Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Legalism and Grace

Have you ever had someone call you a legalist? It is not a compliment the way it is usually used! It’s definition? Legalism: A strict literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code. And once you put that conformity on other people they really want to be close to God. Not!!

How does one get wrapped up in religious legalism? It is an important question. So many churches today preach a wonderful message of grace and forgiveness from the pulpit but yet they live so ungraciously toward one another during the week. So harshly. So legalistically. We are supposed to live out the message and truth of grace, not just preach grace, not just have grace on the name of our church. We are to live it out in the every day of our lives . We don't want to place massive gorillas onto peoples' backs and add to their burdens by requiring religious adherence to our rules.

Religious legalism usually starts off with good intentions. It begins with peoples’ heartfelt desire to find acceptance from God. That is a good thing. Many strike out on their own to order their lives to what they believe defines holiness. The problem is, they tend to look only at the things that can be measured. And that would be outward conformity only. They go on this journey because they believe it is the right thing to do and to find His acceptance.

They start with themselves – what would God like? Well He would probably like me to go to church. He would probably like me to read the Bible. He would probably like me to pray a certain number of hours during the week. He would probably like me to go to Bible school. He would probably, He would probably, He would probably. Then we say “I'm not sure I can do all this but I really want God to like me so I will try as hard as I can!” The approach starts with 'me'. Not with God. And it is an easy place to find oneself. If you are in a relationship with God you are half of that relationship! And God says clearly “Be holy as I am holy.” It’s not as if the desire to be holy came from nowhere.

My experience watching Christians is they are at a crossroads once they decide to follow God into the deep waters of holiness. We either realize it is a day by day walk with God that requires humility and wisdom and many bumps along the road or we invent rules that will allow us to “know” when we have met the “holiness standard.” Set by us of course!

Let’s step into Joe or Jill Christian’s life. Let’s say Joe has had a problem with Internet pornography before he came to Christ. He is aware that the Internet, for him, is a dangerous place. And for him initially he might choose to set up some serious parameters around his usage of even his home computer. He might have passwords that his wife knows. A history he is willing to show her (or his Bible study) at any time.

But what if Joe decided his problem required him to set up those same parameters on everyone? What if his own set of rules that he believed needed to be deeply personal convictions for himself he decided needed to be personal convictions for everyone. Joe might become a deeply religious person as he sought to deal with his own weaknesses and aspects of his specific sin nature. But the problem is Joe could easily end up entering the condemnation zone (which is a much worse place than the twilight zone).

The condemnation zone is where you start taking your personal convictions and looking at other people through them and making a judgment on how they are doing with God. How is that other person doing with God? How are they lining up with God? Are they working hard to gain His acceptance? And usually they are not (in your opinion). And you begin making assumptions about their motivations and the condition of their heart.

It’s not like women aren’t prone to these same issues. A woman might come to a conviction about the wearing of certain neck lines, skirt lengths, swimsuit wearing, you name it. And for her it might be a desire to honor what she sees in the Bible as it pertains to holiness and modesty in dress. The challenge for one woman is she may decide that all women everywhere, no matter what age, what culture and what state of relationship to God still have to follow her rules for holiness. She might start on a crusade she thinks is going to honor God but ends up decimating the women and girls around her.

So then how do you see other people? If you have set up stringent standards for yourself you might just decide other people who don’t have your standards just don't care! They're just not dedicated to God like I am! Something is wrong! No longer can you love people but they have to perform up to a certain level before you will allow your love to go out. And you are giving the impression that this is how God feels toward us. And that is not what the Bible says at all! Grace is defined as God’s wonderful goodness and unmerited favor toward people. He gives away his favor just because he wants to! So why are people then trying to earn his favor you ask? Because they believe that's what religion tells them. Religious tradition is filled with this.

The church my father started is an example of religious tradition on steroids. If everything is not done exactly how their rules say things are to be done the response is immediate harshness and condemnation. They monitor and police every member to enforce their religious rules. And if you are not a member of their church or leave their church you are condemned to hell, end of discussion. All the while they tell you their behavior is motivated by their love for you. They have a vague intellectual understanding of grace but they desperately cling to their rules and traditions; their legalism! The Pharisees in the Bible got so lost in their religious rules, traditions and power structures that when the Lord appeared and disrupted their religious system their response was deadly anger.

You completely miss what God has revealed about Himself in the scriptures when you live a life like I just described. The only way a person can find acceptance before this Holy God is to believe in the holy substitute God sent to this earth to essentially go to the gallows for us. For our sin. And that holy substitute is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ alone is holy enough to gain the acceptance of God. Jesus Christ alone is perfect enough to gain the acceptance of God. You and I will never be perfect enough to gain God's acceptance no matter how hard we try. Not by a million miles! But the Good News is that God has a way around this problem. One he designed with Jesus before time began.

The way to gain God’s acceptance is to have someone deal with our sin problem which has put us massively at odds with God. You can’t have sinners hanging out with a holy God who hates sin. At least not very well! The way God the Father provided for us to come to Him and be accepted was Christ. Because He completely accepts Christ and Christ is willing to stand in and take our punishment for us. So the first step in a relationship with the Father is to believe the Son did what He said He could do. Pay for our sin and set us free. To be fully and completely accepted by the Father. You see there is no other way other than faith in the solution, the one He provided, the person of Jesus Christ.

In a sense I need to hide myself behind Jesus Christ who is my stand in. The one who is going to my gallows. I need to be attached to him as a branch to the vine. Then you and I can have that acceptance with God before we try to do anything to please God. The acceptance God has provided is by my faith in Jesus Christ alone, and all of a sudden I find the complete acceptance of God. My sins are forgiven. I am washed clean by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God. And I can experience in my soul the presence of God. And I can experience His love. His love begins to fill my heart and it becomes my motivation! The more I understand His love the more I respond to His love!

Jesus wants individual hearts to be open to Him as Messiah and King. It's why He came. He's not looking for crowds. He is looking for individuals. He wants each of us as individuals to open the gates of our city; open our own individual hearts; and let Him in to be King of our life, each of us. He wants us to let Him set up His throne in our heart, each of us. That's what He wants. And when He does that our whole life changes. And God is saying I will accept you in the exact same way I accept my beloved Son if only you will hide yourself in Him.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3:16-17

Hide yourself in the Son of God. That is where you will find the acceptance of God and you will experience it in your soul. God has promised us that He will put His Holy Spirit within us, just as He put His Holy Spirit upon His only beloved begotten Son. And then we will have God's power to live our lives like Jesus lived and not depend on legalism for God's acceptance. This is a life-long process motivated by the love of God, powered by the strength of God, as we are kept safe within the care of God.

“Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen;
My Beloved in whom My soul is well-pleased;
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
“He will not quarrel, nor cry out;
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
“A battered reed He will not break off,
And a smoldering wick He will not put out,
Until He leads justice to victory.
“And in His name the Gentiles will hope.”
Matthew 12: 18-21

A bruised and battered reed blown over by the wind, knocked over by the forces around it. When someone comes to such a bruised and broken reed the person says: “can I use this?” and someone answers: “No, throw it away. It's worthless!” But Jesus says He will not break it and destroy it. Instead He will take it and heal it. Some of us are like bruised reeds today. We're barely making it, we've been beaten up by the world and we are kind of messed up. We've been knocked down, drug along behind a truck, and we are just shredded wheat on the inside. Just completely mauled and demoralized. And we think what can God do with me? What can God do for me?

God is not interested in you meeting a certain standard before He will accept you. He knows better! God accepts you in Christ. And God wants to come and heal your brokenness. But if you approach God on the basis of works you will never experience that healing because you will always be blocking His moves. You say to God: 'No no, you don't understand, I'm just not good enough!' And God says: “I'm good enough!” I was good for you. Now let me heal your life.” You say to God: “No, you don't understand! I haven't got that act together yet! I'm still working on it.” And we keep blocking His moves.

All the Lord wants you to do is put your hands down. Stop fighting with God. Let Him reach down into your heart and touch your life, in the deep deep areas of your life, and bring freshness and healing. That's vulnerable. Don't be afraid of the Lord. Put the hands down. Sure you are a broken reed, a bruised reed. But see the Lord wants to come in and heal you and set you back up right and wrap that binding string around you to strengthen you and touch your heart and restore your life.

The Lord is well pleased with us when we hide ourselves in Jesus. Let Him cover you with His love. Cease from striving and take Him at His word. He loves you. He is not going to hurt you.

Mark Phelps

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