The guy seemed somewhat indignant. “There are no legalists in this room”, he insisted in response to an indirect, and unintentional, indictment made by another member of the presbytery.
Little did he know.
“Absolutely there are legalists in the room”, I thought outloud.
I cannot say with certainty that this man, who felt compelled to defend himself and all those like him, is indeed a legalist. I suspect he is. There seems quite a bit of evidence that suggests he is. But I don’t know what is in his heart – or the heart of any other man in that room.
What I do know is my own heart. And even if no one else there in that room matched the description, at heart I am a legalist.
That would surprise many. In our presbytery, which is historically characterized as being very narrow and uptight, I am, I suspect, by comparison seen as being ‘looser’ and to the Left of center. (NOTE: It’s probably the only place I ever go where I am consisered Left of anything.) I am the guy who frequently points out the emptiness of Fundamentalism and all the associated rules as compared to the greatness of the grace offered us in Christ.
But as Craig Cabaniss articulately points out:
Legalism, however, is not a matter of having more rigourous rules. It’s far more lethal than that. It strikes at the very core of our relationship with God.
C.J. Mahaney explains:
Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. In other words, a legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance.
Now I am not usually so foolish as to think I can or will gain God’s forgiveness or acceptance by my behavior. I realize my only hope is in Christ. And I know that Jesus – and He alone – has already accomplished everything that is necessary to reconcile me to God. (This is known as forensic justification.)
But I often get the feeling that God likes me better than those uptight legalists because I am not as uptight. And I like that feeling. Furthermore, I like to think I am more committed to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom than they are. I am not sidetracked by mind-numbing minutia, as some others seem to be. In short, I like ‘knowing’ that I am ‘better’ than others because I am faithful -more or less – to a set of behavioral standards that others are not so visibly faithful to observe.
And that is what makes me a functional legalist.
A legalist is not defined by narrowness or the imposition of rules upon others. It is the erroneous sense that I can earn God’s favor by my behavior – by what I do and what I don’t do. And for me it is favor and not forgiveness that I desire through my legalism.
Cabaniss points out:
Legalism is a heart condition that can easily affect… and color any activity. Legalism can taint our Bible reading, praying, witnessing, eating, sleeping, lovemaking, working, recreating, joking, shopping – we can be legalistic about anything!
The solution is not lowering our standards. It is necessarily raising our understanding of and response to the glorious grace of God.