In part 1 I said there are three factors to consider in measuring our legalistic tendencies: rules, reasons, and resources. We covered the rules factor and now we’re on to the other two factors…
The second factor in diagnosing the legalistic disease has to do with our reasons for obedience to certain laws. Why do we act one way and not another? What’s our ultimate motive for adhering to God’s rules? Because legalism is more of an attitude than an act, motive is at the core of it. If you’re legalistic, it’s possible you’re doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
There are at least two good reasons to follow God’s laws. First, we should be inspired to live obediently to God out of an inward attitude of gratitude to him for his goodness. We should want to serve him because we love him and want to please the one we love. Our second motivation to follow God’s laws should be that we love people and want their best. When we live for God it always benefits others around us. It therefore boils down to two things: The glory of God and the good of people. Any other stimuli are suspect of having a legalistic core.
Examples of legalistic motives are plentiful. Some people don’t have an understanding of God’s free and full acceptance through Christ, so they try to earn it by doing good deeds. Others try to impress God with spiritual works, vying for an elite rank in the Kingdom. Some can’t fathom that God offers full and free friendship and when they think of living for him they just see rules. Then there are those who just want the attention and admiration of other people. Their religion is about playing a role in front of others.
What’s your motive? Why do you avoid lying, or envying, or stealing? Is it because you love God and his people or are you afraid that he’ll strike you dead if you don’t? Is it because your dutiful lifestyle gives you something to boast about or because you’re grateful for grace?
Legalists may or may not have the right rules but they always have the wrong reasons.
As I said in my essay on the Law, “Liberty is the power to do what we should, rather than the license to do as we please.” And again:
“Instead of acting as an extrinsic code, the Law is written on our hearts. It doesn’t demand compliance from the outside, but now creates intrinsic desire for the love response of obedience inside the sincere follower of Jesus. When the Law was written on stone it couldn’t empower or inspire us. But it’s no longer an external transcript looming over us with demands and threats. It’s a powerful internal principle that makes performance possible. It transforms duty into delight!”
The final diagnostic test to determine whether or not you have the heart of a legalist has to do with the strength on which you rely in order to be able to obey God’s rules. If you want to know if you tend toward legalism you’ll need to identify the resources upon which you draw to live for God. While it’s important to know what to do (the rules), and why you do it (the reasons), you also have to know how you go about being able to do it (the resources).
The New Testament makes it clear that the person “under grace” draws upon the resurrection life of Jesus for his power to obey God (Romans 6:1-14; 2 Peter 1:3-4; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 1:19-20). On the contrary, the one “under law” is dependent on his own strength to keep his commands (Galatians 3:3; 5:4; Romans 7:14-20). That person is not yet convinced that he’s weak or desperate for God’s help. He thinks that the old Benjamin Franklin saying is true, “God helps them that help themselves.” What he doesn’t realize is that God only helps those who know they can’t help themselves! God “resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.”
When Jesus said, “It is not the healthy that need a doctor” and that he didn’t come to call the “righteous but the unrighteous,” he wasn’t claiming that there really are any truly “righteous” people in the world, but that the self-righteous are definitely not going to hear or heed his call. There aren’t any “healthy” people that don’t need him. Everyone is sick. But most people don’t know how sick they are! One of the healthiest things a sick person can do is to admit they’re sick – and then go to Doctor God for help (Proverbs 28:26; Luke 18:9, 1 Corinthians 10:12).
The question is, whose steam are you running on? Do you “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding?” Or are you leaning on your own resources apart from God in order to do what he wants? Are you trying harder or trusting him to help you do what you can’t do without his help? Can you honestly say with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am… I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself for me” (1 Corinthians 15:10; Galatians 2:20)?
How do you know if you’re legalistic? Legalism has its rules, its reasons, and its resources. Are you following the right rules – God’s rules instead of your own? Why do you follow those rules – for your glory or his? And upon what power source do you rely in order to obey – your strength or his grace?
Do this and live the Law commands
But neither gives me feet nor hands
A better word the Gospel brings
It bids me fly and gives me wings!
For a primer on where the law fits in the life of a New Testament follower of Jesus you might consider mine called, “The Lord, His Law, and Those Who Love Him.”