Thursday, August 13, 2009

a definition of legalism

It's been brought to my attention that I need to define legalism.

Ed Welch says there are 2 main ways we can define legalism:

  • an attachment to specific rules, so that we make the Bible say more than it actually does say on issues like card-playing, dancing or drinking alcohol (it's always someone else who does this, of course, never me!)
  • adding something to the death of Jesus, so that we are made right with God not only by faith in Jesus' death, but also on the basis of what we do
It's the second that I've been addressing this week.

But it's not normally as blatant as this, is it? Most of us wouldn't say " I need to believe in Jesus and also do x and y to be accepted by God." We know it's only through faith in Jesus' death that God makes us right with him.

For us it will be more subtle.

Perhaps we have a "good day -bad day" mentality. We expect God to bless us on days when we've had our quiet time, but on days when we've skipped our quiet time and been grumpy with our children, we don't expect God to bless us. In other words, we're making God's blessing dependent on what we do rather than on Jesus' death.

Perhaps we wallow in guilt when we've done the wrong thing, and feel like we have to "fix things up" before we can approach God in prayer. Again, we're adding something to the death of Christ: it's not enough to believe in Jesus, I also have to make things right with God before he will be happy to hear my prayers.

Perhaps we're anxious or depressed because we've failed some invisible standard. At some level, we feel like we have to prove ourselves to God, others or ourselves before we can be content. We're putting our security in something else besides Jesus' death: in the opinion of others, or in our self-opinion, or in earning God's favour.

Or perhaps, as I talked about here, it's that we think rules, regulations and vows are the way to grow in Jesus. We become Christians through faith in Christ, but we grow as Christians through disciplines and programs. I'll talk more about the alternative to this view in my next post on Tim Chester's You Can Change. But again, it's a way of putting our hope for transformation in something besides the death of Christ.

If you're still not sure what I mean by legalism, please ask me to clarify in the comments! Legalism is a slippery concept, as Nicole observed here. But I think it's really important to understand legalism or we'll fall into the same error as the Galatians, who thought circumcision was necessary as well as faith in Jesus; or the Colossians, who thought that we grow through rules and self-denial rather than through the gospel.

To add to the cross of Christ is to say that the cross of Christ is not enough.


Aggie said...

Hi Jean,

Just wanted to thank you and say how much I've been enjoying your blog and how helpful it's been.

Thank you very much for your clarification on legalism also! Your posts have been a great reminder that we do not come to God on our own terms. That we are instead wonderfully and gloriously welcomed into relationship with Him through His Grace alone.

It did make me wonder however what that meant for those who did advocate for quiet times or regular readings of the bible. Are they adding to the work of Jesus?

Jean said...

Wonderful question, Aggie, and funny to say I just wrote a whole seminar on that! ;) We will come to the issues you raise later in the blog series on change, but here's some thoughts for now.

I would definitely advocate reading the Bible and praying regularly!! I just wouldn't make rules about it, or see "doing quiet times" as the basis of faith and growth - e.g. "do this set of spiritual disciplines and you will grow".

We grow in the same way as we become Christians (sneak preview!) - through receiving God's grace in Christ through faith and repentance. Chester says that the only true spiritual disciplines (the only things we need to do to receive God's grace in Christ) are faith and repentance (faith = turning to Christ, and repentance = turning from sin - not an add-on to faith, but the flipside of faith).

Out of our faith in Christ grow all kinds of things: love, joy, peace, self-control, prayerfulness, service, thanksgiving (read the lists that come at the end of books like Ephesians and Colossians).

These things come from faith (you can't really have faith without this fruit!) and build up our faith. (Like Luther said, "We're saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.") So this is where things like reading the Bible, meeting with other Christians, and prayer belong. Chester calls these things "strategies which reinforce faith and repentance". I think of them as "outworkings of faith which grow our faith".

Reading the Bible also has a special place because the way we're saved and the way we grow is through the word of the gospel which comes to us in the Bible. So exposing yourself to the Bible is really just filling your mind and heart with the gospel - and that's where salvation and growth come from! So reading, memorising and meditating on God's word, preaching it to youself, hearing it read and preached, are all ways we hear the gospel and grow in our faith. Not as a set of rules or boxes to tick. But a way of setting our eyes on Jesus and growing deeper into him.