Discipleship is about a relationship -a relationship built out of love for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are drawn into that relationship by the Father, we are adopted as sons and daughters into that relationship through the work of Jesus, and we are guided in this relationship by the Holy Spirit.
Having said all that, there seems to be a growing wave of legalism in our faith community that mirrors the polarization of most of America right now. The world wants to label and define who everyone else is, while at the same time, rejecting any label that is put on them. Messages of tolerance are half veiled euphemisms for, “I think you ought to be more tolerant of me, but unless you agree with me, then I label you as intolerant.” [Which begs the question: Is the not accuser also intolerant?]
There exists a group of people who claim faith in God but have no outward practice of faith except for trying to be nice. Whatever label you may choose: semi-christian, faith-curious, nominal Christians, yet to be christians, etc, they really are in theological terms legalists. Sort of. Here is what I mean. Allow me to let you listen in on a conversation I have had many times over the last few years. I say, “So tell me a bit about your faith journey.” They say, “Well, I believe in God, and I think that He wants me to be a good person. So I just try to be as nice as I possibly can and hopefully my good stuff outweighs my bad stuff. I’m a good person, so I think I’m good with God.”
Legalism at its heart is the belief that salvation is gained through good works. It is the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws. In this case, people define “precise laws” as being nice or being good. The hope is if they are nice more than not nice, salvation will be granted.
Here are some of the problems with this thinking: First, the Bible does not teach this. The Bible actually teaches that it is the law that helps us understand grace and is the structure by which we live in a love relationship with God. As Dallas Willard would say: “The law is the course of rightness, but not the source of rightness.”
The second problem is that if someone plays out this thinking logically, no one would want this kind of God. Here is what I mean. Let’s say that your significant other was murdered. They caught the killer and put him on trial. The defense lawyer for the killer listed to the court all the good things the killer has done in his lifetime. The prosecuting lawyer would outline for the judge all the bad stuff the killer had done. Now the judge has to make a decision. And in his judgement, “the killer’s good stuff outweighs the bad stuff” so he is free to go. No one would want that kind of judge [except maybe the killer.] No one would think that scenario was right or that justice was served. Yet at the heart of this very popular way of thinking, is this idea that God is the ultimate judge who has to make a decision on my fate at the end of my life.
Problem three: I want everyone else to play by the rules [law] when it comes to how they treat me, but I want grace to bend/break the rules when they are not convenient for me. In this way of thinking, the righteousness of legalism is robbed of its power.
I realize this particular blog is rather heady, and my intention is to bring clarity [truth] and create a discussion [with grace]. Are you a functional legalist? Just trying to be good and hope that God notices? Or are you walking in a relationship with God that seeks to mirror Jesus because you are learning to love Him more than anything else? My hope and prayer for myself and for you is the latter, not the former.
I believe that we are called to live in a relationship with our God. This relationship is not based upon tolerance. It is based on love. Jesus doesn’t command his disciples to be tolerant of one another but to love one another. Tolerance is todays popular spin on “allow me to do what I want to do, but if I don’t like what you do, then I’ll tell you the way you should live.” That isn’t a relationship.
I welcome your input, questions and comments.by