Reflections on Legalism
I had quite the interesting Bible class this afternoon. In my New Testament Survey class, we are covering the book of II Corinthians. Coming across II Corinthians 3:17 led to an interesting discussion on legalism. The verse states, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” As I read those words, I cannot tell you of the joy the flooded my soul. In Christ, I am free. I think that only now am I beginning to realize the full weight of that verse.
As our class discussed this chapter, I pointed out that legalism could be defined as man’s attempt to please God through his own efforts. In the context of this chapter, we see Paul condemning these stubborn Jews who still insisted on keeping the Old Testament law. Paul describes them as preachers of “the ministry of condemnation.” That is all their ministry could ever amount to – condemnation. For in holding to the standards of the law, condemnation is the only result possible. The law was never intended to bring about righteousness, but conscious awareness of one’s own sinful condition. The point of the law was that we could never keep its righteous requirements. It was there as a constant reminder of our need of a savior.
In stark contrast to the “ministry of condemnation” is the “ministry of righteousness.” As follow the Spirit of the Lord, we are free to embrace a foreign righteousness, a righteousness much greater than what we can acquire on our own. We have the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In Christ, we have met all of the requirements of the law and have gained the reconciliation with the Father we have so desperately needed. Paul tells us this is a much more glorious ministry, even though it is not the fruit of our own labor. That is just the point.
Legalism seeks to shackles us down with another moral law. We are told to abide by the following lists of do’s and don’ts in order to show the Lord just how serious you are about serving Him. These include clothing requirements, the length of one’s devotional life, entertainment taboos, and the list could go on and on… These are not men who seek to oppose God, but in honest sincerity seek to help men to avoid the pitfalls of sin. Yet, in doing so, they imprison men to an entirely different pitfall. While they would never claim to hold up their standards and convictions to God in arrogant pride, they see the absence of such standards and convictions as a departure from the faith. In essence, they have established a new law, reasoned from Scripture, but never explicitly found in scripture (such as women wearing pants, movie theater attendance and Bible translation controversies).
Yet, with every new rule and standard they make, they only succeed in advancing the ministry of condemnation. While they may preach a gospel of grace, their Christian walk consists of a gospel of works. If I do the following, God will be pleased with me. If I avoid the following, God will be pleased with me.
As I lectured my students with these thoughts, my mind drifted back to my old days at Pensacola Christian College. I almost laughed while thought about actions that once were so normal to me. Boy and girls had to walk up and down separate stairways. All of our music had to be checked by the administration. We had separate clothing requirements for dorm-life, class, Sundays and any time we left campus. We could only leave campus after having reported exactly where we were going, who we were going with and when we would be returning. Each month featured hair checks and unexpected administration sweeps of the dorms. Talking to a member of the opposite gender at the wrong time of day or in the wrong place on campus was lead to a virtual shunning for weeks. Not mention all the unwritten rules that were enforced…
Not just in college, but in fundamental churches and in fundamentalism in general, I always felt like I was being held to someone’s standards. Going out for the evening always was preceded by deep thoughts about who would be there and if my clothing might offend them. I lived in constant fear of someone being offended over the music I listen to or even the authors I read.
But, that was then. Not a huge amount of time has past since those days. Yet, at times it seems as though those days are far in my past because I decided in the time since to actually live my life. I have been basking in the freedom we find in the Spirit of the Lord.
One of the biggest changes in my life has been the preaching of my new Pastor, Bob Bixby of Morning Star Baptist Church. A few Sundays ago Pastor Bixby addressed a similar topic in his Sunday morning message. He brought up the fact that many mistakenly assume the opposite of legalism is license. I can recall saying that myself a number of times. But the problem with that line of thinking is that does not take into account the fact that “license” only leads to more enslavement. I have been around enough addicts to know that those whose purpose is only to fulfill their own desires often find themselves a captive and slave to those very desires. Yet, I find people in similar situations to mine go exactly that route. They swing from the one extreme of legalism to the other extreme of license. The truth is that each one of these extremes has the same problem – Christ is not the focus. In the end, you either focusing on your own strengths or in your own lusts. Neither one is good.
For the record, I do not drink. I do not chew. And certainly don’t go around with those who do. I rarely, if ever, attend theaters. I still attend church and am in active service for the Lord. Yet, I do or not do these things not out any sense of duty or obligation, but with the freedom that comes with a true relationship in Christ.
Going back to Pastor Bixby’s message the actual opposite of legalism is freedom! That is exactly what I have been experiencing. I have determined never again to be a slave to the opinions of man. Christ has made me free, and I can never go back to slavery under a false master again. I love reading Romans six knowing that I am dead to sin. I love reading Romans 7 knowing I am dead to the law. I am free from the law, I am free from sin and I am free to pursue an all-encompassing, passionate relationship with Jesus Christ.
No longer will I point my accusing finger at those around me who may not believe exactly as I do. No longer will accept that accusing finger from others either. Instead merely stating the doctrines of individual soul liberty and local church autonomy, I plan to live them out in word and deed. I bask in the freedom of Christ!
For the first time in quite some time, I feel like a free man. I plan to explore every doctrine in Scripture, even those we sometimes shy away from as Fundamental Baptists. I plan to embrace my fellow believers in Jesus Christ who preach a sound gospel, even if they do not belong to my denomination. I plan to sing praises to the Lord, even if while doing so my body may move or otherwise react to beats and rhythms I previously shunned. I plan to read the Bible in a translation made in this century using vocabulary and grammar I can actually understand. I plan to wear modest clothing that I find comfortable and appropriate, not worrying about whose personal standards of self-righteousness I may offend. I am free in Christ. I intend to live and love like it.
Even now, I feel like I should qualify the above statements and say that my wife and I are currently seeking to be members of our local church. I want people to know that Jill and I both want to be held accountable. I feel the need to say we have friends and family in the area as well to help hold us accountable. I feel like I want everyone to know that I still maintain a militant stance on the fundamentals of the faith. But why? Why do I feel the need to immediately express all this? Because freedom is not easy. In fact, it can be downright scary at times. I am now walking without the safety net of rules and regulations. This kind of life is not the kind that checks off the do’s and don’ts of someone’s list of standards. There is security in the regulated life. As long as I am doing this or that, I am ok… Not any more for me. I will determine to walk by faith, not by sight.
I hold no grudge to the fundamentalism in which I grew up. I deeply appreciate the foundations they laid. I still believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, infallible, preserved Word of God. I still believe in daily devotions. Fundamentalism taught me that. Yet, in my spiritual maturing process, it is time to leave the nest. It time for me to leave behind some of the rules and regulations that characterize adolescence. Having learned these sure foundational and elementary doctrines, it is time I sprouted wings and flew on my own in order to build upon this foundation.
I suppose in someway I am experiencing what every teenager goes through open leaving home for the first time. Before leaving, there is always that tension – the tension that comes from beginning to form your own opinions and beliefs while still living under someone else’s roof and someone else’s rules. The time comes when you take the foundation your parents laid and then move out own your own to being your own family, your own course in life. The best tribute to parents is not a child who acts exactly as they did, but one who learns from their good and bad points and then expands upon that foundation to live a better life. Doesn’t every parent want more for their child then they had themselves?
Well, I think it time to end this particular rant. Let me say in closing – it is good to be free. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”