I have learned to reserve my use of the word hate. I don’t say that I hate those who oppose my faith. I don’t hate those who have opposite political views. I don’t even hate the Michigan Wolverines even though that will get my Buckeye passport revoked. I do, however, have a few things for which I will use the word hate.
I hate legalism in Christianity. Legalism is answering to the wrong source of authority. Legalists default to religious traditions rather than the Word of God. My faith journey began in a legalistic church. I will probably always walk with a bit of a spiritual limp. Legalism has reared it’s ugly and sinful head in the lives of some very dear friends. They are being hurt by church-goers who are living in legalism.
Legalism takes the sweet Gospel of Jesus Christ and mixes in some “churchified” version of the law. Church by-laws occupy equal footing with God’s Word. Righteousness is no longer about Christ but about right behavior as only they define it. Legalism cherry picks verses that support behavioral control while conveniently ignoring dozens of verses about grace, forgiveness, kindness, love, gentleness and forbearance.
Focusing on right behavior does make you moral and perhaps a good person. It does not make you righteous. Such focus is not much different (if at all) from an agnostic or sporadic church-goer who really tries hard to do right and moral things. Tim Keller wrote this provocative thought about legalism in his wonderful book The Reason for God.
The devil, if anything, prefers Pharisees—men and women who try to save themselves. They are more unhappy than either mature Christians or irreligious people, and they do a lot more spiritual damage.
Without a doubt. I have been damaged. I have seen loved ones damaged. I have damaged others.
I hate legalism but I don’t hate legalists. I hurt for them. I suspect they are tired, miserable and wondering what happened to the once joyous message of the Gospel. What happened is that we take God’s amazing grace and mix in our own interpretation of the law. Never watching an R-rated movie or touching alcohol does not make me righteous. Going to church six times a week does not make me righteous.
Righteousness is entirely because of Christ. Nothing I have done or will do will make me righteous. I spent three decades trying to be “righteous”. When I hit a dry spell I would try harder, read more books, buck up and beat myself up because I felt so distant from God. Lots of helpful Christian friends would faithfully remind me that God hadn’t moved so it had to be me. So I disliked myself more and tried harder and God seemed even more distant. And I got tired. I was discouraged. I got wounded again by the church. I had reached the end of my spiritual rope. I cried out to Jesus something along these lines.
“I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!”
God does not get insulted by all-caps. In fact, I imagine that Jesus smiled at that point because I was finally ready to trust Him and not myself. I had reached the point of brokenness that allowed me turn over the keys to Christ. I reached the point where I no longer had to be right. I had reached the point where I didn’t want to wear a phony mask of holiness. I had reached the point where I was willing to trust God completely with everything about me. I had reached the point where I was ready for grace. I had reached the point where I was willing to believe what God says is true about me. That I am completely forgiven. I am completely loved. I am completely changed because of Christ. I am completely empowered with the Holy Spirit to mature into all of those things that are already true about me. I am righteous not because of anything I have done but entirely because of Christ.
If you are tired enough, discouraged enough, wounded enough and ready to scream you can’t do this anymore then I have good news. You are ready for grace. If you haven’t done it then please listen to the message of the Two Roads and Two Rooms.
God is waiting for you to experience His grace. Legalism is a dead end street to misery. There is a better road. What have you got to lose?