The packaging may change, but legalism has always been a significant challenge to the Gospel. In every culture, there have been people within the church who seek to add something to faith as a requirement for “true Christianity.” In the New Testament times, Paul’s greatest challenge came from those who taught that the only way a person could be a Christian was if they obeyed the Jewish law and took on circumcision. In our culture, the legalistic ideas usually come from religious systems that seek to help people know the requirements for being a Christian. To be honest, every form of religion is based on some element of legalism. This means that all religions make the assumption that there is a God (or gods) and that we as people need to do certain things and keep certain rules in order to gain the acceptance of that God. Most in the culture of Eureka embrace the key ideas of the Christian faith, because they have some sort of church background. But for many, a living, passionate relationship with their Creator is replaced with a religious system of sacraments, rules, and experiences.
Legalism is appealing to a spiritual culture, because people want to make sure they have all the bases covered with God. They are drawn to religious instruction that will teach them the baseline, the lowest denominator of things they must do in order to get to heaven. For some, this connects to pride, an inner belief that they have something to offer God. For others, legalism provides the religious experience while at the same time allowing them to hold a compartmentalized faith. Legalism communicates to us, because it is difficult to understand what it means that a person is saved by grace alone. There must be something I do, right? Legalism gives the list so that a person knows the rules, and understands the steps he or she must take to gain acceptance in God’s eyes. Once a person knows the base set of rules, he or she sets out to give the best effort to keep them, to uphold their end of the deal. Legalism says, “I obey, and then I am accepted.”
Legalistic Christian faith also has deep appeal to people who are seeking spiritual answers about their children. Having children often brings people back to the big questions in life, the issues of purpose, priorities, hope, and eternal destiny. Often, people feel that they had religion thrust on them when they were young, but as they have children, they want to make sure their children are safe spiritually. They want to know that they need to do to make sure their children will have God and eternal life. They want the list.
This is the crux of legalism, a list or formula. In some groups, the list is made up of a set of sacraments or observances a person must do in order to meet God half way. If a person is baptized, takes communion, confesses sins, then they have covered all the bases and are accepted by God. In others, it is a set of morals, so people seek to live by a set of rules. I often tease that those people are the ones who don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or date girls who do. Often, people will take secondary issues they are passionate about, and seek to impose them on others. In our culture, we have people who are legalistic about the way people should date, homeschooling, the use of alcohol, clothes to wear to church… The list could go on and on. Others turn to good works and benevolence in their form of legalism. In their eyes, people are accepted by God because they help the poor, care for widows and orphans, and support good causes financially.
Here is why legalism is so hard to battle. For the most part all of these issues are very good. God gave sacraments as tangible reminders of grace. The Bible does call people to good morals and a holy lifestyle. Every follower of Jesus should give to and help the poor and needy. When people experience the Gospel, they will feel a call to all of these things. But none of these are the basis for a person’s acceptance in Christ. The Gospel is this, that Jesus died for our sins, in our place. He did this because we are completely incapable of reaching God, so God came to us. We cannot meet God half way by doing good works and keeping our end of the deal. The only response to the grace of God is faith, to trust Jesus. Paul said, “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift from God, not as a result of works, so that no man can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).”
So how does the Gospel speak to legalism? It is tough. When people have been convinced that they are alright with God because of the things they are doing, it is difficult for them to see the depth of their depravity. This is why a good portion of the New Testament speaks directly to the legalism that was seeping into the church (much of Romans, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and all of Galatians). We must be very careful that we hold tightly to the message of grace. Our teaching must diligently point people to the cross as the only remedy for sin, and faith as the only response. When we talk about the life and moral issues in the Scriptures, we need to make sure people know that they cannot be saved, or gain any level of acceptance in God’s sight by being moral or doing good works. Rather, a follower of Jesus does good works, is changed morally, and is involved in religious activity because they are being changed by a relationship with God. We must teach God’s standards, yet at the same time remind people that they cannot do it without Christ living in them. We need to remind people that legalism says that “I obey, therefore I am accepted.” The Gospel says, “I am accepted because of Jesus, therefore I obey.”
In this series of blogs, I am attempting a couple things. First, I wanted to point out what I believe are the key false doctrines that tend to be challenges to the Gospel in Eureka. Second, I wanted to give some thoughts about how we as people and our church can answer the spiritual questions that are answered by these false ideas with the Gospel. Here is my attempt at part two. How can we speak the gospel into the lives of people who embrace legalistic Christianity? First, we must challenge the legalistic tendencies within ourselves. Think about it. In your mind, what is a Christian? What morals, political views, religious activities, and good works are on your list? Do you tend to judge people when they don’t live up to your list, and feel pride when you do? That is legalism!
It is also imperative that we tether every teaching to grace and the cross. When we speak of morals, we need to call people to holiness and purity, but this is only possible because Jesus died and as a result of grace. We need to remind people to care for the hurting, but this is an expression of the love of Christ in our lives. Every text in the Bible is a reminder that we need to be rescued from ourselves, and that God sent Jesus as the rescuer.
The question about children is a big one. It is important that we help people with fears over the spiritual condition of their kids. But the answer to this question is not our spiritual activity, but the character of God. Creating a system of events and rituals for children will lead people to depend on those events. We need to let people know that God is good, and His grace is sufficient. The answer to even this question must be the Gospel. It’s also the reason we place a strong emphasis on our Genesis Kids Ministry. We want children hearing the Gospel continually from birth until they are old enough to understand their sin and need for Jesus.