Freedom from… legalism

Freedom from… legalism

Today’s passage: Galatians 4:8-5:16

This morning, we’re looking at how we can find freedom from legalism. Legalism stands at the core of all human religions, each of which presents a different set of tick-boxes that one has to sign-off on to be in good standing with God and avoid his wrath. Of course, when these different sets collide, conflict arises!

Unlike these religions, Christianity stridently says that you and I can never be good enough. Even if we manage to look impressively upright (at least from certain angles!), on the inside we’re a different story altogether. But the good news is that God loves us. He doesn’t rescue those who prove themselves worthy of being rescued; he rescues anyone who admits that they could never be worthy of him and who put their trust in him. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us: the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God.

But there remains a temptation to go back into thinking in terms of proving ourselves good enough for God. Often in the New Testament, we read of Christians being told that simply trusting Jesus wasn’t enough for God to accept you and declare you “right” with himself. This teaching said that if one wanted to be in God’s good books – one had to prove your dedication, by following all God’s laws – including that of circumcision.

If you didn’t, God would drop you like a hot potatoe. This way of thinking still exists today, even if the details are slightly different. It’s tempting for us to insist that unless you take communion in the right way at the right time, led by the right person, you’re not saved. Or that you have to be baptised in the right way at the right time by the right person. Or that you must read the Bible and pray for an hour a day. Or any number of other little things.

If I’m honest, the temptation to legalism is still strong within me. I find it comforting to think that if I work hard enough, I’ll get a passing grade into eternity. I like feeling like I’m “better” than someone else. Except – and here’s the kicker – I know that I’m not. I know that my grade will never be a passing one. For all the good I do, there’s a whole slew of failures to live up to the tick-boxes that I’ve decided God expects me to fulfill. This is the road to Romans 7: “Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?”

The answer? Not me! Rather, there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) God doesn’t accept us because we’re good enough for him – he accepts us because he loves us. Yes, Christians are meant to live holy lives. But our holiness isn’t what saves us! That’s putting the cart
before the horse!

In Philippians 3, Paul writes how he had the whole legalistic, tick-box lifestyle down pat. He had all the right credentials. He was so convinced that his set of tick-boxes was the only way to be right with God that he went out of his way to try to force others (Christians!) to conform to them. And then he encountered the risen Jesus. And he realised just how worthless all of his “good” deeds were. You see, God doesn’t just want us to tick all the right boxes. He wants us to know him personally, to trust him, to love him – to have him as our dearest treasure.


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