When is Enough, Enough?
Q: Aren’t the laws of God there for us to vigorously uphold? Isn’t it safer to err on the side of legalism?
I could call this article: “Something funny happened to me on the way to the truth.”
I was legalistic when I was younger. Perhaps it was because legalism is easier to understand. Legalism offers a set of structured rules and behavioral guidelines that promise clearly defined compelling rewards. However, in seeking the truth we will eventually discover that legalism uses the tools of fear and guilt to promote a false sense of self.
Legalism, at best, is just a stepping stone to understanding our need for grace. It is, at worst, a road-block that keeps us from pursuing a love-based relationship with our Lord and an honest understanding of who we are. To be bound to legalism is to be bound to a false god created by a minority that filters their understanding through a culture that has an incomplete understanding of who they are before God. Legalism serves not those under its control, but rather the few who try and exercise that control. It robs ALL involved of their humanity and their dignity. It supplants God with an icon engraved with a list of rules. These rules are carefully constructed to condemn anyone outside of their tolerance and to justify their personal preferences.
Legalism, in fact, does exactly the opposite of what it intends. It pushes people away from God. It widens the chasm between God and us by nullifying grace. It holds onto a small amount of truth and declares other revelations irrelevant. It hopes to create a sense of righteousness, but instead creates only a sense of self-righteousness. It excludes those who do not agree and refuses to be moved on any issue. If you want to know the truth about where your church falls short, read the passages in your Bible that are not highlighted.
Understanding the Truth Beyond Legalism
Holding our assumed truths “loosely” is an important attitude if we want to discern between what is real and what is false. The truth is best understood as truth when we make ourselves vulnerable to being wrong.
In order to discover the truth, we must embrace our faults. I must recognize my faults as unhealthy choices for me, and try not to justify them. My faults can include my behavior, my desires, my repulsions, and my thoughts. To discover the truth is to discover a way of life that transcends our presuppositions. The truth can move you beyond legalism and fear – into a place that promotes love and grace.
In the spirit of truth let us take an honest look at 1 Corinthians, chapter six. Paul is addressing the church on the subject of lawsuits. Some of the church members were bringing lawsuits against each other before magistrates that were not Christians and so were using a set of rules and guidelines that were not based on a relationship with God. In verses 1 and 2, Paul was telling them to avoid being judged by the world or under a system that was less than that constructed by God. As we know, God’s system is one based on the resurrection and on grace.
Paul puts our standing before God (as Christians) into perspective by saying, “Do you not know that we shall judge angels?” 1 Corinthians 6: 3
Why does Paul say that we shall judge angels? Of course there are two basic kinds of angels, those who worship God and those fallen angels who are demons. God has already judged the latter. So in what sense do we judge angels? I am not sure. But I do know that Paul raises the point for the purpose of contrast. He is illustrating the fact that we do not need the world’s list of do’s and don’ts to determine what is right. Paul also says that we should be wary when we put ourselves under the judgment of the world. In other words, we who have been given the authority through the death and resurrection of Christ, to judge even the angels in His name, have chosen in many ways to be judged by the world instead. If we ignore our relationship with God through grace and embrace either legalism and/or the construct of the world, we fall short of truth. When we rely on standards that do not reflect a real relationship with God, we condemn ourselves in our pursuit of the truth.
Paul then talks specifically about the brethren taking other brethren into court. He calls the action itself a defeat. To demand your own rights over those of your brethren is already a defeat for you. Paul says that it is better to be wronged or defrauded than to be in that situation.
Then Paul goes and does something that Christ often did. He expands the definition to include all those who are reading the scripture. Paul says that if we think about it, we have to admit that we are also wrong and have defrauded others as well. All of us are included in this accounting. This goes back to the idea that if we judge others, we judge ourselves.
Paul then begins to hone the point finer. He begins to define some specific ways that separate us from God. Paul writes, “Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate by perversion, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous (most everyone in the US), nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is not an inclusive list by any means, although an honest person will see themselves in at least one of these descriptions. Even so, Paul is not declaring to those who do not find themselves on this list to be “off the hook.” This list was chosen not to edify those who think they are not on the list, but rather to isolate specific types of behavior. He is talking about self-control, or better yet, our lack of submission to the will of God. All the examples cited are examples of those who do not typically practice self-control. It is this lack of self-control that Paul is addressing.
Those who refuse to see themselves on this list have taken their dedication to the truth only so far and then become comfortable with where they are. It is easy for any of us to deceive ourselves into believing that we are “mostly sin free”. We do this in many ways, surrounding ourselves with people of like mind and also “like sin.” We reinterpret or ignore scripture (and even the leading of the Holy Spirit) to make ourselves comfortable with a version of lesser truth. We set up judges for ourselves that are not listening to the Spirit of God, nor have an understanding of the truth, nor are seeking it above all else.
Those cited on this list have another common condition, and that is one of self-obsession. Paul is telling us we are often self-obsessed. Paul is not trying to condemn us here, but to wake us up to the truth of who we are. Those on this list have demanded their own rights and close their eyes to their own shortcomings. Paul does not minimize sin, but rather makes sin an all-inclusive fact of the flesh. This is not the end of the thought. In fact, it is only the beginning.
He then helps us understand what he is saying by continuing with, “…And such were some of you (this list could have been expanded a little, and Paul may well of written, and such were ALL of you); but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.”
The “buts” here are very important. They connect our previous condition with our current one. Paul is saying that we WERE condemned, BUT now we are not because we have been washed, sanctified and justified. These are three separate experiences, and Paul isolated them each and lets them stand on their own.
“We have been washed clean of our sins.”
“We have been sanctified by the sacrifice of Christ.”
“We have been justified by God,” who has placed on us the holy mantle of Christ. This is our current condition and it is one that is undeserved (washed), and it is unsought (sanctified), and it is unearned (justified).
We are unrighteous without the judgment of God to declare us so through Christ. Paul uses three descriptive terms for Jesus; the “Lord Jesus Christ.” He is our Master (Lord), he is our brother (Jesus) and he is our Savior (Christ). As such, he is able to protect us, understand us, and save us from a selfish demise.
Then Paul brings this discussion into perspective by writing, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable.”
Paul is once again, declaring his freedom in Christ not to be bound by the restrictions of sin. He is saying that he can do anything because he is no longer defined by his sinful condition. His relationship with Christ is what defines his standing before God. He is refusing to play the guilt game. Paul has a healthy perspective on what it means to be totally and utterly forgiven for his sins and his sinful condition. Yet with this knowledge he also understands something else of vast importance. He should also take advantage of the resource available to him to be out from under the control of sin. He continues, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.”
Even though we are free from the legal reprisal of our actions. Even though we have come before a judge that is merciful and have an advocate who will declare us righteous, we still should seek not to be controlled by our lusts and desires. We should desire to be controlled by the spirit, not for legal reasons, nor to escape condemnation, but because it is expedient for us to do so. Just because we can, does not mean we should indulge. When our liberty distracts us from our relationship with God, then it is time to say, “Enough is enough!”
We can place ourselves under the control of God, not by combating sin, but by embracing Christ. Our focus should not be on ourselves and on our “rights” but rather on our relationship with Jesus. His leading is not inhibited by convention. His grace more than makes up for our shortfall.
Embrace the truth of Christ and do not let yourself be satisfied with lesser reflections or shadows. Admit your sinful nature and trust in your relationship with God through your Savior. God initiated it, and God is the one who will keep and sustain it. “For you have been bought with a price, and there are none who can snatch you from his hand.”