Confessions of a Chronic Legalist - Part 2

This post builds on the ideas presented in part one. If you haven’t read it yet, I think you should!


Hello, my name is Adam, and yes, once again, I’ll admit it, I am a chronic legalist. However, this time, I want to add another word to my self-labelling – I am a struggling chronic legalist.


The Two Struggles


There are at least two ways we can understand my updated label. One way is that we struggle to see that we are legalists. “I have faith”, I may say, and that is true - we all do. The problem though is that, instead of using faith, I use other means to try and make myself accepted, to try and make myself loved. It is this way of living – working instead of believing - which we struggle to see in ourselves. To combat this lack of awareness, here are some questions that I have begun to ask myself. They help me see what motive lies underneath my works, and often reveals my legalistic thinking:

  • If I wasn’t to do a “good work”, how would God see me (or what would God do)?

  • What is the reason why God wants me to do what He says?

  • Am I focussing on just stopping bad habits? What have I replaced it with?

For me, the answer to these questions was often connected to the attempt of making myself accepted - I must do this thing, otherwise God will not be pleased with me. And if He is not pleased, then how can He accept me? Even whilst trying to get rid of bad habits, I was more worried about how God looked at me. How do I know that? Well, I was using most of my energy to stop the bad rather than replacing it with good. It did not occur to me that God wanted to fill my life with goodness. I was more concerned of not having “bad” in my life so that God would accept me because (and here comes the broken picture again), ‘God doesn’t accept bad people’.


Now, I should be careful in convincing people that they have a problem with legalism as maybe you do not. If you honestly do not see legalism in your life, I would advise against trying to find it - you have enough struggles already. However, for those of us who are starting to feel the Holy Spirit’s hand tenderly tapping us on the shoulder, accompanied by that small voice which says, “friend, this is you too”, please do not ignore. By trying to ignore the Holy Spirit’s hints, I really think we rob ourselves of what lies in the Holy Spirit’s other hand - joy and peace.


However, I will admit, “not ignoring the Spirit’s conviction” is an incomplete piece of advice. You can admit that you are a legalist, even a chronic one, and still struggle. And this is really what I mean when I say that I am a struggling chronic legalist – I struggle to stop being one. It is an enormous challenge for a legalist to accept that the very thing they have been fighting for, the very thing they have been stretching themselves to gain – acceptance – is theirs already. You see, the way we read our Bible, the way we read other spiritual literature, the way we dialogue with our close friends and fellow soldiers in this “fight of faith” has reinforced the idea that our moral performance is the determining factor for our acceptance with God. We may even go as far to “correct” others who have contrary opinions (trust me, I have been there). But here comes the hope. If you are struggling to stop being a legalist, struggling to think differently, continue struggling. Thought patterns which we have reinforced for years may not always disappear overnight. This was helpful for me to realise, as it is easy to get discouraged after a while. We need to remember that the war against our own legalism is won one battle at a time. And each battle is won when we choose to say…


…Okay God, I agree.


Agreement is a beautiful but humbling thing. It requires one person in the discussion to lay aside their own way of seeing things and run with the other’s perspective. In my Christian walk, I am coming to realise that God and I often have different perspectives. We have spent enough time on my perspective regarding legalism already, but, for the sake of clarity, let me say it one more time:


“God, I will do what I can to be accepted.”


I seek to achieve that by trying to be “righteous” or doing what is right – keeping the commandments. Here is God’s perspective:


“Adam, you are accepted.”


Do you see the difference? The key to winning in each battle with legalism is to choose God’s perspective over our own. Now, I get it, God’s perspective seems too good to be true. It seems way too… kind. But God is kind, and to convince us that we do not have to work for His acceptance, but that we have it already, he decided to inspire Paul with a few words. For the rest of this post, we will be considering a few of these words.


“But to him that does not work, but rather believes on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. David said the same thing, describing the supreme joy of the one who God credits righteousness without their works, when he said, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against them.”” (Romans 4:5-8)


There is a lot there, but I want us to notice a detail - Paul loves to repeat himself. In this passage, Paul uses David to repeat his explanation of what “justification” (becoming righteous – the key to acceptance) looks like. Think about this passage like a conversation between you and Paul. Paul says:


“So, Joe (your imaginary mutual friend) believed God, and guess what? God basically just turned to Joe and said, “Joe, you are righteous.”


You are amazed at the whole thing. Paul, seeing your amazement (which is probably mingled with a little doubt), decides to remind you of something David said a long time ago:


“Hey! Don’t be surprised! That is exactly what David talked about years ago. Don’t you remember that he said “…Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against them.”


I hope you understand what Paul is trying to say. When God says that someone is righteous, He has decided to not hold their sin against them. So, what does all of this have to do with being accepted? Here comes Paul with the answer in the last few verses of 2 Corinthians 5. In this chapter, we find him describing something that happened at the cross:


“…that is, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them; and has given to us the message of reconciliation.”


Did you see it? At the cross, God did not hold your sins against you. In other words, guess what He was saying through the cross?


“I see you as righteous.”


Yes, let it settle in. God sees you as righteous. To Him, you are accepted. And now you are probably thinking, how?! And we could go on and on about details that, to be honest, I struggle to comprehend. However, in short, I think here is the answer:


“… Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption…” (1 Corinthians 1:30)


That righteousness, that acceptance, which we have been struggling so long to attain, is already ours through Jesus. I really want this to sink in - you are accepted. I know, I know, you have not overcome every sin yet, but God’s perspective is still the same – in Jesus, in God’s love, you are accepted.


Imagine you really wanted to go to a concert, but the price of the ticket was way too expensive for you. Can you go? Obviously not. It turns out that the concert manager is very fond of you, and he gives you a ticket with your name on it. Can you go? Well, it depends on whether you accept what the manager has given you. But know this, from the manager’s perspective, that concert is yours to enjoy. It is not that, because you accepted the ticket that he then decides to really let you in. You were in from the time he gave you the ticket. I think this is how it works with acceptance. God loves you, and, because He loves you, He took the work of accepting you on Himself, and guess what? It is done, and it is yours for the taking.


The question is, will I agree with Him? Will you agree with Him?


Don’t hide, friend


At the cross, God reveals to us that He already accepts us. However, please do not think that this was a decision He suddenly was forced to make because of Jesus’ death. As legalists, we can easily foster a “God-is-actually-angry-but-the-cross-changed-His-mind” kind of thinking, and it is not true. Notice what Paul (this guy knew some stuff!) has to say about Jesus’ death:


“But God demonstrates His love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)


The crucifixion of Jesus was not the creation of God’s love, it was the demonstration of it. This means that God’s love for you is something that has existed from before the cross. However, God, anticipating our blindness to His love, decided to reveal it to us in a more powerful and striking way.


So, if God was demonstrating how He has always been for us through the cross, and the cross was a clear message that God does not count our sins against us, that we are accepted, from which point in time did God start to accept humanity? “It can’t be”, you may say. I am with you; it is a struggle to accept this kind of truth – our picture of God is a broken one. We are not alone though. There was once a married couple. Their names? Adam and Eve. This couple suddenly found themselves in an undesired position. They had eaten of a fruit which they should not have, and, as a result, the strongest thought on their mind was this:


“We are naked.”


Then, if you know the story, what do they do? They make clothes of leaves. Soon after this, God comes walking and looking for the hiding pair, and asks that famous question: “Where are you?” Adam answers, “…I was afraid, because I was naked…” Now, stop! Think about what Adam just said. If you are wearing clothes, are you naked? No. But Adam, wearing the clothes that he made, is hiding because he is still concerned about his nakedness. His own clothes, his own efforts to sort things out, came short. Adam and Eve realised the reality that their own attempts to cover their nakedness was, in the grand scale of things, worth nothing. But that was all an introduction to get to the real point - what God says next:


“Who told you that you were naked?”


Imagine you are holding a new phone in your hand, and then I come and ask, “who gave you that?” In asking that question, who have I automatically ruled out as the giver of the mobile? Myself. If I ask you, “who gave you the mobile?”, the answer cannot be (unless I am super forgetful or trying to get a point across) “myself”, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked. Adam and Eve saw nakedness as a condition in which they could not stand openly before God, a condition in which they should hide from God. Maybe they thought that God would not accept them. But then God asks the question:


“Who told you that you were naked?”


Let that sink in. By asking that question, God is basically saying, ‘I was not the One who said that you must hide. It was not Me who said you were not accepted. All those thoughts of rejection? That was not Me. That is not my perspective.’


Skip the story a few thousand years forward and we find Jesus sitting with His disciples just before His crucifixion experience. He has a lot to say. Word by word, He reveals to them things unheard of, realities unseen. He explains to them what the law is really about, and what He wishes to see in their relationships with each other. Then He says the following words:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down their own life for their friends.” (John 15:13)

It is clear who Jesus is talking about - Himself. So, from His own words, we can learn this: when Jesus died for you, He considered you as a friend. His very next words define what Jesus sees as a friend:


“You are my friends if you do whatsoever I command you…” (John 15:14)


Now, I have always read this and thought, “wow… I guess I am not your friend, Jesus”. But Jesus did die for me, and that must mean I am His friend. Then that also must mean that, even before He died for me, He saw me as one who did whatsoever He commanded – He saw me as a friend.


“But, how?” we ask again, “What is God thinking to not put to shame the naked? To call sinners, “friends”?” Oh, if only we saw from His perspective, we would see that, whilst Adam Hazel has been working to try to save himself, God has always been working to save Him. Better said, God is his Saviour. And God, knowing who He is to us and the responsibility He has taken upon Himself to give us His righteousness, and, even more, knowing how perfectly He continually carries out His responsibility - that same God then knows what I am to Him – a friend.

That is God’s perspective.

So, what will you say? Join me:

“…okay God, I…”

Yes, that’s right.

“…agree.” That’s using your faith.


Next time, we round off the confessions with some final thoughts about God’s love, and how life can look when we agree with God’s perspective.

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