How do you deal with the problem of legalism?
Here's a brief reminder of what we mean by legalism:
Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. (C. J. Mahaney)Some important presuppositions
1. Repentance is a life long work
My approach to gardening is to launch a blitzkrieg against the weeds and then to bask in the victory. The weeds then gain their revenge by growing back. In my astonishment I lose heart that I didn't kill them in one go. If we attempt to deal with sin and temptation that way we will be profoundly disheartened. We need the realism that repentance is a life long work.
The seeds of legalism are rooted in indwelling sin, and we deceive ourselves if we think that there is a once for all cure that will leave us trouble free from then on. That said, realism is not the same as defeatism. We are not bound to constant failure but, if the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, then we are debtors not to the flesh but to the Spirit. We must put to death sin to death, including the sin of legalism, every time it rears its head.
Legalism is a form of idolatry. It seeks independence from grace and promotes self-reliance, it is a manifestation of pride, self-love and self-trust. No Christian this side of glory has been totally free from the desire and temptation to become a legalist.
2. Legalism is a heart problem
Berkhof noted the dangerous tendency among some of the early church fathers to turn the Gospel into a new law. He observed that:
The view taken of good works is legal rather than evangelical. This moralistic perversion of New Testament Christianity found its explanation in the natural self-righteousness of the human heart. (History of Christian Doctrines, p. 205).Or as Sohm put it "the natural man is born a Catholic." Internally we seek to establish our own righteousness before God, sewn together from the material of our pious thoughts and religious performances. The gospel has to be perverted to become a new law that says "do this and live" instead of the actual good news of what God has done for us in Christ.
3. The heart externalizes its legalistic desires into concrete forms
From our own imagination, even with the best intentions, we can spin a web of requirements that either we ourselves or other believers then get caught up in. We simply add things that God has not required and make them essential to a relationship with him. Or else we even take the things that God has required and subtly let them supplant Christ and his righteousness as the basis of our acceptance with God.
God does not accept me because today I'm actually up to date on my chapter a day Bible reading plan. God does not accept me because I stand in the pulpit and preach his Word. My righteousness is not boosted when I tell people that I pray for them everyday, or am known as the person in the congregation with the best theological knowledge or evangelistic gifts.
How easy it is to construct visible structures that indicate publicly the level of our performance and all the while they are feeding self-reliance and self-righteousness. This is the way that those conscious of their sin, broken hearted by it and repentant, are crushed by the weight of false expectations. This is also the way that pride is reinforced and grace diminished.
Legalism thrives under the canopy of unnecessary forms that we or others have imposed as the basis and standard of acceptance with God. Our grubby sinful hearts can use even good things in the service of self-righteousness. The solution is not to get rid of good things, but to keep them firmly in their proper place, and never let them supplant the gospel of free acceptance in Christ.