Ancil Jenkins (a fellow servant for several years in South Florida) shared this illustration: ‘Fasten your seat belt,’ I said to my wife, Elaine. ‘It is the law, you know.’ As she fastened her seat belt, I thought, ‘Dummy, that is not the reason you want her buckled up. You want her protected from the harm of any accident you might drive her into.’
How shallow would be my concern if I was more in fear of paying a fine than in her being seriously hurt!
“How much this can describe our approach to our obedience to God! Almost all we do is from mixed motives. Yet which motive is overriding? Do we obey because we fear God’s wrath and judgment? Do we feel He will break our leg or burn down our house if we disobey? Do we feel that Christianity is just a set of rules to be obeyed and our satisfaction comes from doing a good job of keeping rules?
“The result of such an attitude will only breed fear and guilt. Fear comes from any failure to obey, and there will be such failure. Guilt comes from many sources, such as finding there was a law you had been failing to obey. Any failure at perfect obedience can lead to regarding some laws as more important than others. All this can lead to a disregard of others who do not keep laws as well as we do (Luke 18:1). It can lead us to giving more attention to the minute details and neglecting the major virtues God desires us to have (Matt. 23:23). We become ridiculous gnat strainers and camel swallowers (Matt. 23:24).
“We should obey God because we love Him. We obey because He has done so much for us and we have done so little for Him. We obey because love is never content to accept but must always give. Jesus said, ‘If you love Me, you will do what I command’ (John 14:15). We then come to realize that our disobedience not only breaks the laws of God, it also breaks the heart of God. How often they rebelled against Him in the wilderness and grieved Him in the desert! (Ps. 78:40).
“Such obedience is far fuller, richer, and freer than can ever come from a legal motivation. Imagine a woman who is a nurse and a mother. She may work at a hospital all day caring for the sick. When she has worked eight hours, she goes home. Upon arriving home, she finds her child is seriously ill. She will then give her child the same care she gives the hospital patients. However, when she has cared for her child for eight hours, she will not quit. She gives care no one can buy. The difference is the motivation.
“What is your major motivation? Seek to know God better, and you will find yourself obeying out of love. It will become ‘richer, fuller, deeper’ and will become ‘sweeter as the years go by.’ “
We want to begin a study of legality, or legalism.
There is much misunderstanding on this subject by many. We tend to think that everybody else has it, but that we don’t. We often treat it like the common cold. We don’t understand what it is or how to cure it, but almost everyone suffers from it, and we find it to be very highly contagious.
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to liken it to hay fever, since I see that some of you are joining me in a chorus of snuffing and sniffling and wheezy breathing. Legality can be very much like that. It comes upon you and you hardly know what has happened. But there it is. The symptoms are suddenly present and you don’t know what to do with it — certainly not how to cure it — and so you suffer through it, but don’t know what is wrong.
But legality is one of the favorite weapons of the enemy. He loves to get Christians to be legalistic, for then he has destroyed their enjoyment of the Spirit and he can use them to spread havoc among a generation or a company of believers, and ruin a vital, active, and growing Christian group.
The enemy wants us to doubt our relationship with God…to doubt the work of grace in our life…to think we need to ‘earn our way’ in order to be pleasing to God.
That is exactly what happened in Galatia, and is what drew forth the letter to the Galatians from the Apostle Paul.
Here was a group of young Christians who had a fantastic beginning. Their response to the preaching of the apostle was heartwarming. They had given themselves totally to Christ. Paul was greatly enthusiastic about this group of growing young Christians. But, after a while, word came to him that legality had set in, legalism was taking its toll.
What had been a bright and marvelous testimony of the grace and glory of God was being turned into a dull, apathetic group of religionists — cold, barren, and empty, almost devoid of spiritual life.
That is what legality will do. Legalism destroys! It did then, and it does the same thing today. I know of no affliction in Christendom which is more widespread, and more devastating in its destructiveness, than this.
Across the world today many churches are sunken into a pall of boredom and futility largely because of the legalistic spirit which has throttled their spiritual vitality.
Legalism can also be described as false Christianity because that is essentially what it is. It uses Christian language and biblical terms. It sounds evangelical. It loves to use phrases like “evangelism,” “fundamentalism,” “biblical literalism,” and such. It sounds Christian, and looks Christian, but it is emphatically not true Christianity.
It as a spurious fake, an imitation Christianity, an empty, hollow counterfeit of the real thing. It is a burdensome drag upon the spiritual life that creates a sense of bondage and guilt. It is a sickening, nauseating fraud in the eyes of others.
God describes it in the Scriptures as a stench in his nostrils. That is what legality really is. We ought not to be proud of it in any degree although, strangely enough, I find Christians boasting of their legalism. They don’t call it that, but they nevertheless boast in what is in effect a legalistic spirit. But God does not boast of it. He finds it disgusting. Yet it is so widespread.
Why is that? Why should it be so universal? Surely the answer is that the enemy strives diligently to keep us in ignorance as to what legalism really is. We recognize certain forms of it and try to divest ourselves of those, but then we are not aware of other forms of it that are gripping our lives and holding us in bondage. So while we are denouncing legality on one side, as practiced by others, we ourselves are practicing it in another form. Thus it spreads its noxious influence throughout a local Christian body, across the nation, and throughout the entire worldwide church.
How can you recognize legalism? That is the question we want to zero in on. We must first understand that since legality is basically false Christianity, then you can never recognize the false unless you understand the true. That is where I want to start.
What is real Christianity? What is Christianity as the Scriptures set it forth — true Spirit-filled living? Let me attempt a definition: True Christianity is to manifest genuinely Christ-like behavior by dependence on the working of the Spirit of God within, motivated by a love for the glory and honor of God.
That is the genuine article. You will notice that it has three essential elements, and without all three it becomes legality. If it fails in even one point it is nothing but legality:
First, there is an expected pattern of behavior. There is a law, if you like, a code, to which we are expected to conform. Many Christians make the mistake of thinking that to be free from legalism you must become free from any law whatsoever. Nothing is further from the truth.
The Scriptures never endorse that notion but what we are talking about is not freedom from the Law but freedom from the curse of the Law. That is something quite different.
There always must be law. This is a law-governed universe because the law reflects the character of God. God himself is reality. God is behind all things, and his character is the law which governs everything. Therefore, Christians must always be related to law — the law of the character of Christ, of the law of the Ten Commandments — it is the same thing.
The Ten Commandments simply describe the nature of God’s character. So true Christianity isn’t freedom from the existence of law. There is always a standard, always a code of conduct to be observed. That is essential. But be careful what the standard is! You can go wrong selecting the law. You can be legalistic in the standard you have set.
The second necessary element is a sufficient and adequate power. That is absolutely essential to true Christianity. The whole glory of the gospel comes in right at this point. The good news is that God has given us a sufficient and adequate power, indwelling us, available to us at all times, so that we never have an excuse for not being what we ought to be. In the Spirit of Jesus Christ, indwelling us, we have what it takes — a sufficient and adequate power.
The third essential is a motive which moves us to action — a powerful, compelling hunger for the glory of God, an urge that God be honored and glorified. If I can put all the foregoing in another way, the true Christian life is fulfilling a law by means of a unique power because of an overwhelming desire.
It requires: An outward standard or code of behavior, An inward power which makes it possible to meet it, and A motive which drives us on to do so.
But it takes all three. You cannot manifest genuine Christianity without all three. If it fails at any one point it immediately becomes legality. The other two can be perfect and yet it still will be legality. You can go wrong at any one of three places.