Even occasional readers of my humble ramblings know that the start of my faith narrative was mired in legalism. My first church believed you could not spell denomination without “no”. Starting from that faulty foundation led me to years of sadness, tiredness and performance bondage.
One thousand times I’ve failed
Still your mercy remains
Should I stumble again
I’m caught in your grace
Everlasting your light will shine when all else fades
I remembered day after day of agonizing self-loathing because I kept failing. I did not understand His mercy nor did I believe I could fall on His grace. I was taught that such an attitude showed a lack of obedience and a dependence on “cheap grace”. Somehow I missed the message of Jesus to the religious hypocrites as I was influenced by the preaching of shame.
I was released from that doctrinal prison just a few years ago. Moralism is answering to the wrong source of authority. Legalists often default to religious traditions rather than the Word of God.
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 can 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 can 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.”
I spent many long and frustrating years trying to do all the right things to be righteous. I got tired. I became discouraged. I 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. And that is the day that I began to experience what Hillside United sings about in today’s song.
My heart and my soul
I give you control
Consume me from the inside out
Let justice and praise become my embrace
To love you from the inside out
And the cry of my heart is to bring you praise from the inside out
That is where real change happens. From the inside out. Moralism can restrain sin but only the Holy Spirit gives you the power to not sin. Moralism will always fail. Either you will fail to live up to your standards or you will fail by damaging those you love.
If you are tired enough, discouraged enough, wounded enough and ready to give up then I have a very odd statement to make.
You are in a wonderful place. You are ready for grace.
Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. (Romans 6, NLT)
You are ready for change from the inside out. God is waiting for you to experience His grace. Legalism is a dead end street to misery. There is a better way to live.