I taught it. I lived it. I breathed it. If you were to ask me 6 years ago If I was a “legalist,” I would have given you a plethora of biblical references to show you that I was most certainly not a “legalist.” I would have emphasized that keeping the commandments of God is not legalism, but simply obedience (1 Jn. 5:3; Heb. 5:8-9; 2 Jn. 6; etc.). Furthermore, the Bible does teach that if we love God then we will obey Him (Jn. 14:15; Lk. 6:46). I would have then proceeded to cap off my response with a “one-liner” by telling you how I would rather stand before God being “legal” than “illegal” any day (Mt. 7:21).
However, somewhere along the way while striving to follow God, I got caught up in unintended legalism. I never meant for it to happen. It was never part of the plan. In theory, I would have never thought I believed in a works-based salvation. In fact, the thought alone would have offended me. Yet, unbeknownst to myself, I was attempting to earn my salvation. It was after much study, honest consideration and humble reflection that I came to this realization.
How does one know if they have crossed over the line from an obedient, law-keeping Christian to a Pharisaical, law-trusting legalist? After all, nobody wants to be like the Pharisees. I am convinced from Scripture, logic and psychology that there are two extreme attitudes that indicate when one may be unintentionally caught up in legalism.
ATTITUDE # 1: CONSTANT DOUBT
I had finished up preaching a sermon on grace as a visiting speaker at a church in Texas. After I concluded my lesson, I had a nice woman come up to me with tears in her eyes. She asked if she could speak to me for a moment. Our assumed short conversation turned into a lengthy discussion.
Based upon what she told me, she exemplified all of the traits you would imagine a faithful Christian having. She grew up in a loving, Christian family. She became a Christian as a teenager. She never rebelled as a child and always stayed the course.
She went to church “every time the doors were opened.” She studied and prayed daily. She had a great relationship with her parents. She had a wonderful godly marriage. She had raised godly children who had godly spouses. She visited the sick. She gave to the poor. She had compassion for those less fortunate than herself and she had brought others to Christ. Yet, she doubted if whether or not she was “right” with God.
I asked her why she doubted her relationship with God. I will never forget her response. “What if I am doing something ignorantly wrong that will keep me from heaven?” she asked. She told me that she was humble enough to realize she could never have it all figured out. No matter how much she studied, she always doubted. In fact, the more she studied, she more she doubted—especially when she would learn something new.
Since she wasn’t omniscient, then how could she know for sure she had figured out everything she was supposed to figure out? After all, if you are ignorantly wrong on an issue, then you wouldn’t know it. Her constant fear of the possibility of being ignorantly wrong kept her from having assurance of her salvation. This is clearly not the attitude a Christian should have towards their salvation. Notice the words of John:
”These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:13).
The Bible says that we can know we have eternal life. We can have faith in the belief that we are going to have heaven as our eternal home. Worry, constant doubt and fear of your salvation are not attributes that characterize a Christian’s relationship with God.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 Jn. 4:18).
The problem this nice lady was experiencing was legalism. She was trying to earn her salvation without knowing it. She had mistaken her “righteousness” and had replaced it with “rightness.” In other words, if being right ensured heaven, then the constant thought of her being wrong on something ensured hell. We must understand that our salvation is not based upon us getting everything right. If it did, then we could never be assured of our faith since we can always be ignorantly wrong on something.
Are you like the nice lady I met? Does this story sound familiar with your own feelings about God and salvation? Do you second guess your salvation? Do you find yourself always wondering and doubting, regardless of how good you are or how much you do? If so, then you may be caught up in unintended legalism.
ATTITUDE # 2: ARROGANT INFALLIBILITY
A while back I wrote an article entitled, “Does God’s Grace Cover Doctrinal Error” in which a preacher took issue with. In the article, I explain how grace not only can cover doctrinal error, but it must cover doctrinal error since we are all doctrinally wrong on something.
The preacher who disagreed was very respectful and kind in his disagreement, but he didn’t hide his discontentment with my article. “Are you saying that a Christian can be wrong on a doctrinal issue and still go to heaven?” he asked. I responded by telling him that all of us must be humble enough to acknowledge that we could currently be wrong on a number of given issues. Certainly, we hold the beliefs we hold because we think they are right, but unless we are omniscient, then we must be humble enough to admit we can be wrong.
He responded by saying that there is no way God’s grace can cover doctrinal error. Of course, defining doctrinal error is a whole different subject for a different time. So, I simply asked him some of the things he considered doctrinal error. Among one of the things he considered doctrinal error was using instrumental music in worship.
As most of my readers know, I once believed instrumental music in worship was wrong and even had a public debate on the issue. Yet, after further study, I changed my mind and have addressed why I changed. So, I simply asked this preacher if there was any way I could go to heaven if I used instrumental music to worship God. He responded by saying, according to his belief, even if I was right on absolutely everything else, there was absolutely no way God’s grace could cover me if I used instrumental music to worship God.
I then asked a very pointed and simple question: “Do you believe there is any way you could currently be ignorantly wrong on any matter you consider a doctrinal or fellowship matter?” He responded by saying, “No, there is no way I can be wrong on any doctrinal or fellowship matter.” Without realizing it, this young man in his twenties admitted infallibility on issues he considered doctrinal or fellowship matters.
His response was very telling. First, he believes he has not only correctly and infallibly identified every issue he believes to be a doctrinal or fellowship issue, but he believes he is infallibly correct on every issue—and cannot be wrong.
Now, do you think deep down he actually believes that? While I can’t know the man’s inner thoughts, I highly doubt he really believes that. But for the point of our conversation, he had to answer the question that way in order to keep consistent with his view on grace. After all, if grace can’t cover doctrinal error, then he can’t be wrong on any issues he believes to be “doctrinal,” which in turn forces him to claim a sense of infallibility.
Do you find yourself like this preacher? Do you believe that you have it figured out? If God’s grace can’t cover doctrinal error, then the only way to believe you are saved is to believe you can’t be wrong. With this view, to admit you can be wrong is to admit you can be lost. Therefore, you must believe you are correct and can’t be wrong for it is the only way you can believe you are saved.
TWO ATTITUDES, ONE SYSTEM
While this respectful preacher and nice lady above may seem to have two completely different attitudes, they are operating off of the same system: Legalism.
On the one hand, the nice lady realizes her own fallibility which in turn causes her fear and doubt—-because she believes her “rightness” is what ensures her eternity. Therefore, in admitting she could be wrong logically concludes she could be lost.
On the other hand, the respectful preacher denies his fallibility which in turn causes his unintentional arrogance. Just like the lady, he believes his “rightness” is what ensures his eternity. Therefore, the only way he can believe he is saved is if he knows he is right and can’t be wrong—no matter what.
RIGHTNESS OR RIGHTEOUSNESS?
If we want to be justified and righteous in the sight of God, our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:20). Our righteousness can’t come through law if we want to go to heaven, our righteousness must be different. The only way to exceed their righteousness is by having a righteousness that is apart from the law.
“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (Rom. 3:21).
“the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22).
Our righteousness must come through Jesus and be in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-4:25; Gal. 2:17-3:25).
“and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9).
No matter how hard one tries to follow God, they will always fall short, always! The blood of Jesus is constantly cleansing His followers (1 Jn. 1:7-9)—not because we are sinless, but because we are sinful (Isa. 64:6).
If our righteousness is going to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, then we must understand that righteousness doesn’t come through the law, any law (Rom. 7:13-25). Our righteousness must come through faith in Jesus Christ. Thankfully, our righteousness isn’t dependent upon how “right” we are on everything. God loves us so much that He can take our unrighteousness and make us righteous through a relationship with Him (Rom. 4:25; Jn. 15:14-15; Jn. 17:3; Phil. 3:10; Heb. 2:11-13). Faith in Jesus Christ is the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.
None of this should cause anyone to feel justified in continuing in willful sin (Rom. 6:1-2; Heb. 10:26; Gal. 2:17-19), rather, it should cause the seeker to be confident because we can “know that we have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13). I am confident I am going to go to heaven. I know I am saved right now. No, not because I have all of the answers—not because I know I am right about everything—and certainly not because I am living perfectly.
In fact, I know I don’t have all the answers, I know I am not right about everything and I know I am not living perfectly…but there is one thing I do know. I know I am seeking God and have a relationship with Christ. I know that for sure. I know I am going to heaven because of Who I know…I know Jesus (Jn. 17:3). A heart that knows and seeks Jesus belongs to a soul who should be confident they are saved (1 Sam. 16:7; 2 Chron. 30:18-19; Jer. 17:10; Joel 2:13; Rom. 2:9-11; Mt. 7:7).
– Kevin Pendergrass
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