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LEGALISM

Do you understand that legalism is THE greatest enemy of the gospel?  God hates legalism…primarily because it’s a form of self-righteousness.  It’s a supposition that maybe I can do something to cover myself or correct myself. 

Let’s put it this way:  Legalism says that you become acceptable through doing.  You gain approval by keeping the right rules or upholding the approved standards or enforcing the agreed-upon core-values. 

That’s legalism!  And there are religious forms of legalism and there are irreligious forms of legalism. 

The IRRELIGIOUS OR SECULAR FORM OF LEGALISM says, “If I can do this, if I can improve myself and achieve something great— THEN I’ll be approved by other people.  And maybe even accepted by myself.”  That’s secular legalism.

RELIGIOUS LEGALISM, which Paul directly attacks here, says, “If I can do good, if I can keep all God’s rules, THEN I’ll be approved…by God!” 

Please note:  The vehicle is identical, it’s just the goal that’s different.  The goal is:  I’m either approved by myself and/or others— OR I’m approved by God. 

But both have the same desire:  GAINING APPROVAL.  The problem is: Gaining that approval depends entirely on ME.  It’s me DOING whatever that’s gonna get me the approval I seek. 

But here’s the problem:  You just can’t do enough to get there.  So if you buy into the lie and try to live like a legalist, thinking that if you can manage to do enough of whatever may be on your list— then maybe you’ll be accepted— here’s what’s gonna happen.

You’ll either get PRIDEFUL; cuz you’ll actually think you DID get there on your own.  So you get kinda puffed up about it.  When the Bible actually says that ALL of us are way worse off than we even think we are.  We’re much more selfish and much more self-centered and proud and greedy and arrogant than we would ever even begin to imagine.

Or you’ll become HYPOCRITICAL, cuz you’ll eventually realize you’ll never get accepted, but since you don’t want anybody to know just how bad you are, you pretend that you already did get accepted. 

And by the way, that’s exactly why most people [both inside and outside church] think that doing church is nothing more than one good person telling a bunch of other good people how to be even better people!  But that’s not it at all!

The Bible says that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise [and] the weak things…to shame the strong.”[1]  He chose desperately wicked sinners— like me— just so He could showcase through our weakness His divine strength. 

Don’t you get it?  Our world will never be captivated by a pack of people who are desperately pretending we’ve got it all together— when everybody knows— we don’t! 

What will capture our world for Christ is when a pack of humble, desperate and utterly dependent people acknowledges our sin and trusts in just Jesus as our only rescue…and our only freedom. 

But perhaps the worst thing that can happen if you try to live like a legalist is that you might become INOCULATED from the real thing.  You do understand inoculation, right?  They give you just a tad of the real thing so you don’t get the full thing!  If you get a flu shot, they give a little bit of the flu so you won’t get the full-blown flu. 

Well, that’s legalism.  A little external modification here, a bit of behavioral adaptation there— and it gives us just enough of the real thing that maybe we miss out on the gospel itself altogether. 

Maybe it’ll help you to think about it like this:  What would things look like if Satan took control of a city?  If he really had his way, what would it be like? 

Over half a century ago, the great preacher [Donald Barnhouse] offered his take on what might happen.  He speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where he pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other.  There would be no swearing.  The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ was not preached.

And that’s legalism.  It’s a Christless Christianity.  And yet, most of us would listen to that description [all but the last line] and think, “That’s what I want!  I want a town where people smile.  And nobody swears.  And my kiddos all turn out just fine.”  So who cares if Jesus becomes radically irrelevant in the process?  All legalists really care about is behavior modification.

But people, we gotta remember that Jesus came first not to make bad people good, but to make dead people alive. 

Besides, what happens when your performance no longer brings down the house?  I mean, when you’re living out life, and believing that it’s all about your ability to keep the rules, to maintain the standards…whatever.  But then, your finances start unraveling and your kids start unraveling and your marriage starts unraveling…what happens when your whole world starts to crumble— and all you got going for you is that you were the one who held it all together! 

When everything is riding on you— the well-being of your children, the stability of finances, the quality of your marriage— when your whole identity is wrapped up in you carrying the whole load on your shoulders. 

What initially felt like freedom will become a crushing sense of failure.  What once felt like deliverance, is now despair.  And it will happen.  You will, eventually, come face to face with your own weaknesses, even though right now you may be trying so hard to put up a front so that everybody else will believe that you so very strong. 

But down inside, you know:  I am weak.  And I’m not sure I can keep up the charade…not even one moment longer. 

That’s LEGALISM.  It’s endorsing a counterfeit god.  A self-salvation project that is utterly doomed.  Cuz you simply cannot gain God’s approval on your own.



[1] I Corinthians 1:27

This is an exerpt from Get Real!  For more, please go to thecrossroadsaz.com.

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