Confessions of a Chronic Legalist - Part 3

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


“Adam, it cannot be.”


That is me talking to myself. It often happens when I try to believe the truth. If you have been following this series, I hope you have seen that truth clearly. Here it is again in summary:


‘Your acceptance with God is not found in what you can do, but in who He is.’


I guess you can say the truth in many ways, but, no matter how you say it, the simple point is this: though you have done much to be ashamed of, God still loves you.


“…it cannot be.”


Oh, it can be, and it is. But I understand the struggle, I really do. So, in response to this struggle of believing the truth, this last post is an attempt to share some things which help me in that struggle.


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If I were to put my finger on one of the main things that make believing the truth difficult, it would have to be feelings. It is not that I am directly saying, “No God, you are wrong”, it is just that my feelings are saying:


“No Adam… you are still not good enough”


It is that clash between God’s promises and my feelings which makes the struggle so real. As I speak to others, I often find that they are fighting the same “but-I-feel” battle. After fighting this battle for a few years, I stumbled on a Bible verse that commented directly on my experience:


“For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.” (1 John 3:20)


When I read it, I was like “this is exactly how I feel!” Though I smile, though I laugh, though I sing, my heart condemns me. In response to that, John drops the bomb on the army of condemning feelings:


“God is greater than our heart”


Please notice what John does not say. He does not say that the wrong feelings will disappear. You see, I thought the aim was to make myself “feel” the truth. However, John says, rather than trying to get rid of the feeling, bring into your life a higher, firmer principle – what God knows. So, my real issue is not that I feel lost, it is that I forget that God is greater than my feelings. Here then is the question: What can you do to remember God’s greatness when your feelings are causing problems? For me, I have gotten to the point where I am trying to tell myself the truth – literally. Sometimes (to the slight confusion of others), I walk around telling myself, “Adam, you are loved.” “Adam, you are forgiven.” “Adam, you are accepted.” Combining that with scripture makes it even more powerful: “Adam, God “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5).” “Adam, “God does care for you” (1 Peter 5:7).” “Adam, while you were yet a sinner, Jesus died for you (Romans 5:8).”.


Let me be honest though, I do not always manage to do this. Too often, I follow my feelings and find myself lost in the dark streets of despair, guilt, and hopelessness. I must say though, I am surprised that I am even telling you this. As a chronic legalist, one the last things we like to admit is that we too fall. So, to break that tradition, let us talk about falling.


The Only Raised Hand


The old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on thee. Fool me twice, shame on me.” The idea is that one should never fall for the same trick twice, otherwise you are stupid. Now, we all know God is not stupid, and so, if I have fallen more than once, then I guess He is no longer interested.

Lies.


Sorry, maybe that is too strong of a word, but these thoughts are just not true. Almost unawares, we have developed the thought that God’s love is a loan – a gift which He gives with the expectation that, within a certain amount of time, He will get obedience back. For me, that thought in practice looks like me saying: “God, if you will forgive me this time, I will…” or, “God, I will do better this time, so…” I hold onto the idea that God’s love for me is dependent on what He receives from me.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that God is not looking for obedience. However, God does not give His love on condition of our future obedience. Where is the proof? We jump back into Romans.


“For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet perhaps for a good man some would even dare to die. But God demonstrates his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)


Here, Paul uses a comparison to illustrate the depths of God’s love. He presents three groups of people: the righteous, the good and the sinners and how others respond to them. So, let us try and picture this comparison. Imagine with me.


There we are, standing in a big crowd of people. In front of us all stands the town judge.

“Bring forth the people!” he cries. Silence falls over the crowd as soldiers lead out three men. We know their names - “Righteous”, “Good” and “Sinner”.


Everyone knows the questions coming. They have thought about them for some time.


The question pierces through the air, “Who will die for “Righteous”?” As Righteous looks around, a smile starts to form on his face as, from the crowd, hands start to rise in the air. You look around and start to count the hands. One. Two. Three… Ten... Twelve. There are a good number.


The town judge follows up with another question:


“What is the reason why you will die for Righteous?”


The answers return: “He is a loving man!” “He helped me when I was sick!” “He would do the same for me!”


Righteous is the kind of man who has followed the law of the land. The law of the land, in principle, was to love (Romans 13:9), and, as giving up one’s life is the greatest demonstration of love (John 15:13), everyone knows that, if the positions were reversed, Righteous would give His life for them. His life has proved that he is a good neighbour, a true friend.


The town judge then points to “Good”. With a trembling voice, he cries:


“Who will then die for Good?”


Silence falls over the crowd. The sound of wind pierces through the stillness and time seems to stand still. Unlike Righteous, Good is not so well known. He is the kind of guy that sits in the back of church, his deep voice hardly recognised in the great swell of music. You start to look around, trying to see if anyone will raise their hands. Near the back of the crowd, two hands slowly raise.

“I know Good” you hear their voices pronounce, “not many people see him, but he feeds the poor among us, visits the sick – he is a good citizen of this land.”


People start to talk between themselves. They have not seen Good so often, but they trust the testimony. The case is settled.


The town judge begins his enquiry again:


“Who will die for Sinner?”


Silence falls on the crowd.


“Who will die for Sinner?” the judge repeats.


“Sinner stole from me.” “Sinner lied to me about his brother!” “Sinner is an enemy!” the voices start to cry.


All eyes are now fixed on Sinner. Everyone knows what enemies are like. They curse and hate, persecute! (Matthew 5:43). There is no love in an enemy’s heart. Sinner is the opposite to Righteous. Sinner’s life has proven that he would not return the same love given to him. He is no real citizen of that land whose law is love, no true friend.


As the truth about Sinner is made known to all, the Man next to you starts to raise His hand. You turn to Him in a hurry: “Hey, did you not hear?! That is Sinner!” He turns to face you, compassion burning in His eyes, His hand still rising:


“I know.”


As everyone turns to see the only raised hand, they begin to whisper the same truth which is burning in your mind: “That’s the King.”


You cannot believe it - the King should know better. And He does know better, better than us all. For though the law of the land is love, maybe we all have all forgotten what Our wonderful King once said to us about love:


“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and you shall be the children of the Highest: for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.” (Luke 6:35)


You see, when Jesus died – demonstrating His love for you – He did it knowing that you were not like Him, knowing that you were not righteous. He knew you and I were, and maybe are still, His enemies. Yet, in demonstration of the true meaning of the law of His kingdom, He gave His own life “expecting nothing again”. He is the Only One that would do that. That is okay though – He did do it.


Fellow chronic legalists, I know you fall. And I know that your conscience burns with sadness, despair, hopelessness. Though you try and cover yourself with the fig leaves of obedience, your heart tells you the truth – you are naked. And as your mind rings with the reality of your condition – sinner, sinner, sinner – please look to the Cross and there you will see God’s reality:


“…Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15)


You see, you thought that the consciousness of your sinful state, of your many failures, was a sign that God wanted less to do with you, but that is not true. The truth is that the consciousness of your sinful state is there to inform you that you are the kind of person that God would raise His hand for. You are the kind of person that God gives everything for. You are the kind of person that Jesus died for, that He calls “accepted”.


God gives to you, expecting nothing again. Understand what that does to someone who has just fallen. They see that, despite what they have just done, their God is still the same. In the darkness of their mess shines a great light from the cross, burning brightly for them. And if they know that God still loves them, that God still wants them, that God still gives to them, then they are free and encouraged to walk away from the sin which destroys. They walk away knowing what they walk towards.


On the other hand, to the one who has just fallen, but does not see the unconditional love of God for them, their attempts to get rid of sin is not due to the horridness of sin, but because they seek after acceptance. They seek to cast off their dirty clothes, not because they stink, but because no one wants to be around them. They hate the sin because of where the sin has placed them, not because of what sin is. I hope you see the point. Unconditional love leads to genuine and deep repentance.


The Wonder of Love


There is, though, one more thing. Maybe you are thinking, “if God does not expect anything back, why then would someone obey?” It is a good question, and I think the answer is simple:


The wonder of love.


John the disciple puts it this way:


“We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)


Now, if you remember the first part of this series, we saw that true obedience, true law keeping, is love. So, here comes the final blow for every chronic legalist:


The experience you are fighting for - obedience (love) - will only come when you accept that He has already given you… love.


I see this in my girlfriend. If I criticise her, scold her, point out her failures, guess what will happen? She will just feel worse, and probably do the same. However, if I show her, as best as I can, unconditional love, love that accepts her regardless of the hurt she sometimes gives me, guess what then happens? She starts to love me the same way. I am the same too! When I see my girlfriend love me despite of myself, I am encouraged to love in the same way.


Experience is teaching me that it is supposed to be that way, it is God’s way – the wonder of love.

It does take time though. We will fall. We will hurt others, and God, in the process. But, at every step of the way, God has surrounded us with an atmosphere of unconditional love so full that, if you keep breathing, it will get you to the finish line.


Ah, friends, there is much more that I could say! Much, much more! But for now, I end with this: no matter what it takes, with all your heart and soul, keep breathing.