Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (NASB)
I have been thinking about the topic of legalism in the Body of Christ. I see legalism as one of the most difficult issues to help a counselee to understand in the counseling process. When I meet with a woman for counseling I can hear legalism embedded in the language she uses even though she may not realize she is a legalist.
I become very clued in to this issue as I hear the counselee tell me about her successes and failures and those of the people in her life. Her disclosure will typically reveal that she has various “benchmarks” for those she considers to be Christians. You see, she has established rules that she bases loosely on her understanding of the Scriptures and she also has extra-biblical standards that she follows and expects those around her to follow. If the rules are followed you are considered to be a “good Christian” and should you fail to measure up to her line of acceptability she will judge you are “backslidden”or unregenerate. An invisible spiritual measuring stick is held up to everyone she knows.
I am aware of a case where a wife had copied a list from the family Bible that contained “evidence of being a believer in Christ.” The wife presented the list as evidence that her husband was not a Christian because he did not follow the list! This belief ruined the marriage as the wife proclaimed she could not live with a man who was not more spiritual than she was.
A person who is a legalist is invariably also full of pride and self-deception. Pride, in thinking they “have arrived” spiritually and have the Christian life all sewn up; and self-deception as they believe their good deeds are garnering them favor with God. The believe that they are somehow more spiritual and completely sanctified in comparison with the rest of us.
I meet many women who grew up in homes that fostered such thoughts, belief’s and actions. It was expected that family members exhibit Christian perfectionism, and failure was met with swift condemnation. Legalism has been their way of life since childhood and I want to stress they truly believe that how they are living is right.
However, Paul says that legalism kills. It kills relationships of all kinds from friendships to marriages and parent-child relationships.
In addition to the interpersonal relationship problems, these women often express to me they are simply miserable. They are angry and frustrated with themselves for not measuring up to their own standards, and because they live under constant self-condemnation for their failures.They are also exhausted from watching every internal working and external action to be sure it follows the rules. This is not what God intends for us! He does not expect us to live perfectly, or by a set of do’s and don’ts that are intended to gain us His favor!
The legalist has to learn and understand that sanctification is a process that is life-long. No Christian “arrives” prior to leaving this earth, and to think or believe otherwise is revealing a heart of incredible pride. All of us remain nothing more than sinners saved by the grace of God. His continuing action in our lives is the process of sanctification as He changes us from sinful self-centered people into people who desire to honor and glorify Him. This will not happen by following a set of self-righteous do’s and don’ts, but instead it happens in part by God working in and through our failures.
God promises that He will complete what He has begun (Phil. 1:6) so rest assured, one day you will be made perfect. Even this is not of yourself, it is the Lord finishing His working in your life.