Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Impossible Burden of Legalism

The Impossible Burden of Legalism
Galatians 3:10-14

It was July 2, 1505. A young man was running outdoors, caught in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. The thunder was booming, the rain was pouring, and the lightning was closing in. The young man began to panic and run faster to find refuge. Suddenly, a large flash of light came shockingly close. And young Martin Luther was thrown to the ground in a fearful panic. St. Anne I will become a monk! St. Anne I will become a monk, became Luther’s plea with God for rescue. He bartered with God. God, if you save me from this thunderstorm I will become a monk. Luther was plagued with an awful sense of the holiness and majesty of God. It scared him. The righteousness of God so scared a young Luther that when once asked whether or not he loved God, Luther replied, “Love him…sometimes I hate him”. Luther could not get away from his horrible feeling of guilt.

Luther soon took his vows and became a monk. In fact he became a wonderful monk. As Luther later commented, "I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings and other work." Yet, in all of this Martin Luther never found relief from the justice of God. Luther knew himself to be sinful. He knew God to be righteous. He was tormented by places in Scripture that spoke of the “righteousness of God”. No matter how much Luther did he never seemed to be accepted by God, forgiven by God, and certainly he never seemed to be justified by God. And in fact at this point he probably was not. Luther was struggling with something that every one of us can struggle with at times…legalism. Luther was trying to gain favor with God by his own personal performance. And like Luther, as long as we are legalist we will never find the peace with God that our hearts so desire.

Legalism might be a foreign word to some of you. You may be wondering what in the world is legalism? It sounds like a character off Lord of the Rings. Or maybe it’s a nasty plague that old people get. Legalism is not a nasty plague that old people get. It’s a nasty plague that all peoples get. Legalism is “seeking to achieve forgiveness from God, justification before God, and acceptance by God through our obedience to God.” Legalism is self-salvation.

Legalism happens whenever we are like a young Martin Luther. Whenever God gives us the grace to see our fallenness in light of his holiness it causes us to seek atonement, forgiveness, justification, peace with God, righteousness, and the like. This is why Luther became a monk. He was trying to make up for his sins. He was trying to find righteousness through his personal performance.

Perhaps that sounds like people are only legalist before they become Christians. It is true that all false religions have legalism as their root. But that is not primarily what we are addressing tonight. Tonight we are concerned with those that are Christians that have become legalist. All of you that are trusting in Christ know that it is by grace alone through faith alone that you are saved. You know that your works add nothing to your salvation. At least you know that in theory. But what do you do whenever you sin? What about the sins that you commit after your conversion? What happens when you mess up as a Christian? Does Jesus somehow have to die for those sins again? What about that sin that is still plaguing you? Does it make you not accepted by God? How do you make God smile as a Christian? What are you to “do” now that you are saved? Your answer to all of these questions will determine whether or not you are struggling with legalism.

But legalism can be subtle. Legalism is anytime that we try to struggle my character into God’s work of grace. It is whenever we attempt to substitute our good works for the finished work of Christ. Who of us has not struggled with this? Who of us does not feel a little more holy when we are fervent about Bible reading? Who of us does not feel more accepted by God because we shared the gospel, or gave money to the church, or helped a kid, or prayed, or fasted, or read Scripture, or read a book, or wrote a book, or counseled a friend. Who of us is not daily tempted to struggle with smuggling our character into God’s work of grace. Furthermore, who of us does not attempt to atone for our mistakes by special acts of performance?

Just yesterday morning I said something kind of jerky and got to feeling really bad for it. It was not anything to horribly bad, but it was rooted in pride and it came out horribly wrong. I was guilty. I did not act appropriately to a dear man that is my elder and it was over something really stupid. As the Holy Spirit bruised my heart I had a couple of options. I could tell this dear brother that I am sorry for my tone, that I had sinned against him and the Lord, and ask for his forgiveness. Or, I could try to be really nice within the next few minutes and atone for my mistake and, you know, try to make up for it. I wish I could tell you I had chosen the former, but I did not. I chose to “make up for it”. I chose self-atonement, over banking on the mercy of Christ and asking for this dear brother’s forgiveness.

So, what’s the big deal about legalism? You might be wondering why I am so concerned with such a thing. Why is legalism, even like what I just mentioned even something worth talking about? Listen to what Tom Schreiner says of legalism and perhaps that will give you a hint of why it is so important:

Legalism has its origin in self-worship. If people are justified through their obedience to the law then they merit praise, honor, and glory. Legalism in other words means the glory goes to people rather than God. The desire to obey the Law though it appears commendable is actually an insidious way to try to gain recognition before God.

Self-worship is extremely offensive to God. He is very passionate about his glory and when I, even as I am a Christian, go about trying to atone for myself it is a big giant slap in the face to the work of Jesus Christ. As C.J. Mahaney says, “Legalism is the height of arrogance. It couldn’t be any more serious or offensive to God…God is not indifferent to us when we are seeking through our obedience to obligate him to justify, forgive, and accept us.”

It has been my experience that all of us at one time or another struggle with either legalism or licentiousness. One is gripped by fear at the holiness of God and attempts self-atonement. The other could care less about the holiness of God and pursues self-fulfillment. Both are deadly.

So how do you know if you are a legalist? Well, you might be a legalist if:

You focus more on your own failure than on Christ’s atonement

What happens whenever you sin after you are saved? How do you feel about those sins? Has Christ taken them? Does the guilt of your failure plague you? Is the guilt of sexual sin something you cannot seem to get over? Have you had a period of your life that was exceedingly sinful and your focus seems to always go back there? Are you more aware of the fact that you are sinful or the fact that Christ has provided atonement for that very fact?Brothers and sisters, I may need to ask your forgiveness. It is quite possible that because I so desire for you to experience the joy of the Cross and the beauty of the atonement that I spend some time lingering over our sinfulness. Sometimes I preach hard. I may need to ask your forgiveness because perhaps on the teeter-totter of preaching I have put far too much weight on our sinfulness and far too little on the absolute completeness of Christ’s atonement. If this is the case I pray that you might forgive me. If you struggle, with focusing on your own failure more than on Christ’s atonement then you might be a legalist.
You rely more on godly practices than the Cross

Can you see how subtle this deception is? Godly practices are good. It is good to read your Bibles. It is good to pray. It is good to have Christian fellowship. It is good to go to church. It is good to keep a journal. It is good to engage in evangelism. It is good to memorize Scripture. It is good to start a Bible study. All of these things are good. But if we are relying on them to define our relationship with Christ then we are in serious dangerous of being legalistic. If I came up to you and ask, “How is your relationship with God”? And you immediately went to analyzing how well you are doing in these godly practices, then you might be in danger of legalism.

You feel condemned, insecure, worthless, and/or anxious

Legalism at its root is a misunderstanding or rejection of the atonement. We all do it at times. We all wonder whether or not we really are saved. Is God really going to save me just through the blood of Christ? Surely I have to do something. It cannot be merely grace alone through faith alone; we feel as if we have to add something to it. And when we fall into this trap we are going to constantly feel condemned, insecure, worthless, and/or anxious. Why? It is because you never can do enough. You cannot atone for your own sins.

You have a constant desire to protect and extend your reputation

If your acceptance is based on your performance, then because of your unrelenting desire for acceptance you will be ever passionate about preserving your reputation. How others see you will communicate far more than it should. They will begin carrying the message of God. If others are pleased with you; if others see you as good; if others view you as a good Christian, then certainly it must be so. Whenever that is attacked you feel that you must protect your reputation. Even if it is not attacked but your reputation is not extending to the nations as you feel it should, you will be adamant about extending it. You will start fishing for compliments. You will do whatever you can to make sure that people see you in a positive light. This is a sign of a legalistic spirit. Your identity is wrapped up in your performance and not in the Cross of Christ.

You are mortally wounded if someone offers criticism no matter how true or false

We all hate criticism. But if your identity is wrapped in your performance then you will become mortally wounded if someone offers criticism. This is something that the Lord has had to grow in my life. As a minister some people really like you, and some people can not stand you. It’s tough when people are overtly critical. It’s tough when they are being ignorant in their criticism and falsely accusing you of things. But it’s probably tougher when they are critical and right. If my identity is wrapped into my performance then I will be mortally wounded by criticism. But my identity is found in Jesus then I can agree with their criticism. I can listen to the good and filter out the bad.

You seem to have little to no success in your struggle with sin

This one is kind of dangerous. If you are deep in legalism you probably think that you are doing an amazing job in your Christian walk. Sometimes outwardly you are successful. So, this one is dangerous because you could be the biggest legalist here, but you’ve been doing it for so long like the Pharisees that you think your dealing with sin. Nonetheless, this point stands. It may not be those outward sins that everyone would see…remember a legalist will always protect his reputation. But those inward struggles. Coveting. Lust. Pride. Gossip. Slander. Those things that only a few people, if any, ever see. How are you do in your battle with these things? The Law can never rescue you from these things. If you are a legalist you will frequently blow these.

You have very little joy in Christ

Failures you usually are not joyful. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Legalism is void of the Spirit of God. You will not have little joy in Christ if your identity and acceptance is based on your performance.

After hearing this list you are wondering what you need to do to change so that you can start reflecting these things.

You probably think that every week at youth group is a message telling you how you need to change and what to do to be more accepted by God. It’s not. Every week at youth group, hopefully, is about the beauty and glory of Christ. Every week should be about the gospel and the Cross-centeredness of our lives. But the legalist does not hear that. Even as we speak of being more Cross-centered you are wondering, “How do I do that”. So you put it in your list of things to do and work on—be more Cross-centered. Friends the Cross of Christ and living under that is not something you add to your list. If you have a list at all this IS your list. This IS your battle.

If you have a couple of these things present in your life, which I am certain and some point or another all of us do, then you might be a legalist. What do you do if you are found to be a legalist? I want to turn to Galatians 3:10-14 and look at three principles in battling legalism.

Principles of Legalism

Now, before we begin reading this section you need to know the historical situation for the Galatians. These are not stupid people. These are good solid Christian believers, or at least they were. Then a group of Jewish Christians came to Galatia and started to teach the Christians there that those who were not circumcised in accordance with the Law of Moses could not be saved. The purpose of this letter was obviously, then, to refute the Judaizers’ false gospel—a gospel in which these Jewish Christians felt that circumcision was essential to salvation—and to remind the Galatians of the real basis of their salvation. What was the problem of these Jewish Christians? Legalism. The entire book of Galatians confronts the issue of legalism. And we see the crux of Paul’s argument in these 4 verses.


I. The law demands our total compliance

Listen to verse 10 and feel the truth of that on your life. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”. All who rely on works of the law…rely on the works of the law for what? Acceptance, Justification, Forgiveness. Every legalist is doing just this, relying on works of the law (my good things, my godly disciplines, and my Christian performance) to gain acceptance from God. So if you answered yes to those questions earlier, then you are in this text. While you are relying on works of the Law you are under a curse.

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them”. So, do you want to be accepted by God based on your performance? Do you want to pursue justification by what you do? Do you want to require God to forgive you based on all the good things you do? Remember I am not primarily talking to unbelievers here. This is often a question of what you do with the sin that you commit after you come to Christ. This is how you battle sin as a believer. This is how you view your relationship with God as His child. Paul is saying if your answer to sin is “works of the Law” then you are under a curse. If your hope for justification is personal performance then you are under a curse. Because as soon as you think you get one thing down, you are going to break another. You will remain under a curse. Why? It is because the law demands total compliance.

Believer, you cannot have total compliance. Unbeliever, you cannot have total compliance. As soon as you mess up once the entire weight of the law comes to crush you. You are condemned. You stand before God without hope of forgiveness. You stand before God with nothing to merit justification; you are guilty before a holy God. He will not forgive you based upon what you do. He will not justify you based upon your performance. Never. No way. Believer, God’s acceptance of you is not based on your performance. He will never accept you because of your performance. The law demands total compliance. You cannot do that. Based on your personal performance you stand before God without an ounce of hope.

II. The law displays our total corruption

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the Law.” What does the Law display about us? What can we learn about our hearts based upon the Law? Turn with me to Romans 7:7-12. What Paul is saying here is that the Law is good and holy and righteous. But when married to a sinful human it produces, or rather exposes, the unrighteousness of man. What can the Law not do? Produce righteousness. What does the Law do? Expose our total corruption.
I am sure you’ve experienced this. I even did a little experiment on this a few days ago with my little cousin. He was playing with this really cool little truck. I was trying to play with him, but he’s a typical selfish 3-year old. So, I thought I’d experiment on him. I took out a pencil, which obviously paled in coolness comparison to his awesome truck. As I took my pencil out, I told him that he could not have it. I put the Law down. I started playing with my pencil and really enjoying it. Guess what happened. As I was flailing my pencil through the air as an airplane he put down his awesome truck and through a fit because I would not give him this amazing flying pencil. What was happening? Once the Law came and told his heart no, and I began stoking the fires of his desire in his heart, he had to have what he couldn’t get. Which is what? Coveting! What brought that about? The Law that I had laid down for him. This is what Paul is saying here. The Law exposes our corrupt hearts.

It shows us our sin. It displays for us how wicked we actually are. If you do not believe me then take all 10 Commandments and try to do those 100% with the right heart 24 hours a day for a week. Keep track of how often you break them. Be constantly aware of these things. If you do this, and you are honest you will fill a notebook with your transgression. That is what the Law does it displays our corruption. One problem. It can not save. It is evident (that’s the fruit of your little experiment) that no one is justified (made right with God) by the Law. The Law cannot make you right with God.

III. The gospel delivers to our account total credit

You stand total guilty before God in your flesh by works of the Law. You have no hope of justification. Based on your performance you have no hope of acceptance, ever. If your forgiveness is based on your acts of righteousness then you should never expect forgiveness, it will not happen. So, what hope then do you have? The Law is not good news. The Law means and brings condemnation. The Law leads to the good news. The Law leads to the gospel, the good news. What is the good news?
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”. Oh did you catch that? Just in case you missed it look at Romans 8:3 it says it wonderful as well. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh”. What is the good news? The good news is that our justification, our acceptance, our forgiveness is based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. The gospel delivers to our account total credit. The gospel imparts to us unrighteous God-hating sinners the complete and total righteousness of Jesus Christ on our behalf. The gospel imparts the righteousness of God to our account. It gives us total credit. The gospel justifies us. The gospel makes us righteous. The gospel cleanses us. The gospel forgives us. The gospel brings about our acceptance.

Oh, you who would live by the Law listen! You, who are downtrodden; those of you that feel the impossible weight and burden of legalism, listen. The Cross of Christ is absolutely complete. In the closing moments let me explain to you the opposite of legalism; justification by grace alone through faith alone.

What is justification? Listen to this. Justification means being made right with God. It means you are accepted by God. It means you are forgiven by God. It means you have peace with God. It means God is your Father. It means you are in Christ. It means you are clean. That is what justification is, but you must know a little more about the beauty of justification.

Justification is immediate and complete upon conversion. You will never be more justified than you are right now, nor more justified you were at the moment of your conversion. 10 years ago when you trusted Christ or 3 days ago, you are just as justified as you ever will be. You cannot add to it, nor can you delete from it. It is complete. It was immediate. It is not a process and it is not gradual. You are not justified by degrees. It is complete and total at conversion.

I was recently listening to a sermon by C.J. Mahaney on this topic and one thing he said hit me hard. He had us think about a few godly saints that we admire. Edwards, Newton, Piper, McCheyne, Spurgeon…your pastor, your youth pastor, your good buddy that seems super-spiritual. Your mom. Your dad. Martin Luther. The apostle Paul. John. Moses. Noah. Matthew. Mark. Luke. You name them. No one in history is more justified than you are at present. The weakest believer and the strongest saint are alike equally justified.

Tonight you are either wholly justified or wholly condemned in the sight of God. There is no middle ground. You are either totally covered by the blood of Jesus or you are not at all. Why? Why is all of this true? Are you justified based on your performance? Are all of those true because of what you do or even something that you have done? No! Every one of those is true because of the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is complete. It is finished. The work of Christ is done.

I am not really certain how to close this. I could preach for hours on justification by faith alone. I could show you numerous Scriptures and preach entire sermons on the complete work of Jesus Christ. For times sake I will end where I began; with the struggle of a German monk. How did Luther find peace?

He came to realize one thing. As he was plagued with his own sinfulness and struggling with Romans 1:17, suddenly he began to heed the context. And he realized what it was actually saying. Rather than saying that we must produce righteousness (or in other words rather than being a legalist) the text is actually saying that the righteousness of God is an “alien righteousness”. It is something outside of us that comes to us from another source. It is the righteousness of Christ Jesus given to us. As Luther would later summarize, “I am not good and righteous; but Christ is”.

That is the answer to legalism. I am not good and righteous; but Christ is. Luther began to bank wholly and completely on the Cross of Christ. There he found that forgiveness from God. In the Cross. Totally completely in the Cross. There he found acceptance by God. In the work of Christ. Totally and completely the work and righteousness of Christ imparted to the young monk. There he found justification before God. By faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on this Cross. And there it still is to be found today. At the Cross. That is where your acceptance is. That is where your forgiveness was bought. That is where your justification was accomplished.

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