focusing our hearts on Jesus, who He is, what He has done, and what He is doing by the Spirit in us to make us fulfill the law.

Character and Calling

In other words, the gospel of God’s grace transforms our character. We begin to live into the new creation reality that is ours because we are united to Jesus Christ. The image of God begins to be restored in us as the Spirit works in us holiness, righteousness, and genuine knowledge of God. We become the people whom God intended for us to be all along.

This kind of character formation can’t happen simply as individual Christians study God’s Word or pray on their own. Rather, it happens through the community called “church” as we learn to love and live among people dramatically different from us. The new ways of living that Paul details in Ephesians 4–5 and Colossians 3 can only happen in community: we put away falsehood and learn to speak the truth, why? “For we are members of one another” (Eph. 4:25). We do not allow anger to take root in our hearts, why? To “give no opportunity to the devil” to divide us from one another (v. 27). We let no corrupting speech come from our mouths, no bitterness, wrath, anger, or malice, why? “That [we] may give grace to those who hear” (v. 29). Did you notice? The new and renewed character that the Spirit works in us is for others. And it can only be formed and expressed in community with others.

As we are shaped by the gospel, God calls us into the lives of others and into His world. We are given gifts to share with others, Spirit-given abilities that build others up in the gospel. They are different and necessary if we and others are going to be the people that God intended us to be (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12). Again, this means that we must be part of the community called “church,” not so that we can check off church attendance on our rule list, but so that we might contribute to the formation of others in the gospel.

But God also calls us into His world as signs and agents of the new creation. As we live as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, parents and children, workers in our careers and at home, church members and leaders, and in a variety of other callings, we do so as signs of what it will look like when all will be the way it ought to be. We are signs of the new creation, and its agents too. And that is because Jesus has commissioned us to make disciples—to help others learn the gospel faith and gospel ways, not to gain more legalistic rule-keepers but to shape more signposts and agents of the new heavens and new earth.

This is a gospel that is far better than simply “keeping the rules.” This is a gospel that gives genuine hope for the recovering legalist because this is the gospel of Jesus, the One who is making all things new.

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