Monday, August 31, 2015

A Religion of Formulas

    I am admittedly a recovering (I hope mostly recovered) legalist. No, I never believed that I earned my salvation by how good a person I was. I never would have agreed with anyone that I could somehow save myself. But somehow, I still fell prey to the lie that my standing with God was dependent on how good a person I was.

    And I use the word "good" very loosely, as I will explain through this article. See, for myself, and several other young homeschoolers in similar circles as I have agreed, the "good" that God was looking at was not my heart. No, God had much higher aims than that! No, I looked at God with a much more formulaic approach.

    See, the God I believed in was a God of formulas. If you used, for example, courtship to find your spouse instead of dating, you were in some way superior and more deserving of God's favor. Take it a step further, if you did a no kiss courtship, wow, God must really be wanting to bless you. If you did a no touch courtship, double wow! God's ultimate formula has been kept, and now He is actually pleased with you.

    In this system of thought, God has different measures of pleasure, one, say, for the Christian who simply gives as he as extra money, a second, deeper pleasure for the one who tithes scrupulously, and even a third for the one who gives generously.

    It is not a religion of grace and unmerited favor, but rather a religion based solely on formulas and opinions, standards and skewed misconceptions. My view of God was not the majestic Creator who lowered Himself to His creation, but rather a Lord who died for our sins and was resurrected in order to watch us struggle harder and harder to earn His favor.

    It's not just in this way that we show the formulaic basis of many of our beliefs. For one thing, we show it everyday when we use phrases such as "That shouldn't have happened to him! He was such a nice guy..." or "he had it coming!" We have it ingrained in our minds that good things happen to good people because they innately deserve it, and bad things happen to bad people because they innately deserve that!

    However, when we meet Jesus, our new understanding of the world should strike a blow to this whole concept. Suddenly, the world is not as black and white as it once was, because evil man that I am, I am blessed for something I didn't do, and the righteous Lamb died horribly for something He did not do. The gospel itself is the complete antithesis of formulaic faith, because it broke every formula.

    The cross shatters a deathblow to this idea of man getting what he deserves based on his actions. Frankly, the Bible teaches that men, since we are all evil, deserve only the wrath of God in hell. But completely against every recognized system of thought, perfect goodness suffered in order to bring blessings and goodness to ultimate evil. That's inconsistent with the formulaic view of faith.

    Unfortunately, many of us, like me, unintentionally carry over these ideas into our saved life and begin treating our relationship with Christ similarly. If I want God to be happiest with me, I need to enforce the highest standards on my life. Another manifestation of this mental concept is to fall pray to the building of strict, extra-Biblical systems to prevent sin or even temptation.

    The problem? Intentional or otherwise, when we combine formulas with faith, faith gradually falls away. There's a very reasonable explanation for that. Formulas are things we do ourselves, think up ourselves, and implement ourselves. They're the tangible, safe methods of the Christian walk. They're the mental checklist to save me from sin, the safe, solid ground when I'm uncertain.

    Faith is the direct opposite. Faith is trust in something outside ourselves and must be given by One greater than ourselves. Faith is the call to the dangerous in the Christian life. Faith is the call to jump off the safe, solid ground and into the arms of Jesus.

    When we try to build a formulaic religion, the word that comes to mind is "safe". Suddenly, your life is planned out! When you meet girl Sally (I use that name cause I don't know any Sally's) you want to marry, she must be like this and believe this. You will ask her this question, and this question, and check off the boxes on your checklist. You'll ask her father this and this, and then you'll do this and this...

     And life is so safe. It's clean and risk free. As long as the formula is met, then she must be the girl for you, or this job must be God's will for you. But you may see the problem. Amid all the formulaic questions and checklists, where is the dependence on the Holy Spirit? Where is the need for a trust in God beyond my human understanding?

    See, a life lived by formula, by a checklist of high standards that will keep me from falling into sin is much easier, much more simple than a life lived by faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to do things that break those checklists is to live a life of faith, faith in a God who leads us sometimes into situations that are difficult to understand.

    A mental checklist of right and wrong extra-Biblical standards is very easy. As an example, I've heard of the standard people apply to their lives to never speak online to a member of the opposite gender after 10:00 at night. Okay, fine. Sure, go for it! But what about when a friend goes through surgery and is stuck at home for hours, and the only convenient time to talk to her is at night? Suddenly, the checklist is now defining how much of a friend I can actually be.

    Checklists are fine. High standards are fine. But when they begin to replace faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in your life, you got trouble. A religion of formulas doesn't need Jesus, because sin can be prevented by my formula!

    The Christian life doesn't work that way though. Life with Christ is not a journey made by more and more self-effort and higher set standards than everyone else. And His favor cannot be purchased by your painfully strict standards.

    Because His favor has been given! You don't have to earn it! God's love can't be earned by checklists, standards, morals, or anything else; it's given. And a life lived by faith is a life radically surrendered to follow Jesus' leading regardless of the intellectual and logical sense of His commands, or even the perceived wisdom in following through with them, even by the church.

    Formulaic Christianity leaves very little room for the working of Jesus Christ in our lives. If we already have our checklists laid out and our standards formed, and that's where our confidence lies to protect us from sin, then Jesus becomes simply a bonus to our morality rather than the basis of all goodness in us and blessings to us.

    Faith and self-reliant morality cannot walk together. Unmerited favor and merited love cannot stand side by side. If you are someone who struggles or has struggled with trying to define your religion by higher standards or checklists, please, please, please! Jesus Christ is all you need. He gives His Word to guide and His Spirit to lead into all truth. You don't have to stay in bondage to an extra-Biblical rulesheet!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Known by Love

    "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, that you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)

    This is one of the most radical concepts in Christianity, though very often we do not recognize it as such. Yes, most of the time, Christian love becomes yet another attribute on a long list of morals that we should work on and think about in our spare time, once we've mastered the externals like praying before meals and good Christianese.

    Yet this is not how Jesus handled this idea. To Jesus, He made it very clear what the focus of His ministry was, and what ours is to be. His mission was not outward conformity to rules and changed behavior, but a full redemption, atonement, and radical heart change that resulted in a new way of looking at the world, a replaced worldview of love and grace in place of our old eyes of harsh judgmentalism.

    See, as a Christian, I cannot look at the world the same way I did before. If I see every human being (yes, every human being) as creations of God, souls, with infinite eternal value, then my reaction to them must be a demonstration of love, the very love of God through me that He has shown to me.

    In Jn. 13, Jesus is specifically speaking of church love, brethren to brethren. But our love shouldn't stop there. In Lk. 6 commands us to love our enemies, and Rom. 12:9 challenges us to show sincere love. Loving our brethren and enemies sincerely pretty much covers the whole world. Our love should be world-encompassing.

    This includes sinners. Our love should extend beyond the doors of our church to our enemies! Think about that. We are to respond to hatred with love, sin with love, criticism with love, anger with love. We should be recognized by our love, to the extent that unbelievers look at the church as "those crazy people who won't stop loving everyone!"

    We should be recognized as believers by our love, not just to the lovable, but to those who our culture, accepted norms of religion and preference, and public opinion dictate should be ignored or looked down on. Our love should extend to Muslims, gays, other denominations, other political parties, government officials whose policies we are not fond of. Our love should be the factor that draws the world to recognize us as possessing something they don't have!

    Take a moment to think about the changes that would happen in the church and its actions around the world, our country, and our neighborhoods if we began to live a life characterized by love instead of comfort or cultural acceptance. Jesus wasn't unclear about his commands for us as His followers. We are commanded to love.

    And not just to love, but to love, even as Jesus loved. We're commanded to love in the same selfless, sacrificial way our Lord did. The man we're supposed to emulate died out of sacrificial love. Is this any inclination of how we are to respond to the world around us? We are to love in a manner that involves sacrifice and discomfort at times. Our love for them should be sincere and unselfish, just as Christ's was for us.

    So, as we go about our lives, let love be our law. This new commandment of Jesus' that sums up all the OT law is to love, simply to put others first, to sacrifice for their good. So take the time to listen to a friend that needs a listening ear. Show that little brother how to throw a ball. Be a good example to that friend's little sibling who is watching your every move, trying to emulate them. Love them as Jesus loved. Show care and concern for those still lost, and a sacrificial unselfishness for those who have found grace beside us at the cross.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Grace is Sufficient

    One passage of Scripture has meant more to me than any other during my journey with Christ. 2 Cor. 12:9-10 say, "And He said unto me, 'My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.' Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I made strong."

    Forget for a moment all the gushy things people said to you when you first found Jesus. I dare say many of you heard the same things I did, "you'll have a supernatural peace in your heart everyday" or "you'll always feel God's presence". Forget that. Anybody who's gone through a hard time in their walk can tell you there are days that you don't feel God's presence and that you feel war in your heart, not peace. There are days you feel your heart will break from the pressure of the conflict raging.

    The Christian walk is not the easy stroll it was made out to be. It's hard work, tough living, and sometimes it leaves you feeling small and very broken. There are gonna be days you doubt the very fiber of your faith in Jesus, and you wonder if you weren't crazy for deciding to follow Him. Yep, His peace is awesome, but I promise you with David that there will be those days when you instead cry out, "I am weary with my sighing; every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears." 

    These last couple of months, I stagger back and forth in and out of struggles with trusting God through a really hard time in my life. And it's become more and more apparent to me as time's gone on that we Christians were not made to be always victorious, but to sometimes be beaten down and crushed. At least, I know I wasn't. Those times you just feel the pressure is overwhelming? Those times you feel that life is crushing you down amid all the mysteries and things you can't understand? Those are the times when I want to shout out to God, "Where are you? What are you thinking? Why?"

    And God leaves us in the dark. This isn't a time for cute, trite sayings anymore. This is a time for cold, brutal truth. God leaves us in the dark, when we can't comprehend His ways or His reasons. There are times you feel alone, times you can't feel God there. There are times you can't feel His touch.

    But that is the time that realizations such as what Paul made in 2 Cor. 12 become so important! God's grace isn't given when I'm strong and confident. God doesn't give me Himself when I am comfortable, but when I'm weak and broken.

    As a broken individual, there is no greater truth than that. The fact that One greater than I lives in me and through my weakness makes me strong is my motivation to live even when I feel most vulnerable. When I am weak and broken, that is when God is free to work in me most. That is when I am made free to accept the strength of Jesus.

    These weaknesses are the guarantees of God's love and power shining through me. When we accept our brokenness before God, He is free to shine through us. The hard times will come, of that be certain. The trials will come, and the dark times where you wonder where God is won't bypass you. And that is why a knowledge of who God is and how He looks at you is so pivotal.

    When you walk into the hard times, the struggle is very real. It may be a day, a week, or months. It could be a battle that continues on and on, with each day a day of hopelessly surviving, just muscling through until the close of another day. The struggle could be one you fight secretly, internally, that only you know is there, hidden from the eyes of the rest of the world.

    Maybe it's a sin. Maybe it's a doubt. Maybe it's a little sliver of distrust or lack of faith. Maybe your war is a war that no one knows you fight, that every day you continue on is a struggle in the face of your feelings. Maybe your battle is a loneliness of a struggle born alone.

    Yet still, in all the struggle, while the war rages in our hearts and minds, we see the goodness of God, His faithfulness, His grace, shining through, encompassing every corner and dark crevice of our hearts. Even in the pain, even in the fight, the grace and mercy of a loving Father is sufficient for us, because He is made perfect in us by our weakness, by our reliance on Him.

    My friend, the struggle will come. The battle is real. There is no doubt of that. Internal or public, raging or quietly unsettling, the battle is real. But no less real is the grace and all-sufficiency of a perfect Savior and a loving Father. And as we open our hearts to Him and we remove our shields, we can show Him the scars of battles fought before, won or lost, victories or defeats. And His grace shines through us, and His strength fights for us, even as we show Him and realize ourselves more and more our own vulnerability and weakness. He's sufficient. He's all we need.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


    You know that time you fall to the same temptation, again? You know, that one you thought you conquered? Whatever it was, poor time management, selfishness, flashes of temper, maybe something worse, that time you fall down down again, just when you thought you were on top of the world?

     That is the when the truth of who you are becomes so very important, maybe the most important you'll ever know or learn. When you know you are a sinner, and you know you've failed God yet again, that is when the truth of your status with God becomes so sweet.

     Gal. 4:6-7 says, "And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, 'Abba, Father'. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ."

     Brennan Manning preached his most famous sermon "Abba" from this text. "Abba" is the Hebrew word which is our equivalent for "da-da", probably the simplest word a child can pronounce (after, of course, ma-ma :). "Abba" was not the word of an intellectual, strong adult speaking on equal terms to his father, asking for life advice. "Abba" was the two syllable word of an infant crying for his Father.

     That is how we can approach God. Even in our failure, even when we fall, again and again, even when we mess up and we look back over the mess that is who we are so often, we can look up, lift our hands heavenward, and cry out "Abba, Father". "Daddy".

     We are sons of God. Despite my sin, my failure, despite all the times I've given in and surrendered to my flesh, despite all my short-comings, I am a son of God, a cherished, loved, cared for child of the King. And He loves us more than we can imagine.

     So, fellow sinners, that's where our hope can lie, even in the most depressing of times. Even when we come face to face again with the mess that we can sometimes be and often are, our hope is in the mercy, love, and grace of a long-suffering, compassionate Father. Thank God!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Above All Others

     Having grown up in conservative Baptist churches my whole life, I am well-acquainted with the end of the service, conviction invitation. The pastor usually ends his sermon with the topic of salvation and your eternal security, then his sermon is followed by about 500 verses of "I Surrender All" or "All to Jesus". The pastor and possibly the elders stand at the front and convicted or possibly just dutiful church members move to the front of the church to bow at the stage and pray publicly.

    Having seen a lot of these over the last 12 years I've spent in church, I've learned to recognize the "salvation sales pitch" at the end of the service. We've all heard it before, when the pastor begins speaking of how easy it is to get saved. "All you have to do is pray this prayer after me, and you'll be saved..."

    However, even a cursory glance at the Jesus of the gospels should cue us in on the fact that following Jesus will not necessarily be quite so simple as it is so nicely laid out during the infamous altar call. And Jesus is quite clear on that count. Deciding to follow Him should not be a half-hearted decision, and should not be a flippantly made, momentary choice.

    In Lk. 14, Jesus takes the time to explain to the multitudes what it means to follow Him, and He makes it clear that He wants no spontaneous, emotional decision made spur of the moment to follow Him. He wants a clearly thought out, reasoned out acceptance of His demands on the lives of His followers.

    "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever does not bear his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."

     Jesus used none of the "emotion of the moment" conversion tactics we use today. He instead emphasized rationally thinking through the cost of what it would mean to follow Him. It was no secret in Jesus' messages that following Him was going to be uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous, and always hard.

    Following Jesus involves, as Jesus clearly points out in v. 33, a radical clinging to Jesus Christ above everything else. "So likewise, whosoever he be of you, that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple." There's no question in that call. Either you follow Jesus, above everything, or you don't. It's that simple.

    There are a couple of aspects to that verse that are uncomfortable to our American systems of thought and accepted cultural norms. That verse up top, v. 26, contains one of the most missed concepts of Christian life in traditional Christ circles.

    Jesus calls us to follow Him above our family. Yes, our allegiance to the leading of Christ is more important than the pressure of our family's thoughts, opinions, preferences, tastes, etc. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, our ultimate master is Jesus Christ, no longer my family. My parents, my friends, my siblings all hold second place to a new master, who controls my every decision.

    Jesus Christ is a God who demands supremacy, who demands glory, adoration, praise, and obedience above all other calls and masters. Half-way allegiance, part-time following, and lukewarm commitment are not options in His service. He demands a place above all others!

    In our pursuit of Christ, He must be our everything. He must be above all else our prize and our aim. "I count all as rubbish, that I may win Christ." These words by Paul really give a great example of how a Christian should think. Christ should rank above everything else in our minds and attention in order that we may know Him better.

    He calls us to follow Him above everything. His call is a call deeper than just a request for a sinner's prayer, but instead is a call for full life surrender and occupational abandonment. He demands all or nothing.

    And the prize He guarantees is above all others, Himself. While is call is difficult, His prize is perfect. He offers us Himself. So if we intend to pursue Christ, then our goal is to know Him, and our path is through surrender to Him.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015


    So, it's been five days since my last post, and it will be a few more til my next full length one! I've been making a concerted effort to crack down on school, and also am working with a VBS program with my church this year. I have quite a few more responsibilities this year than the last couple I've worked with this program, so I am operating on not a ton of sleep, a lot of adrenaline, and Christ's strength in me!

    This is just a call out to you readers to tell you why I'm not posting and to warn you not to expect much this week! Hopefully I'll be posting again next week! I've got a good article in the making, but probably won't have time to polish it up and finish it until next week!

    Until then, please keep me in your prayers. Please pray that I will be able to present Christ clearly and simply to these kids, and that Christ will make Himself known to them this week! And about seven of us that are helping out with the program are either sick or just getting over being sick (me included) and would love to face the rest of the week feeling strong and healthy again. So, thank you for the prayers and I can't wait to become more active on here again as well!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Made Perfect by Grace

    I've remarked before that man's default religion is self-help gospel, focused on my own works and ability to please God through my own actions. However, while that is a problem in the church today, there is another twisting of the gospel that is similar, but much more innocent looking. This is the what I believe to be a Christian's default religion.

    It's the idea that I am saved by grace, but I must work and try really hard to fight sin in order to please God. Otherwise, God will be displeased with me, and I will remain carnal and stuck in sin. Honestly, this is a much more comfortable religion than a religion of radical grace, because again, my job of keeping God happy is once again firmly  in my own hands.

    Paul fights this concept throughout the entire book of Galatians, but particularly in 3:3, where I want to spend time tonight. "Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being perfected in the flesh?"

    Paul is asking a very relevant question. Having admittedly been saved through the Spirit, do we honestly believe that now we pursue Christ-likeness by our own flesh and in our own strength? But that doesn't make any sense at all. In our strength, we still fall far short of God's standard, as we've discussed before through Romans. By ourselves, we cannot make ourselves pure.

    My pursuit of Christ after salvation is still all of Christ and none of me. My good deeds and good actions are the result of Christ working in me, not some excellent pursuit of my own. So any attempts to become more righteous in my own strength apart from Jesus becomes simply vain moralism.

    Paul is quick to point out that just as our righteousness at salvation is brought to us by the working of the Holy Spirit, so is our edification after salvation. Again, our pursuit toward Christ-likeness is all Christ working in us, none of our own effort.

    What so many of us tend to do is fall into our default setting of throwing ourselves into making us more and more pure rather than letting the Holy Spirit change our desires and wills. And while that sounds all good and well, what follows is an attempt to purify ourselves rather than follow the Holy Spirit as He leads us toward Christ-likeness.

    We are not made perfect by our own supreme effort, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. And when we conclude that we must make ourselves perfect, we turn straight to legalism, pleasing God through actions of my own rather than through the grace of His Son. Rather, Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit is the one making us perfect, and we simply follow Jesus as He guides.

    This is a burden off us. What we tend to do when we hear commands of Scripture is to summon up our will, muscle up our endurance, and push ourselves to do it ourselves. But what is then missing is reliance on God, something that is only necessary when we realize how far short of Christ-likeness we are. As long as we think we can attain it on our own, God's grace is only necessary to cover my sinful past.

    But when we realize that we can't be what we should be by ourselves is when we begin to appreciate God's grace and the working of the Holy Spirit all the more. My pursuit of Christ-likeness isn't accomplished by mustering up all my moral strength and plucky self-will to push forward. It's by a reliant trust on the all-sufficient grace of God that is gradually changing me into the image of His Son!

    So rather than pushing and shoving, twisting and beating ourselves into shape to become like Christ, rest! Rest in the finished work of Christ and always-conforming work of His Holy Spirit to change you! Rest!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ps. 91

    Psalm 91 is called "The Soldier's Psalm". I read it before my taekwondo tournaments and repeated v. 1-2 probably 25 times during Nationals. Anyhow, the last couple days, I've been depressed in the evening, and the words to this psalm have meant a lot to me!

"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust!”
For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper
And from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with His pinions,
And under His wings you may seek refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.
You will not be afraid of the terror by night,
Or of the arrow that flies by day;
Of the pestilence that [a]stalks in darkness,
Or of the destruction that lays waste at noon.
A thousand may fall at your side
And ten thousand at your right hand,
But it shall not approach you.
You will only look on with your eyes
And see the recompense of the wicked.
[b]For you have made the Lord, my refuge,
Even the Most High, your dwelling place.
10 No evil will befall you,
Nor will any plague come near your [c]tent.
11 For He will give His angels charge concerning you,
To guard you in all your ways.
12 They will bear you up in their hands,
That you do not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread upon the lion and cobra,
The young lion and the [d]serpent you will trample down.
14 “Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him;
I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name.
15 “He will call upon Me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in [e]trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
16 “With [f]a long life I will satisfy him
And [g]let him see My salvation.”

Sunday, August 9, 2015


    Here was my weekend entertainment! I really enjoyed listening to this debate between Dr. White and Dr. Blakemore on the bondage of the will. Here goes!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


    Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time I'm sure knows that legalism is a hot topic of mine. I was deceived by this lie for years, so it is a topic I take seriously to heart. It has taken me nearly two years to work through all the false reasoning and deceptions I had believed. It is, in my opinion, one of the absolute gravest errors a Christian or a church can fall into.

    One of the most striking examples of this that I've ever heard is hearing a church break out into applause after a speaker said from the pulpit that being labeled a legalist is a good thing. I remember exchanging looks with my brother like, "Did he just say that?" Yet the majority of the congregation didn't even notice the apparent problem in the midst of their applause.

    So, why is it such a big deal to me? Shouldn't I just be happy to let some people have high standards? Well, yes! If you want high standards, be my guest! Please, by all means do so! Do what God leads you to do. But legalism doesn't rear its ugly head in personal conviction. Legalism becomes the problem when one begins applying those personal convictions to others and using them as spiritual markers to judge brothers and sisters with. Legalism then continues down the path of destruction when it finally begins it's ultimate rise to prominence, ultimately knocking Jesus off His rightful place at the center of our lives and replacing Him with the emptiness of manmade standards and rules, made all the more deceptive and enslaving because of the apparent "goodness" of them.

    But why? Why is this such a big deal to me? Well, partly because it supplants the whole idea of the gospel. Grace and legalism cannot walk together. But partly because Paul thought it worth writing an epistle about in the form of Galatians.

    Galatians 3:1-3, "You foolish Galatians, who has bewtiched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected in the flesh?"

    I'll get into what legalism looks like later, but this is the heart of legalism right here in those verses. The heart of legalism is attempting to perfect your Christianity, your status with God, or your salvation by works of the flesh; and by works of the flesh, I do not mean sinful actions. I mean good, impressive works done apart from faith in Jesus Christ meant to promote one's own status or spirituality.

    Most people I know in the church know, at least in their heads, that they were saved by Christ. But so many of them cannot get passed the concept that they now must earn God's favor by high standards, increased devotion, or a sin-free life. And that is where Satan wins an important victory in our hearts.

    Many of the pitfalls in our Christian walk result in extremes. For example, one commonly guarded against temptation in many conservative Christian circles is license, or abused grace. Oh, but the church will go up in arms against that, and rightfully so! But so often, in our spirited defense of a true appreciation of God's grace, we veer too far away from that side of the road and instead slip off the ditch into the other side, slipping into legalism. Rather than sinning by abusing God's grace, we sin by attempting to earn God's favor apart from grace.

    Now some of you guys are thinking what I once had one guy tell me. "Okay, so, I agree that legalism is bad. But honestly, why is it that big a deal? I mean, Christians are actually being more moral because of these high standards. So why should we attack these Christian high standards, even if they are for wrong reasons, so long as they accomplish the right ends of good, moral behavior in the church?"

     If you've had the foresight to reach that question, congrats to you. You're thinking well. And from a human reasoning viewpoint, you actually have a very good point. But from a Biblical viewpoint, that question is answered rapidly by a very cursory walk through Scripture. Over and over and over again, Jesus pounded the religious leaders of His day for their outward morality without the presence of the Spirit and grace in their hearts.

    In Matthew 23, Jesus announces a very long set of woes upon the Pharisees. I want to spend just a moment looking at what He says in regard to these morally upstanding, yet faithless leaders of His day. I don't have time to go through the whole chapter (and other men have done much better than I could hope to. Here's a link to a very good article on Matt. 23: Why Jesus Hates Legalism ), but I do want to pick out just a couple of verses that make a very strong point.

    First of all, Jesus makes a striking point at what legalism leads to in v. 4-7. These laws, these great moral burdens that the Pharisees so liberally applied to the masses, did not gain them one bit of heavenly favor, but instead, simply swelled their spiritual pride. In trying to improve their status with God through moral acts, they instead turned to trying to improve their outward moral standing with other people through apparently selfless acts and deep laws; which while they hypocritically applied to others, they themselves were not even able to keep them. 

    V. 23-24, however, point out one of the most sure signs of legalism, making molehills of mountains and mountains of molehills. Yes, indeed, here we see the Pharisees doing scrupulous measurement in order to keep the law's every jot and tittle, and in doing so apart from faith in Jesus, break the whole law. Jesus uses the analogy of the Pharisee's practice of straining their wine with a fine cloth in order to keep from swallow a gnat (the smallest unclean animal), and tells them in their attempt to keep the fine points of the law, they have swallowed a camel (the largest of the animals the Israelites could not eat). In their attempt to keep the smaller, finer points of the law, they had majored far too long on the dotting of "i's" and the crossing of "t's" and had broken the law by their lack of mercy toward their brothers and brokenness before God.

    A sure-fire sign of legalism in the church is when extra-Biblical rules and ordinance begin to become more major issues than Bible principles such as love for each other and the world, evangelism, maintaining a good witness, always being able to give an account, etc. When the extra-Biblical topics, such as courtship, music style, detailed modesty standards, steal the spotlight, they crowd out the topics Jesus laid His focus on, such as love, grace, a relationship with Christ Himself.

    And as shown by the Pharisees, this legalism than blossoms further into outright sin through spiritual pride (basing my worth in God's eyes and standing in the church on my high standards in comparison to other believers) and self-reliant faith rather than in brokenness and repentance before God.

    Legalism is no small issue; it is not a question to be dealt with later when more important problems are dealt with. It is one of the most deadly diseases facing our church today, because with all the subtlety of the devil, it appears not as a sin, but as extra righteousness! Who would suspect the entanglement of greater rules and higher standards!

    Remember, the devil's goal is not just to make you fall into great sin. His goal is to take your eyes off Jesus. He is not limited in doing this to great vices or addictions, such as adultery or alcohol. No, he uses whatever means he may need to draw you away from Jesus, whether it be great, obvious sins or subtle, slight feelings of superiority over a brother. He can use distraction in the form of perfecting our moral code just as easily as he can with lust for a pretty woman; both are simply tools in his toolbox to take our eyes away from Jesus.

    In Luke 15, Jesus gives us the parable of the prodigal son. I've written before on here about this story (here), but in this post, I want to simply hone in on what I covered in part 3 of my series on that parable. The obvious "bad guy" of the story is the prodigal, who leaves home, squanders his father's money, then comes home a beggar in need of mercy.

    In my opinion, the prodigal is actually the "good" guy of the story, the picture of us, not in the way of proving that we are at heart really good guys, but proving that each one of us is that empty, broken prodigal who, though undeserving of the Father's mercy, gained it before we had even asked. The less obvious, yet harder "bad" guy of the story is instead the outwardly moral older brother, who apparently dutifully, yet without any pleasure at all, kept the Father's commandments, stayed home, appeared responsible, and even goes so far as to say that he had not broken a single one of his father's commandments.

     Yet, in his harsh judgment of his younger brother and bitterness at his father, you can easily see the tally-keeping in head of the older brother. He was keeping track. He had done the better things, kept all the rules, and that meant, in his mind, that he was more deserving than his younger brother of the Father's blessing. But we see the opposite is true. the blessings of God are poured out on the openly broken, not on the religious superiors and morally elite.

    So, this has been a long post. Thank you for staying with me this long, but I'm not quite done. Because while I may have diagnosed the problem and how it appears in the church, I did not offer a solution. And, with as simple a solution as there is, it would be a shame to pass up on the opportunity to present it.

    The opposite of legalism is faith in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. So, quite literally, the opposite of legalism is Jesus. It's very simple. The method for counteracting legalism in our walk with Christ is to instead lose ourselves in appreciation for Jesus instead of self-appreciation. The best method to keep from spiritual pride from this legalism is to instead pour out our broken hearts before a loving Father, and openly admit our inability to please God on our own and in our flesh.

    The answer to a self-centered religion focused on morals and high standards is a Christ-centered relationship focused on His grace and mercy, which overflow into our actions. That is the only way to have Christ-honoring morals and actions. High standards instituted and kept in the flesh are hateful to God, because rather than building our dependence on Him, they exercise an independence and spiritually proud nature that is contrary to His purpose for us.

    In the face of lies and deceit by Satan, the only way to counter his traps is to cling all the tighter to our Savior, not our morals. The secret to resisting the temptations and moral entrapments of this life lie not in high standards but in Jesus Christ.