ESCAPING THE TRAP OF LEGALISM
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1, ESV)
I sometimes meet Christians who are caught in the vortex of legalism. Their thought process goes something like this: “If I don’t do_______________ (Insert an often good, even necessary spiritual activity) then God will be displeased with me.” The problem, of course, is that the list of good things that must be done always exceeds the time available. Some task or other inevitably ‘falls off the table’, they feel condemned, resolve to try harder the next day, only to 'rinse and repeat' the same failure then as well. Discouragement quickly ensues, and the poor soul ends up trapped in a never ending rat race of heartless doing. This causes even more problems for the tender conscience. Nothing can ever be done well enough, sincerely enough, lovingly enough, passionately enough to ‘earn’ God’s smile. In the end, life becomes a desert wilderness eked out under the frown of God.
What to do? Paul’s words to the Thessalonians provide a level place on which to start. Notice the assumption. The Thessalonians are faithful to God, their ears are open to the Apostle’s instruction, their feet are responsive to the Apostolic commandments, and consequently, Paul assures them that they are walking in a way that pleases God. Yet there is more to be done. There always is. Paul assumes that the imperfect lives of imperfect Christians are still pleasing to God, the Father.
How can this be? Well there are a number of truths to keep in mind:
First, the Christian lives under a cloud of forgiveness, not condemnation. God has justly, completely, and eternally forgiven all of our sins (past, present, and future). No iniquity shall ever again be imputed to our account (Psa. 32:1-2). God’s posture towards us is principally one of fond benevolence. He is for us, not against us.
Second, God knows that the Christian never sins with their whole heart. In fact we might even go so far as to say our better nature never sins: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:20). There is much to hold in tension here: While the Christian does indeed sin in union with Christ (1Cor 6:15), the Christ-man in Him never sins.
“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19–20).
When God looks upon us, it is this new man, holy and blameless before Him, that our Father primarily sees. I sometimes use the illustration of a toddler bringing her mother flowers. Unwittingly in the process, she traipses muddy footprints across mommy’s clean kitchen floor. We would wince, wouldn’t we, if the mother ignored the flowers and scolded the child harshly for her carelessness. The wise mother would see the heart and overlook the fault. This is the nature of love: it covers a multitude of sins (1Peter 4:8; Prov 10:12). Surely there are parallels between this human virtue and the heart of God (Psalm 103:13-14). The angels never wince when they watch God respond to the sincere, blood-bought, Spirit-wrought, yet always imperfect obedience of His children.
Third, despite this wonderful truth, God is not blind to our need for further growth and maturity (1Thess 4:1, 10). Indeed, He earnestly desires it (James 4:5). Furthermore, our sins, especially those of a presumptuous, high-handed sort (Psalm 19:13), have the capacity to grieve His Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30). This grief will usually affect our experience of God’s love, but never our possession of it. God will never disown us. Through it all, we always have been and always will be His well-loved child.
Fourth, we have a duty to make our calling and our election sure (2Peter 1:10). Such assurance is always found as we turn to God and away from sin. We will not find it turning in the opposite direction (Romans 8:13). The Holy Spirit always leads a better way and God’s child tends to follow (Rom 8:14). So if we find ourselves thinking like a pagan, speaking like a pagan, and living like a pagan, it kind of does beg the question, whether or not we might actually be a pagan.
In the final analysis, the path of duty lies always before the Christian and he chooses it not out of fear, but primarily out of a filial delight in pleasing his heavenly Father. God delights to see this Spirit. In fact, He sings with joy as He witnesses it (Zeph 3:17). The fallen flies littering the ointment of our obedience will not rob Him of such Fatherly gladness. Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.