Sniffing Out Legalism

“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—” (Philippians 3:3, ESV)

This morning in our men's study on the book of Romans, we considered the signs of a soul drifting away from grace towards legalism-- what Paul describes as a person, "Resting on the Law," or, "Putting confidence in the flesh." What does such a state look like, or feel like? 

  1. Such a state always begins with hard thoughts of God, the kind of God who is disinclined to welcome sinners into His presence without strings attached. Before such a God there is always more to be done, better to be sacrificed, higher to be reached. Such a God will never welcome us just because of Christ. Sure, He might justify the ungodly because of Christ, but always reluctantly. The real God, however, knows no such reserve. He welcomes those whose only boldness stems from Christ. They have nothing else to bring, no other arguments to make, with the hymn writer they say, "I give up every plea beside: I am lost but thou hast died!" Unable to say this, the legal soul tends to feel a secret reserve when it comes to sacrificing things for God. You remember the man with one talent, how he explained his lazy decision to bury his talent in the ground, what were the first words out of his mouth, "I knew that you were a hard master...." (Matthew 25:24). Such a spirit demonstrates a complete ignorance of the heart of God.
  2. The Person's focus subtly drifts off of Christ and onto self. The healthy soul always roots its Godward impulses in God Himself. Consequently, he feels himself entirely dependent upon Christ -- Christ to purchase a just mercy. Christ to change our natural selfward disposition by the Holy Spirit. Christ to fill us with the power of Easter morning in the practice of every good and perfect work. There is, therefore, a self-conscious reaching up into Christ and the union we enjoy with Him. Union with Christ really is the mainspring of all our devotion. By contrast, the legal spirit inclines us to think much more on what we must do and have yet to do for God. This work is accomplished by digging deep and by reaching into our own natural resolve, and our own natural resources.
  3. Slowly, the Legalist begins to trust in these works (or to despair of them) as the chief pathway or obstacle to their relationship with God. So we deny ourselves, give some money to the poor, or to missions, we engage in some strenuous act of devotion, and we begin to think that these things incline God to welcome us more warmly into His presence. By contrast, such a spirit tends to despair in the presence of sin, thinking thoughts like, "Well there is no way the Father will welcome me now, not after this!"
  4. Before long the legalist will find himself comparing himself to others. We all know this kind of thinking, with the Pharisee praying beside the tax-collector, we say, "Lord, I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men, or even like this________________!" The healthy Christian's thinking is altogether different, "Lord, I'm not like other men, I am worse. I know more, could have done more, and should have been better! Be merciful to me, THE sinner!"
  5. .Along with the Spirit that looks down on others, the legalist tends to find it very difficult to forgive others when they fail.ll Having never experienced the outrageous extravagance of God's mercy, they only really know how to condemn sin. Forever a mystery, forgiveness always eludes them Herein lies one of the most subtle signs of a legal frame and it ruins all our relationships. We tend to approach others with a tight-fisted ethic of quid pro quo. You know the kind of thing: I have served you, now I have a right to expect you to do this for me! Such a spirit can quickly eat the heart out of a marriage, or for that matter out of a child's relationship with its parent.So rather than thinking, what more can I do for my spouse, or my child, or my mom, the hellish thought rises, "After all, I have done for them, I have a right to expect them to (fill in the blank)." This was the spirit of the other lost son in the story of the prodigal's return. You know the one who stayed at home! "All these years I have slaved for you and do you know what you have given me. I'll tell you: NOTHING!" (Luke 15:28ff). Such a spirit also displays itself in a secret resentment of the blessings on others. God forgive me, I am ashamed to admit it, I have seen this in my own ministry when men who seemed to be less earnest than I was, less prayerful than I was, less gifted than I was, less godly than I was seemed to receive more of a blessing than I did. There is nothing right about such logic and everything that is wrong. Perhaps you have felt the same way about another brother and the marriage, the prosperity, the children, the whatever they seemed to enjoy. You look at them and then you look at yourself and find yourself thinking, "After all, I have done for God, why not me?"
  6. Such a spirit finds it very difficult if not impossible to admit its own fault and responsibility. This is not surprising, after all, where can the legalistic go with its own failure, what can it do with its own crushing guilt? The only possible response is to go back to the treasury of its own merit before God. Life, therefore, becomes an endless cycle of blame-shifting  (The woman you gave to me gave me the fruit), self-pity (It's not my fault. Everyone else is against me. Life's not fair), and excuses (I didn't know, I didn't mean to, blah, blah, blah!). Saul is the classic example of this in his failure to kill Agag (1Samuel 15:10-21). By contrast, the healthy soul is not ashamed to come clean and to say, "Against You, You only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." It can admit blame, because it knows someone who can deal with those who do, and only with those who do!

What can we do when we feel the icy embrace of legalism coming into our soul. There is only one thing to do and one place to go: we must go to Christ with it. We must say, "Lord, here is my evil heart. Overwhelm me afresh with your love. Don't leave me outside with the prodigal's brother." "Show me my need of grace. Reveal to me the evil of my heart and the corruption that spoils every good thing I ever do, or that I ever even want to do." "Show me the glory of Christ -- that He has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed His own blood for my virtues not just for my vices."

So for example, In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” for instance, the pious and proudly-nice Mrs. Turpin is attacked by an insane girl in a doctor’s waiting room. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” the girl tells her. As you might imagine, this outburst afforded Mrs Turpin some affront. These were precisely the kind of trashy people for whom Mrs. Turpin had no time whatsoever. Later, however, while hosing down her pigs—divinely concussed, so to speak—Mrs. Turpin has a vision: a cavalcade moving toward the crack of heaven, a “vast horde of souls” led by “white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives,” and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.” These are the poor in spirit, coming into their inheritance. Bringing up the rear, meanwhile, are the righteous, the organized, the scrupulous and stainless, the people like Mrs. Turpin and her husband. “They were marching behind the others with great dignity … Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Here is the moment of devastating clarity that we all constantly need. Even our virtues are not clean enough for heaven's outskirts. Sometimes I think my worst sin is suspecting that they are.

Christ Covenant Church