Under legalism, Christian obedience becomes a razor's edge upon which we must walk to enter heaven. Legalism creates a perceived impossibility to our Christian life where we must carry the cross of our own salvation out of fear that God will shame us if we do not uphold doctrines that have superseded scripture in their importance. Jennifer Stymiest and Sam Neves are joined on this week's episode of ANN InDepth by Jill Morikone, the Vice President/COO of 3ABN to discuss the dangers of legalism and its relationship to our understanding of grace.
Morikone describes her definition of legalism as this:
“To me, legalism is not obedience. They are two completely different things. Legalism is concerned with keeping the law while ignoring the law-giver. It's Christ-less law-keeping. It is elevating commandments of men to the level of a doctrine from God.”
Grace is not a New Testament invention, brought by a non-confrontational savior. The same God who poured out the Holy Spirit at pentecost, and bathed new believers in the New Testament is the same God who extended endless grace in the Old Testament. The Bible is not a work divided, but a manifesto of a consistent God who wishes to detangle the disillusions which keep us from full relationship. Living in grace does not mean we have to “do more,” nor is scripture a punishment to guilt you into works in order to earn God’s love.
We already belong, we are already children of grace and therefore there is nothing we could do to “earn” salvation or be “more” saved. At this point, our responsibility is merely to grow in our understanding of Grace. Yet so many stop in the knowledge of grace, not living grace. The other extreme is to believe we can keep living as we are, with the get-out-of-hell- free card of grace. Morikone elaborates, saying,
I call it cheap grace. [We think] “grace covers everything so that means I am saved by grace”, absolutely that is biblical and that is true that I can be forgiven absolutely, but then we kind of stop there and we don't go into what Peter says, “but grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” we don't see that grace it leads to holiness.
To relegate grace as a Tide pen, to dab away little stains while on the move, rather than surrendering to the full cleansing immersion of grace that can only come with understanding, is to sell ourselves short. Morikone implores for us to “learn that grace not only saves me but grace empowers me to walk in holiness.”
How easy it is for those raised in the church to believe they are exempt from the need of grace. This thinking comes with the misconception that our avoidance of the “big sins” like murder, adultury, alchohol, drugs, etc. make us better, and that we may not need as much grace as those who have a darker past, blinding us from the reality that there is no ranking for sin. Petty gossip, holding bitterness, judgement of new believers stumbling for deeper understanding of God, make us just as eligible for Grace. To say, “I never sin” is itself a sin.
So how do we separate ourselves from the legalistic mindset? “Stopping” our sinful actions and behaviors through harsh self-discipline is merely a continuation of legalistic beliefs, therefore we must recognize the truth that will set us free: all we must do is surrender. When the temptations consume us, and the draw to old patterns try to trap us, we are called only to let go. How beautiful to know that the way to freedom isn't dependent on our ability to perform, but to simply let go. We aren’t working to earn something, we are simply claiming what has already been given to us. We don’t need to find it. We don’t need to pay down the debt. We just need to take a breath, admit our weakness and allow our spiritual selves to unclench. For those who live in spiritual anxiety, who’s default is to think that we are “doing something wrong” because we are not immediately released from the strongholds of temptation and doubt, must understand what God is calling us to do. God could relieve us from the burden of our temptations, but He is allowing us to practice surrender day by day. To be still and allow the Lord to fight for you, you are in fact confronting old thought patterns that keep you in slavery to legalism and similar sins that warp out Christian growth.
Extend to others the grace that is extended to you. Rather then trapping others in your legalistic mindset, liberate them, and yourself by refraining from imposing impossible standards of spiritual perfection.