Am I sounding legalistic yet?
If you grew up in the church, this post is probably important for you. If you didn’t, you might skip this one.
Maybe following Jesus isn’t just about saying a certain prayer and believing this seals the deal with God. Maybe there’s even some work involved.
If you grew up in a good church, you ought to have alarm bells going off in your head right now. What I just said ought to sound like legalism to you. (Here’s a quick definition in the footnote.1 if we’re getting into new territory for you)
It would be, except for one thing. I’m not suggesting that your behavior has anything to do with God’s acceptance of you.
Your Acceptance Comes First
The message of Grace is the centerpiece of the New Testament. A quick summary:
- We are saved through grace, not through our work. (See Eph. 2:4-9.)
- We are made right with God not by keeping the law, but through grace. (See Romans 3:21-24.)
- Receiving this grace isn’t just a one-time thing. We continue to live our lives, even facing difficulties successfully, because of God’s grace. (See 2 Cor. 12:8-9.)
- Whatever life change we experience comes to us in the context and empowerment of grace. (See 1st Peter 1:13.)
Grace is not just the starting point for our spiritual journey. It is the ongoing context for a relationship with God and transformation. Tweet that! Grace means that before we even talk about life change or behavior, your acceptance with God is assured. The matter of your value is settled. You’ve been adopted, given a name, a family, and a purpose. That’s all done. Your behavior has nothing to do with it.
So why bother behaving?
But there’s another message that pervades the Bible as well.
- We move forward in this life by keeping our eyes on Jesus, by stripping off the things that encumber us, and running the race. All of those require real effort. Tweet that! (See Hebrews 1:1-2.)
- We run the race to win the prize and exercise self-control. (See 1st Cor. 924-27.)
- We’re encouraged to grow in grace and in knowledge of Jesus. How do you grow in knowledge? By learning, which takes effort. (See 1st Peter 3:18.)
- James tells us to be people who do God’s word, not just listen to it. (See James 1:22)
Some Christian communities take these passages, along with the many passages commanding certain behaviors, and treat these as the sum total of the story, but this perspective isn’t complete.
The Bible presents a complete picture of grace. There is nothing to earn.
Yet, the Bible also tells us that there is work for us to do. Our work is the effort of growing.
That effort has a vital impact on our life:
- We learn by experiencing. Forgiveness is impossible to understand in its depth and complexity, until you have had to practice it.
- We gain compassion and understanding. The more work we invest in our growth, the less likely we are to offer other people simplistic pat answers. We’ve come to understand the work it takes.
- When we obey we are aligning our lives with God’s heart. This gives God the access needed to work in us.
- We grow stronger. This is the principle of the farm, found throughout the Bible. You plant seeds and cultivate them. You don’t create the harvest. But you definitely do the work of farming. The farmer works for a harvest, not to prove he’s a farmer.
Grace tells us that there is no work to do in establishing our value, building our belonging, earning our name, or gaining God’s approval.
No amount of work will fix sin. No work will connect us to God. No work will solve our brokenness. Grace alone brings these things to us.
But Grace also calls us forward into a new kind of life. This new life is not just a mindset. It’s not just a belief. It’s a new way of living. It’s made of new choices, new behaviors, new actions — and this is where we work. When we decide that we will invest effort in this, we are partnering with the work of God in us and in the world.
Do you want to grow spiritually? Do you want to see real changes in your relationships? In your family? In your emotional maturity? In your ability to make a difference in the world?
Then get ready to work.
Your value is already set. You already have a name and a purpose. You are already loved beyond imagining by the God who handmade you. Grace covers your life in every way. Now you can invest effort, and it won’t be about earning anything.
- Legalism refers to a certain kind of religion (frankly, most religion) that relates to God in a transactional way. God gives out acceptance, love and entrance into Heaven in exchange for certain things—the right prayer, the right behavior, the right sacrifice. So long as these payments continue, God is obligated to uphold the divine end of the bargain. In some traditions that bargain is limited to eternal life. In others, it includes answered prayers, blessings, even material prosperity. People who don’t receive these things are not faithful enough, good enough, or keeping up their end of the deal. Legalism turns the spiritual journey into a never-ending treadmill of religious accomplishment. It stands directly opposed to a theology based on God’s grace and mercy. ▲
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