The Blessing of Life in a Culture of Pure Legalism
I have had the privilege of having significant relationships with Christians from various traditions. Because of our Mormon culture, Christians here are sensitive to the issue of legalism and discuss it often. Mormons specialize in legalism because their religion is all about legalism from beginning to end. They talk much about the importance of doing good things. We agree with them that it is good to do good things. But when we Christians explain how grace is unmerited favor, they object and declare that obedience to commandments is necessary to please God and be accepted by Him. One can't get forgiveness free they tell us because that would make people lazy. They do use the word grace and are doing so more and more, but don't be fooled. If you listen closely and ask questions you will discover that what they mean by grace is usually some form of kind or gentle legalism--another chance to keep the rules. Grace doesn't free you from the rules, but gives you help and more time to keep them. Rules must eventually be kept. So living in this overwhelmingly dominant culture of Mormonism of pure legalism forces us to stay alert. Without alertness here one can easily get sucked into the lies of legalism.
What is legalism?
This simple question is not simple to answer. I have thought about it for many years and been dissatisfied with my own study, with my own understanding, and with what I have heard others say or write about it. A few years ago I sought to avoid using the word because, even here, we tend to be sensitive to legalism in other people but not in ourselves. Why is it that when we Christians use the word legalism we are almost always pointing the finger at other people and not at ourselves--at other denominations and not at our own? Why do I never point the finger at myself and say something like: "Wow, I am really having legalistic thoughts. or I am having a legalistic day. or Please forgive me for being so legalistic"? Do you notice any legalism in others? Some likely notice it in you. When is the last time you noticed it in yourself? Isn't this an interesting dilemma?
The Key Word: Manageable
Just recently a word or thought came to me that may be helpful: manageable. Mormonism is all about making God's expectations manageable. Does God really want us Christians to do that? To think or speak of God's law or commandments in a manageable way is legalism. To think or speak of my (or your) obedience in a manageable way is legalism. Now that seems to have enough clarity so that I can begin to notice legalism in myself and you can notice it in yourself. Am I making the law, commandments, or my obedience manageable? Likely we all have an intuitive sense about it, and thus we can notice it somewhat when we see it in others, but without clear thinking can't see it in ourselves.
It is like judgmentalism. A huge number of Mormons have told me that what they really don't like about other Mormons is that they are so judgmental. I generally ask those people if it is easy for them to resist the temptation to judge judgmental people. That question gently asked always wins the lottery. Every time the person has responded in embarrassment admitting to being just like the people being criticized. It is good to judge if we judge by perfection as God does, otherwise we are judging unrighteously. What authority do we have to do that? Righteous judgment--judgment by the standard of perfection--reveals that we are all in the same boat together as failures and makes it impossible to look down on another person--truly impossible. When we judge by some lowered manageable standards, we have entered the arena of competition where some of us succeed and others fail. Judgmentalism then is unavoidable. You may think highly of yourself that you are able to have manageable standards without being judgmental, but by doing so you are just proving my point that you think that you can succeed where others fail. You are fooling yourself. In the same way, God's law and obedience to God are good. Could it be that legalism is simply the natural result of shrinking either of these in such a way as to make them manageable?
Notice the following beautiful verse in a Messianic chapter in the Gospel of Isaiah. I call it the Gospel of Isaiah because it is filled with grace--unmerited favor poured out on God's people--righteousness as a gift--God's delight in His Son and in His people.
"The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness sake; He will exalt the law and make it glorious." -Isaiah 42:21
Does this verse convey a sense of awe and glory, or of manageability? Exaltation is the opposite of manageability. But God can manage the exaltation of the law, where as we can't. Read Isaiah 6:1-7 and notice his experience.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the traina of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Whatever Isaiah saw crushed his pride. He realized and cried out that he was a spiritually ruined man. What he saw was so big that it made him realize that all the people of Israel were spiritually ruined, too. The result was that Isaiah was spiritually healed and transformed. What did he see? I suggest that he saw the perfect righteousness of God and the surprise of unmerited favor that flows from that righteousness. In John 12:38-41, the Apostle John declares that what Isaiah saw in his vision was Isaiah chapter 53--"by his knowledge the righteous servant will make many righteous, for he will bear their iniquities." I have been greatly blessed to notice this connection and meditate much on it. See if such meditation might bless you.
How to do Legalism Well
I would like to give a humorous exhortation of how to do legalism well. If you live in Mormon culture you likely will hear an echo of this culture. That is the point. Manageability is the name of the game in Mormonism. Satan is alive and well and seeking to get us Christians to believe his lies and to think like Mormons, who are expert legalists or managers of God's expectations. They use religious words with unbiblical definitions which sound so convincing. Thus in the following, most religious words will be used with enticing Mormon definitions: worldliness, godliness, flesh, walking in the Spirit, laziness, obedience, and more. Remember that Satan masquerades as an angel of light and so his advice will be subtle counterfeits of truth. Here is my version of some of his advice to Christians as to how to obey God. See if you can detect the lies in the words and how manageability is ever present. Especially deceitful is the word flesh. Let's learn to laugh at ourselves in our failures so that we might better notice when we have bought into the lies. So here goes. What follows is Satan's advice for how to obey God.
- The first step in obedience to God is to realize that obedience is very important and that it is wrong and sinful to not obey God.
- Second, it is important to realize that there are two serious errors to avoid in seeking to obey God. Just as one can go in the ditch on the left or right side of the road when driving, so it is possible to be a lazy Christian or a legalist. Laziness is obvious. There are a lot of people who don't want to take seriously living the Christian life well--growing in the lord and living a holy life. This is a big problem, but the other problem can sneak up on a person who is taking obedience seriously. In seeking to avoid laziness it is possible to over correct and end up off the other side of the road in the ditch of legalism. Legalism is about using the law in a wrong way. The law is good but some people get way too pushy with it. That is legalism. So be careful to avoid being lazy, but also avoid being too pushy with the law.
- Third, let's clarify and solidify our understanding. Make no mistake: God wants us to do good to our families, fellow saints, and unsaved neighbors. The Good Samaritan was one of Jesus' most popular parables. That Samaritan went out of his way to help a man who likely hated Samaritans. Use this parable as a reminder that no one is too bad for you to help. So be a good Samaritan to the people in your life. As you go through your days visualize others as hurt and in the ditch and in need of some kind of compassion from you.
- Fourth, you likely already notice that we all sometimes forget to do good and fail. It is important to not condemn yourself for that. Remember that Jesus is everything you need. And as long as you aren't a lazy Christian, you can look at your past and see that you have come a long way. That should be a big comfort. When you fail, thank God for Jesus. Remember that He doesn't expect for you to be perfect in your obedience but only to make progress in becoming a more obedient Christian day by day.
- Fifth, keep in mind that the key to winning the spiritual battle is to know your enemy. It may be that the flesh is the greatest enemy in the Christian life. The flesh is your weakness and tendency to sin. So watch out for those in every situation. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Don't let your weaknesses and sins rule you.
- Sixth, another enemy to watch out for is worldliness. This is a deceitful trap. Many men get trapped in watching too much sports and some women get trapped in following the latest fashions. Many young people get hooked on cell phones. These are just three obvious examples, but there are many more. Use self-control or you will find yourself getting pulled into sins of various kinds. There are many ways to sin; so be alert for temptation.
- Seventh, the third thing to watch our for is ungodliness. We can approach this topic from a positive direction. Live a godly life and ungodliness will not be a problem for you. Choose to fill your life with prayer, Bible reading, evangelism, helping the poor, and visiting the shut-ins in your church. These days there are so many children from broken homes. Seek to speak blessing to those people at church because they have it real rough. All these things are good and so when you focus on them you won't have time for ungodly things like greed, selfishness, anger, laziness, and more.
- Eighth, remember that you are a new creation in Christ. This means that you have a new nature and thus sin can now really be a thing of the past for you. The Holy Spirit has power. Don't get tricked into thinking that the Spirit isn't strong enough to help you resist sin.
- Ninth, remember that you are not a lone-ranger Christian. You are part of God's people. Therefore apply all the above principles to the Christians you know. Remind them of these principles and exhort them to apply them.
- Last, walk in the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. The Spirit always leads you to its fruit: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, etc. The Spirit never points you to immorality, impurity, envy, idolatry, strife, anger, drunkenness, and such like. The flesh does that. Keep these two lists in mind as you seek to be led by the Spirit. The Spirit will never lead you to sin.
- Now you are ready to obey God. The sky is the limit when you have the Spirit to empower you to do God's will.
Legalism is seeing God's expectations--His commandments and our obedience--in some manageable form. Only Jesus can manage perfect expectations. This applies when thinking of Christians and non-Christians.