Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Beware of spiritual legalists.
Legalism is the attempt to justify oneself by obedience to God’s law, instead of realizing our only hope is found in Christ, in His substitutionary death for our sins. To become true born again Christians we must put aside self-effort and humbly accept the gift of salvation God offers through Christ.
Yet there is a spiritual version of legalism also: the idea that we maintain our spiritual life by perfect devotedness to Christ. It is taking the same effort of self-justification and applying them in the realm of our fellowship with God. It teaches the idea that the power of the Christian life is not God’s grace and “Christ living in me,” but me surrendering completely to Christ. Subtly, just as legalism does with salvation, it takes the teachings of Scripture and twists them to put the emphasis on us and not on God. And, just as with legalism, the ones who teach this do not live by it, because we are unable to live by it.
When we use words like “complete surrender” and “abandonment to God” we run the risk of planting the seeds of spiritual legalism within people’s thoughts. We then become guilty of the same thing that Paul accused the Galatians of: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal. 3:3) Just as we are saved by God’s grace, so we walk by God’s grace, and not by our “perfect surrender.” We each are like the man who prayed to Christ, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” God’s grace must loom larger than our faith, even our surrender.
If my child is trying to fix something he has broken – he has the tools in his hand but he hasn’t the slightest idea how to use them – and when he sees me he comes running to me and asks me to forgive him for breaking the item, I would embrace him and forgive him. Then we would probably work together on fixing it. I would realize that he had little idea of the cost of what he had broken, or the real potential of the tools he held in his hand. I would ask him to give me the tools, but it would seem very unimportant to me how he handed these tools to me.
Spiritual legalism tries to make a law out of how we hand the tools of our life over to God. If we apply the illustration to our lives we see that through our disobedience to God we break things in our world all the time. I confess as a real father dealing with my children, I was not always very patient. When they broke things I would often sigh and scold them harshly – as probably your parents did to you – and we have all unwittingly muddied this issue of how the perfect Heavenly Father deals with His children. As we walk in relationship with God, we often try to wrestle the tools back from His hands to try and fix the messes we have made. Sometimes in our frustration and guilt we rush into more sin to numb the pain we feel, thinking we have disappointed Him. All of these emotions and thoughts of conditional love, however, come not from Scripture but from our own experience with imperfect homes. God is better than the best parents in the world.
Walking with the Spirit means that I try to keep up with God in what He is doing in my life. I will never obey perfectly, nor surrender perfectly, nor abandon perfectly. I will never put the tools of life into the hands of God with perfection, but neither does He require that I do. Just as coming to Christ for salvation requires the recognition of my failure to make myself acceptable to God by self effort – my only avenue is trusting in His mercy and grace – following Christ means continuing in the same attitude. Abandonment and surrender mean humbly coming to Him who accepts me by grace, understanding that Christ paid for my rebellion on the cross.
John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace affirms this truth:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
If you stand at all acceptable in God’s sight, you stand by God’s grace. It is His grace that wins our hearts and leads us in the paths of life and light.
Thank You, Father, for Your love and grace. In Your grace we stand and in Your grace alone we stand. Lead us to follow You better, to keep in step with Your Spirit. Forgive us when we fail and cleanse us from our sin. Amen.