Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Are you a legalist?

Everyone is a legalist. We're born that way. C J Mahaney defines legalism as "seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God" (The Cross Centred Life. Multnomah. 2002).

A Christian is someone who knows that that they have been saved by grace, that is, that forgiveness is an undeserved gift of God through faith in Jesus and not something they can earn. Yet in their daily walk with God many Christians seem to forget this and their perception of the degree to which they consider themselves accepted by Him varies according to how good a job they think they're doing of obeying Him. This inevitably leads to pride when they think they're doing well and despair when they're not. In other words it is just a more sophisticated form of legalism. They confuse forgiveness and acceptance and reverse the order of the gospel. This demonstrates how deeply the ideas of reward and acceptance for good works and punishment for doing wrong is ingrained in us. We are born that way. We think "how could God possibly love me after I've done that!" but the truth is that we don't realise that our sins are far worse than we imagine. And that is the wonder of God's grace for our sins against the Holy God are so bad that only the blood of His Son would be enough to pay the penalty and His love for us is so great that Jesus willingly suffered and died for us so that we don't have to try to 'measure up'. As a result we don't have to earn His favour or acceptance. If we have believed the gospel we are already accepted by the King of the universe! We cannot add to that or take away from it. Thus we are accepted every day - whether we do well or badly, whether we have a good day or a bad day. In one sense we can say that Christians are free to do what they please! Because Jesus lived the perfect life that we could not and bore the punishment that we deserve then, if we have put our hope in Him, God only ever loves us. He's not a tempramental monster who gets angry with us when we mess up as some imagine Him to be. God's attitude towards us is unchanging. If we have believed the gospel message then God is no longer angry at our sin. Sure, he disciplines us, but in love not anger. Now I'm not saying we shouldn't obey God - simply that it is crucial that we remember the gospel order: I am accepted by God because of Jesus, therefore I obey.

Of course, non christians will say "I'm not trying to earn God's acceptance, I don't need Him!" but the reality is that, in some way, we all want to be accepted. We all need to feel valued. And everyone spends effort on it: in the way they dress, in the things they say and do. We need to feel acceptance from our peers or those we look up to thus we try to hide, minimize or explain away our behaviour or blame someone else when we mess up. Its a never-ending struggle because we keep messing up and people keep letting us down. Its hard work and it never pays off. We never find what we really yearn for. People never love us or value us like we want them to. But there is one who loves us and is prepared to accept us unconditionally, one who never gets angry with us when we mess up. One who never has a bad mood or turns nasty with us. His name is Jesus. He longs for you to turn to Him. Just as you are. Why try to earn what will always elude you? Go to Him and discover the freedom and joy that comes from knowing and experiencing the radical, life-altering love of the God who made you so that you could know and be satisfied in Him.

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