February 2011 - Vol. 47
.The Problem with Legalism:
Our Rules Aren’t Strict Enough!
by Sam Williamson
I once belonged to a prayer group which was splitting down the middle due to a rift in its leadership. A friend and fellow member had heard of another group whose leader had committed adultery and raided their bank accounts. “At least we’re not as bad as them” he whispered to me one day, “at least we’re not that bad.”
Great, I thought, that’s the epitaph I want chiseled on my tombstone:
Here Lies Sam WilliamsonCriticizing legalism in parishes and prayer groups is popular today. And it should be. Legalism breeds a sense of superiority: Somehow I am better because I avoid this and I do that. “What’s wrong with everyone else anyway? At least we’re not as bad as them!”
This will not be one more article criticizing the evils of legalism. There are scores of such. Instead let’s concentrate on what must be done in our own hearts. As a start, let me summarize the three features that form the foundation of legalism. These elements interrelate, feeding off each other in some parasitic symbiosis. Without one, the others starve. But examining each unique feature is illuminating.
First is a sense
Second is Consumerism.
Lastly we get
Before we move on, I need to address one painful and personal point: We are all guilty of legalism. Even as I write this I realize I’m criticizing those legalists and censuring those anti-legalists. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not as bad as them! Charismatics look down on the Frozen Chosen; Eldridge fans look down on those who haven’t discovered their wounds; theologians look down on air-head laity; and the rest of us look down on those egg-head doctrinaire hairsplitters.
We all do it. There is a deep-seated need for us to feel good about ourselves, and we all – the writer of this article as much as the reader – try to satisfy this need by affirming something about ourselves at the expense of others.
So what are we
Enough-ism breeds dangerous legalism. It subtracts from the fullness
of God’s holiness. Jesus said our standard of “Do not murder” is Enough-ism;
he said calling our brother a fool is also murder. Jesus said our standard
of “Do not commit adultery” is also Enough-ism; he said simply lusting
in our heart is adultery.
The lawyer responded by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” That reasonable question exposes the heart of the legalist. He asked the question, “in order to justify himself,” and in it the fig leaves of Enough-ism are revealed.
The lawyer is actually asking, “What is the least I can get away with? What is the minimum standard of behavior that God requires?” In short, “What is enough?” The lawyer asks for a detailed set of rules that he can follow, and once he has those specific rules, he’ll work hard to accomplish them, and then,
a) He’ll feel superior to others who don’t work as hard as he does, andJesus’ response is brilliant (duh!) and he answers the lawyer by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable a man has been beaten and robbed. Three other men happen upon him and two of them pass by. The third man is a despised enemy, and yet that very enemy cleans him up, nurses his wounds, and pays an innkeeper whatever is needed for the wounded man’s care, food and lodging.
There are three ways to interpret the Good Samaritan parable, and understanding the parable through all three interpretations – in sequence – will provide the answer we need to kill the legalism that is choking us. The three interpretations answer the three questions the lawyer asks.
Who is my neighbor?
The typical first interpretation of the parable is to picture ourselves finding a hurt neighbor and to care completely for his wounds and to help fully with his finances.
In general, people have one of two responses to this interpretation. Some of us say, “Yes, I can do that,” and we feel confident and we try. And some of us say, “I could never do what this demands,” and we feel condemned and we despair.
The confident ones among us imagine ourselves showering people with random acts of kindness. We see ourselves helping the homeless and showing compassion to our spouses and loving our bosses and caring for street kids…. And we begin to feel pretty good about ourselves. Why aren’t other people working as hard as we do!
But eventually we say, “Whew, this is exhausting. What is enough?” Then, like the lawyer, we begin to construct limits. We say, “That person isn’t genuinely poor, he just spends foolishly; and those people brought it on themselves, and this person is so broken that she is exhausting me. I’ve done enough.”
In a sermon on this parable, Jonathan Edwards, a famed revival preacher of 18th century America, said,
The answer lies in reading the parable a second time, and this time answering the lawyer’s first question.
What must I do
to inherit eternal life?
I encourage us all to ponder for a moment this realization that, “I can’t do it.” In this realization we are beginning to ask, “What must I do to be saved?” Because whatever we do isn’t enough.
In almost every parable – some say in every parable – we can
find both Christ and ourselves. Let us rethink the parable here a second
time. This time, instead of seeing ourselves showering kindness on the
beaten man, let us picture ourselves on the road, beaten, robbed, naked
and left to die; and then we see two men representing religion pass by
(religion, not gospel); and finally we see someone coming to us, someone
we have treated horribly our entire lives, someone who we would ignore
if the circumstances are reversed.
It is another thing to be literally lying in our own blood, dying, and see someone come by whom we’ve ignored and treated callously. That is our condition when Christ comes to us. We don’t like to think of him as the Samaritan because we don’t like to think we’ve treated him so horribly; but we have. We ignore him, we take credit for the mercies he’s shown us, we treat his other creatures with contempt (look at all those stupid legalists, or moral failures, or Democrats, or Republicans, or charismatics, or non-charismatics…), and we expect God to bless us because of all the “good” we have done.
Yet, despite how we’ve treated him, he sees us lying on the road, bloodied and beaten, naked, and penniless; and he heals us, clothes us, and provides all that we need.
When we see our own hopeless condition and when we see him doing that for us, doesn’t it melt our hearts? When we see someone that we hate – yes, in some ways we have actually hated God – coming to rescue us, doesn’t something shift in our hearts? When that happens, we can safely look at the Good Samaritan Parable one more time.
The parable ends with Jesus telling the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.” Scripture does not record the lawyer’s final question, but that lawyer must have been asking:
Where do I get
the power to be like the Good Samaritan?
After seeing Christ stoop down to love and care for us when we deserved
the opposite of his healing help, we can now read about the Good Samaritan
and see ourselves caring for and loving others. Because we cannot be proud
– however bad the people are we help, they are wonderful compared to how
we have treated Christ. We also cannot despair – he lovingly gives us all
that we need even when we deserve nothing.
When we limit the moral code – to who is our neighbor, or what defines
murder, or how is adultery committed? – we also give ourselves rules that
we think we can obey and then declare ourselves okay.
And then we see him removing his own robe to dress us in it, and pouring his love on our wounds, and not only risking his life but losing his life for us. Then, in the humility of our weakness and in the confidence of his love, we can go and shower others with love because we are overflowing with what he has given us. So we are finally freed from Legalistic Consumerism.
Why didn’t God just start over after Adam and Eve rebelled against him? God knew from the moment of that first sin that he was on a road that would eventually lead to the cross, dying for his enemies. As we see him in scripture loving us, pursuing us, healing us, and raising us up with him, we are finally freed from Legalistic Aesop’s-Fable-ism; because we finally see that scripture is all about him.
And finally, we see his pursuit of us and his love for us, and we say: he alone is enough for us. And the legalistic snake is killed.
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